Here's a little history about beads, and more --
Though the Basques were a major presence in Canada and South America from the 16th to 18th centuries, physical evidence of their activities has been hard to find. But in 2001, an archeologist named Fitzhugh made a huge breakthrough (see attached story on 'Joint Effort; Evidence Surfaces of an Unlikely Partnership in North America', by Anika Gupta). Fitzhugh is director of the Smithosonian's Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History. He had sailed up Canada's coast in search of Basque sites. When he came to Quebec's Hare Harbor and saw red tiles beneath wet moss, he knew he had found a good site to explore -- as the red tiles are unique to Basque buildings.
An independent people, Basques originally came from the mountainous region of southwest France and northwest Spain. They were master mariners, and some of the first to explore the waters between Europe and the New World. Basque traders often set up camps on Canada's east coast, fishing cod and hunting whales. They harvested the meat and oil to sell in Europe. Their interest was commercial, rather than political. "They just made money and weren't really interested in anything else," says Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World.
When Fitzhugh began excavations at Hare Harbor, he found colorful glass trade beads mixed in with distinctive Basque iron implements. Trade beads were used as currency by the Basque and other Europeans in their dealings with indigenous tribes.
Analysis indicated these beads had been manufactured between 1680 and 1720 -- and provided the first evidence that the Basques had continued to travel to Canada into the early 18th century. (See our previous post on Millefiori Beads for more info if you are interested in this subject; such beads were made throughout Europe, with the Venetians dominating production. The beads were highly valued and frequently used as a currency for goods and services, and also to ease the passage of European explorers and traders.)
Fitzhugh's second major discovery at the site was a stash of toys carved from soapstone, a form of Inuit handiwork. "That's when we knew we had an Inuit family living at the site. Like the Basques, the Inuits hunted whales in the region, as well as seals and walruses. Historical accounts from the era suggest that contact between Basques and Inuit was limited and hostile. The Inuit had been known to raid abandoned Basque stations for small boats, iron weapons and cookware. But no-one had ever guessed that at times, the Basques and Inuit may have lived together on occasion -- until's Fitzhugh's discovery.
It appears at least one Basque family hired an Inuit family to help them in summertime, and employed them to guard their site over the winter. Unfortunately, such cooperation was likely shortlived. By 1700, French traders had arrived in Canada and they, local Indians, and the Inuit came into conflict. In 1728, a French commander recorded the death of an Inuit family in one such rade. Fitzhugh believes the Frenchman might have been writing about the very family whose household he found at Hare Harbor. Sadly, the massacre was so notorious that it may have led to a nickname the harbor had for many years: "Eskimo Harbor".
I appreciate Fitzhugh's discoveries very much. I like to think of the happy times between the Basque and Inuit families, living together, delighting and sharing in the beautiful glass beads and the laughter of children. Perhaps the children of the families even played together in the beauty of a Canadian summer.
Until next time,
Note: you can read more at the Smithsonian's 'The Basques Were Here' article as well.