Mystery of Mahone Bay
Oak Island lies towards the back of Mahone Bay off the Atlantic seaboard of Nova Scotia. Extending inland from the area around the island is a river interestingly named Gold River. Roughly following the valley of the Gold River you eventually reach the little community of New Ross, NS.
Both Oak Island and New Ross have been associated with legends of treasure, and, sitting within 20 miles or less of each other, it seems reasonable to assume that they share a lot of the same history. They both currently have treasure hunts being conducted during the months of warmer weather.
At Oak Island, it is Rick and Marty Lagina, and their partners Craig Tester and Dan Blankenship, leading the charge, with many other people in the wings – historians, active searchers, and background researchers.
At New Ross, it is the treasure hunting team of Finders Keepers, investigating that mystery.
I have been fortunate enough to meet nearly all these people in person, and to meet several other significant people through email.
One thing that seems worth analyzing is the naming history of Mahone Bay. Mahone, itself, is said to be a French word designating a type of flat bottomed barge, which, above water, has a roundness to it similar to other boats. It apparently was meant for carrying heavy loads in shallower water.
Below is a photo of a mahonne as recreated by modern sailing enthusiasts.
The naming of Mahone Bay through the centuries has been rife with some controversy. There are those who believe it was once called Mirligache, while others say that name only indicated Lunenburg Bay. One book states that Lunenburg Bay was known as Merligeuche and Mahone Bay as Miriligaiche.
Other websites give an early French name for Mahone Bay as La Baye de la Toutes Isles, which means the bay of many (or of all) islands. And it is certainly a bay filled with a lot of islands - somewhere around 365, depending on who’s counting.
I have found this assertion made on tourism and conservation websites dealing with Mahone Bay. However, if we go back to the original sources of the "de la Toutes Isle" name, we have to go to the exact words of Samuel de Champlain, who wrote them.
In the book “Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604-1618," Champlain states: “Departing from Cap de la Heve, we went as far as Sesambre, an island so called by some people from St. Malo, and distant fifteen leagues from La Heve. Along the route are a large number of islands, which we named Les Martyres, since some Frenchmen were once killed there by the savages. These islands lie in several inlets and bays.”
What we learn from this statement is that Champlain sailed from LaHave to what is now Sambro, which he estimated to be a distance of fifteen leagues. A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was common in Europe and Latin America, but is no longer an official unit in any nation.
The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour. Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries. In 1600s French parlance, a league was equal to about 3.25 to 4.68 km (or 2.02 to 2.91 nautical miles). So we can safely deduce that Champlain sailed about 45 nautical miles from LaHave to Sambro.
A modern distance calculator gives the distance from LaHave to Sambro, in a straight line, as being 34.41 nautical miles. However, Champlain could not have sailed a directly straight line because of the many islands and land masses he would have to sail around, and so his 45 nautical miles would have likely been quite accurate.
What this means in a larger sense is that he did not likely sail into Mahone Bay. In fact, his owns words say, “These islands lie in several inlets and bays.” It seems safe to assume then, that by 1604, when he made this voyage, Oak Island lay yet undiscovered by Europeans, at least in the known historical sense.
Champlain states further that, “After leaving Sesambre, we passed a bay which is unobstructed, of seven or eight leagues in extent, with no islands except at the extremity, where is the mouth of a small river, containing but little water. Then, heading north-east a quarter east, we arrived at a harbor distant eight leagues from Sesambre, which is very suitable for vessels of a hundred or a hundred and twenty tons. At its entrance is an island from which one can walk to the main land at low tide. We named this place Port Saincte Helaine, which is in latitude 44 40 more or less. From this place we proceeded to a bay called La Baye de Toutes Isles, of some fourteen or fifteen leagues in extent,
a dangerous place on account of the presence of banks, shoals, and reefs.”
So clearly La Baye de la Toutes Isles was not Mahone Bay, but rather a string of islands located further northeast of Mahone Bay.
By the same token, Mahone Bay was not specifically named the Les Martyres, as this area included all the islands between LaHave and Sambro.
That brings us to what some have said was the Mi’kmaq word for the area around Lunenburg.
Typically, it is said that the Mi’kmaq named the Lunenburg area Mirligash, Mirligueche or Mirligaiche. There have been a few translations of what this word might mean that don’t seem to connect with each other.
About the end of 2017, Doug Crowell contacted me to say that Sylvie Delo, while doing some Oak Island research, noticed that Mirligaiche looked decidedly like a Scots Gaelic word. She may be correct!
I have actually found the use of the words Mir and Ligaiche from as far back as 900 AD in Scots Gaelic writings.
There seems to be little doubt that the name Mirligaiche comes from the Scots Gaelic words for "part of an alliance.” The most obvious alliance this could be referring to is the alliance between Sir William Alexander, the new Scots governor of Nova Scotia, and Claude de la Tour, the old French governor of Acadia. And, in fact, the charter signed between these two men appears to have the oldest-known mention of the Mirligaiche name.
Typically Mirligaiche appears to be referring to Lunenburg Bay, not Mahone Bay.
Claude Guidry de La Verdure is said to have lived from approximately 1686 to 1725 in Mirlegueche, Acadia, (present day Lunenburg), where he and his wife lived among the Mi'kmaq. He used the name La Verdure de Mirligueche, but that doesn’t mean the name was a French name, only that he lived there much of his life, and so was "of Mirlegueche." This is one reference to Lunenburg first being named Mirlegueche.
Separately, a book was written by Nicholas Denys, in 1672, (one of the big French players in NS after the Scots left). In it, the editor mentions Mirligaiche and Denys refers to it as Mirlegueche, which was likely just the French spelling of the Gaelic name Mirligaiche.
In the book’s footnotes, it mentions “Mirligaiche or Lunenburg Harbour.”
Denys words are translated as “Setting out from La Haive, and having rounded Cape D’ore about a league, one enters the Bay of Mirligaiche, which is about three leagues in depth, and filled by numerous islands.”
A footnote states “Mirligaiche is said to be the Micmac Indian name for Lunenburg Bay, still known to the older people (at that time). It first appears in a grant of 1630.” This is the very grant I mentioned above.
The paragraph about the grant refers to William Alexander and Charles de la Tour and reads, “He (de la Tour) married an English woman of standing, and became acquainted with Sir William Alexander, who was then endeavoring to colonize Acadia… Thinking he could induce his son, then at Port la Tour, also to join the English, he accepted from Alexander for himself and his son baronetcies of Nova Scotia and a joint grant, dated April 1630, of Acadia from Cape Fourchu to Mirlegash (Lunenburg).”
Denys also writes about touring the bay and, in French, states “You find the river of Mirliguesche who gives the name to this bay,” meaning one of the rivers dumping into the bay must have also been named Mirliguesche or Mirligaiche.
Elsewhere, an editor’s footnote states, “Our author is obviously here describing the Antigonish River, and I can only interpret Mirliguesche as a bad misprint for Articougnesche. This is confirmed both by his map and by his earlier remark (on page 137) that the name of the bay was Articougnesche.”
However, he is wrong! I can see no place where Denys did refer to Articougnesche on any page of his book. This does however remind me of Antigonish, the site of the oldest Highland Games outside of Scotland. A description for Antigonish reads, “Antigonish Scottish Gaelic: Am Baile Mor,” which I am fairly certain means “the large village.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia says, “The name derives from the Micmac Articougnesche ("where the bears tear branches off trees”).
Either way, Articougnesche is not to be confused with Mirligaiche. Still, both seem to be Scottish Gaelic names adopted by the Mi’kmaq. Perhaps by “bear” they meant Scotsmen tearing the branches off trees to create a large town.
There is an interesting source from 1916. It appears to have originally been published in 1895. It is from a book called “History of the County of Lunenburg.”
The text opens up the possibility that the original Mirligaiche did include Mahone Bay, which is supported by some early maps which seem to indicate the entire area of Mahone and Lunenburg Bays as being part of the general area being called Mirligaiche.
The book states:
"On the 3rd of January, 1757, it was decreed by the Governor and Council that until the Province was divided into counties, twelve members of Assembly should be elected for the Province at large, and ten for the townships, that of Lunenburg to have two; and it was resolved that the last-named township (Lunenburg) should 'comprehend all the lands lying between La Have River and the easternmost head of Mahone Bay, with all the islands within said bay, and all the islands within Mirliguash Bay, and those islands lying to the southward of the above limits.'"
In this case, the author is saying that the township of Lunenburg or Mirligaiche did, in fact, include Mahone Bay and its islands. Another book states that Mirligueche was the name for Lunenburg Bay, and that Mirligaiche was the name for Mahone Bay.
Above is a modern day map of the area around Oak Island. You'll note that I drew a red line due north from Lunenburg based exactly on, and parallel to, the longitudinal line on the map. The reason for this is that below I present a translation of the charter that Sir William Alexander gave to Claude de la Tour in 1630. It states that he was given Mirligaiche, spelled here as Mirliguesche, and the lands north for fifteen leagues, which equals approximately 50 miles.
New Ross is only about 26 miles from Lunenburg so it would definitely be part of la Tour's land grant. If you look closely at my red line, it appears to cut almost directly through Oak Island just east of Martin's Point. It also includes Gold River. So, although all of Mahone Bay may not have been considered as part of the Mirligaiche grant, it could be that Oak Island, Martin's Point, Gold River, and New Ross were. This may be the very first record of specific, personal ownership of Oak Island.
A land surveyor, in response to a posting I made on this, stated that it might be the case that the extension of 50 miles north was meant to be considered as 50 miles along the coastline. If this were true, and was added to the 1916 record, than there is reason to believe that Mahone Bay was originally part of Claude’s land grant of Miriligaiche, “part of the alliance” between the early French and the early Scots.
Even if we only went with a true north setting, it appears that at least Oak Island may have made it into the Miriligaiche grant. The thing is, there just wasn’t a lot of accuracy back then, and very few Europeans even lived in this area to contest Claude’s grant.
So it seems fair to say that there is a high likelihood that Oak Island, New Ross, and possibly all of Mahone Bay, were included in the original Miriligaiche grant, meaning that Claude’s charter would be the oldest known charter of Oak Island and New Ross.
Here's the charter info:
Letters patent from Sir William Alexander dated 30th April, 1630, a translation of which is found in the well-respected “Hazard's Historical Collections” (published in 1792), states that, "out of the respect and amitie which he beareth unto Sir Claude de Sainct Estienne, knight, lord of La Tour and of Vuarre, and unto Charles de Sainct Estienne, esq., lord of Sainct Denicourt, his sonne, the said Sir Claude de St. Etienne being present accepting, and by these presents stipulating for his said sonne Charles being absent, and for their heyres, and as well for the merit of their persons, and for their assistance to the better discovery of the said country, and upon other considerations, he Sir William Alexander gives to the said knight Latour and unto his said son and unto 'their heyres' &c., all the country, coasts and islands, from the cape and river of Ingogon, near unto the cloven cape, (Fourchu) in the said New Scotland, called the coast and country of Accadye, following the coast and island of the said countrey towards the East unto the Port de la Tour, formerly named L'Omeroy, and further beyond the said port following along the said coast unto Mirliguesche, near unto and beyond the port and cape of La Heve, drawing forward fifteen leagues, within the said lands towards the north, with power to build towns, forts, &c., erected and entitled by two baronies, namely, the Barrony of Sainct Etienne, and the Barrony of de la Tour, which may be limited and bounded equally between the said knight de la Tour, and his said sonne if they shall see cause, upon condition that the said knight de la Tour, and his said sonne, as he hath promised, and for his said sonne by these presents doth promise to be good and faithful vassals of the Sovereign lord the king of Scotland, and their heires and successors, and to give unto him all obedience and assistance to the reducing of the people of the country, &c.”
Although this flies in the face of the long-held belief that Mirligaiche was a Mi'kmaq name, there is a considerable amount of evidence that it was Scots Gaelic, and first referred to "part of the alliance" made between Sir William Alexander and Claude de la Tour.