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Chief Membertou: The Great Captain

For the week of Monday June 21, 2010

On June 24, 1610, Mi’kmaw chief Membertou (Anli-Maopeltoog) was baptized and he converted to Christianity. This marks the first time a First Nations chieftain was baptized in Canada.

 

Commemorative stamp featuring Membertou
© Canada Post Corporation/Library and Archives Canada
Membertou’s position in Mi’kmaw society was unique as he was a chief (or sagamo), a shaman, and also a proud warrior. He was said to be one of the most respected men in the region and could reportedly heal the sick. He had a confident stance, being taller than most, and was said to be over 100 years old at that time. In fact, he claimed to have met French explorer Jacques Cartier as a young boy!

 

Membertou first met Samuel de Champlain and other French settlers around modern Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1605. The French had established the colony of Port-Royal in that area, where the Mi’kmaq traditionally fished. There, Champlain invited the Mi’kmaq to a feast and Membertou welcomed the French settlers as his neighbours. Their good relations proved beneficial for both sides, as the Mi’kmaq taught the French how to snowshoe and sail birchbark canoes, and Membertou received European weapons to gain the edge over his many enemies. When the French had to leave Port-Royal in 1607, Membertou promised to keep the settlement safe. True to his word, the French returned in 1610 to find Port-Royal just as they had left it.

 

Reconstruction of Port-Royal
© Parks Canada
Later that year, Membertou and his family converted to Christianity and were baptized. After his baptism, Membertou took the name “Henri,” the name of the French king, and renounced his role as shaman. His influential position in society meant that other Mi’kmaq began to view Christianity with more legitimacy.

 

Membertou succumbed to dysentery and died in September of 1611. Mi’kmaw and French settlers attended the funeral service before burying him in a French cemetery. After his death many began referring to him as “The Great Captain.” Although Membertou died just a year after his baptism, the Mi’kmaq-French alliance he began lasted over a century. Membertou and Champlain remain a prime example of the many partnerships that contributed to the growth of Canada.

 

Recognized as one of the greatest leaders of his time, Grand Chief Membertou played a crucial role in the successful establishment of European settlers in Annapolis Valley, in 1605. For beginning a Mi'kmaq-French Alliance, Membertou (Anli-Maopeltoog) was designated a national historic person in 1981. Considered to be the father of New France, Samuel de Champlain was designated a national historic person in 1929.
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