The Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Cavendish Beach, PEI National Park (December 2010)

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He was looking at her closely as they went up a hill after crossing a river so blue that Jane had exclaimed in rapture over it . . . a river that ran into a bluer harbour. And when they reached the top of the hill, there before them lay something greater and bluer still that Jane knew must be the gulf.

 “Oh!” she said. And again, “Oh!”

 “This is where the sea begins. Like it, Jane?”

~ L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill (1937)

We’re delighted to announce a new project: a collection of essays on the environmental history of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. (“Oh!” she said. And again, “Oh!”)

The continental thrust of modern North American history has positioned the Gulf as an edge, a periphery. Yet for centuries (millennia!) the Gulf was in fact the nexus of exploration, resource extraction, migration of peoples, and creations of identity. The Gulf has been destination and gateway, cockpit and crossroads, traversed by numerous indigenous peoples, military expeditions, and fishing fleets, explorers and missionaries, traders and travel writers. It is a superb canvas upon which to build a better understanding of the environmental history of North America.

So, what is the Gulf? We see it as a series of intersecting geographies stretching as far south as Cape Cod, as far north as Labrador, as far east as the west coast of northern Europe, and as far west as Quebec City – all linked by water on the one hand, and human ambitions on the other.

J.F.W. Des Barres for The Atlantic Neptune (1778)
J.F.W. Des Barres for The Atlantic Neptune (1778)

From Vinland the Good to the novels of L.M. Montgomery, the Gulf has haunted the Western imagination. It was key to maritime power, seaboard occupation, and access to the interior. And resources from the Gulf fuelled indigenous, imperial, and continental economies. For instance, several essays explore the Gulf fisheries as places of competition and diplomacy, of harvest and experimentation.

Environmental history here has been more about land or sea – out in the Atlantic, or firmly ashore. Not only is the Gulf of St. Lawrence a place where diverse people and nations met, challenged one another, worked together, and negotiated control over the space (all traditional foci of borderlands studies), but the Gulf is and was also a place where diverse environments collided. It is water and land, shorelines and estuaries, marine currents and coastal topographies. How did the people who lived and worked in the Gulf cross those environments? Exploring the environmental history of the Gulf of St. Lawrence helps us reconnect to historic understandings of environmental diversity.

Propelled by this year’s Northeast and Atlantic Region – Environmental History’s (NEAR-EH) workshop in Halifax, editors Edward Macdonald (UPEI), Brian Payne (Bridgewater State), and Claire Campbell (Bucknell University) welcome contributors, suggestions, and comments.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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