If you were in our home at mealtime you were invited to stay…and many folks did. It was the way in Mum’s family home growing up in rural New Brunswick, and it was a practice she and my father honored the whole of their lives.
Saying that everyone is welcome at my table is one thing, delivering a tasty and nutritious meal for unknown number is another entirely. Mum depended upon stretchable one pot meals, soups, stews, and casserole, especially when visitors arrived.
One of the dishes she relied on is a Maritime and New England tradition, chowder. Mum’s chowder, usually clam but occasionally, seafood (mix of fish and shellfish) would be accompanied by a pan of fresh biscuits or a loaf of her homemade bread. I recall vividly the first time I ate clam chowder, it was in September 1968, I was 7 years old, it was also the first time I dug clams1.
It would be easy to assume everyone in the Maritime provinces or New England for that matter has equal access to good fish and seafood but it is not so. Those who live in the immediate vicinity of the sea shore have a huge seasonal advantage, one which endures despite freezer trawlers and overnight delivery.
When Rebecca MacDougall2, Nancy Ann McDougald and Màiri McAdam’s families left Scotland for St John’s island3 prior to 1800, like most others from the Highlands and Western Isles they were familiar with living near the sea. Some of the setters had been farmers others were sheep herders but they expected to farm in their new North American home.
The first sizable group of Scots to immigrate to what would become Prince Edward Island about 1770, were joining settlements of Mi’Kmaq, a small group of Acadians and a smattering of other nationalities. The only uninhabited shelter on the island were those abandoned by Acadians when they were forced to flee, some 20 years earlier. Despite the influence of the ocean their new home was a very different landscape from what they knew at home, trees stretched from hill top to seashore, there were no roads, and no basic services.
Rebecca’s family were among a group of protestant Scots from Argyle Scotland4 who settled on Malpeque bay5 about 1770. The Argyle settlers learned very early how precarious life in St John Island was, while on shore before they had been able to land their supplies a storm destroyed the ship and all of their belongings. The only thing which stood between them and death from starvation and exposure were the natural resources surrounding them and the generosity of the Mi’kmaq and Acadians who sheltered them, shared supplies, and helped the settlers become familiar with living, hunting and foraging for food in a new environment.
Laird MacDonald Of Glenalladale’s6 decision to acquire land on St John’s island, hire the Brig Alexander, fill it with supplies and settlers of the Western Highlands & Isles was inspired by upheaval. The previous half century or more the political and social structures of Scottish culture had been eroded as the British Crown quashed objection to union.
By 1771 the people of the Highlands had endured years of punishment for their support of a Scottish king. The forced conversion of Roman Catholic Gaels by protestant Landlords is associated with Glenaladale’s decision but it may be a tale borrowed from other locales, regardless McDonald recognized the need to improve life and opportunities for himself and others.
Laird MacDonald envisioned a return to more prosperous times through a familiar arrangement. Settlers would pay for their passage either directly or by indenturing themselves to McDonald. Once they arrived in St John Island they became farm tenants on his land. The fulfillment of McDonald’s property arrangement required him to settle the land and remit taxes from the lease of the lands to the Crown.
Ultimately, the planned community did not pan out quite as McDonald envisioned, the new world offered greater challenge, freedom and opportunity than anyone had anticipated. A core group of tenants did arrange long term leases with McDonald, others abandoned tenancy for good, preferring to purchase land or seek a land grant in other areas of the Maritimes. Many became farmers, others depended upon the sea for their livelihood.
Nancy’s parents began with a lease on McDonald land at lot 36, but ultimately purchased land at Savage Harbour7, where they farmed a seafront lot. The property provided ideal location, familiar neighbours like the MacEacherns8 and transportation access to their children and other kin who had settled in Cape Breton and elsewhere. Its location and access to the bounty of the ocean, clams, oysters, mussels, fish, etc was also no coincidence.
Màiri’s McAdam family were among the Roman Catholic families who arrived in St John’s island in the period between 1770 and 1800. Chain migration drew other Roman Catholic Scots to the island and to where their kin had settled. The early days of settlement relative isolation and absence of roads assured the communities of settlers had little interaction, and remained religious segregated.
Màiri and her husband Ailean McDougald (Nancy’s brother) moved to Cape Breton about 1814, joining a fledgling community at East Bay. Located on the Eastern end of the Bra D’or lake the community comprised of other Highland Gaelic speaking Scots, and already included Ailean’s sister Margaret Currie and family, and several of Màiri’s McAdam. Fear and suspicion which had challenged friends and neighbours at home lingered, and continued to divide Scots on both religion and language.
In the earliest years of settlement it was not possible to rely on paid employment, there was little in the way of commercial opportunity. If paid employment was available, time and effort still had to be applied to clearing land, building structures, cultivating land to assure care of livestock, tending gardens and procuring and processing wild food.
Màiri and Allan’s new home at Ben Eoin, was blessed with natural resources including fish, shell fish and water access to other locals. On their farm, they eventually grew oats, and other crops, like cabbage and potatoes. They raised sheep for wool, sows for food and cows for milk.
Like other families Màiri and her children played an important role in many of the homesteads tasks, most aspects of food provision particularly, fell to women and children. Some of the tasks were once or twice a day, like feeding and care of livestock. Other tasks were seasonal and necessary to benefit from the bounty of food in summer and where possible aid in supporting them over winter.
Nothing was wasted or squandered, having a cow meant having a source of milk, butter and even cheese, provided of course the woman had the skill, equipment and a strong back. The extra effort required to separate cream and make butter assured it was valued and used carefully.
Nancy was born about 20 years after her parents moved to St John’s Island, during the ensuing years change had begun to take hold in the once insular communities of the Island. The population grew quickly with the various waves of immigration, especially after the Revolutionary war and the arrival of Loyalists refugees. Even as competition for property grew, so too did economic opportunities in fishing, timber harvest and ship building.
Nancy did not follow the same path as her siblings…her sisters Mary and Margaret and her brother Ailean married in to families well known to the McDougalds. The McEachern, Curry, McAdam and McDougald families had shared history, hardship, culture, language and religion.
Nancy’s decision to marry John MacEachern9 was probably met with opposition from both families. The move of Highland families to the protestant religion, to the use of English instead of Gaelic and the letting go of other traditional ways of living had been a difficult road. It divided families and neighbours, it also engendered social and economic distinction between the two groups of Scottish settlers.
To a large extent those who adhered to the Roman Catholic faith, and who spoke primarily Gaelic had less economic power and standing with the authorities. How Nancy and John’s divided religious beliefs effected their lives is the matter of some speculation. We know the young couple purchased land in Lot 57 Queen’s county. Some speculate that John was not a natural farmer, others suggest the death of his mother severed an already troubled relationship with John’s siblings, leaving the young family vulnerable. Regardless the cause John and Nancy’s financial troubles would lead to the loss of their farm and their flight to Escuminac, New Brunswick. It did not however end their marriage, nor did it result in one or the other of them converting. Despite their financial struggles, despite tales of John’s intolerance for his wife beliefs they went on to have a large family, some of whom were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition while others were raised in the Presbyterian church.
The post Revolutionary war period saw growth in fishing and timber industries but also in the new venture shipbuilding. By the 1820s when John and Nancy were relocating to Escuminac the port of Miramichi was one of the top five busiest ports in North America. John did what he needed to do to feed his family, he was carpenter, seaman and finally river pilot. It is likely he continued to fished for both additional income and for food for their family.
By 1845 when Rebecca MacDougall was born on her parents Peter and Elizabeth’s farm in Blissfield, NB, her father Peter had already been living in New Brunswick for more than 25 years. Peter who had been born on Malpeque Bay10, St John Island would become a lumberman and farmer in central New Brunswick, as far from the seashore as one can get in Maritime Canada.
Rebecca grew up on the Miramichi River and although there are species of clams and mussels which grow in the Miramichi river system, they are not in great numbers or seen as a desirable food fishery. Oh there was fish…the world famous Atlantic Salmon teamed in the Miramichi River, but there is no local tradition of Salmon being eaten in chowder either. There is however a tradition of vegetable chowder being served with Atlantic Salmon10.
I can’t say for sure that Nancy, and Màiri made and ate seafood chowder, but they did eat what the ocean and seashore provided them. They dug clams, raked oysters and collected blue mussels, and like Rebecca they were expert at processing milk in to cream and butter. Of course the other primary ingredients in Chowder, potatoes and pork were familiar dietary staples, most families in the region had a sow or two and potatoes grew in every garden.
Clam and Seafood chowder comes is several styles…the variety made with bacon, potatoes, cream and butter is known as Maritime style seafood chowder. Of course every cook has their favourite recipe, some add thickeners like flour, some use the traditional ‘Maritime cream replacement’ canned condensed milk, others prefer the rich sweetness of full fat cream, and butter.
My Mother’s Cookbooks Maritime Seafood Chowder
3 slices of bacon / or 45 g of salt pork fat cut into small pieces
3 potatoes, peeled and pared to bit sized pieces (starchy varieties best)
1/2 cup(125mls) onion, peeled and chopped fine
2 cups (500mls) heavy cream
3 Tbsps (45ml) butter
2 Bay leaf
Salt and Pepper
2 lbs (~1 kg) total Shell fish (clams, mussels, etc.); Other fish (haddock, cod, scallops);
Lobster or snow crab – cooked, shell removed and meat chopped
1) Scrub and clean clam, mussel, oyster shells discard any broken shells or those which are opened and do not close when tapped;
2) Place the shell fish in a large pot with about 1 inch water; steam until the shells just open, remove immediately from the water and cool. Remove the meat from the shells and chop larger pieces in to bite size pieces. Decant the juices into a bowl being careful to avoid decanting any sediment in the bottom of the pot, and reserve;
3) Cook bacon in a skillet over med heat, remove bacon and all but 2 Tbsp of bacon fat, add onion and bay leaf saute until onion is tender about 3 minutes;
4) Add potatoes, salt and pepper to season the potatoes;
5) Add the juice from the steamed shell fish and enough water to just cover the vegetables; lay uncooked white fish and scallops on top of the veggies;
6) Bring to a boil, cover and turn to low, allow to cook for 4 minutes the scallops and fish should still have some opaqueness;
7) Add clams and other shellfish, cream, and butter to the pot;
8) Allow the chowder to simmer over low heat until the fish is no longer opaque DO NOT ALLOW TO BOIL;
9) Taste and adjust seasonings, remove bay leaf before serving.
- Advocate Harbour, NS became home to our family in 1968, located on the Bay of Fundy, the community is washed by the worlds highest tides, twice each day. At low tide the mud flats offer enterprising folks opportunity to dig soft shelled clams. Scallops are also found off the shores of Advocate and the entire Bay of Fundy. The Gulf shore of PEI, and Northumberland strait offers more varieties of clams, bar clams, quahogs, razor clams to name some of the varieties of shell fish.
- For purposes of this blog I use the following spellings to distinguish between families, McDougald refers to the Glenaladale settlers of that name; MacDougall refers to the Argyl family. McEachern refers to the Glenaladale family, which includes Mary McDougald McEachern who married into the Hugh Ban McEachern family. Nancy (Ann) McDougald married John MacEachern of Mull who came to St John’s Island in 1806 with his parents and siblings.
- Màiri is a Gaelic name which is translated in English to Mary, while Aliene is translated as Allan. It appears Mairi and Aliene spoke primarily Gaelic and used these spellings.
- Abegweit (Cradled on the waves) is what the Mi’kmaq called Prince Edward Island; the French named it St Jean’s Island; the British called it St John’s island until the name was changed to Prince Edward Island in 1799 in honor of the Duke of Kent.
- The MacDougall family arrived in St John’s Island from Argyl Scotland on board the Annabella in 1770, the group comprised of some 60 families(~200 individuals) settled on Malpeque Bay on the Western end of the Island. BTW – the worlds best Oysters are “Malpeques”!
- John MacDonald, 8th Laird of Glenaladale’s lands in PEI were comprised originally of Lot 36, in the Tracadie Bay area.
- Savage Harbour is a rural community in Queens County, PEI. Located on the Gulf coast the name relates to an early French name, the French later used the name Harve de l’angille (Eel Harbour) in honor of the Mi’kmaq eel fishery in the area.
- The Hugh Ban McEachern family were neighbours and kin, Mary McDougald married Ewan McEachern; a second son was Reverend Angus Bernard MacEachern, the First Bishop of the Diocese of Charlottetown and spiritual leader of the Glenaladale settlers and other Roman Catholics in the region.
- John McEachern family arrived in PEI, in 1806 with a group of protestant settlers. The McEachern family settled on lots in lot 57 Queens county, on the Northumberland strait.
- Rebecca MacDougall married widower Charles Walls. In addition to the family she and Charles had together Rebecca helped raise Charles’s family from his first marriage to Mary McKinnon, including my Great grandfather Benjamin Walls.
- The Island Register – https://www.islandregister.com/
- Rev Angus Bernard MacEachern – http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/maceachern_angus_bernard_6E.html
- Early settlement and social conditions in Prince Edward Island – https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/57212/dalrev_vol11_iss4_pp448_461.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- The settlement of PEI – https://electricscotland.com/history/canada/prince_edward.htm
- PEISSHS Alexander Committee 2022. “Glenalladale Settlers 1772 – Scotland to St John’s Island”: Charlottetown, PEI, Prince Edward Island Scottish Settlers Historical Society.
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.