Historical Context

Recipes in Mi’gmagi/Acadia/Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island before 1800

The Maritime region before 1800 had a diverse population that included Indigenous, French, English, other Europeans, and free and enslaved people of African descent. That the majority of recipes included in the EMMR database are in English, however, is a consequence of the region’s political history as well as the fact that recipe writing—though not knowledge-making and sharing—was a European rather than Indigenous practice. The wars, displacements, violence, and treaty-making and breaking of the region known to the Mi’kmaq as Mi’gmagi, to the French as Acadia, and to the British eventually as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island can only be briefly recounted here. One fundamental point, however, is that the recipe culture in what is now Canada’s Maritime provinces is deeply embedded in colonialism, specifically settler colonialism, the “persistent social and political formation in which newcomers/colonizers/settlers come to a place, claim it as their own, and do whatever it takes to disappear the Indigenous peoples that are there” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 12). 


Indigenous Peoples

The Indigenous cultures that Europeans encountered around 1500 when they first arrived in the region were the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), and Passamaquoddy.  The Wolastoqiyik lived along the Wolastok river (the Saint John River Valley on contemporary maps), the Passamaquoddy to the west, and the Mi’kmaq to the east, with territories, divided into seven districts, that stretched from Gaspé to the Atlantic Ocean (Paul 16). Representing ten thousand years of “cultural evolution and technical innovation,” Indigenous peoples’ knowledge allowed them to make diverse use of maritime resources, establish governments and trade networks that extended for thousands of kilometers, engage in fishing, hunting, farming, and gathering, travel expertly on rivers and the ocean, and produce art in quill and paint—practical knowledges that were developed within distinct spiritual and intellectual contexts (Paul 9-43; Reid 16).  Focusing on agriculture, Jason Hall discusses, for example, how the Wolastoqey grew maize, beans, pumpkins, and Jersusalem artichokes, modifying the banks of the Wolastok river to make it “a food yielding and medicinal landscape” that provided nuts, tobacco, wood, sweetgrass, wild rice, fiddleheads, and medicines, such as wild ginger, black raspberry, and bloodroot  (Hall, par. 16, 18).  As Hall explains, “Maliseets’ integration of maize with other plants in their kin-centric ecology differs from European ecological perceptions that classified cultivated species as “domesticated” and uncultivated plants as “wild” (Hall, par. 22).

Early modern Maritime recipe culture thus emerges in a Settler culture that planted itself on lands Indigenous peoples already knew and understood.  Clara Sue Kidwell, who is of Chippewa and Choctaw decent, draws attention to the complex techniques with which Native American people controlled their environments in this way: “while they often reflect familiar Western processes – observation, deduction, hypothesis, experimentation – they also rest upon fundamentally different understandings of a world that can be alive with intent and will” (Kidwell 87).  It is characteristic of settler colonialism, however, that European colonists typically perceived the land empty, a terra nulliius of wilderness, a perspective fundamentally enabling to a colonial ideology that discounted Indigenous claims to land, knowledge, and culture. 



It was the French who established the first surviving European colony in what is now Maritime Canada.  The founding of Port Royal on the Bay of Fundy in 1605 was aided by Chief Membertou and the region’s Mi’kmaq people (Reid 19).  French settlement and cooperation with the Mi’kmaq continued through the seventeenth century as the Acadians developed a system of dykes around the Bay of Fundy that allowed them to turn the bay’s marshes into fertile fields suitable for food production (Reid 46). Although the Scottish crown in the 1620s had also attempted to claim “Nova Scotia,” their efforts ended in 1632, and French efforts at colonial government persisted until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded mainland Nova Scotia to English control under European law; the French retained title to Isle Royale [now Cape Breton] and Isle St. Jean [Prince Edward Island] (Reid 48). While the treaty also claimed British dominion over the Natives of North America, the Mi’kmaq people were neither part of treaty negotiations nor made aware of its signing (Paul 73). Acadians persisted in the region after the Treaty of Utrecht, developing an Acadian identity as well as comfortable homes, farms and gardens and a food supply that included meat, grains, vegetables, dairy, alcohol and preserves (Griffiths 48-61).


British Consolidation of Power

In comparison with the numbers of Indigenous and French inhabitants, the English population remained very small until Halifax was established in 1749, and Governor Edward Cornwallis imported 2500 English settlers, as well as German, Swiss, and French, known as the “Foreign Protestants.”  Further establishing their control, starting in 1755 the British enacted what Acadians know as Le Grand Dérangement, the forcible expulsion of some 14,000 Acadians. Large numbers were removed to American colonies, to France, and to the Caribbean. Families were separated, and many died as a result of the poor conditions they encountered.  Further expulsions were ordered when the English took control of Ile Royale and Ile St. Jean in 1758.  Some Acadians managed to escape removal, and others were eventually able to return,  not to their own homes and farms but to less fertile settlements (Reid 59-60 ; Griffiths 90-94, 125-127).  Some 7000 English-speaking “Planters” from New England arrived at government invitation between 1760 and 1763 to occupy lands from which Acadians had been removed (Reid 77).

The consolidation of English control of the Maritime region profoundly impacted the Indigenous peoples as well. Between 1725 and 1779, the British Crown negotiated a series of Peace and Friendship Treaties with the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey peoples.  These treaties promised to acquire their consent for limited British settlement in the region, sought to establish trade, and did not ask the First Nations people to surrender land (Reid 23). English Settlers did not, however, honour treaty terms. In 1749, Governor Cornwallis infamously offered a bounty of 10 guineas for the scalp of an Indigenous person, a reward that led  to the murder of many Mi’kmaq, as well as some Acadians (Reid 22, Paul 107-118).  Paul estimates, the pre-contact Mi’kmaq population of some 200,000 people was only 20,000 by 1752 (45, 118).  This population decline is directly linked to the dispossession of Mi’kmaq from their territories. In 1783, the British governors left them with “licenses of occupation” for a tiny proportion of their traditional territories and then in 1801 and 1821 with reserves, of “swamps, bogs, clay pits, mountains and rockpiles” and only about 200 acres of arable land (165-180).  This dispossession had dire consequences. Paul writes that the cause of the deaths of Indigenous peoples in the eighteenth century was

besides cold-blooded murder and genocide, […] the destruction and cutting off of traditional food resources by Europeans. With this came the cause of famine, malnutrition and starvation, which severely lowered resistance to all sicknesses and created ideal conditions for disease to run rampant among them with deadly consequences. (166-67)

The Wolastoqiyik had a similar experience. Andrea Bear Nicholas describes in detail how between 1758 and 1765 the English took Wolastoqey territories along the Wolastok by treating the land as empty, moving into territories without authorization, and offering grants on lands that had never been ceded, a process that left only 704 acres for the Maliseet and resulted in their impoverishment (21-57).  

The dispossession of the Indigenous peoples from their lands was cemented by the arrival of the Loyalists, some 35,000 English-speaking people loyal to the British crown who left the American states after the 1776 Revolution and settled in the Maritime region (Reid 83). Although not everyone in Nova Scotia was unsympathetic to the American revolutionaries, the colony maintained its ties to the British crown.  In and around 1783, when Britain formally recognized American independence, the Settler population nearly doubled (Reid 83). Loyalists included a few members of a “once-wealthy” elite, and more were soldiers, farmers, and craftspeople.  The Loyalists also included in their numbers enslaved Africans and about 3500 free Black Loyalists (Reid 83-84). Loyalists status included land grants from the colonial government, which led to settlement across the region. Life was difficult for many, however. Writing of the Loyalists arriving in Saint John, David Bell says, “Although most settlers had access to rations, sickness and death were common at early Saint John, due to the crowding, the shortage of fresh water and firewood, the makeshift sanitations facilities, the inclement weather, the primitive nature of shelter, the limited supply of fresh food and the often low morale that were the lost of most” (63).   Despite this, when in 1784 New Brunswick was established as a separate colony from Nova Scotia, Edward Winslow hoped it would be “the most Gentlemanlike one on earth” (qtd. in Bell 102).  In 1798, St. John’s Island was renamed Prince Edward Island, and the geo-political structures of today’s Maritime provinces were established. The Loyalist migration was followed soon after by an influx of Scots (Reid 87).

The enslaved and free Blacks labouring in Maritime households and on farms had an even more difficult time—not least because they were not treated as citizens. The free Black Loyalists had fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War in exchange for promised liberty.  However, they were givern poor quality land grants or were unable to acquire land at all, which forced them into similar forms of employment as slaves (Whitfield 58-59). Although enslaved Africans had lived in the Maritimes from the seventeenth century onwards, having been brought to places like Ile Royale by their French masters, the Planters and Loyalists brought many more slaves with them. In northern contexts, as Harvey Amani Whitfield explains, work was not as readily divided between house, yard, and field, as it was on plantations further south. In the north, slaves’ work could include domestic tasks, such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, attending table, and caring for children, as well as agricultural labour, such as clearing fields, planting crops, and caring for livestock. Slaves were also skilled in trades, such as masonry, milling, carpentry, and tailoring. These occupations and their high value to their owners is evident in runaway slave ads that ran in newspapers (46-57).  Slavery did not end in the region until the 1820s.


The Impact on Recipes

This history of the early modern Maritimes helps to explain why we found hundreds of recipes in English, but just one notebook of French recipes and a few recipes in German. Europeans generally did use recipes, but the violence and displacement endured by the Acadian population surely had an impact on the survival of the letters, notebooks, and other personal papers in which recipes are usually preserved. An absence of written Acadian recipes is certainly not an absence of a recipe culture, however.  Marielle Boudreau’s Médecine traditionnelle en Acadie: enquête ethnographique (Moncton, 2014) and Marielle Boudreau and Melvin Gallant’s A Taste of Acadie (Goose Lane, 1991) used oral history to collect Acadian recipes. Danielle Arsenault describes further in her essay on this site the one French collection we found. And there are some traces of the Acadian presence in the region in the English-language recipes we collected. For example, in  John MacDonald’s instructions to his sister Nelly on how to build a house in Tracadie, he insists not only that she should look for French carpenters and sawyers, but if glue is needed, “I believe glue may also be made of fish & probably the french may teach you the secret.”  It is possible, then, that the Acadians Nelly may have gone on to employ may also have shared, at least orally, the recipes to which her brother alludes.

Traces of Indigenous knowledge may be more abundant in the recipes collected here, if only implicitly. More research is needed to make these connections visible. Earlier European travellers to the region, such as Sieur de Diereville and Nicholas Denys, had recorded Indigenous knowledge practices. Travel narratives like theirs testified to Indigenous medical and culinary uses of plants and animals in the region—records made with sufficient detail to enable the replication of the technique in Europe. Such knowledge appropriation is a form of colonial extraction that nevertheless does explicitly acknowledge Indigenous origins of knowledge.  Most of the recipes in this database, however, present Indigenous knowledge only in indirect ways. For example, one recipe for hasty pudding calls for “Indian meal,” a frequently used term for corn meal, and a set of agricultural instructions recommending the use of salt as a fertilizer mentions growing “Indian corn,” an Indigenous food introduced into the European diet. As the discussion paper on “Indigenous Food Sovereignty” for A People’s Food Policy for Canada puts it, Indigenous people “originally developed and perfected many of the world’s great foods, such as beans, corn, squash, potatoes, berries, herbs and medicines for which there is no acknowledgement or compensation” (3). Maritime recipes bear this out in their silences. For example, in “Account of a Method of Preparing a Spirituous Liquor” an English “gentleman” who had been living in India in the service of the East India Company refers to learning about maple sugar upon his arrival in North America: “On coming to reside in this part of the world, I found that there was a tree which they call the sugar maple, which they usually tap in the Spring, and let out its juices or sap by boring a hole in the trunk: they brew this with us into a sort  of drink, and sometimes they boil it into  sugar.” The “Gentleman” does not say who “they” are, but maple sugar making is the knowledge of North American Indigenous people, as is soil fertilization (Vogel, 19-30), another practice with which these recipes are commonly concerned.

The work that enslaved and free black people undertook overlaps precisely with the areas of knowledge covered by recipes, as well, and their knowledge is part of the context for these recipes.   Slaves in the eighteenth-century British colonies came from the Gold Coast of Africa, and they brought with them technical knowledge that encompassed weaving, leather work, wood carving, metallurgy, pottery-making, fishing, agriculture, and spinning and weaving (24-31).  Frederick Knight explains:

Experienced with a practical set of skills to manage their environments, people from Africa bought by Atlantic slavers possessed, collectively, a wealth of knowledge. And though the vast majority of them remain nameless in the historical record, they played a considerable role in the New World settings that they entered. (Knight 31)

The presence of African knowledge in the Maritimes is explicit in a text like Handley Chipman’s description of the baobab tree, which includes information on how people in Senegal make and use couscous. A recipe printed in the Halifax Gazette, reprinted from a newspaper in Virginia, describes a cure for the stone made from “the expressed juice of horsemint and of red onions; one gill of each to be taken every morning and evening” that comes from an enslaved man in Berkley Springs (now in West Virginia) who is paid for his cure by being freed. Dr. William James Almon’s notebook records how “the Negro Nurses” use a decoction of the bark of the Angelyne in their practice on “estates,” probably southern slave plantations.  The knowledge of slaves was quite clearly transferred to and used in Nova Scotia.

Early Modern Maritime recipes database is largely made up of recipes recorded by English-speaking men who preserved for themselves and others knowledge that they considered useful in their temporal and geographical context: instructions for how to grow things, make food, keep warm, and stay well, amongst other things. When sources are named, they are also most often male and often place themselves at the top of European knowledge hierarchies through their roles as physicians or members of organizations such as the Royal Society, the Dublin Society, the Royal Society of Sweden, or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Situating themselves in the British colonial world, printers and recipe collectors gathered knowledge by ranging south to the American states, east to Great Britain and Europe, and even further east to Asia, where there were more British colonies.  Recipes are reprinted from diverse sources, such as The New England Farmer, originally published  in Massachusetts in 1790, and “a small French Work, now circulating in America, under the Title of Agronome; or, The Farmer’s Pocket Dictionary.”  Other recipes come from individuals, such as “Mr Farhig of Petersburgh” [St. Petersburg] who claims to have learned his technique from “Mogul tribes who inhabit the frontiers of the government of Irkutz beyond the lake Baikal.”  It is telling that the recipes collected here more often cite knowledge from other British colonies than knowledge named as local.



Maritime recipes articulate the quest of English-speaking peoples for knowledge about how to live in the region.  In The Homing Place: Indigenous and Settler Literary Legacies of the Atlantic (2017), Rachel Bryant discusses how Settlers used writing to “view their local environments, or ‘place,’ as a kind of intellectual property (4).  Arguing that John Gyles’s eighteenth-century captivity narrative represents “part of a collective attempt by early Anglo-Americans to establish their own ‘indigenous’ North American voice” (44), Bryant contends that Gyles’s work “pointedly does not incorporate regional Indigenous knowledge or perspectives but is instead consolidated against the culture and habits of the Maliseet, with whom he spent six years” (46). Anglo-Maritime recipe culture also displays the imperialist attitudes that Bryant describes. Recipes may seek to articulate knowledge of how to be in this place—how  to grow crops successfully, to have comfortable homes, to survive the vagaries of climate and disease—but they articulate this quest in ways that do not engage with what was  already here, mostly turning not to more established Acadians or to Indigenous peoples, but to people and books in the American states, in Great Britain, in other British colonies, in Europe, and in other parts of the world.


Future Directions

Further research with this recipe database could explore ways in which Indigenous, Acadian, and African knowledges makes themselves known in the recipe ingredients and techniques.  The single French recipe book certainly merits more study, as a unique document. Researchers could also use the recipes in the database to think about Loyalist food culture, where the foods came from, how ingredients were used, and how they reflect upon daily life.  When recipes are the work of named individuals, research might connect recipes to the circumstances of their lives and, if a larger archive of their papers survives, to their writing lives.  EMMR recipes might also be used to consider the region in relation to the history of medicine,  to examine questions related to the  the kinds of diseases for which treatments were  recorded, the origins and applications of specified ingredients, the sources of medical knowledge, and the individuals for whom the treatments were devised. The EMMR collection might also inspire thinking about connections between humans and animals, about the material culture of food, clothes, and housing, and about colonial and native economies. There is more work to do!


Works Cited

Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8–34.

Bell, David. Loyalist Rebellion in New Brunswick: A Defining Conflict for Canada’s Political Culture, Formac, 2013.

Bear Nicholas, Andrea. “Settler Imperialism and the Dispossession of the Maliseet, 1758-1765.” Shaping an Agenda for Atlantic Canada, edited by John G. Reid and Donald J Savoie, Fernwood Pub, 2011, pp. 21-57.

Bryant, Rachel. The Homing Place: Indigenous and Settler Literary Legacies of the Atlantic. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017.

Griffiths, N. E. S. The Contexts of Acadian History, 1686-1784. Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University by McGill-Queen's UP, 1992.

Hall, Jason. “Maliseet Cultivation and Climatic Resilience on the Wəlastəkw/St. John River During the Little Ice Age." Acadiensis, vol.  44, no. 2,  2015, n. pag.

“Indigenous Food Sovereignty.” People’s Food Policy Project. Food Secure Canada. 2009-2011. https://foodsecurecanada.org/sites/foodsecurecanada.org/files/DP1_Indigenous_Food_Sovereignty.pdf.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. “Native American Systems of Knowledge.” A Companion to American Indian History, edited by P. J. Deloria and N. Salisbury, Blackwell, 2002, pp. 85-102. doi:10.1002/9780470996461.ch6

Knight, Frederick C.. Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850, New York UP, 2010.

Paul, Daniel N. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations. Fernwood, 2000.

Reid, John G, and Brenda Conroy. Nova Scotia : A Pocket History. Fernwood Pub, 2009.

Vogel, Virgil T. “The Blackout of Native American Cultural Achievements.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1, 1987, 11-35.

Whitfield, Harvey Amani. North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes. U of British Columbia P, 2016.