The Souriquois. Among the native North American groups encountered by early European fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were the Micmacs of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The Basques developed a particularly close relationship with these Indians, whaling, fishing, and trading with them during the yearly visits to the Newfoundland fishing grounds. One result of Basque interaction with the Micmacs was the development of a Basque-based pidgin that spread throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence and down the coast of Maine. The French, who learned the pidgin and used it to communicate and trade with the inhabitants of the area, came to call the Micmacs the Souriquois, apparently adopting as the Indians’ name the pidgin word for the trade language. The term came from the Basque zurikoa (pronounced “surikoa”) meaning “that of the whites.” It may also refer to the Souris River in New Brunswick where the Basques had a trading place, in which case the -koa ending would be a Basque suffix denoting geographic origin and giving the word the meaning “people from Souris.” By the turn of the seventeenth century the Souriquois were heavily engaged in a brisk though short-lived trade in furs and European goods between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Maine coast.
Messamouet Visits France. The Basques sometimes took their Micmac or Montagnais trading partners back to Europe with them at the end of the fishing season. Invitations were generally extended to chiefs or other influential natives, presumably to forge closer trading relationships and increase native cooperation with the French Basques in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At least some of the Indians thus favored willingly accepted the opportunity to visit the foreigners’ homeland. Sometime during the third quarter of the sixteenth century Messamouet, a sagamore, or headman, of the Souriquois living at La Have on Nova Scotia’s southern coast, embraced his chance to see the Old World and accompanied some French Basques returning to Bayonne, a seaport in southwestern France. Little is known about Messamouet’s sojourn among the Basques, except that he “stayed at the house of M. de Grandmont, Mayor of Bayonne,” which places his visit sometime before Grandmont’s death in 1580. Messamouet may, in fact, have been one of the first natives from the area to visit France. His later activities in northeastern North America make it clear that he observed and absorbed something about European commercial practices and seamanship from his hosts. He may also have adopted certain habits of European dress at this time.
Champlain. Messamouet reappears in the historical record in Samuel de Champlain’s record of his third voyage down the New England coast in September 1605. Just off the mouth of the Ste. Croix River, Champlain encountered several Indians, among whom he identified Messamouet and Secoudon, an Etchemin sagamore from Ouigoudi, at the mouth of the St. John River. When Champlain sailed from Ste. Croix, the two Indians, in their own boat, accompanied the French as far as Saco, Maine, “where they wished to go to make an alliance with those of that country by offering them sundry presents.” At Saco, Messamouet met with Onemechin of Saco and Marchin of Casco Bay, both chiefs of the local Armouchiquois Indians. He gave Onemechin “kettles, axes, knives and other articles,” receiving Indian corn, squash, and Brazilian beans in return. According to Champlain, the Souriquois chief left “much displeased” because he had not been “suitably repaid” for his gifts. The French captain feared that Messamouet intended to make war on the Armouchiquois before long, “for these people give only with the idea of receiving something.”
Fur Trade. Marc Lescarbot’s account of Jean de Biencourt, sieur de Poutrincourt’s voyage down the New England coast from Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in the fall of 1606 throws a different light on Messamouet’s activities in Maine and on the reasons for his dissatisfaction with Onemechin the year before. Upon their arrival at the Saco River, Marchin and Onemechin brought Poutrincourt a Souriquois prisoner, “their enemy whom they had captured in the river at Port La Have.” A couple of hours later Messamouet and his partner Secoudon arrived in a sailing shallop with “much merchandise, gained by barter with the French, which they came thither to sell,” including kettles of all sizes, hatchets, knives, dresses, capes, red jackets, peas, beans, and biscuits worth more than three hundred crowns (a type of coin) in cash. While the two entrepreneurs were displaying their wares, Onemechin’s Indians arrived in full war regalia, which, according to Lescarbot, was their custom when they wished “to appear at their best.” The next hour was occupied by Messamouet’s harangue to the assembled Armouchiquois, recounting their past “friendly intercourse together” and requesting that they join the Souriquois and Etchemin to work with the French. The advantages to be gained, according to Messamouet, were significant. The alliance would allow the Souriquois “in future to bring merchandise to them and to aid them with their resources, whereof he knew” because of his sojourn in Bayonne twenty-five years before. At the conclusion of his speech Messamouet threw all of the goods into Onemechin’s canoe, as if making him a present of them as a sign of friendship.
War. Messamouet’s attempt to reestablish friendly relations and trade with the Armouchiquois failed. The following day Onemechin rejected the Souriquois offer by neglecting to give Messamouet a similar speech and presents in return. As Lescarbot explained, the Indians had the “noble trait” of giving freely, but it was done “with the hope of receiving some honourable return.” Again disappointed in his aspirations for trade and alliance on the western coast of Maine, Messamouet began planning revenge. That winter, tension rose between the Souriquois, their allies the Etchemins, and the Armouchiquois. In June 1607 a large party of Souriquois under the direction of the chief sagamore of the eastern Souriquois, Membertou, gathered at Port Royal in order to go to war against their foes to the southwest. Messamouet participated in the raid as one of Membertou’s war captains. In early August they returned from their raid at Saco, where they killed twenty Armouchiquois, among them Onemechin and Marchin.
Inroads on Trade. In their dealings with the Souriquois of western coastal Maine, Messamouet and his Etchemin ally Secoudon employed European shallops, presented themselves in European clothing, and exhibited quasi-European attitudes toward the exchange of goods. Messamouet was in an excellent position to exploit such techniques, having been exposed to them firsthand many years earlier in Bayonne. His long-standing close ties with the French Basques also apparently enabled him to communicate more easily with the French and quickly establish cordial relations with Champlain and Poutrincourt. The arrival of the French in Nova Scotia and on the New England coast was a double-edged sword, however. On one hand, they provided a ready source of supply for the European goods Messamouet desired. By taking advantage of his favorable location near the French and controlling the flow of European trade goods down the New England coast, he could increase Souriquois power over the Armouchiquois. At the same time he could expand his influence with the French by serving as the conduit for the furs they coveted. On the other hand, the French seemed determined to explore the coast themselves and to establish direct trade with Messamouet’s customers, undermining his position and cutting him out of the trade. During the first half of the seventeenth century Messamouet and other native middlemen steadily lost ground to European traders in New England. Because of the region’s proximity to the French, this process occurred much more rapidly in the Gulf of Maine. When Captain John Smith explored the Maine coast in 1614, he reported that the French already dominated the trade in the eastern part of the gulf. Direct French contact also brought the ravages of European diseases. In 1610 an epidemic among the Souriquois at La Have claimed sixty persons, “the great part of those who lived there.” Messamouet may have died in this epidemic; he is not mentioned after 1607.
Peter Bakker, “‘The Language of the Coastal Tribes Is Half Basque’: A Basque-American Indian Pidgin in Use between Europeans and Native Americans in North America, ca. 1540-ca. 1640,” Anthropological Linguistics, 31 (1989): 117–147;
Bruce J. Bourque and Ruth H. Whitehead, “Trade and Alliances in the Contact Period,” in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, edited by Emerson W. Baker and others (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), pp. 131–147;