The tradition of human occupation in Port au Choix has always been exceedingly rich. The archaeological record tell us this. It also tells us they thrived here, making connection to Europe, the U.S., Scandinavia and the Canadian Arctic. As the table below explains, five cultures and their associated timelines of existence cover Maritime Archaic, Groswater Palaeoeskimo, Dorset Paleoeskimo, recent Aboriginal and European residencies in nearly 50 centuries.
Maritime Archaic Indians
The head-on collision of the Labrador Current from the North and the warmer Gulf of St. Lawrence waters creates a rich environment for marine life. All five cultures took advantage of this complex ecosystem. The land, as well, provides. Caribou, pine marten and a more recent moose population thrive here with timber and wild berries in great supply. Some of the rarest vegetation in the world calls the area home.
Bone and furs from hunted animals provided shelter, clothing and tools. This resourcefulness is quite evident in recovered artifacts. These were hunter-gatherer societies, roving in small bands, swelling and reducing in size as travel and climate allowed. They shared their skills, their possessions and their shelters as needed. Their spiritual beliefs were deeply rooted in nature. This was learned, partially, with the discovery of one of the oldest gravesites in North America, a maritime archaic Indian boy dating back nearly 4400 years. Further, Port au Choix boasts the largest cemetery of Maritime Archaic Indians in the world. Elaborately decorated bone sculptures, red ochre and bone amulets mark the graves. The observance of death was very important to them.
There are five Groswater Paleoeskimo sites to visit at port au Choix. Harp seal hunting was a staple of Groswater existence and Port au Choix provided an excellent hunting area. Their existence lasted here for at least 600 years. The last known settlement in in Philip’s Garden East.
The Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites are marked by impressions made of 50 houses. When the sun rides low in the sky, shadow exposes the hollows in the ground of most of the fifty. Every house was built the same with limestone foundations and a built-in cooking area dug into the centre of the home. Whale ribs raised upright and covered with seal skin formed the basic structure and roofing. Bedding would have consisted of skins and boughs. Again we find in Philip’s Garden the evidence of 900 years of residency.
These residents date to 400-800 years ago. Archaeological discoveries show a dependence on land as much as the sea. The Inuit people certainly number among this group and history records their trade with the European Basque fishermen as happening around Benie Island three to four centuries ago.
It is not overtly evident that these people included the storied aboriginal Beothuks of Newfoundland. The possibility exists. While their much written about demise due to skirmishes with Europeans and their susceptibility to European diseases looms large in the historic record, little is known of the possible Beothuk residency in the Port au Choix area. Time may tell this story yet.
European Exploration and Settlement
The Basques and The French Shore
The Basque name, Portuchoa, or Little Harbour, is where Port ay Choix derives its name. The French Basques fisherman hop-scotched the west coast islands of Newfoundland and Labrador during the 15th and 16th Centuries. Their codfishing stations up the coast were sturdy and well-used enough to provide lasting archaeological evidence of their to and fro journey from Codroy Island to Ferolle Island.
On Benie Island in Port au Choix occurred some of the first interactions between Europeans and Aboriginals since the Norse encountered the “Skraelings” in L’anse aux Meadows in 1000AD. Both Inuit and Basques were quite wary of each other and while inhabiting and fishing in the same area they always kept a line of water between them. The Inuit would float over an unmanned craft full of furs and skins across this “line” to a Basque ship. These pelts would be removed by the Basques who then filled it with brandy, wearables, building materials and tobacco, in return. The contemporary written accounts show this to have happened every August.
Both French and English fishermen plied their trade on the western shores of The Great Northern Peninsula. The area was not immune from the backing and forthing of England-France politics. The Treaty of Utrecht saw France agree to giving up the opportunity for permanent settlement in the area for the right to fish “The French Shore”. After the treaty was signed, the English were less and less inclined to spend any time in the waters around the area, but the French needed people to look after their stores over winter and some Englishmen did so. This inevitably lead to settlement and the presence of English-speaking people in Port au Choix today. The French eventually fled the area as further concessions were made to English rule, leaving nothing but the colorful place names they had given the area in the first place.