January 15: The Backstory: Natives, Newcomers, and Contact in the North-Eastern North American Atlantic Region to 1500.

Link to Lecture Outline for Week 2

Readings to date:

  • Conrad & Hiller, Chapters 1 & 2, and pages 22-27 (’06 edition) [pages 36-40 (’01 edition)].
  • Pastor, Trigger, & Leacock.

Discussion question: What obstacles confront historians of First Nations peoples? What role did contact with Europeans play in establishing differences among Aboriginal groups?


Last class we went over basic concepts and terminology, the ‘big three’ being: history, the past, and historiography. The discussion of vocabulary finished on context.

Slide 1: Connormah, map, “Atlantic Canada,” licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Source: Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atlantic_Canada.svg.

Our ‘context’, geographically speaking, is the region under study Note: we are primarily interested in the activities and interaction of people here — there is no question that what went on beyond this region had an impact on it — not just at the beginning of European arrival, but right up to now — but our own time constraints limit how closely we can analyze all of the contextual factors. We’re going to pick and choose. Which means we are going to make a historical ‘construct‘ of the region — construct being another term on your vocabulary list:

[construct: interpretation: (made, not found): an abstract idea — not a physical reality.]

For example, in your Conrad and Hiller text, they don’t use the word construct but do describe one: they discuss the (debatable) idea that there is an identifiable, consistently understood ‘Atlantic region.’ See p. v (2006 edition):

For our purposes, ‘Atlantic Canada’ means Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The boundaries of these provinces have been defined over the years by diplomats, lawyers, and politicians, and do not include all the areas that might be considered ‘Atlantic.’

You will note it is an idea of a region that does not take into account how ordinary people relate to it. And, the authors admit, this is an “Artificial” breaking up of space. And, on the next page, they point out that Newfoundland “has no significant affinities with other parts of the region,” and further that “Labrador sees itself as distinct from both Newfoundland and the Maritimes.”

So this course — Hist. 2400 — is a course about an idea of an imaginatively unified region as much as it is about any ‘real past.’ Can you see how, right off the bat, we are involved in something political here? [see vocabulary list] Can we argue there is a contest for control of knowledge?

Innocently — naively, according to postmodernists like Foucault — we just want to know something about the history of a nice place. But, the knowledge we are going to get is pretty narrowly defined isn’t it? Of course there is a practicality to that — we have to draw the line somewhere — but discourse analysts would like us to be aware of, and to think about, that line a little bit.

They want us to ask the question: what is being cut out of our historical construct?

One answer is the French experience in New France/Quebec — how accurate a picture of the interaction of people in Atlantic Canada can it be if we don’t include that one?

What about First Nations people? They didn’t set these borders; what about people who moved around a lot — back and forth — way out west, way down south, or around the world in a clipper ship? How might they have defined ‘Atlantic region’? How could they have thought of it as ‘Canadian’ before there was Canada?

Clearly we are getting only one possible interpretation of ‘what it was like’ for people way-back-when who were living in what is now, but was not then, ‘Atlantic Canada.’

So, okay, we admit it, the context of our historical construct is incomplete. There, we have been honest. But, even if we can’t know the entire ‘truth’ about the region, we can become informed

I) Introduction:

Question of the week: Who was likely to contact whom, and why is 1500 a significant year?

Scholars posit that people began migrating across the Bering Strait perhaps 40,000 years ago.

Slide 2: Migration and the Beringia land bridge theory.

Note: there is disagreement over when, how, and why people migrated. Beringia formed (possibly) during the ‘Wisconson’ glaciation period, 75,000-14,000 years ago [during the Pleistocene epoch of the Cenozoic era]. There is disagreement over when, how, and why people migrated. The idea of land migration from Siberia to North America was voiced as early as the 1500s by Jesuit priest, Jose Acost. During the 1950s the possibility of inland travel long an ice-free corridor became popular. In 1995, Deloria argued that the formation of Beringia would have required a 60 metre sea-level drop — largely to advance what has most recently become the idea with the most rapidly increasing momentum: that people of the past were seafarers, well versed in coastal voyaging.

Whether by land or by sea, apparently people began arriving in the region of what is now Atlantic Canada in about 10,600 BP. If you refer to the date for ‘Paleo-Indians’ on the chart in your Conrad and Hiller text, page 2, you will see that 10.600 BP is at leat nine thousand years prior to meeting up with Europeans in about 1500 AD.

Notes, Slide 3: The reference to Shakespeare should read Henry IV[?] (part II — Warwick at III, i); as gender historians continue to show, people who are not male also have histories.

Migration theories notwithstanding, some First Nations peoples describe life on earth as beginning with the creation of their ancestors on the land that subsequent generations inhabited, and they reject the notion that ‘immigration’ is a term that applies to their ancestors.

The point is that the presence of these ancestral first peoples and subsequent First Nations was, and is, integral — not peripheral — to the course of development, culturally, socially, politically, and economically in the region [‘prehistory’ had an impact on history]. By 1500, North America was not an ’empty land’; it was an inhabited homeland. Thus, the significance of discussing

a) ‘Contact’ rather than ‘Discovery’.

b) dating: note that on the chart above and on the timeline in your text [Conrad and Hiller, page 2] the different ways of indicating the dates: BP, AD, and CE — what do they mean?

Employing systems for ascribing dates is another way of engaging with a ‘construct’.

AD • ‘anno Domini’ (in the year of the Lord)

• (loosely approximated) birthdate of Jesus = year 1 (not zero)

BC       • ‘Before Christ’

CE       • ‘Common Era’ ‘Current Era’ ‘Christian Era’

C.E.     • = AD

[using CE/C.E. is sometimes supposed to be more politically correct, but doesn’t get around the fact that year 1 is determined by Christian scholars. For example, under the Islamic system, the year 2006-2007 CE is 1427. By Chinese reckoning 2007 CE is 4704.05.

BCE     • ‘Before the Common Era’ or ‘Before the Christian Era’

B.C.E. • ditto (= BC)

BP • ‘Before Present’ or ‘Before Physics’

• counted backwards from zero at AD 1950 (the year calibration for Carbon 14 (14C), or radiocarbon dating, was established; years so designated also predate atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which altered the global carbon balance.)

• reports raw radiocarbon age, so cannot be used directly as a calendar date, because the level of atmospheric 14C has fluctuated over time.

Slide 4

II) Terminology

Indian: commemorates a mistaken identity. It is inappropriate in academic writing (except in a quote).

Native: not accepted in the U.S.; deemed by some to be confusing, because anyone born in a place is a native of that place.

Amerindian: term used by historians of South America; adopted in the 1970s in Quebec; not popular in Anglo Canadian circles; in French autochtone is used for aboriginal.


aboriginal: = Latin derived term      & indigenous: = Greek derived term

both mean “from the beginning”

In Canada Aboriginal includes:

First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.


First Nations: a Canadian, and political, term that refers to the band, usually the reserve; current after the 1982 Constitution Act brought Inuit & Métis into consideration as Aboriginal ‘peoples’ [meaning cultural groups, with social and political organization] not addressed under the ‘Indian Act’.

Aboriginal right: originally applied only to land, but has come to include self-government.

Eskimo: rejected in Canada [supposedly derived from an Ojibwa word meaning ‘eaters of meat’, but also supposedly meant ‘she nets a snowshoe’ in Montagnais].

Inuit: ‘the people’

Métis: [usage and meaning still under negotiation]

Slide 5: Terms to think about when discussing people native to North America

Consider the writings of Roger Williams (a dissident preacher) in New England, in the 1630s, and later a colonial governor (Providence). He learned to speak an Aboriginal language (Iroquoian), and claimed that there was no Aboriginal word for ‘Indian’ before the English came because no one had needed one, because there was no categorical difference. The people of North America had words for each other in terms of a tribal name or village name, and then they had a word for the whole human species — people were people. And Williams said that they had started calling themselves ‘Indians’ when they had a need for such a word, to distinguish themselves from Europeans (probably when speaking to Europeans). They used the word Indian because it was a convenient one to use.

— On the use of upper and lower case when naming a group of people: in historiography, the people being discussed are seldom representative of intra-species variation (as in blonde, or diabetic), but rather are representative of socio-political groupings, and, in keeping with the pursuit of authorial honesty, ought to be portrayed that way in print — so capitalize when naming such groups [Métis, not métis].

— Europeans (who didn’t call themselves that until about 1400), is used for people who were not native to North America, but to somewhere in Europe, and, though it is not a particularly good term, because it hides such a wide array of differences and divisions among the peoples of Europe, it is often convenient.

— Old World, and New World are Eurocentric. The ‘New World’ was an old world to its inhabitants by the time Europeans arrived. If used, use it ironically [marked off by inverted commas], or, if quoted from a source, mark it of with quotation marks.

III) Newcomers: Legendary Preliminary Voyages

a) Irish:

There is a traditional tale — from the 8th century — told in Ireland, “The Voyage of Maelduin’s Boat,” which comes from the Arthurian Romances about Merlin’s final resting place, Avalon (“Albion Magna”). The story goes that Avalon was later found — again — in the latter part of the 15th century.

Men of the Channel Islands, an archipelago off the southern coast of England (closer to France, in the ‘English Channel’ — which the French call La Manche: ‘the sleeve), were blown westward off their course until they came to a strange land, “Ibernia”, a forested country with beaches of pure white sand [reputedly Porcupine Strand, Labrador — see the map in Conrad and Hiller] where the sea was full of fish.

A similar legend, based on a Latin text dating from the 9th century — “Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis” (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbott) maintains that Saint Brendan made the voyage in the 6th century. Several copies of this text have survived in monasteries throughout Europe. The story was an important part of the folklore in medieval Europe.

Slide 6: “Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae Cod. Pal. Germ. 60, fol. 179v (University Library Augsburg, Germany), published around 1460 AD.” Source: Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/5yESMT.

[The argument that such transatlantic voyages were possible is bolstered by Timothy Severin, Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat (Toronto: Random House, 2000). Severin and his cew sailed from Ireland to the United States, in a curraugh, re-enacting the voyage of St. Brendan, with stops on the Aran Islands, in Donegal, the Hebrides, and in the Faroes — over-wintering in Iceland.]

Slide 7: 18th century drawing of an Irish skin-boat — ‘curraugh’ — from reproduction in Farley Mowat, Farfarers (Toronto: 1998), 19.

Why were such voyages possible? Because of the North Atlantic currents, and, according to some scholars the pattern of prevailing winds in the northern reaches of the North Atlantic — apparently, in the summer months most congenial to setting out in a boat or ship, the ‘prevailing westerlies’ were not so constant as winds out of the North, the ‘Polar Easterlies’ — though, as any experienced sailor will tell you, winds are not something that one should place over-much confidence in.

Slide 8: prevailing winds

Those who argue in favour of wind as an agent in early voyages westward from northern Europe point out that of course it mattered, given that early seafaring technology was wind driven — and had a limited number of directions in which they could go. A sailing vessel could proceed with the wind blowing from behind, and it could catch wind in its sail by cutting across it, but it could not sail directly into the wind.  Early-on, seafarers had compasses to determine what direction they and the wind were going. And from the 1300s, mariners recorded information about wind direction on charts, with a symbol called a wind rose. These portolan charts — as they are called — showed coastlines along constant compass bearings.

Slide 9: Vesconte Maggiollo, detail, portolan chart for coastal voyaging showing Europe and Africa, from his atlas of 1512. Source: Cartographic Images.

Slide 10: Image derived from Alvesgaspar, png file, “Reinel wind rose round,” licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. Source: Alvesgaspar / Wikipedea, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reinel_wind_rose_round.png.

Wind roses indicated directional bearings. The term ‘rose’ comes from the figure’s points resembling the petals of a flower. The rose’s points corresponded to the eight major winds, the eight half-winds, and the sixteen quarter-winds.

Slide 11: Illustration, approximating a petroglyph attributed to Mi’kmaq, located in Bedford Barrens, Nova Scotia.

Just for interests sake: do you suppose the above petroglyph is a reference to a compass rose?

b) Welsh:

Another legendary voyage, transmitted by Welsh tradition, holds that Prince Madoc (ab/ap Owain Gwynedd) landed in North America near Alabama in 1170. [The first written account of Madoc’s story is in George Peckham’s A True Report of the late Discoveries of the Newfound Landes (1583).]

c) Scottish:

There is a Scottish legend that Prince Henry Sinclair, of Orkney, arrived in the late 1390s. The story persists in spite of efforts to debunk it. [see Brian Smith, “Earl Henry Sinclair’s fictitious trip to America,” New Orkney Antiquarian Journal 2 (2002).

[the legend is tied-in with another controversy — the ‘Zeno Map’ & letters, published in the year 1558 by a descendant of the Zeno brothers. The descendant was known as Nicolo Zeno, as was one of the original Zeno brothers. The letters, allegedly written by the two brothers in about 1400, purport to describe a voyage of exploration throughout the North Atlantic (and, by some interpretations, to North America), under the command of a prince named Zichmni (whom some have identified as Henry Sinclair). The letters and accompanying map are regarded by many historians as a hoax, either by the Zeno brothers, or by the descendant who published them.]

d) Portuguese:

The Portuguese, based on information gathered by João Corte Real on a voyage to the Azores in 1431, claim that he set out to find, and successfully reached, Newfoundland in 1473 (the ‘Paris Map’ of c. 1490, is cited to support the claim — though some say it was made by the more famous Columbus).

Slide 12: Johann Ruysch’s map, which is found in the 1507 reprinting of the 1490 Rome edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (widely distributed and said to include Newfoundland — though I’m not certain where).

The ‘Paris Map’ apparently has a group of islands called “Isles of Seven Cities” estimated to be within 200 miles of the actual latitude and longitude of Newfoundland, but whether it actually depicted Newfoundland is debatable.

e) Bristol:

Some historians have argued that Bristol merchants made landfall in North America in 1481. Two ships were sent out that year. There is no record of how they fared, but from then on Bristol fishers appeared to have a plentiful supply of dried cod — a process that requires setting up flakes on land.

Some also cite a letter written by a Bristol merchant allegedly to Christopher Columbus [Ian Wilson, John Cabot and the Matthew (Tiverton, UK.: Redcliffe Press, 1996), 6 — the letter was discovered in 1956] to prove Bristol ships were voyaging to North America prior to Columbus.

Slide 13: a graphic, taken from a snippet of John Day’s letter, of which there is a more complete image, viewable online at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/exploration/day_graphic_b.html.

The text in the letter which excites interest reads:

It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found ‘Brasil’ as your Lordship well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found”

[excerpted from James A Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Published for the Hakluyt Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 214.]

John Day, it seems, was irritated that Columbus (and therefore Spain), had not acknowledged the Bristol merchants’ prior claims in North America — something he implied they knew to be perfectly true.

f) Farley Mowat:

In The Farfarers (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1998), Mowat invented a tradition that held a group of Indo-Europeans he called the ‘Albans’ made the trip in the 9th century and that their descendants live in Bay St. George, Newfoundland (Port au Port peninsula, on the west coast).

The Albans, Mowat says, were not Celt, not Goth, but a much more ancient people inhabiting Europe, connected to the Picts of Scotland and to the Jackatars of Newfoundland. The Jackatars, he says, were discovered by the British (English) when they arrived. They are supposedly a mix of Basque, Spanish, French, and Beothuck.

I’m skeptical — partly because ‘Jackatar’ sounds an awful lot like ‘Jack Tar’ which was a synonym for sailor in English [‘Jack’ was used to designate ‘male’ — ‘Jack ass’ for example; Used especially for sailors beginning about 1659, Jack-tar was current by 1781.]


Link to part II of the backstory to the History of Atlantic Canada from 1500

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s