Is 'mouse' a mistake? Reconsidering the origin of the name of Souris, P.E.I.

·8 min read
The story goes that Souris was named by early Acadian settlers when a plague of mice invaded the area. But Jason MacGregor believes that could be a fanciful myth. (Kevin Baillie - image credit)
The story goes that Souris was named by early Acadian settlers when a plague of mice invaded the area. But Jason MacGregor believes that could be a fanciful myth. (Kevin Baillie - image credit)

When Jason MacGregor came home to Souris, P.E.I., to weather the pandemic last year, the journalist and communications officer dug into some research on subjects that interested him — one of those being the origins of the name of the town.

Was Souris really named for mice?

Historians have long held that it is likely. Plagues of mice blanketed the Island and were noted in the early 1700s, when Acadian settlers arrived. Souris is French for mouse. But there is no direct evidence that Souris was definitely named for mice, or that the plagues of mice were particular to the town.

"A couple of months ago I was reading about Mi'kmaq history and this one word popped out: Sourisquois," said MacGregor via Zoom from Oxford, England.

"I thought — that's funny, it sounds very similar to Souris, the town I'm from. And I thought maybe there was a connection there and one thing led to another, and there was."

Duke University Press
Duke University Press

"Through researching this word Sourisquois, it seems apparent to me that it's more likely where the town and the area takes its name — Sourisquois being synonymous with Mi'kmaq, going back to the very earliest days of European exploration to the new world," he said. "That's what the Basque fishers called the Mi'kmaq or the coastal tribes in this part of the continent."

Piecing these parts of the story together, MacGregor believes, creates a more credible theory behind the town's name.

"I wonder how much thought the town council or people from Souris have given the town's name?" he mused. "It's a bold marketing move, to name your town after a mouse!"

MacGregor has published his thoughts in an article on his blog called Souris: Of Mice and Mi'kmaq.

'A little puzzled by Souris as a place name'

The mascot for the Town of Souris is a cute mouse named Morgan. Its newsletter is called Mouse Tales. CBC News talked with Souris Mayor Jo-Anne Dunphy for her take on MacGregor's article, but she said neither she nor any of the councillors was yet up to speed on the topic.

Submitted by Jason MacGregor
Submitted by Jason MacGregor

UPEI history Prof. Ed MacDonald has read MacGregor's article, however, and weighed in with his thoughts via email: in a nutshell, he believes it is more likely the name Souris did come from the plagues of mice than the word Sourisquois.

"I've always been a little puzzled by Souris as a place name, since it was not settled during the French regime," MacDonald said.

"On the other hand, A) the Basques were more active in the northern half of the Gulf than the southern. B) As far as I know there are no Basque names on any extant early map of P.E.I., which suggests that if they were here and did name things, that their names didn't persist. If so, why would Souris survive? I do a map assignment involving early maps of the Island, and the earliest ones I use feature place names that don't persist into the French settlement period, other than versions of East Point and North Cape."

MacDonald believes the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct.

"We had serious outbreaks of mice — plagues of mice — during the French era and right up until c. 1815. Souris is the French word for mouse. One plus one doesn't always equal two, but usually it does. What seems more likely to you? An abbreviated version of a longer word referring to Indigenous peoples or a word in the appropriate language for the period that commemorates an event that registered very strongly in contemporary accounts?" MacDonald said.

Similarly, Mi'kmaw historian and archivist Tammy MacDonald, who works with L'nuey, said she has not uncovered any historical evidence to support MacGregor's theory, and has told him so in an email.

"I am familiar with the term 'Souriquois' as used in early writings by the Jesuits (early 1600s).… Historically, the use of that term to refer to the Mi'kmaq stopped being used before the coming of European settlers to P.E.I. (first Acadian settlers and the French military came in 1720)," she said.

"We have many, many documents from the time period leading up to and including 1758 and beyond. The word used [for the Indigenous population], and spelling was, approximately: Mikmaks and sauvages during that time period," she said.

She points out the Mi'kmaq have called P.E.I. home for more than 12,000 years, and there are documented references to Mi'kmaq campsites in the Souris area, as well as many other parts of P.E.I.

A different theory

"I think it's quite possible that Souris was not named after mice," said leading P.E.I. Acadian historian Georges Arsenault, via Zoom from his home in Charlottetown.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

Arsenault points out the person who wrote most about the invasions of mice was Jean-Pierre Roma, who settled at Three Rivers in 1732, and Roma didn't call the mice souris — he referred to them as mulot.

Arsenault calls MacGregor's theory "interesting," but says it needs more and better proof.

He has a completely different theory on the origins for the name Souris: that it comes from the French word echouerie, which is marked on around what is now called Basin Head on some of the earliest maps of the area.

Echouerie meant a place where walruses and seals basked — both used to be plentiful in that area, until over-harvesting spelled the end of the walrus population by about 1800. The word echouerie appears as early as the 1730s on maps of P.E.I. in the area.

He has come up with an answer that no one else has before. — Reg Porter

By 1752 a census-taker noted that he went through Havre á la Souris, or Souris Bay (what is now known as Colville Bay in Souris). Arsenault points out that if early map-makers had meant to reference plagues of mice, they should have made that description plural — Havre au Souris — not the singular Havre á la Souris.

"My theory now would be ... Souris ... is a misunderstanding of the word echouerie," Arsenault said. He adds French people at the time didn't refer to Mi'kmaq people as Souriquois, but rather sauvages.

Gallica
Gallica

"I think at one point people just got mixed up," he said.

Does Arsenault think Souris should change the way it refers to the origin of its name?

"They could give both interpretations," of mice and echouerie, Arsenault suggests.

'He did bite off a lot'

MacGregor's theory gets perhaps the warmest welcome from historian Reg Porter, who has lately been digging into early maps of P.E.I. on his blog.

"I think it's really wonderful when people turn their eyes on their communities, especially when there are inconsistencies," Porter said. "I don't think anyone has ever been satisfied with the mouse explanation."

Creating meaningful change means paying homage to the area's original inhabitants, the Mi'kmaq. — Jason MacGregor

Porter believes Arsenault's echouerie theory, which appears several times on the old maps, is more likely than the plagues of mice explanation. But he is willing to entertain MacGregor's theory too — he just thinks it needs work.

"He makes a good argument in his post," Porter said. "I think it's interesting and worthy of further consideration, but I do not think he answers the question of what the origin of Souris is."

Mapandmaps/EBay
Mapandmaps/EBay

MacGregor's work is new and important, Porter said, and he thinks it at least belongs in the pile of possibilities.

"He did bite off a lot, but I'm extremely happy that he did," Porter said. "He has come up with an answer that no one else has before."

Porter hopes MacGregor's article engenders discussion around the topic of the origins of Souris.

"I think we have not heard the end of that story," he concludes.

'Shattered and forgotten'

MacGregor said he's not sure history will ever provide the tools to prove his theory.

"I think it might be lost to history, history is never clean-cut ... especially nuanced history, with the overthrowing of regimes," he said.

However, he posits that even if the origin of the name Souris remains unclear, in the spirit of reconciliation people could decide to honour the Mi'kmaq people who were stewards of the land for thousands of years, rather than a mouse.

"Creating meaningful change means paying homage to the area's original inhabitants, the Mi'kmaq of Epekwitk, who knew the land first and respected it for thousands of years only to have that history shattered and forgotten," his article concludes.

"If the origin of how the Town of Souris got its name is unclear — and even if we can't confirm that the name is derived from Souriquois, shouldn't that Mi'kmaq past take precedence?"

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