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Reconsidering Inuit presence in southern Labrador

  • Marianne P. Stopp

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This paper reconsiders the century-old question of Inuit presence south of Hamilton Inlet and the contention that it was a short-term presence for the purpose of trading with Europeans. To date, neither archaeological remains nor English-language archival data have supported a model of Labrador Inuit settlement between Hamilton Inlet and the Gulf of St. Lawrence (variously referred to as the study area, the south, or the southern region; Figure 1). English-language archival documents pertaining to Inuit presence in the study area post-date 1763, following the Treaty of Paris and the transfer of Labrador from the French to the British. About a dozen English references to Inuit in the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland exist, dating between 1620-1763, and provide supplementary evidence of Inuit presence in the Strait of Belle Isle (Martijn 2001).

The received interpretation of Inuit presence in the study area has been of itinerant Inuit who travelled to southern Labrador to obtain European materials. This idea was first introduced by W. G. Gosling (1910: 18), who stated that Inuit did not appear in the Strait of Belle Isle until the late 1500s, and then only to obtain European goods. The basis of Gosling’s argument was the dearth of clear references to Inuit in documents relating to early exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (see also Taylor 1974: 6). An opposing view was suggested at that time by E. W. Hawkes (1916: 16), who asserted that Inuit were occupying the southern Labrador region by the mid-1500s and were present until the early 1700s, when increasing European pressures forced them northwards.

In 1980, an important series of articles published in Études/Inuit/Studies and edited by C. Martijn and N. Clermont advanced archival, archaeological, cartographic, and toponymic data to delineate Inuit presence along the Québec North Shore as early as the sixteenth century. The primary purpose of these papers was to address nineteenth and early twentieth century speculations regarding the southern extent of Thule / Inuit settlement. Although the contributors to this volume suggested differing degrees of settlement, there was general consensus that Inuit presence in the south occurred as early as the sixteenth century and that it decreased / moved northwards with European expansion in the mid- to late eighteenth century (Clermont 1980; Martijn 1980a; 1980b; Martijn and Clermont 1980a, 1980b; for contra argument cf. Taylor 1980; Trudel 1980; and response by Martijn 1980b; see also Trudel 1978; Auger 1991).

Despite the evidence compiled in the 1980 publication, the idea that Inuit had settled in the study area remained speculative. Gosling’s earlier thesis seemed to be supported both by archaeological remains of Inuit settlements found in Hamilton Inlet and an apparent lack of such evidence in the region between Hamilton Inlet and the North Shore. The absence of Inuit settlement in the south became a working assumption among archaeologists / anthropologists and was articulated in statements such as: "Inuit winter houses have not been uncovered on either the Labrador or Newfoundland shores of the Strait of Belle Isle […] this suggests that the Inuit ventured south of Hamilton Inlet only during the summer months" (Jordan 1977: 43); and "the Inuit who frequented the posts and fishing harbors of southern Labrador [between 1700-1763] […] were temporary visitors who returned each fall to their winter homes in the north" (Taylor 1984: 509). Potential evidence of Inuit south of Hamilton Inlet, when found, was considered cautiously. Pastore and Auger (1984: 55), for instance, tentatively interpreted a Twin Island sod house as a possible short-stay Inuit structure. Similarly, Stopp (Stopp and Rutherford 1991: 26) suggested that George Cartwright’s (1792: 162) citing of "two old winter-houses of the Esquimaux" near today’s William’s Harbour must be evidence of Late Paleoeskimo occupation rather than Inuit.

Figure 1

Place names referred to in the text

Place names referred to in the text

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The 1980 Études/Inuit/Studies publication nevertheless heralded a small but developing roster of archaeological inquiry into southern presence of Inuit. In 1986, excavation of a sod house structure at Seal Islands, near Chateau Bay, yielded evidence of late eighteenth century Inuit presence in the form of a sleeping platform and a small sample of artifacts, together with European materials (Auger 1991, 1993, 1994). In the early 1990s, two further sod houses at Belles Amours Bay, on the Québec North Shore, proved to be early eighteenth century Inuit dwellings with entrance tunnels, sleeping platforms, and a soapstone fragment, as well as European material (Dumais and Poirier 1994).

In this paper I consider the question of Inuit occupation south of Hamilton Inlet from two perspectives. I have compiled two lines of evidence, archival data and archaeological remains, in order to examine the nature and extent of Inuit settlement of that region. For the archival evidence, I have provided a chronologically tabulated summary (Table 1) of the relevant material, some of which has not been readily available to English-language researchers. Much of this material was originally referred to in Martijn and Clermont, eds (1980). These documents constitute an important source material for any study of Inuit in Labrador and each contributes to the question of the nature and extent of Inuit presence. The original sources should be consulted by researchers wishing to develop context or interpretation. To address the gap in the archaeological evidence for the coastal region between Hamilton Inlet and Blanc Sablon, I have compiled a listing of sites that are both high probability evidence of Inuit presence (Table 2), and others that should be considered as potential evidence of Inuit and merit further investigation (Table 3). These data were primarily collected during three surveys of southern Labrador conducted in 1986, 1991, and 1992 (Auger and Stopp 1986; Stopp 1995, 1997).

Following these two lines of evidence, the archaeological and the archival, I question long-held premises about Inuit presence in southern Labrador, such as the idea that it can be explained by the lure of European goods; that it was of a seasonal, impermanent nature; and, consequently, that the southern region did not constitute an Inuit land use area like that of northern Labrador. I do not comment on the chronology of Inuit expansion and retreat, which has been discussed in Martijn and Clermont, eds (1980) and which can only be developed by further archaeological investigation.

The year 1763 is used as a research baseline for the archival data. In that year the Treaty of Paris ceded to the English the formerly held French regions of Labrador and much of western Newfoundland. By the mid-1700s Inuit had already been largely supplanted from the Gulf and the Straits region by European enterprise and settlement and had settled in the Island of Ponds area, Sandwich Bay, Hamilton Inlet and northwards. The descriptions of several hundred Inuit appearing in the Chateau Bay area (probably from summer camps in the Island of Ponds area) to trade in the early 1770s (Cartwright 1792; Moravian Mission Paper 1962) do not recur after 1773. By 1774, the Quebec Act reopened Labrador to year-round merchant enterprise and settlement, further inhibiting Inuit settlement in the south.

The following sections are organized around descriptions and discussions of the archival material, the archaeological material, and of the nature of Inuit occupancy. The archival evidence for Inuit south of Hamilton Inlet is illuminating both with reference to the extent of Inuit presence in the study area and the nature of Inuit occupation. The archaeological evidence, while preliminary, supports the picture of multi-season settlement suggested by the archival documents. Existing interpretations of Inuit settlement as permanent or linked to specific regions is reconsidered in light of the archival and archaeological material and with respect to northeastern subarctic forager adaptation.

Description of the archival evidence

Table 1 is a chronologically organized conspectus of documentary accounts of Inuit in the study area, compiled mostly from French-language sources. Relevant transcriptions are cited in the table itself. I have restricted the data in Table 1 to references that are most likely of Inuit south of Hamilton Inlet and have omitted several early descriptions (see Clermont 1980; Martijn 1980a) whose cultural affiliation or location of observation remain uncertain. This is not to say that earlier contacts did not occur, or that all contacts were recorded. With continuing documentary research, we are developing a better picture of Aboriginal / European contacts in the St. Lawrence / coastal Labrador region. Turgeon et al. (1992: 155) have shown that European (French, Basque, English, Portuguese, and Spanish) whaling and fishing in the St. Lawrence region increased exponentially between 1540-1590: "Far from being a marginal resource area visited by a few fishers, sixteenth century northeastern America was one of the great maritime regions of the age and one of the key resource areas for Europe in the New World."

Trade with Native peoples was considered an essential part of early voyages and was fuelled by European need for such commodities as furs, seal oil, whale oil, baleen, whale bone, walrus oil and tusks (Barkham 1980; Cell 1969; Turgeon and Picot-Bermond 1987; Turgeon et al. 1992). For instance, in 1585 at least four ships departed from Bordeaux for the whale fishery, salmon, and "traficq avec des Sauvages" in "Canada pays de terreneufve" (Turgeon and Picot-Bermond 1987: 17). Cell (1969: 49) writes of a Basque vessel captured by the British in 1591 with a tell-tale cargo of fish, train oil, and "greate Store of Riche Fures as beavers, martrenes [sic], otters and many other Sortes" — part of a booty that inspired an expansion of British efforts in northeastern North America. The Dutch Northern Company became a presence in waters north of the Strait of Belle Isle in the mid-1600s, and was mandated to hunt whales and trade. An increase in Dutch presence followed a 1616 reconnaissance voyage on which Jorus Carolus, map-maker and first mate, made an accurate map of coastal Labrador and Davis Strait (Krupp and Hart 1976). These observations represent but a small percentage of the trade carried out between Europeans and Indigenous groups, much of it never documented.

The earliest definite description of Inuit from the region of "Terra Nova" appears in a 1566 printed flyer from Augsburg depicting an Inuit woman and girl (Sturtevant 1980; also Martijn 1980a: 107). The earliest clear reference to Inuit in the Strait of Belle Isle dates to 1588 and describes a skirmish between St. Malo fishermen and Inuit who crossed the Straits to Quirpon Island, and resulted in the death of an Inuit woman (Table 1). The following sub-sections discuss both the nature and extent of Inuit presence as described in the archival documents.

The extent of Inuit presence as indicated by the archival sources

The extent of Inuit presence as suggested by the archival sources listed in Table 1 reaches westward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far as Mingan, northeastward to Sandwich Bay. Jolliet’s 1694 voyage along the Labrador shore provided descriptions of Inuit encampments at Mecatina, St. Paul River (called Rivière des Esquimaux by Jolliet), Cape St. Charles (sometimes referred to as Pointe de Detour), the area between St. Lewis Inlet and Cape St. Francis, in the Island of Ponds area, and in the Sandwich Bay region. Jolliet produced the first detailed survey of this coast from the Strait of Belle Isle to Zoar (although he passed from Belles Amours Bay to Chateau Bay noting only sailing directions).

In the early 1700s Pierre Constantin and Sieur Augustin de Courtemanche recorded Inuit settlement at Baie des Haha, St. Paul’s River, Brador, Blanc Sablon, and Forteau. Father Camille de Rochemonteix wrote letters between 1700 to 1710 that contain descriptions of Inuit in the Strait of Belle Isle, and Courtemanche’s successor, his son-in-law Francois Martel de Brouage, recorded numerous encounters between Inuit and French between Cape Degrat, at the northern tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, southwestward to Mecatina in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Louis Fornel, who was in charge of the Chateau Bay post for de Brouage, made a 1743 voyage along the coastal stretch between Alexis Bay and Hamilton Inlet, an area that was referred to as La Coste des Eskimaux. This was distinguished from the coastline south of Cape Charles, which was referred to as Labrador and was populated by French and Jerseyian fishing stations (see Niellon 1996: 173; Trudel 1978: Table 1). Fornel observed Inuit settlement in the St. Michael’s Bay area, the Hawke Bay area, and the Island of Ponds area.

In 1765, by which time Inuit seem to have been living in the Spotted Islands region and northwards, the Moravian Brethren were able to compile a map of Inuit toponyms for locations south of Hamilton Inlet as far as Hawkes Bay. The toponyms attest to Inuit knowledge and settlement of this coastline, and included names for Sandwich Bay (Aviktume or The Parting Place); the island archipelago at the mouth of Sandwich Bay (Karaluliktut or Seal Islands); Cape North and Grady Islands area (Kikertauiak or Cape Islands); the Island of Ponds area (Kikertet or The Many or Thousand Islands); and possibly Porcupine Bay (Ekeresauit or The Narrow Passage — alternatively, this could refer to Squasho Run) (Figures 2 and 3). As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, the ethnographer E. W. Hawkes (1916: 24) was able to identify Inuit groups still living at two of these places: Inuit who resided in the Sandwich Bay were known as "Netce-tu-miut," the Sealing-Place People; further to the south, at Battle Harbour, lived an Inuit group named "Pu-tla-va-miut" (no translation).

As the sources cited in Table 1 indicate, there is evidence of Inuit throughout the southern region between the late-sixteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. This is the conclusion initially drawn in Martijn and Clermont, eds (1980). The table makes it clear that documented references to Inuit in the south are not anomalous and do not suggest rare appearances. Indeed, during the early 1700s and again in the 1760s, Inuit appeared in sufficiently large numbers that both Sieur Courtemanche and later Governor Hugh Palliser took measures to discourage their presence (Courtemanche had a small army of soldiers and Montagnais, while Palliser applied a gentler approach through Moravian intervention). Inuit toponyms point to enduring links with the coastal area south of Hamilton Inlet, although by 1765 Inuit had ceased to inhabit the coast south of Chateau Bay. Further underscoring the long-term nature of Inuit presence in the south is the form of pidgin communication that Inuit used when initiating trading interactions. This trade language, an amalgam of Inuktitut, Basque, French, Breton and even Montagnais elements, appears to have been the lingua franca of the Strait of Belle Isle and North Shore regions from as early as the sixteenth century (Bakker 1991, 1996; Dorais 1980, 1996). Louis Fornel, for instance, was greeted in the vicinity of St. Michael’s Bay with "Camara Troquo balena, non Characo," which he understood as "I am your friend, let us truck whale, not fight" (Roy 1942: 209).

The nature of Inuit presence as indicated by the archival sources

What does the archival material tell us about Inuit occupancy in the south? The nature of Inuit presence can be understood through four lines of evidence developed from Table 1, including seasonality and duration of settlement, social groupings, the tenor of Inuit encounters with Europeans, and the range of activities suggested by descriptions of encampments.

Seasonality: Various sources listed in Table 1 present clues to seasonality through descriptions of house types. Cold season sod houses are described in a 1659 reference for the North Shore, and in 1694 by Jolliet between Mecatina and Table Bay. Sieur de Courtemanche noted sod structures at Baie des Haha in 1702, and in 1709 Rochemonteix noted that Inuit resided in sod houses during cold weather. Further references to sod houses along the Québec North Shore occur in 1722, 1728, and 1732. References to Inuit overwintering in the southern region are also found, such as a 1752 reference to snow houses in several bays along the North Shore. Interestingly, there are fewer references to warm season habitations, namely tents, than one might expect from an historical situation where Europeans were mainly active along the coast during summer. But Louis Jolliet and Louis Fornel each noted that Inuit inhabited skin-covered tents, and warm season residency is suggested by the many references to Inuit during fishing seasons between 1588-1743.

Figure 2

Moravian map of 1765 showing Inuit toponyms for coastline between Hamilton Inlet and Hawke Bay (from Lysaght 1971: Figure 41).

Moravian map of 1765 showing Inuit toponyms for coastline between Hamilton Inlet and Hawke Bay (from Lysaght 1971: Figure 41).

Placenames detailed in Figure 3.

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Figure 3

Name index to 1765 Moravian map of Inuit toponyms (see Figure 2) (from Lysaght 1971: Figure 41).

Name index to 1765 Moravian map of Inuit toponyms (see Figure 2) (from Lysaght 1971: Figure 41).

The numbers in the far left column (also shown on the map, but as small figures) refer to placenames. Placenames in the area of Kikertet include 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36; in Aviktume: 10, 26, 27, 28, 29; in Arbatok: 22, 23, 24, 25. Remaining names pertain to Hamilton Inlet.

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Table 1

Pre-1763 documentary evidence of Inuit and Inuit-European encounters in southern Labrador

Pre-1763 documentary evidence of Inuit and Inuit-European encounters in southern LabradorPre-1763 documentary evidence of Inuit and Inuit-European encounters in southern Labrador

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Social groupings: The people living at the various encampments described in the archival records generally consisted of entire families. One notable exception is a 1720 reference by Brouage to a possible trading party of 60 Inuit males on Île au Bois, in Blanc Sablon harbour — a time and region in which hostilities between French and Inuit were particularly pronounced. Family groupings correspond well with a picture of occupancy. Additionally, the large groupings of Inuit observed throughout the period in question, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, suggest an established presence. Courtemanche and Brouage repeatedly noted large numbers of Inuit during the summer; Jolliet refers to a "village" of Inuit in Table Bay that was represented by at least 16 kayaks and two shallops; in the area of St. Michael’s Bay, Fornel noted a group of Inuit represented by six kayaks and three shallops, while in the Hawkes Bay area he recorded nine kayaks and one shallop of women and children. Taylor (1974: 18) shows that for late-eighteenth century Inuit encampments north of Hamilton Inlet, the average size of the July / August summer camp was much larger (157.7 persons per camp) than at other times of the year (36.3 persons / camp in sod houses; 29.4 persons / camp in snow houses; 26.7 persons / camp in spring tent camps; and 38.2 persons / camp in late-summer tent camps). The largest groupings of Inuit mentioned in the documents, those numbering to several hundred, may have been a coalescence of several encampments. Their purpose may have been for strength in numbers during trade encounters, or may have corresponded with periods of seal migration, as when Courtemanche noted hundreds of Inuit at Forteau and Blanc Sablon in October of 1716. There is some evidence that winter encampments consisted of only a few sod or snow houses and were inhabited by entire families. Although exact numbers are difficult to determine, this too corresponds with Taylor’s (1974) figures from northern Labrador. Comparison of Taylor’s data with that of Table 1 is limited due to the absence of numbers for the latter, but there appears to be a general correspondence between settlement patterning and size in the south and that of northern Labrador. The presence of entire families in the south, through both the warm and cold season, and their distribution throughout the study area, also suggests occupancy rather than temporary visits.

Inuit / European relations: The archival sources clearly indicate that the tenor of European and Inuit relations was contentious, and that conflict often erupted during attempts at trade. This runs counters to what one might expect in a situation of established, long-term trade. The many disputes with the Inuit were, nevertheless, one of the chief reasons for documentation of an Inuit presence in the study area. Brouage, for instance, diligently reported altercations in hopes of convincing French authorities that the North Shore region required armed vessels to protect the success of the fishery. From the beginning of the seventeenth century and for another 150 years, references to Inuit are common in French documents, particularly for the southern Strait of Belle Isle; invariably, they recount hostile relations. Even Jolliet’s and Fornel’s relatively peaceable meetings with Inuit were overshadowed by cautionary measures on both sides. Between 1705-1717, Courtemanche had little success in developing trade relations, managing only small-scale exchanges. By 1728, his successor François Martel de Brouage had recorded another decade of hostilities, and after 1728 the French succeeded in displacing Inuit northwards. No further mention is made of Inuit along the Québec North Shore (Martijn 1980a: 120) until the nineteenth century when Inuit families reappeared to work in the cod fishery (Charest 1998). In conclusion, it appears that Inuit obtained European material through both trade and pilfering at European fishing stations during both winter and summer. Inuit are incontrovertibly associated with the study area precisely because of contentious encounters with European explorers, merchants, whalers and fishers. Martijn (1980a: 108) aptly described Inuit aggression as a form of guerilla warfare and it is plausible that inimical relations developed in response to European incursions into Inuit settlement and primary resource areas, such as salmon rivers and traditional sealing regions along the Quebec North Shore, in the Strait of Belle Isle, and between Chateau Bay and Sandwich Bay. Among the Inuit, the pressures of settlement and resource loss conflicted with the need for European goods, thus fuelling tensions and aggression.

Activities at Inuit encampments: The archival records indicate a range of activities associated with Inuit adaptation in the study area that points to occupancy and resource procurement rather than short-term trade presence. A number of resource-based activities are referred to in the documents listed in Table 1. For instance, the 1668 boundaries of the seigniory of Mingan extended as far east as Brador Bay, which was described as "towards the place" where the Spanish and Inuit carried out their fishery. In 1694, Louis Jolliet observed Inuit sealing and hunting caribou at Mecatina; he described an abandoned Inuit sod house at Cape Charles surrounded by chunks of seal fat and the bones of foxes, hares, martens, bears, caribou, seagulls, and ravens; and in the Spotted Islands area, his crew was repeatedly offered seal meat and seal oil. In 1702, Sieur Augustin de Courtemanche observed sod houses at Baie des Haha with the remains of seal, caribou, and whale; and in October 1716, he noted a large number of Inuit engaged in sealing at Brador Bay. There are records of Inuit travelling across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland in order to obtain French goods and to cut white spruce for their arrows and "darts" (Lysaght 1971: 207; Moravian Mission Paper 1962). As already noted, by the late eighteenth century Inuit presence in southern Labrador had decreased due to European settlement but had not altogether disappeared. A 1762 report by Governor Murray of Québec stated that the Inuit came "with their whole families in Chaloupes to fish in the Streights of Belle Isle."

Inuit presence in the south can be understood from an environmental perspective if we consider the resource-rich ecosystems south of Hamilton Inlet. The coastline between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Hamilton Inlet harbours a number of migratory species of sea mammals such as whales and harp seals, birds, and anadromous fish, and supports a variety of land mammals and freshwater species. The Strait of Belle Isle itself is a natural funnel for pack ice and migrating sea mammals. The southernmost Strait of Belle Isle and the Gulf of St. Lawrence would have offered relative subsistence security throughout the year with some advantages over more northerly regions. Encampments would have had access to sea mammal populations that overwinter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; caribou may have been more readily accessible than in northern regions, where several days’ journeying into the interior were needed to find them (Taylor 1974, 1977; Taylor and Taylor 1977). Slightly warmer average temperatures resulted in greater species diversity and a shorter cold season for humans. The island archipelagoes and deep bays between Chateau Bay and Hamilton Inlet, and southwestward from L’Anse au Clair, are well suited for hunting both migratory and non-migratory seal species, as well as for salmon fishing, trout fishing, and hunting on land.

Thus, the descriptions of resources observed at Inuit settlements indicate that residents carried out a modified-maritime way of life akin to that of Inuit living north of Hamilton Inlet (Fitzhugh 1972; Taylor 1974); all relied on resources from both land and sea in the appropriate season. A few descriptions also tell of householding activities such as seal fat rendering, food storage, skin processing, manufacture of sealskin clothing, woodworking, and production of earthenware pottery. Collectively, this evidence reflects both a type of land use and occupancy that one might expect in a population that has incorporated the southern region as an integral part of its resource procurement, processing, and settlement base.

The archival material places Inuit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at least as early as the second half of the sixteenth century. Settlement south of Hamilton Inlet included warm and cold season habitation within the rich resource zones of the North Shore and the Strait of Belle Isle. Descriptions of dwellings, of resource use, and of social groupings support a multi-season presence by Inuit who essentially carried out traditional seasonal land use practices, at the same time incorporating European goods.

Description of the archaeological evidence

Archaeological remains from the study area work together with the preceding archival evidence to fill gaps in our understanding of the extent of Inuit settlement and the nature of Inuit ways of life south of Hamilton Inlet. The archaeological evidence of Inuit presence in Labrador suggests that time-transgressive population movement from ancestral Thule roots in the eastern Arctic into northernmost Labrador began as early as AD 1250 with continuing expansion to the south. European iron appears at Thule sites on Iglosiatik Island, south of Nain in the sixteenth century (Kaplan 1980), and an increasing assortment of European artifacts is found at sites dating to the following century (Fitzhugh 1994; Jordan and Kaplan 1980; Kaplan 1980, 1983; Schledermann 1971).

The extent of Inuit presence as indicated by the archaeological evidence

The extent of Inuit presence south of Hamilton Inlet is represented by two types of archaeological evidence: archaeological material that has a high probability of being of Inuit origin, and archaeological material that may be Inuit in origin but requires further investigation. These two lines of evidence are tabulated in Table 2 and Table 3, respectively.

Probable Inuit evidence: Table 2 includes the most probable evidence of Inuit presence in the form of bone artifacts from St. Augustine, Harrington Harbour, the St. Paul region, Brador, Red Bay, and Dumpling Island in Sandwich Bay. Also included are sites with burials, tent rings, stone fox traps (Figure 4), and sod houses that appear to have entrance passages (Figure 5). Sites were considered for Table 2 on the basis of their similarity to known Inuit features elsewhere in Labrador and the eastern Arctic, including fox traps of stone constructed in a box style; burial features of mounded stone; sod houses with possible entrance passageways; tent ring forms bearing eighteenth and early nineteenth century materials; and characteristic items made of bone, soapstone, or ground slate. This body of evidence shows Inuit presence throughout the study area.

Possible Inuit evidence: Sites listed in Table 3 include sod houses and cobble beach pit caches that share characteristics with acknowledged Thule or Inuit features north of Hamilton Inlet, but for reasons discussed below cannot with certainty be assigned Inuit affiliation. Sod houses north of Hamilton Inlet are consistently associated with Thule and historic-period Inuit (Jordan 1978; Jordan and Kaplan 1980; Kaplan 1980, 1983, Schledermann 1971). South of Hamilton Inlet, however, an Inuit affiliation for the sod house becomes less certain because European material culture remains replace traditional items in the Inuit’s time-transgressive, north-to-south expansion. Hence, test pits in sod houses in the southern region consistently yield higher amounts of European material and few Inuit indicators. Inuit origin of sod houses in the study area is further obscured by the possibility of mixed Inuit-European households, for which we have minimal but tantalizing evidence from the late eighteenth century (Cartwright 1792; Kennedy 1995: 83). Architectural characteristics of the Inuit sod house may differ from traditional forms. The Seal Islands site, for instance, had a stone sleeping platform but no entrance passageway, and may have been inhabited during two distinct periods by different peoples (Auger 1991: 75). Finally, European seasonal fishery workers also adopted the sod house form during the nineteenth century seasonal fishery (ibid.). There is little documentary evidence, however, for an established European population dating prior to the mid-1700s in the region of the highest concentration of sod houses — between Sandwich Bay and Chateau Bay — a fact that may serve archaeologists well in the affiliation of these structures. A total of 210 sod houses have been recorded between Sandwich Bay and Blanc Sablon that may be the result of any of these configurations: they merit further archaeological investigation and thus are included in Table 3.

Based on the archival indicators, it is probable that further excavation will prove some of these sod houses to be Inuit in origin. For instance, sod houses observed by Jolliet at Cape St. Charles may correspond with site FbAv-13 (Table 2). Similarly, Jolliet noted camps at Cape St. Francis in Alexis Bay that may correspond with sites FdAw-5 and FdAw-9 (Table 3). A number of sod house sites were recorded between Frenchman Island and Island of Ponds, a region also described by Jolliet (11 sites ranging from FhAw-9 to FjAx-7 in Table 3). Jolliet further noted Inuit establishments somewhere between Table Bay and Sandwich Bay, which may correspond to known sod and stone house sites (eight sites ranging from FkBe-3 to FkBe-11 in Table 3). During the mid to late-1800s, the latter two areas were also the scene of the seasonal Labrador fishery, which could explain the higher number of sod houses. In 1743, Louis Fornel sailed along this shoreline and recorded large gatherings of Inuit at Baye des Meniques, probably St. Michael’s Bay, at a place he named Baye d’Hape (probably Hawke Bay), and at a Baye d’Amargo in the area of present-day Seals Islands / Island of Ponds, all of which are represented in the listing of sod house sites in Table 3.

Table 2

Archaeological sites attributed to Inuit presence in southern Labrador

Archaeological sites attributed to Inuit presence in southern LabradorArchaeological sites attributed to Inuit presence in southern Labrador

*Provincial Archaeology Office, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s

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Table 3

Listing of possible historic Inuit sites south of Hamilton Inlet

Listing of possible historic Inuit sites south of Hamilton InletListing of possible historic Inuit sites south of Hamilton Inlet

*Further references are in Stopp and Rutherford (1991), Stopp and Reynolds (1992), Stopp (1994).

** Auger (1991:81) suggests that these sod houses may be of European origin.

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Figure 4

Stone fox trap, Hare Islands, Sandwich Bay (FkBe-8). N-S length: 1 m., width: 60 cm. Trowel to North.

Stone fox trap, Hare Islands, Sandwich Bay (FkBe-8). N-S length: 1 m., width: 60 cm. Trowel to North.

(Photo by M.P. Stopp)

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Figure 5

Example of sod house, North Island, Dead Islands Bay (FeAx-3), looking northwest.

Example of sod house, North Island, Dead Islands Bay (FeAx-3), looking northwest.

(Photo by M.P. Stopp)

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To date, only two sod house sites in the study area, FaAw-5 on Seal Island near Chateau Bay, and EiBi-12 in Belles Amours Bay, have been sufficiently excavated to confirm Inuit affiliation. Site EiBi-12 belied its probable Inuit affiliation prior to excavation by visible entrance passages to two structures (Dumais and Poirier 1994). In both cases careful investigation was required to uncover further Inuit diagnostic materials. Site FaAw-5 (Auger 1991, 1993, 1994) in particular provides a valuable object lesson for investigation of the sod houses in southern Labrador, in that sod houses on Degrat Island, at the tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, were also excavated with no evidence of Inuit material. Extensive fieldwork may be required before an Inuit affiliation can be assigned to any sod house listed in Table 3.

As with the sod house sites of Table 3, cobble beach cache features may also reflect the extent of Inuit presence south of Hamilton Inlet. The cache pit features pose the same problems of cultural affiliation as the sod houses, and were included in Table 4 only if they fit particular criteria. Hundreds of pit features have been recorded in the abundant relict cobble beaches of southern Labrador. They lack cultural identifiers and cannot be assigned to any particular culture group with certainty. Some, however, have been proposed as storage caches on the basis of morphology, their location in the landscape, and depth / diameter comparisons. Ethnographic evidence from the Arctic and from Labrador further suggests that stone cache pits are distinctive to arctic-adapted peoples such as the Inuit; there is no ethnographic evidence of Indian or European usage of such features (Gendron 2001; Stopp 1994, 2002).

In order to be included in Table 3, that is, to be considered of possible Inuit origin, the cobble pit features had to occur at the lowest elevations above sea level. This criterion is based on the nature of isostatic uplift along much of the Labrador coast. Since the retreat of the Laurentide ice cap about 10,000 years ago, the Labrador shoreline has risen in response to released pressure. The process of isostatic uplift has created many ancient shorelines, often high above today’s coast (Clarke and Fitzhugh 1990, 1992). The higher ancient shorelines retain evidence of the oldest cultural material in Labrador, dating from the Maritime Archaic period (roughly 8000-3500 years ago). The lowest uplifted shorelines retain evidence of more recent inhabitants such as early Europeans, Thule or Inuit, Late Prehistoric Indian, and Palaeoeskimo. Cultural attribution based on elevation of sites is difficult on lower beaches if there is no diagnostic material because several culture groups may be implicated. Moreover, pit features at higher elevation are not necessarily older since any group may have chosen higher beaches for storage caches (Stopp 1994). As a result, cobble beach pit features were included in Table 3 only if they occurred at elevations of five metres above sea level (m asl) or less on the grounds that sites at higher levels may have been constructed by recent peoples; it is certain, however, that the lowest cobble beach sites are the most recent and thus most likely to fall within the Inuit period. Ninety-three cache pits occurring at the lowest elevations are considered possible contenders for Inuit affiliation. Their distribution across the landscape suggests Inuit activity between L’Anse au Clair and Sandwich Bay. I have not compiled a list of cobble beach pit features from the North Shore region, but such a study would undoubtedly prove successful.

The nature of Inuit presence as indicated by the archaeological evidence

The nature of Inuit presence as suggested by the archaeological evidence points to a variety of resource-based, multi-season activities. Fox traps, for instance, represent small mammal hunting activities for fur and food. Fox trapping could conceivably have been for trading purposes, but it also indicates cold season presence, when pelts are in prime condition. Artifacts such as harpoon heads indicate sea mammal hunting. Householding activities, and by extension families, are represented by fragments of soapstone vessels and ulu knives that imply resource processing. Sod houses reflect cold season presence, as do artifacts such as sled runner remains and snow knife fragments. Tent rings, of which only a few have been recorded, represent warm season occupation.

If we consider an Inuit origin for the cobble cache pits listed in Table 3, these features may represent resource activities that coincided with the twice-yearly harp seal migrations along the coast. The decision to cache a resource represents a vital adaptive mechanism of hunter-gatherer life. Caching provides a store of food, hide and bone during potential times of scarcity, and also demarcates a resource region. Cobble cache pits are occasionally situated in relict cobble beaches at headlands or on outermost islands, and are associated with ice-edge or open sea hunting. More often they are found in relict cobble beaches near tickles or runs, which are narrow waterways between islands or between the mainland and islands, where seals may be captured (Stopp 1994). Traditional sealing areas also became the preferred settlement areas for Europeans along the North Shore by the 1730s, throughout the Strait of Belle Isle by the late 1700s, and as far as Sandwich Bay by the 1830s.

Finally, the nature of Inuit presence in the southern region is also signified by stone burial cairns. Although few in number, these are perhaps the clearest reminders of human presence. For the Inuit, the cairns would have signified an ancestral link with both the broader region and with the actual place of interment. Burial cairns are a hallmark of the cultural landscape — the living population invests such places with cultural and spiritual meaning, as links in time and space that create a sense of belonging to that place.

Reconsidering occupancy

There is no direct archaeological evidence of permanent year-round settlement south of Hamilton Inlet.

Jordan 1977: 43

The apparent absence of sod houses south of Hamilton Inlet has been considered by archaeologists as evidence that Inuit had no significant presence in the area south of Hamilton Inlet. These houses came to signify an Inuit band’s close connection with a region, and denoted a form of settlement that has often been referred to as "permanent." But these notions of permanence and "year-round settlement" are limited and should be re-evaluated in the context of sub-arctic forager societies.

Sod houses became the primary symbol of Inuit settlement for two reasons: their substantial construction has survived well into the twenty-first century and suggests a longer-term residency than most other forager dwellings in the northeast. By extension, the presence of such substantial structures in certain bays and inlets further suggests strong connections to those places. Sod house construction involved an investment of time and labour that contrasts with the readily dismantled tent or the temperature-dependent snow house, both characteristic of the forager way of life in Labrador. Archival and ethnographic data, however, show that sod houses were not necessarily inhabited for long uninterrupted periods. A sod house might be used for a few weeks or months of the year, and there is little information as to whether they were inhabited year after year, or by the same families over time. Taylor (1974: 70-77) refers to the sod house as a semi-permanent structure that families usually moved into in mid-October, remaining at times as late as April. In contrast, tent structures were inhabited for longer periods of time, from April through to October, although they could be moved. Even when inhabited during late autumn / early winter, sod houses served as bases for ancillary camps such as those in snow houses near the sinaa, or inland camps during the late autumn / winter caribou hunt (Brice-Bennett 1977; Taylor 1974; Taylor and Taylor 1977).

In certain instances, the perceived link between winter residency and permanence has been interpreted as regional settlement whereby winter residence also signified that Inuit inhabited a region on a year-round basis. Thus, Taylor (1977: 53) refers to "the Nain people" and "the Hopedale people." Jordan (1978: 176) combines the ideas of regional presence and permanence, stating that "Hamilton Inlet became the terminus of permanent settlement and the stronghold of the Eskimo." And Jordan and Kaplan (1980: 39) write: "The Inuit population expansion into central Labrador appears to have terminated in Hamilton Inlet, at least in terms of permanent year-round occupation."

Regional permanent occupation is a compelling interpretation for the clusters of sod houses recorded between Killinek and Hamilton Inlet. Eighteen of these sites have been recorded, of which twelve are in the Torngat region (Kaplan 1983: 297). Two documentary sources, both dating to 1773, suggest that Labrador Inuit groups at that time were indeed associated with particular regions. Lieutenant Curtis’s report to Governor Shuldham (CO 194 / 31: 38-65), and the Moravian missionary Jens Haven’s journal of a Labrador voyage (Taylor 1974) both name "tribes" associated with specific regions such as Ogbuctoke (also Aivekhtokh, or Hamilton Inlet), Nonyoke (also Nunaingoakh, or Nain) among other locales northwards to Killinek. These observations may be correct for the late eighteenth century, but the idea of Inuit "tribes" as discrete units with subsistence rounds carried out within definable regions is not necessarily applicable to earlier times. Such observations could also have been influenced by European notions of settlement, which were not accurate for ancestral Thule or for Inuit of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If we consider what we know of resource procurement and settlement among northern foragers, particularly those of the study area, it becomes apparent that terms such as "permanent" need to be qualified at best, if used at all. The hunting, fishing, and gathering way of life was not characterized by chance encounters with resources but involved a good deal of prior environmental knowledge, planning, and calculation (Tanner 1979). The hunter-gatherer way of life in Labrador, specifically among Innu and Inuit, revolved around a knowledge of the availability of resources at specific times and in specific places, and travelling to those places at the appropriate times. Several seasonal divisions were recognized by foragers living in Labrador, whether inland or along the coast, which were broadly divisible into periods of freezing temperatures and frozen water, and above-freezing temperatures and open water (Tanner 1979; Taylor 1974). By way of illustrating these divisions, Table 4 presents ethnographically-derived data on the seasonal periods that determined forager movements among late nineteenth century Labrador Inuit (see also Tanner 1979: 27, Table 2, for similar divisions among Mistassini Cree).

Table 4

Forager seasons — the Labrador Inuit seasonal Cycle (adapted from Fitzhugh 1972: 58-62; Taylor 1974: 51)

Forager seasons — the Labrador Inuit seasonal Cycle (adapted from Fitzhugh 1972: 58-62; Taylor 1974: 51)

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Each season introduced a series of settlement moves that corresponded with resource procurement. In midwinter many species become less mobile and more easily captured, such as caribou, moose, bear, muskrat and beaver in the interior; while along the coast, seals can be hunted at airholes along the sinaa, or ice edge, and char or trout can be caught through the ice in near-shore lakes. Late winter / early spring is still good for sinaa hunting, char appear in inner bays, and caribou continue to linger in the upland regions. In late spring and early summer seals move northwards to meet the pack ice; small groupings of caribou appear along the coast; bird migrations northwards can be intercepted; and salmon and char runs begin in river systems. During the short northern summer, some seals remain in the bays and coastal waters, freshwater and saltwater fish are available, and berries ripen. Late summer / early autumn is the time when caribou are at their fattest and with hides in prime condition; seals and fish are still available, and large flocks of southward migrating birds can be intercepted. By late autumn / early winter, harp seals can be caught along the coast during their southward migration to the Gulf; caribou are inland; and ptarmigan, spruce grouse, and small mammals become available once again. Some small mammals, such as foxes, are available year-round both inland and on the coast with their furs at prime condition during cold weather.

Movement between resource locales, and at times across extensive stretches of territory, was a cardinal characteristic of foragers of the Canadian northeast. Moving by sled and / or snowshoe during freeze-over, and by water craft in seasons of open water, ensured continuous supplies of food, skins, bone, and stone in prehistoric times. With the appearance of Europeans came the addition of forays for European iron, European fabrics, and other introduced materials.

The movement from resource to resource is essentially a revisiting of known areas across a familiar, and sometimes extensive, territory, with temporary residence organized around seasonal availability of resources at locations determined by prior knowledge of the environment (see Henriksen 1973; Mailhot 1993; Tanner 1979; Taylor 1977; Taylor and Taylor 1977). The Inuit did not settle "permanently" in Labrador until the nineteenth century, following the establishment of Moravian Mission stations (which ranged from Hopedale north to Killinek). These stations anchored populations to specific places on a year-round basis. Vestiges of the forager way of life are still apparent, however, among today’s Inuit, as well as among the Innu, Métis, and Settler populations, in seasonal settlement shifts between communities and the interior, or between the coast and inner bays for the purpose of obtaining resources (e.g., Armitage 1990; Brice-Bennett 1977; Jackson 1982; Kennedy 1995).

The idea that winter habitation somehow represents a stronger land use association than does the spring or summer camp is untenable. "Permanence" applies a colonialist criterion of belonging to a place. In reference to Inuit occupation, it obscures the reality of forager adaptation, of the distances covered to obtain resources, and of the seasonal flux of the forager group.


The archival and archaeological evidence presents a good case for year-round Inuit occupancy and land use in southern Labrador and the North Shore between the mid-1500s to the mid-1700s. Previously unpublished archaeological material from southern Labrador augments the existing data base of known and possible Inuit cultural remains. These sites have effectively shown Inuit settlement across the southern region. Together with archival indicators of Inuit settlement and life ways, they present a convincing picture of nearly 200 years of Inuit land use south of Hamilton Inlet.

Admittedly, the data do not approach Hawkes’ (1916: 17) extravagant descriptions of Inuit "fortified settlements, camps, and burying grounds south of Hamilton inlet, as well as archaeological material extending as far south as the state of New York." But remains do indicate multi-season hunting and settlement, trapping, resource preparation, and cultural and spiritual activities, not to mention trading with Europeans. The presence of larger numbers of people in the summer, smaller numbers in the winter, and family social organization, resembles the settlement demographics seen in northern Labrador.

I have argued that the notion of "permanency," however defined, is an inadequate criterion for describing Inuit settlement in Labrador. Inuit sod house presence in one region does not represent a stronger link to place than would summer settlement in another region. Viewed another way, if we had only archival and archaeological evidence of Inuit summer presence in the study area, this would nevertheless constitute proof of land use and occupancy.

In response to the historic supposition that Inuit travelled south solely for the purpose of obtaining European goods, it should be emphasized that the acquisition of trade goods, whether through exchange or scavenging, does not discount the long-term presence of Inuit in the southern region. European goods, especially iron, were adopted by Thule / Inuit material culture at an early date, having been introduced as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century in the eastern Arctic probably through direct or indirect trade with the Norse in Greenland (McCullough 1989; Schledermann 1996, 2000). Sutherland (2000) has compiled a comprehensive listing of evidence for even earlier Norse-Dorset contact in the eastern Arctic. Indeed, Inuit in Labrador experienced some of the earliest and most prolonged European contact of any native North American group (Kaplan 1983). Early expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage brought European explorers in contact with Inuit along Labrador’s shores, encouraged by the gains of a burgeoning French, Basque, and eventually English and Dutch whale and cod fishery that began in the early 1500s (Barkham 1978, 1980, 1984; Turgeon 1994; Turgeon et al. 1992). The familiarity of Inuit with items of European material culture, and their acquisition of these items, are expressions of historical conditions in the western North Atlantic. Obtaining European goods had to have fitted in with subsistence-related activities such as obtaining food, skins for clothing and shelter, and manufacturing tools. Inuit interest in items of European manufacture is best understood as exploitation of yet another resource along with seals and caribou skins, all necessary to sub-arctic forager adaptation of the early post-contact period. The execution of the Inuit subsistence cycle in southern Labrador certainly accommodated trade prior to 1760 but was never supplanted by it, nor was trade the sole explanation for Inuit presence in the south.

The long-term presence of Inuit in the study area attests to remarkable cultural strength and resilience between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Despite regular contact with Europeans, they maintained traditional ways and resisted a variety of European pressures. That Inuit continued to meet Europeans well into the 1700s and greet them with patois renditions of "Ahé, ahé, troquer. Tous camarades!" certainly reflects an interest in trade, but also illustrates their strong association with the southern region. The archaeological and archival evidence makes a strong case for primary use and occupation in the southern region — certainly no less than for areas north of Hamilton Inlet.

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