Origin and History
The Atikamekw are an Algonquin speaking people whose territory occupies the upper Saint-Maurice River catchment as far north as the heights separating the Saint-Laurent basin from Hudson and James Bays. Atikamekw literally means ‘Poisson Blanc’ or ‘Lake Whitefish.' The Atikamekw were described as a group of 500 to 600 people, who made up ‘one of the nations more considerable of the north’. They have close traditional ties with the Innu people (Montagnais), who were their historical allies against the Inuit. Their location placed them between the Montagnais-Naskapi and the Algonquin-Ojibwe subculture/dialect groups. In the 1640s the Jesuits reported that the Atikamekw spoke the same language as the Innu.
It is probable that the Atikamekw came to trade with the Wendat (Huron) around Lake Saint-Jean exchanging animal skins for corn, nets and other small wares, including probably tobacco. It was also the eastern terminus for the prehistoric copper route from Ontario. They also traded with the Woods Cree peoples to the north.
From the 1630s the Atikamekw were subject to raids by the Iroquois, which intensified in the 1640s forcing the Jesuits to give up their plan to establish a mission in their territory.
In 1642, 13 canoes of Atikamekw came to overwinter with the Innu living at Sillery where the Jesuits tried to impose a Christianised Innu leader upon them, himself having been born among the Atikamekw.
In 1645 the Atikamekw were part of the peace negotiations initiated by the Mohawk with the French, Algonquin, Innu and Wendat (Huron). The following year, the Atikamekw, along with the Innu, Nipissings and Mi’kmaq, were asked by the Algonquin nation to come to their assistance in their renewed conflict with the Mohawk, their peace having been broken that year, but nothing came of it, according to the French, due to lack of co-ordination.
In 1647 the Jesuits at Trois-Rivières asked the Atikamekw to carry letters from the Wendat missions to Québec and vice versa as the Wendat were unable to come down the Saint-Laurent route due to risk of ambush by the Iroquois.
Mohawk raids began again in 1650 at the same time as the Jesuits once again tried to establish a mission in Atikamekw territory. In 1652 the Atikamekw were dispersed from the upper Saint-Maurice due to these attacks. At the same time, it appears that there was also an epidemic amongst the Atikamekw. The survivors sought refuge amongst their neighbours, others moved to the shores of Lac Saint-Jean, fled to Tadoussac or Trois-Rivières, seeking the protection of the French. This dispersal from their territory lasted until about 1655 or 1656. It was not until July 1657 that the Atikamekw are recorded bringing furs to trade at Trois-Rivières amongst a canoe fleet of Algonquins and Canadiens. The Atikamekw continued to be raided by the Iroquois so that in 1661 the Jesuits considered to too dangerous to return to their country.
About 1669-1670 the Atikamekw are likely to have been affected by a smallpox epidemic that swept through the woodlands. Although this is not recorded amongst them by the Jesuits, after 1672 the ‘Poisson Blanc’ are no longer mentioned until 1675 and then at Lac Saint-Jean. The term ‘Poisson Blanc’ is lastly recorded at Trois-Rivières in 1698 by a Récollet missionary. The epidemic is likely to have caused widespread loss of life and temporary and permanent dispersal.
Jean Bochart de Champigny, intendant of Nouvelle France, makes the first recorded mention of the name 'Têtes-de-Boule' in 1692 when they were travelling with Algonquins near Montréal. Têtes-de-Boule is the fat head minnow, (Pimephales promelas), a term defining the species of the Poisson Blanc group of fish, perhaps on some further enquiry of the Atikamekw by a Canadien.
The Jesuits had applied the designation ‘Poisson Blanc’ (meaning a fish of white flesh) to survivors of the Atikamekw who merged with the Ouramanichek, the Piskatang and a number of other small bands north of them. It is likely that these people also took in numbers of Algonquins from the west who had moved into the depopulated upper Saint-Maurice catchment. This amalgamated nation was recorded as the 'Têtes-de-Boule' in 1723 at Trois Rivières by a Récollet missionary. This integration of Algonquin speakers (Algonquin people and perhaps Wabanaki and Nipissings) and probably intermarriage may have led to the adaptation of some traits associated with Algonquin-Ojibwe culture within the Atikamekw. In addition, the Atikamekw, together with the Innu, were designated ‘Gens-de-Terre’ by missionaries and other observers, i.e., those living by hunting and fishing, in the 18th century.
Role during the War
The Atikamekw took little part in the French and Indian War.
On July 12, 1757, Aide-Major Maurès, Comte de Malartic mentions Crys [Crees] with Joseph Marin de la Malgue with 250 Native Americans arriving at Fort Carillon. These are possibly the Atikamekw later listed as Têtes-de-Boule by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Montcalm’s aide.
On July 28, Bougainville recorded that there were 3 Atikamekw (Têtes-de-Boule) warriors present amongst the 1,799 Native Americans present for the French expedition against Fort William Henry. The siege of Fort started on August 4 and lasted until August 10, during which time Native Americans were deployed sniping at the fort during the day and as an observation screen in woods around the perimeter of the cleared land. Following this the Atikamekw warriors probably went home.
In March 1758, a few Atikamekw warriors, accompanying the Nipissing, may have been present at the Skirmish of Snow Shoes (March 13) against Rogers' Rangers, near Fort Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga).
On June 16, Bougainville at Montréal recorded that some: ‘Têtes-de-Boule brought here by the Nipissings. These Indians, called ‘Gen-des Terres’, live deep in the woods, are great hunters, mediocre warriors, have neither government nor policy [as defined by Bougainville], trade more with the English of Hudson’s Bay than us. Their dialect is a corrupt form of Algonquin.... They have asked the Marquis de Vaudreuil for a gorget, their chief having died.’ It is not known where and what these Atikamekw did after the visit.
No descriptions of Atikamekw men from the period of the Seven Years War or mid-18th century have been sourced at the time of writing.
Mackenzie's account during the years 1789-1793 of the garments worn by the Woods Cree, to the north of and allied to and indeed some of whom may have been incorporated into the Atikamekw around the turn of the 18th century, states, ‘Their dress is at once simple and commodious. It consists of tight leggins, reaching near the hip: a strip of cloth or leather called assian [breechclout], about a foot wide, and five feet long, whose ends were drawn inwards and hang behind and before, over a belt tied around the waist for that purpose: a close vest or shirt reaching down to the former garment, and cinctured with a broad strip of parchment fastened with thongs behind; and a cap for the head, consisting of a piece of fur, or small skin, with the brush of the animal as a suspended ornament: a kind of robe is thrown occasionally over the whole of the dress, and serves both night and day. These articles, with the addition of shoes and mittens constitute the variety of their apparel. The materials vary according to the season, and consist of dressed moose-skin, beaver prepared with the fur, or European woolens, the leather is neatly painted, and fancifully worked in some parts with porcupine quills, and moose-deer hair: the shirts and leggins are also adorned with fringe and tassels; nor are the shoes and mittens without somewhat of appropriate decoration, and worked with a considerable degree of skill and taste. These habiliments are put on, however, as fancy or convenience suggests; and they will sometimes proceed to the chase in the severest frost, covered only with the slightest of them. Their head-dresses are composed of the feathers of the swan, the eagle, and other birds. The teeth, horns, and claws of different animals are also the occasional ornaments of the head and neck. Their hair, however arranged, is always besmeared with grease.’
Alanson Skinner writing in 1911, stated, ‘According to my informants, before European contact, men's clothing in winter consisted of a thinly dressed shirt of beaver or other skin with the fur turned in. The skin of an adult beaver formed the body covering, while the sleeves, which were attached to the trunk, were made of the pelts of young animals. Leggings were made of beaver, fisher, or of the skin of the legs of the caribou, worn usually with the fur-inside. They extended from the thigh to the ankle. Garters of leather or rabbitskin, with the fur on them, were worn below the knee, outside the leggings. Hooded coats of caribou skin tanned with the hair, somewhat resembling Eskimo parkas, were also worn in winter. They were symbolically painted inside by outlining on the skin, the eyes and mouth, of the animal, signifying that the garment possessed the powers of speed, endurance, or cunning of the living animal, and was able to convey them to the wearer. So far as could be learned, this symbolism is confined to the garments of men, and the designs occur on the hood or head coverings only...’
The following is surmised.
Atikamekw men probably wore their hair long rather than shaved head and scalplock typically worn by the Wendat and Abenaki neighbours. Mackenzie wrote of the Atikamekw’s northern neighbours: ‘It is cut in various forms, according to the fancy of the several tribes, and by some is left in the long, lank, flow of nature. They very generally extract their beards, and both sexes manifest a disposition to pluck the hair from every part of the body and limbs... Their hair is divided on the crown, and tied behind, or sometimes fastened in large knots over the ears.’ Alanson Skinner (1911) goes on to state, ‘... the men sometimes wore their hair in a single plait down the back.’ It is likely the hair on the crown of the head was braided at time of war.
In 1634 Paul Lejeune, a Jesuit missionary, wrote of the Innu but probably also applied to the Atikamekw: ‘During the Winter all kinds of garments are appropriate to them, and all are common to both women and men, there being no difference at all in their clothes; anything is good, provided it is warm. They are dressed properly when they are dressed comfortably. Give them a hood, and a man will wear it as well as a woman.’ By the time of the French and Indian War hoods were made of wool broadcloth and decorated with ribbon and linear white beadwork.
Feathers and other items of spiritual significance to the wearer are likely to be been worn attached to a scalp braid from the crown of the head when at war.
It is likely that Atikamekw men had tattoos. Skinner (1911) found that their neighbours to the north, ‘... that it was a frequent mode of decoration in the old days...’
The Jesuit missionary Lejeune arrived in Tadoussac in the summer of 1632 and reported that of the Innu men but also likely to apply to the Atikamekw: ‘There were some whose noses were painted blue, the eyes, eyebrows, and cheeks painted black, and the rest of the face red; and these colours are bright and shining like those of our masks; others had black, red, and blue stripes drawn from the ears to the mouth. Still others were entirely black, except the upper part of the brow and around the ears, and the end of the chin; so that it might have been truly said of them that they were masquerading. There were some who had only one black stripe...’ It is presumed that such traditions were maintained through the 18th century. All face paint designs are personal to the wearer.
It is likely that Atikamekw men had their ears pierced and wore earrings. It is not known whether they separated the helix of the ear as did warriors of nations to the west of them or had there nose septum pierced.
Necklaces and Neck Pouches
Necklaces of wampum, imitation glass wampum and beads with shell, claw, brass, tin and silver pendants are likely to be commonly worn for occasions.
Breechclout and Apron
Atikamekw men are likely to have worn a breechclout cloth breechclout by the mid-17th century, cloth being obtained from the French at Trois Rivières and later from the English at James Bay. Pierre Pouchot, writing between 1755 and 1760, generically, recorded men wearing, ‘... a breech-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell of cloth, which they pass under their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometime the cloth is embroidered.’ It is likely that Atikamekw men wore similar at the time of the French and Indian War.
The Jesuit Lejeune writing in 1634 of the Innu but also likely to the neighbouring Atikamekw, stated that: ‘Their stockings are made of Moose skin, from which the hair has been removed, nature and not art setting the fashion for them; they are considered well-made if the feet and legs go into them, no ingenuity being used in making corners; they are made like boots, and are fastened under the foot with a little string. The seam, which is scarcely more than basted, is not at the back of the leg, but on the inside. When they sew them, they leave an edge of the skin itself, which they cut into fringe, occasionally fastening to this a few matachias [ornaments of wrapped quills, shell, beads, etc.] These stockings are quite long, especially in front, for they leave a piece which reaches quite high, and covers a great part of the thigh; to the upper edge of this piece are fastened small cords, tied to a leather belt which they all wear next to their skin.’ Lejeune also noted that amongst the Innu: ‘A man will wear one stocking of leather, and another of cloth; just now they are cutting up their old coverings or blankets, with which to make sleeves or stockings; and I leave you to imagine how neatly and smoothly they fit... as soon as the air becomes warm or when they enter their Cabins, they throw off their garments and the men remain entirely naked, except a strip of cloth which conceals what cannot be seen without shame.’
Leggings were fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, moose hair embroidery, broaches and braid. The Innu used red and black painted linear designs on clothing which may have been applied to leggings. On the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin would be worn.
Garters are likely to have been worn below the knee. Garters, made of deerskin, or in the case of the Atikamekw birch bark, the former embroidered with quillwork, are likely to have been worn below the knee. Ties may have been wrapped in quills.
The Atikamekw probably wore a style of two-piece puckered-toe moccasin style with a separate vamp. They are fastened under the cuff and tied at the instep with a thong. Contemporaneous with this form of moccasin was the 'hock' boot. This was made of the leg skin of a moose, elk or deer: ‘They cut the skin above and below the gambrel joint, and take it off entire. As the hind leg of the elk inclines at this joint, nearly at right angle, it was naturally adapted to the foot. The lower end was sewn firmly with sinew, and the upper part secured above the ankle with deer strings.’.
A European shirt, cut in contemporary European fashion, was likely to have been popular and was likely to have been daubed with grease and paint to waterproof it.’
Blankets and Coats
Fur robes worn for warmth were also used for ceremonial occasions and likely to have being painted and decorated with quilled bands. As well as skins, trade blankets were worn for warmth. At the time French blankets were considered of better quality than those supplied by the British.
Hooded capotes were a probably a popular item of winter dress for Atikamekw men living along the Saint-Laurent from the late 17th century. In 1743 it is recorded that seventy cloth capotes trimmed with false silver lace were sent to Fort La Raye (Green Bay) to be traded for furs. Eight were of white cloth and the others of unspecified colours. They lacked buttons and were fastened by a patterned woven wool sash or belt at the waist. European coats and sleeved waistcoats in the contemporary style were also obtained and worn by some men.
The Atikamekw are likely to have also worn hunting coats of hide styled in the manner of an 18th century riding coat or redingote, with high collar, narrow waist and flaring skirt, sewn of tanned caribou hide. They were very finely painted linear design in red, cream, and black pigments. Robes may also have been painted.
Pierre Pouchot writing at the time of the Seven Years War described generically the equipment carried by Native American men. ‘The men wear a belt about six inches wide, made of wool of different colour, which the Indian women make very neatly, of flaming designs. They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket hanging like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting or war. They have an ox horn with a shoulder strap for carrying powder. Their knife is hung in a sheaf from the neck, and falls upon the breast. They also have a crooked knife or a curved sword, and they make great use of this.’
By the beginning of the 18th century the standard trade musket that armed the Innu either manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal or obtained from the British at James Bay or New England.. The French ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. After 1745 the ‘V’ changed to a ‘U’. Characteristically the stock had a drooped ‘cow’s foot’ butt. Likewise, firearms may have been obtained from the British at James Bay were manufactured specifically for the Indian trade. These were characterised by full stocks, large trigger guards, serpent side plates, and nailed on butt plates.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of deerskin and possibly decorated with painted designs and a tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt at the back.
Bearor, Bob, Leading by Example: Partisan Fighters & Leaders of New France 1660-1760, Westminster: Heritage Books Inc., 2002, pp. 67.
Bearor, Bob, The Battle on Snowshoes, Westminster: Heritage Books Inc., 2007, pp. 51.
Davidson, D. S., Notes on Tete de Boule Ethnology, in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1928), pp. 18-46.
Dawson, Nelson-Martin, From the Atikamegues to the Têtes-de-Boule: Ethnic change in the Haut Mauricien under the French Regime, Sillery: Septentrion, 2003.
Hamilton, Edward P., [trans], Adventure in the Wilderness: The American Journal of Louis Antoine de Bougainville 1756-1760. Norman: University Press, 1964, pp.151, 212.
Raffle, William (Ed.), Glories of Useless Heroism: The Seven Years War in North America from the French Journals of Comte Maurès de Malartic, 1755-1760, Solihull: Helion & Company, 2017, pp. 125.
Thwaites, Reuben G. [ed], The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company Publishers, 1899, 31:219.
Trigger, Bruce, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976, pp. 611., 735, 792.
Trigger, Bruce, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s Heroic Age Reconsidered, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986, pp. 336.
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of this article