River of three peoples: an environmental and cultural history of the Wәlastәw / riviѐre St. Jean / St. John River, c. 1550 – 1850

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University of New Brunswick


This study investigates how three distinct cultures – Maliseet, French, and British – engaged with and transformed the ecology of the Wəlastəkw/rivière St. Jean/St. John River, the largest river system in the Maritimes and New England. Ranging three centuries, ca. 1550‐1850, it examines cultural interactions relative to the river’s fish, banks, and flow to assess ecological changes. By developing comparisons among Maliseet, French, and British relationships to the river, it analyzes how cultural groups modified and expanded on the ecology of other peoples. Drawing upon a vast array of sources, including Maliseet oral traditions and language, archaeological surveys, scientific studies, historic maps and paintings, as well as diaries, letters, and reports of the waterway and its banks, this research makes significant contributions to a number of scholarly fields: river ecologies and human adaptations of them, Maliseet history, seigneurial settlement in colonial societies, Loyalist ecology, colonial and municipal legal history, historical cartography, and the role of ecological knowledge in governance and environmental activism. Moreover, it contributes to early modern North American environmental history, as well as global studies of rivers. This study brings a historical perspective to pressing economic and political issues facing the watershed today, including conflicts over natural resource use, the impacts of dam construction and removal, climate change adaptations, flood mitigation and prevention, fisheries conservation, and the effects of invasive species. While most historical scholarship on the region is focused on specific linguistic and ethnic groups, this study bridges these divides, bringing together Maliseet, Acadian, and British histories into a single study. The wider temporal and cultural scope and the centrality of the Wəlastəkw/rivière St. Jean/St. John River to the study’s analysis offers a poignant reminder that humanity’s intimate relationship to nature has points of commonality that are as important to understand as our points of difference. This study attempts to do both.