What is a truckhouse?

Mi’kmaq opponents of the Alton Gas project, supported by non-Indigenous allies, set up a truckhouse along the banks of the Shubenacadie River near the Alton Gas brine dumping site. This is an important demonstration of resistance to Alton Gas, the Mi’kmaq treaty right to fish, and the government’s failure to consult with Sipekne’katik First Nation.

Directions to the Truckhouse

The Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1752 signed by Chief Jean Baptiste Cope of Shubenacadie and Governor of Nova Scotia Peregrine Thomas Hopson, the treaty promised hunting, fishing, and trading rights in exchange for peace.

“It is agreed that the said Tribe of Indians shall not be hindered from, but have free liberty of Hunting & Fishing as usual: and that if they shall think a Truckhouse needful at the River Chibenaccadie or any other place of their resort, they shall have the same built and proper Merchandize lodged therein, to be Exchanged for what the Indians shall have to dispose of, and that in the mean time the said Indians shall have free liberty to bring for Sale to Halifax or any other Settlement within this Province, Skins, feathers, fowl, fish or any other thing they shall have to sell, where they shall have liberty to dispose thereof to the best Advantage.”

This truckhouse has become the gathering point for the resistance, and is one way that Mi’kmaq water protectors constantly exercise and demonstrate their treaty rights.

Below is a history of truckhouses by Roger J. Lewis, a Mi’kmaq historian and member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation community.

The history of truckhouses in Nova Scotia

Any discussion of ‘truck houses’ must examine their origin and intent from a colonial context. Truck houses were first established in the Massachusetts colony in 1694.  Their intent was two-fold; to control trade with the Indians and to foster amicable relationship among them. Thus the colonial truck house policy can be viewed as both political and diplomatic.

Plans to manage trade with the ‘Indians’ were deliberated in Nova Scotia as early as 1732.  These deliberations considered the construction of a truck house along the Saint John River.  Colonial officials in Nova Scotia advocated that such a truck house be constructed by the Massachusetts colonial government due to their dismal financial position at the time. Objections were voiced by officials of the Massachusetts colony to the effect that such a truck house would not be beneficial to them, so it was not pursued further.

Undaunted by this rejection, the Governor of Nova Scotia, petitioned the Lords of Trade in London for the construction of a truck house in this colony. This petition was rejected by the Lords of Trade who wrote:

‘Although this proposal may have very good effect, yet we think it should be postponed till there are inhabitants enough in your province to compose an assembly to bear the expense of it’. (R.O. MacFarlance, op.cit., p. 59).

The first real reference to a ‘truck houses’ in Mi’kmaq territory appeared in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty.  This treaty not only reaffirmed the 1726 treaty but modified it. This effort was stalled by the Lords of Trade.  Their position being that general peace with the Mi’kmaq should be a pre-requisite. (Hutton, Elizabeth Ann, 1963, Indian Affairs in Nova Scotia 1760-1834, pp. 33-54).

The language of the 1752 ‘Peace and Friendship’ treaty included two clauses in Article 4:

Article 4, gave them liberty of hunting and fishing as usual, but also provided for a ‘Truck house’ on the River Chibenaccadie, or any other place of their resort they shall have the same built and properly merchandized. It also provided that Indians have free liberty to bring for sale to Halifax or any other settlement…skins, feathers, fowl, fish, or any other thing they have to sell’. (B.H. Wildsmith; The Mi’kmaq and the Fishery: Beyond Food Requirements, Dalhousie Law Journal (1996).

There was never a desire to fulfil promises of truck houses as referenced in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty until 1760/61.  The 1760/61 treaty reproduced similar language as the Clause 4 article of 1752 with one exception.  The treaty now read that the Mi’kmaq would not molest ‘His Majesty’s subject or their Dependents in their settlements already made or hereafter to be made.’

Nonetheless, it appeared that both the British and the Mi’kmaq considered the 1726 treaty to form the basis of their relationship. However, they agreed that some changes were necessary and so the 1760/61 treaties spoke to those changes. One of those changes was the inclusion of the ‘truck house’ clause which was repeated verbatim from the treaty signed earlier.

On February 18, 1760, the Governor Charles Lawrence appointed Benjamin Gerrish as ‘Agent or Commissary for Indian Commerce’ on behalf of the ‘Publick’ for carrying out trade with the several tribes inhabiting the province. Many scholars viewed the appointment of ‘Agent or the Commissary for Indian Commerce’ as the beginning of an agency over Mi’kmaq in the colony.

Gerrish was also given responsibility for the appointment and supervision of truck house masters.  These agents were to be appointed in the similar manner same as they were in the Massachusetts colony in 1694.

Subsequently, a number of truck houses were established and truck house masters appointed by Benjamin Gerrish.  In addition to the truck house on the River Chibenaccadie, others were established in usual places of resort of the Mi’kmaq.

John Green, Esquire was appointed truck house master at Fort Frederick on the Saint John River.  Phillip Knaught (Knaut) and A.D.Wiederholt were appointed joint truck house masters, at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  Isaac Deschamps was appointed truck house master at Windsor, Nova Scotia, while William Nevil Woseley was appointed truck house master at the Eastern Battery (Fort Clearance) which was located along the shores of Eastern Passage.  Eras. James Phillips was appointed truck house master at Annapolis on August 7, 1760 and replaced George Dyson on November 4, 1760.  A Mr. John Cunningham was appointed on December 3, 1761 to be followed by Gorman among others. A truck house was also established in Chignecto in present day Cumberland County.

It was argued that the British made it clear from the outset that the Mi’kmaq was not to have any commerce with ‘any of His Majesty’s Enemies’.  A Treaty of Peace and Friendship could not be otherwise. The subject of trading with the British government as distinguished from British settlers did not arise until after the Indians had first requested truck houses.

At a meeting of the Governor’s Council on February 16, 1760, the Council and representatives of the Mi’kmaq proceeded to settle the prices of various articles of merchandise including fish, beaver, marten, otter, mink, fox, moose, deer, ermine and bird feathers, etc. Prices of ‘necessaries’ for purchase at the truck houses were also agreed, e.g., one pound of spring beaver could purchase 30 pounds of flour or 14 pounds of pork. The British took a liberal view of ‘necessaries’.

The oral agreement on a price list was reflected in an Order in Council dated February 23, 1760, which provided ‘[t]hat the Prizes of all other kinds of Merchandize not mention’d herein be regulated according to the Rates of the Foregoing articles’. At Marshall: 1- 1999 experts agreed that fish could be among the items that the Mi’kmaq would trade.

While discussing trade with Indians it is important to point out:

Volume 45:  Doc. 85 – Michael Franklin (Indian Commissioner) to Lord George Germain (Secretary of State for North America), May 4, 1780 Re:  Indian presents not yet come; plea for assistance – from Kings Stores. 

Hughes at the time was appointed resident commissioner of the Halifax dockyard. This appointment was short, as by August of the same year he became Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, succeeding Mariot Arbuthnot in that position.

The existence of advantageous terms at the truck houses was part of the imperial peace strategy. As Governor Lawrence wrote to the Board of Trade on May 11, 1760, ‘the greatest advantage from this [trade] Article … is the friendship of these Indians’.

The British were concerned that matters might again become ‘troublesome’ if the Mi’kmaq were subjected to the ‘pernicious practices of unscrupulous traders’.

The cost to the public purse of Nova Scotia of supporting Mi’kmaq trade was an investment in peace and the promotion of ongoing colonial settlement, but a costly one. The strategy would be effective only if the Mi’kmaq had access to trade and to the fish and wildlife resources necessary to provide them with something to trade. (Marshall: 1- 1999).

On March 21, 1760, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly passed ‘An Act to Prevent any Private Trade or Commerce with Indians’ (S.N.S. 1760, 34 Geo. II, c. 11).

In July 1761, however, the ‘Lords of Trade’ and (the Board of Trade) in London objected and the King disallowed the Act as a restraint on trade that disadvantaged British merchants. This coincided with exposure of venality (corruption) by the local ‘truck house’ merchants. (Marshal: 1- 1999)

Stephen Patterson testified at Marshall: 1- 1999, that ‘the first Indian commissary, Halifax merchant, Benjamin Gerrish, managed the ‘truck house’ system so that it was the Government which lost money while he profited usuriously’. This was also very likely true of those ‘Agents’ appointed ‘truck house masters’.

By 1762, Gerrish was removed from his position as ‘Agent or Commissary of and the number of ‘truck houses’ was reduced to three. By 1764, the system itself was replaced by the impartial licensing of private traders (inhabitants of the colony) approved by the London Board of Trade’s ‘Plan for the Future Management of Indian Affairs’, but that eventually died out as well, and was the catalyst for the demise of ‘truck house’ trade.

The Lords of Trade in London continued to voice their objections to ‘truck houses’ primarily on the grounds of financial reasons and that they were not functioning properly despite the presence of a 1762 Act entitled ‘An Act for Preventing Fraudulent Dealings in the Trade with Indians’.

As mentioned the system of ‘truck houses’ was radically modified by the Lords of Trade as the realization of ‘profit’ became the driving force behind the continued success of ‘truck houses’ rather than promises made in the 1752 ‘Peace and Friendship Treaty’.

In 1768, London in an effort to rid itself of any responsibility for truck houses shifted that responsibility to the colonial government in Nova Scotia. Changes occurred rapidly. By 1783, no licenses to trade with the Mi’kmaq of the province were issued. The significance of this shift cannot be understated. At about this time, increasing demands on Mi’kmaq lands favoured new settlers to the colony and drove Mi’kmaq to the periphery of their traditional lands and resource use areas. Moreover, it furthered the demise of truck houses as set out in the 1752 ‘Peace and Friendship Treaty’.

Continued proposals to maintain earlier trade commitments (e.g. truck houses) with the Mi’kmaq were rejected outright by London.  Mi’kmaq people, being victims of a very real colonial indifference, fell into a state of dependence from which they have never recovered.

Today, Mi’kmaq should once again have liberty to hunt and fish as usual, and be provided with a truck house on the Sipeknekatik River or any place of their usual resort. Such a provision would help to recognize and re-establish the true extent of Mi’kmaq cultural landscapes.

A number of places in Nova Scotia have been identified as ‘usual’ places of resort for Mi’kmaq people. These include rivers and associated landscapes all along the Bay of Fundy, the Cumberland and Minas Basins, as well as those areas extending from Cape Sable to Canso, and along the Northumberland Strait and Cape Breton Island.

What is often overlooked in discussions of Cultural Landscape with Mi’kmaq people is how Mi’kmaq people identify with the landscape and with place. What is not realized is that it has much to do with a ‘way of seeing’ and a ‘way of feeling’.

The importance of the Sipeknekatik River to Mi’kmaq people is dictated by an ascribed set of values, of which memory is of critical importance. Mi’kmaq people used that river in its entirety from its mouth at Maitland to its outflow on the Atlantic shore at Dartmouth.

The cultural landscape of the Sipeknekatik River is both a complicated and rich story and is no less important today to the people of Sipeknekatik and Millbrook than it was 7500 years ago.

What is striking to me is that the ethnohistory of the Sipeknekatik River has not been completely developed or considered. A number of disciplines (geography, ethnology, history and archaeology) should be used to provide a narrative of the former activities in any given area such as the Sipeknekatik River.

An historical-cultural geographical analysis allows us to understand how Mi’kmaq and other people have lived in, interacted with and transformed their local surroundings.  In the process they have created cultural landscapes and developed places to which they have formed attachments.

An ethnohistoral study, ideally, would examine the ‘precontact traditions’ of the Mi’kmaq along the Sipeknekatik River as that are preserved in memory, traditions, stories, songs, dances, and language.

To this we can add material that can be gleaned by historians from the written records and by archaeologists from what remains in the ground. Naturally, the latter has its own limitations and can only prove ‘presence or absenceof cultural material in any site specific area.  For greater clarity, the Sipeknekatik River itself is the principal site. Each approach tells a different story, but combined they tell near ‘total story’.

The precontact history along the Sipeknekatik River is not only about the ‘spiritual ancestors’ but is part of the people’s ‘living cultural heritage’.  What should be considered is the Mi’kmaq concept of  ‘Ta’nWeji-squalia-tiek – From Where We Sprouted’.  Very simply, it speaks of the fact that the Mi’kmaq sprouted from this landscape and nowhere else and their cultural memory resides there. (Sable and Francis, with Lewis 2012: 17).

Roger J. Lewis, MA

Member of the Sipeknekatik First Nation Community