Gateways Research

In the ten years since the Gateways Project began we have learned much about the last 500 year history of the Quebec Lower North Shore. Surprisingly little of this history is known from historical records. As in the case of Red Bay, Labrador, Basque and Inuit history between 1550 and 1750 has been obscured by more recent settlement and the disappearance of the original actors. The Basques who were the first Europeans to hunt and fish in the waters of southern Labrador never settled permanently and left no population to carry their traditions into the modern era. Likewise, the Inuit who ventured south from northern Labrador to trade and then raid and pillage Basque and later European establishments in the Strait of Belle Isle eventually disappeared and withdrew to central and northern Labrador. More than two hundred years passed before historians and archaeologists began to re-discover traces of the huge Basque whale fishery that was conducted seasonally at sites from Chateau to the inner Gulf of St. Lawrence. The same can be said of Inuit sites. Despite records of Inuit villages and camps reported by Joliet in 1694 along the southern Labrador coast, little solid archaeological evidence of Inuit settlement has been found south of Cartwright.

Until recently the same situation has been true of the northeastern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Basque whaling and fishing stations were present throughout the Gulf from 1550-1600 (Loewen and Delmas 2011). Only a few of these sites have been excavated or mapped, and none have been explored in detail. Only Red Bay has been investigated thoroughly (Tuck and Grenier 1989; Grenier et al. 2007), while only preliminary testing has been conducted at Basques sites at Middle Bay (Niellon 1986-89), Ȋles aux Basques, and Ȋle Nue in the Mingan Islands in the Gulf.

Gateways Project excavations at the Hare Harbor site at Petit Mécatina are the exception. For more than ten years our archaeological research, conducted jointly with the University of Montreal since 2006, has produced detailed information on Basque and Inuit occupations of the LNS spanning ca. 1580-1730. Two Basque occupations are recognized; one dating to the late 16th century appears to be a small Basque camp while a second occupation, dating ca. 1700, involved charcoal production, a cookhouse and blacksmith shop and extensive underwater deposits. Associated with this second occupation (probably by French Basques) we have evidence of several Inuit houses filled with Basque/European materials, dating to the same time period.

Prehistory at Hare Harbor

Our excavations have also uncovered evidence of 5000 years of sporadic prehistoric occupations. On boulder beaches on the south side of Petit Mecatina we found the remains of multi-roomed longhouses similar to those discovered in central and northern Labrador. These camps belonged to Maritime Archaic Indians who fished and hunted seals 4000-5000 years ago. Their camps are now many meters above current sea level and consisted of small 3x4 meter compartments strung together in a line parallel to the shore, each with a small fireplace in its center. Outside the rooms of this linear ‘apartment house’ we found small conical cache pits where they stored their food, which probably consisted of harp seals caught during the early winter when they migrate along this coast just as the sea ice is forming. One of their stemmed spear points made of Ramah chert was found at Hare Harbor. Two thousand years later, ca. 2500-2200 years ago, small groups of Groswater Paleoeskimos camped here, leaving a few flint tools and axe fragments around hearths they used for cooking and heating. Probably their visit was little more than a lunch-stop, for only a few tools were found, and no remains of their summer tents or winter houses. Groswater tools are beautiful, gem-like implements made from chert originating in Newfoundland. These were the first Eskimo people to appear in the Gulf, and they arrived during a cold climate period that brought Arctic ice and sea mammals into the northern Gulf.

Several artifacts belonging to Groswater successors—the Dorset culture, another Paleoeskimo people—have also been found. Appearing several hundred years later than Groswater, their tools were made of Ramah chert from far northern Labrador. Few traces of Dorset culture are known from the LNS, although they maintained large populations in Newfoundland, especially at Port Aux Choix where their major quarry was harp seal.

Basques Arrive

After Dorset visits Hare Harbor remained unoccupied for more than one thousand years until Basque whalers arrived and set up camps on the upper beaches in the late 16th C. Beneath a thick layer of roof tiles left by Basques a century later we found small fire-places containing fragments of Spanish Basque earthenware cooking pots known as marmites. These hearths were soaked in grease. One of the hearths contained a small iron fishhook and another was surrounded by a pavement of whale baleen. The Basques who camped here were whalers, but they must have used other locations for boiling blubber and casking oil, as no blubber furnaces were present.

Joint Enterprise

Some decades later a new group—most likely French Basques—arrived and returned year after year for several decades in the late 17th century. They torching the spruce forest and set up sheds which they roofed over with clay tiles. Each summer they brought new tiles to renew those that had broken up during the winter frost. Living aboard their ships, they discarded their ballast rock and trash into the harbor, and over time a deep midden dump accumulated around huge lenticular piles of ballast stones that formed at right angles from the shore. Apparently the Basque ships were moored with a bowline ashore and a stern anchor out in the harbor. Small stone piles were from smaller ships while the larger ships anchored in the central spot, building up several huge underwater ballast piles.

As our University of Montreal divers excavated these middens which had been preserved by the near-freezing Labrador Current water, they found a sequence of levels that revealed the history of the Basque activities. The lowest level contained bones of large whales, mostly Arctic bowhead whales. Today bowheads—an ice-adapted species—are found mostly in Arctic waters, but during the 17th C. they ranged farther south due to the ‘expanded Arctic’ of the Little Ice Age (15-18th C). In one location where whales were tied along shore to be butchered we found the articulated bones of a bowhead flipper. A second layer was filled with axe- and adze-cut wood and bark remnants, debris resulting from timber preparation and charcoal production. A third layer was filled with fish, bird, and mammal bones, but mostly of codfish that had been processed for the European trade. A wide range of sea birds and ducks, geese, small mammals, seals, and the occasional European domesticate, along with the pits of prunes, cherries and other fruit preserves. All levels contained broken roof tiles, Basque cooking pots, and in a surprising find, a cluster of three chafing dishes for warming soup and other meals. We also recovered woven grass matting, leather garments and shoes, and a killick—a makeshift anchor made of a wood framework encasing a large ballast rock.

Excavations on shore revealed a more complex picture, made even more so because the warm temperatures and acid soil conditions did not preserve organic remains. In one location we found a rough stone pavement covered with roof tiles and large iron spikes (the remains of a work shed) as well as Normandy stoneware, glass beads and clay tobacco pipes. These materials date a century later than the earlier Basque occupation. We also found the remains of several Inuit soapstone oil lamps and pots which could only have been supplied by Inuit women. The rough floor and large fire-pit suggest this structure was a cook-house or bath-house that was operated for the Basque whalers by Inuit women. Nearby we found a similar rough stone-paved floor that served as a blacksmith shop. Here we found large amounts of charcoal, bars of un-forged stock-iron, gun parts, a hammer, and the prong of a broken iron anchor.

Beneath the blacksmith shop floors was an Inuit winter house whose floor was paved with Basque barrel staves and whose distinctive Inuit entrance passage and doorway was intact. Here we found pieces of an Inuit boy’s bow and arrow and a girl’s toy soapstone lamp, together with a wooden workbox. This house was destroyed by fire before the blacksmith shop was built on its remains.

Two other Inuit houses were found a few meters from the cook-house and blacksmith shop. One was partially constructed and abandoned before being used. The second was a large rectangular dwelling with a 4-5 meter entry passage, lintel door and carefully paved interior. At the rear was a sleeping platform made of nailed planks. A large oil stain marked the place for the stone lamp, and fragments of soapstone cooking pots were found nearby. On the threshold inside the door was a large bag of iron nails and an iron axe. No Inuit would have left these treasures by accident, so their abandonment may have some ritual meaning. Caches of broken soapstone pots found behind the house suggest ritual disposal since Inuit women believed that their stone lamps and pots represented protective spirits of family and home. Outside the door of this house we excavated a midden that contained the same types of materials found inside the dwelling: earthenware and Normandy stoneware, home-made lead fishing weights made from ship’s sounding weights; glass beads, clay piles, lead musket balls, nails, spikes, iron knives, and other materials, including the base of a slate flensing tool of a type used by prehistoric Thule Inuit culture during the 16th century. All of the European materials were similar to objects recovered from the blacksmith and cook-house shops and from the underwater midden.

Whales, Cod-fish, Timber, and Charocal

Hare Harbor represents a microcosm of the early history of the Lower North Shore and was visited sporadically by Maritime Archaic Indians, Groswater and Dorset Paleoeskimos. Its first European visitors were 16th century Spanish Basque whalers who camped only briefly. In the late 17th C. Inuit and French Basques appear to have occupied the site at the same time. After a conflagration burned the first Inuit winter dwelling, a blacksmith shop was built on its remains and a cook- or wash-house was erected, operated—it seems—by Inuit women as service for the European whalers and cod-fishermen.

In addition to fishing, whaling, and domestic services, Inuit assisted with a local charcoal production enterprise. These Inuit lived nearby in a large dwelling whose walls were constructed of sod, stone and whalebones embedded in thick layers of pure charcoal produced from local conifers, alder, and birch. Because no shore-based try-works have been found, charcoal was probably to fuel ship-board blubber try-works. Another by-product may have been timber as revealed in the underwater midden. The Inuit house was built from excess charcoal which we found in deep beds at the base of the cliff where it had been produced in charcoal-pits and open boulder hearths.

Hare Harbor is a unique site with a long history of occupation by many different cultures. Located at the southern extreme of the Arctic/Subarctic maritime zone, its resources were suitable for both Indian and early Eskimo/Inuit peoples, depending on prevailing climate conditions. During cold periods it was occupied by Eskimos/Inuit and in warmer times by Indians. After Europeans arrived collaboration developed with Inuit during the latter Basque occupation, including whaling, fishing, timbering, and charcoal production. Inuit, newly arrived in the Gulf in the 1600s, faced opposition from former Innu resident, and the Basque stations in the late 17th C. were always subject to raids by rival European groups. An alliance between a group of Inuit and French Basques proved beneficial to both parties. In return for cooperating with the Basque fishery, timbering and charcoal work, the Inuit serving as ‘site-guards’ during the winter and spring when the operators returned to Europe. For these services, the Inuit received copious amounts of valuable European goods and materials, while at the same time maintaining their tradition Inuit culture and beliefs in a bountiful, but socially-dangerous environment. By the early 1730s violent attacks and predations on the LNS Inuit reached a point that many Inuit were killed and those that survived migrated by north to Labrador or became absorbed into the growing population of European settlers.