“Gens sauvages et estranges”: Amerindians and the Early Fishery in the Sixteenth-Century Gulf of St. Lawrence

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This is the first in a series of excerpts from The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

This is a brief excerpt from a chapter on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the sixteenth century, one which uses an environmental lens to understand the interactions between European fishworkers and Amerindian communities. I have tried to emphasize the complexity and uncertainty in this relationship, and the difficulty historians and archaeologists have had in reconstructing its story. This was a rewarding, if tricky, research question to engage with, and one which was shaped by two considerations. First, this chapter aims to consider the sixteenth century as a particular moment which deserves treatment on its own terms. Second, it tries to put considerations of climate, food, human and non-human mobility, and water at the center of analysis.  As this excerpt suggests, a key starting point for studying the Gulf of St. Lawrence must be recognizing Algonkian-speaking communities in the sixteenth century as fundamentally maritime in their orientation. When we do so it is possible to see the role of the Gulf itself in shaping human relationships, a theme which we will see in future installments of this series. 

When [European] mariners encountered [indigenous] communities, it was a meeting between two peoples of the sea on mutually shared space rather than an intrusion of seaborne Europeans into a land-bound world. The land still looms large in the historiography of North American Amerindians (in Québécois French, they are literally autochtones – those who sprang from the earth). Much of this reflects centuries of dispossession and exclusion from the land, and the significance of forest and fauna to the cosmography of many Amerindian communities. But to focus on the land, especially when discussing the sixteenth-century Gulf, is to ignore the degree to which many Amerindian societies were fundamentally maritime communities, peoples of the sea.  For Amerindian communities in the Gulf of St Lawrence and elsewhere, Atlantic history did not begin with the arrival of the first European boats. The Gulf itself was more highway than barrier, and observers from Jacques Cartier onward reported that Innu and Mi’kmaq greeted fishermen in boats and exchanged goods on the water. Recent studies such as Andrew Lipman’s The Saltwater Frontier, Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic, and Nancy Shoemaker’s Native American Whalemen and the World have finally begun to explore the intersection of maritime and Indigenous histories. Their work serves as a template for how historians ought to interpret the Algonkian societies around the Gulf of St Lawrence, and is all the more significant for what it says about how Amerindians exploited and adapted to the environment around them.

There is consistent evidence from the sixteenth century onward for the use of seagoing vessels by Amerindians in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The birchbark canoe favoured in the Gulf was rugged, adaptable, and capable of travel over open ocean. As early as 1509, reports came out of Normandy that visitors to Newfoundland had captured a group of Amerindians sailing in a “boat … made from the bark of a tree.” One variation on this report even suggested that the boat, “constructed of a wicker frame covered with the stout bark of trees, inwhich were seven men,” had been captured off the coast of England. As Charles Martijn and others have argued, Algonkian canoes and dugouts were capable of travel between islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The Mi’kmaq in particular regularly crossed between islands to settle the south coast of Newfoundland, and by the turn of the seventeenth century had adopted European boat designs. By the 1600s, the French writer Nicolas Denys stated that the Mi’kmaq “use canoes only for the rivers, and all have boats for the sea.” But the use of water for transport was only one aspect of the maritime identity of Amerindian communities. Algonkian peoples around the Gulf of St. Lawrence were seafood eaters first and foremost, consuming vast quantities of cod, salmon, seal, seabirds, clams, shad, and anything else they could catch. The Gulf’s waters were the origins of human life in this subarctic corner of the Atlantic, the perquisite for permanent habitation. In turn, the waters of the Gulf shaped the worldviews of many of the communities around its rim. With yearly rhythms defined by a scarcity/abundance cycle, water was associated with prosperity and ease, land with dearth and starvation. Beothuk iconography revolved around seabirds, one of the sources of this abundant food, and they went so far as to bury their dead on islands with seabird colonies. It is not surprising that in the 1550s, the French geographer André Thevet referred to the inhabitants of the Gulf as “ce peuple maritime.”

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Jack Bouchard

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Culture project, a Mellon-funded collaborative research initiative. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve food history, maritime labour and the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic. He is currently preparing a manuscript (very) tentatively titled Terra Nova: Food, Water and Work in an early Atlantic World, which offers a new history of the northwest Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Next year Dr. Bouchard will be joining the history department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where he will serve as an assistant professor teaching environmental history.

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