The Environmental and Cultural History of the St. John River

“Maugerville on the St. John River, New Brunswick” (1853/1854). Photograph of William Smyth Maynard Wolfe’s painting. Library and Archives Canada/William Smyth Maynard Wolfe Collection /e010767825

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a joint series of posts on early Canadian environmental history by The Otter~La loutre and Borealia. The entire series is available here.

Rivers have been foundational to the development of historical thinking since the Greek philosopher Heraclitus coined the expression “no man can cross the same river twice,” 2,500 years ago. Many scholars have subsequently encouraged students to “think like rivers” to recognize the inherently transient nature of the world.  My dissertation, River of Three Peoples: An Environmental and Cultural History of the Wəlastəkw / Rivière St. Jean / St. John River, c. 1550 to 1850, used the largest river in the Maritimes and New England as an organizing device to consider a host of diverse topics within a single cohesive project that revealed patterns and continuities in human history, as well as changes within the physical river system, which are not always evident in narrower chronologies.  It also helped me bridge established scholarly divisions among Indigenous, Acadian, and British histories.  What follows is a summary of some of the study’s principal findings.

The St. John River has been integral to the history of human settlement along its banks, and humans have in turn influenced the river and surrounding landscape.  Paying attention to how Maliseet, Acadians, and British settlers affected the river’s banks, fish, and flow, provided bench marks for measuring environmental impacts across centuries, and for comparing how these different cultures related to nature and one another.  It also revealed that the Maliseet had more in common with the French and British than has been traditionally recognized.  All three peoples, for instance, practiced cultivation on riverbanks in similar locales, and relied on the waterway to transport goods and people.  The study’s analysis of the ways in which Maliseet shaped the river valley challenges Eurocentric assumptions that Indigenous people lived in a virgin wilderness.  Moreover, the study notes previously overlooked similarities in French and British colonization schemes.

The three peoples all developed strategies to contend with seasonal flooding.  Maliseet located their principal village in the late 17th century above the floodplain, but positioned their fields at a lower elevation where they received fertilizing flood waters.  Freshets were an important factor in the demise of seigneurial settlement on the St. John River, and French colonization only succeeded along the waterway when it shifted from riparian lowlands to higher intervales.  While Acadians are renowned for their remarkable hydraulic engineering works, they failed to modify the St. John’s powerful flood regime.  The British colonists who arrived on the river in the mid and late 18th century coveted the same lowland settlement sites as Acadians, and they also experienced problems with flooding.  These settlers made planting choices based on elevation, the local history of floods and frost seasons, as well as the length of time specific crops needed to mature.

The landscape of the St. John River Valley is the product of the activities of successive groups of humans.  The French sometimes expanded on earlier landscape improvements made by Maliseet, and the British, in turn, situated some of their farms and towns on lands that had been cleared by Maliseet and Acadians.  Viewed from this perspective the watershed shares commonalities with regions of the world long recognized as the product of successive waves of human occupation.

Although there is only one physical river, there were three distinct and overlapping waterscapes.  As reflected in the three names humans gave to the river, the Wəlastəkw, rivière St. Jean, St. John River, the French and British conceptualizations of the waterway often shared more in common with each other than they did with the Maliseet conceptualization.  For instance, Maliseet had an intimate relationship with the waterway that was reflected in their language and identity.  Conversely, the French and British had shallower relationships with the river.  Their identity and much of the nomenclature they applied to the waterway were tied to European cultural traditions.  Moreover, while neither the Maliseet nor the French seriously degraded the river’s fish populations or modified its current, British colonists decimated several fish species, and dramatically altered the flow of the river and its tributaries to power mills and accommodate steamships.

Investigating French and British attempts to modify the waterway reveals the successes and limits of hydraulic engineering on the river.  The St. John’s climate and unique physical features challenged, and sometimes thwarted, attempts to alter its current.  In addition, New Brunswick officials often refused to support schemes that could benefit wealthy elites, but jeopardize public interests.  Legislators, for instance, refused to widen the river’s mouth at the request of powerful lumber barons, as they realized this project would open the interior river to the Bay of Fundy’s powerful tides and inundate farmland and degrade navigation conditions.

Placing the Maliseet at the forefront of inquiry reveals that Indigenous peoples were not helpless victims to climatic cooling and deadly pathogens—they responded to these challenges with ingenious adaptations.  While many peoples abandoned agriculture across the northern hemisphere during the Little Ice Age, Maliseet used Indigenous cultivation techniques such as green corn harvesting and their knowledge of riverine microclimates, to extend the range of maize northward during a period of cool and variable weather.  When a deadly epidemic swept up the waterway from a French supply ship in 1694, Maliseet enforced quarantines and dispersed from their principal village to mitigate the impact of the disease.

This study shows how the history of rivers offers opportunities to draw comparisons among the histories of North America, China, Africa, Amazonia, and other parts of the world.  For instance, the relocation of Acadians from the lower watershed to the Madawaska region above Grand Falls, resembles how marginalized peoples in southeast Asia used rugged topography and navigational obstacles to retain their cultural autonomy and resource base in the face of encroachments by foreign states.[i]

The river’s dynamic nature frustrated British officials’ efforts to settle its banks with a private land management system dependent on static boundaries and fixed fences.  With settlers’ local ecological knowledge and needs in mind, colonial legislators tailored colonial laws to be more compatible with the river’s fluctuating flow by giving water fences and flowing waters the same legal status as land fences.  They also created a local governance process that enabled owners of river islands to manage their lands in common to avoid land use conflicts and develop ecologically sensitive regulations without building fences.  This system was remarkably successful and it endures today as one of the oldest local regulatory processes in Canada.  Although scholars often emphasize the maladaptation of British property law to new environments, New Brunswick lawmakers worked with landowners to develop legislation that were sensitive to the seasonality of the St. John River

The histories of conservation and resistance to ecological decline have long and complex roots along the St. John.  As early as 1766, Maliseet protested against the impact of colonial damming on fish populations and their treaty rights.  Moreover, while previous studies of fish declines in the province demonized mill owners as being unresponsive to their industry’s impacts on fish and water quality, this study shows that some industrialists led campaigns to reduce mill waste and attempted to engineer fishways, but lacked the technological knowledge as well as the political and public support they needed to follow conservation laws.  In addition, while colonial New Brunswick is often associated with deforestation, the state, municipalities, and landowners also planted and protected thousands of trees along the river to mitigate erosion caused by humans and domesticated animals.

River of Three Peoples brings a historical perspective that helps the public appreciate some of the most pressing political issues currently facing the province including the impacts of dam construction and removal, climate change, flood mitigation, fisheries conservation, and Indigenous rights.  By empowering readers with the knowledge that humans living within the watershed have consistently met major social and environmental challenges with innovation for centuries, the study helps us see that we have the capacity to effect positive changes that will shape the future of coming generations.


[i] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

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Jason Hall

Jason Hall currently teaches on the global history of rivers part time at St. Thomas University, and works for the Maliseet First Nation. He is adapting his dissertation into a book, and developing a second monograph that examines the past 14,000 years of history in Atlantic Canada through a series of vignettes paired with analyses.

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