A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 1, "Early Settlement & Baronial Battles: 1605-90."TOC
Chapter 2 - "Fish and Furs"

What I write here is but a very brief sketch of the earliest times of the north-western Atlantic fishery.1 If a book were to be written then it would be by and large a historical accounting of past facts. The book however would of necessity, open and end in speculation.2

Further along in this work (chapter 3), we will consider the early explorers, of which there is a written record; but, for now, we write of the fishermen of old, who, coming from western Europe, made their living in the waters and the shores of northeastern North America. No thought was made by these early fisherman to write of their experiences, nor was there any need for it. No one back in the old ports of western Europe was looking for written reports; what was looked for were the products contained in the holds of the returning vessels. On the docks, in season, would be found: the ivory and hides of the walrus; the long horn of the narwhal, the down of eider ducks; the skins of the beaver, the otter, the fisher, the martin, the mink, the muskrat and the bear (brown, black and white); and, of course, barrels and barrels of salted fish. No captain, owner, or investor was much interested in writing down where the vessel had been or how to get there; it served no commercial purpose to do so (indeed it would be the telling of a commercial secret), assuming in the first place that any of them could write.

We cannot now count or name3 the persons who preceded the Cabots. These unnamed men, well after the earlier voyages of the Norsemen, from the western ports of Europe came to the northeastern shores of North America for some considerable period of time before the traditional dates which can be found in history books. These unnamed men followed the traditions of a long line of fathers. The interest that these earlier seafarers had in the new world was something that was decidedly fishy. For you see, there were many hungry people back in Europe, and the waters off the coast of "new-found-land" teemed with great schools of cod, such that one could fill his boat with them, even if using the crudest of equipment; this was tempting news to any fisherman who had been plying his trade in the fished-out waters off the shores of France and England. Even though the stories of fishermen are notoriously untrustworthy, they nonetheless became the dreams of the young men who frequented the public places in such ports as Bristol in England and St. Malo in France. It was these dreams of these young men, like the dreams of young men in all times, that drove western European men to the far off shores of North America. The dangers of any long sail over the ocean was evident to all fishermen, but there are always risks when one sets out to make a living on the sea, whether a few miles off or a few thousand. So what if it's a long sail and you will not see your family for months - that's what "fishin' s'all about": and the promise that you could fill your boat with a short stay, drove many illiterate fisherman to the northern shores of America.

What is for sure, is that, by the opening of the 16th century, men were becoming aware of the huge catches of fish that could be had off the northeastern coast of North America:

This intelligence ran like wildfire through Europe, second only in importance to the finding of a previously unknown continent. Codfish were gold-fish in those spiced meat-eating days. Fleets flocked to this piscatorial eldorado. In 1504 probably 100 schooners, large and small, were on the Banks. As early as 1530 it has been stated 500 sail English, French and Portuguese, a few Dutch and Spanish, carrying 6,000 men, annually visited 'Baccalaos,' cod-land, in the spring, returning with cargoes in the fall. The home-coming was a gala event in maritime communities. It is possible women and clergymen occasionally accompanied the ships to Acadia and Newfoundland. ...
"The market was Europe. There was no temptation for families to migrate, and American winters were dreaded, the air being thought to cause sickness. From year to year the same harbours were usually resorted to for curing, without any conflict between groups.
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For the French and the Portuguese salt was abundant and they brought it out to the fishing grounds with them. In England, however, salt is not so readily available, indeed the English fishermen had to purchase it from their competitors. Back in the early days one either had a fresh fish or a rotten fish, unless it was pickled within a day or two of it being caught. It was a great boon to saltless countries when during "the third quarter of the 16th century the English developed a 'dry' method of preserving fish: cod was cleaned, lightly salted, and dried in the sun."5

With the shift to the "dry" fishery, came more shore exploration. The dry fishery "involved more prolonged contacts with the natives and even some certainty of return to a specific spot."6 However, up to the time of the founding of Port Royal, men rarely wintered over. Indeed, no one wanted to come and live year-round on these barren shores, which through the winter would often freeze up solid.7

It is easy to switch from fish to fur, for there is a connection. The fisherman who made their way from Europe would bring back with them in the fall a few furs which brought some immediate cash directly they landed at their home ports. These fishermen managed to get these few fur pelts right off the backs of the native Indians. As for the Indians, they were happy to make these spring trades as winter was coming to an end and kettles and knives were needed. But, initially, this trade was but a part time activity for the fishermen, one that went on for a number of years, but gradually full time fur traders came. These full time traders would have to get an early start in the spring if they were to make the best deals. The way to get a real early start in the spring, is, of course, to winter over; and so, there came into being year round settlements such as that which the French set up at Port Royal, to which we shall refer. Within a generation or two, as the 17th century progressed, the fur trade on the east coast dried up; not so much because the populations of the fur bearing animals sunk (I imagine they did) but more because the traders went further and further inland to seek out the Indian traders and their supplies. This chase for furs led the white man right across the continent. Thus, it was the northern fur bearing animals that were responsible for opening up the northern territories; indeed, the full extent of Canada became known before that of the western United States. In this context, one will have to consider the inland explorations as they expanded the western horizons of America. One might begin with Radisson and Groseilliers (1660); and then to continue on with Henry Kelsey (1690), La Verendrye (1730), Samuel Hearne (1770); and so many, many, others, most of whose names have now been lost to us. Though I am out of my current time frame, I should add that the long push west, ended, of course, with Alexander Mackenzie as he paddled down Dean's Channel on the western coast on the 22nd of July, 1793. Initially, however, it was the European fishermen who started the fur trade and it began on the east coast. Professor Brebner, in his work, The Explorers of North America makes the point:

"After 1543 the fisherman who resorted to Newfoundland and the Gulf saw the fur trade gradually develop. In the courts of Europe there was an eager demand for the princely marten-skins. Other furs and the hides of elk, deer and bears satisfied a less discriminating taste. Specifically, however, it was the hat-makers who became the stimulators in Europe of a demand for beaver-skins for which the first time came at all near to reciprocating the Indian demand for European goods. The precise requirements of the hat manufacture were somewhat technical, but the basic consideration was that the downy hairs of beaver fur possessed in unrivalled fashion the gift of natural coherence into an extremely durable felt.
"The beaver meadows nearest the coast suffered first, but northern North America with its wealth of water-ways provided relatively untouched areas farther on. Thus the hat-makers of Europe were transformed into the prime movers of an exchange in America which sucked into the interior the men who followed the ever-retreating 'beaver frontier' across the continent."
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As the native traps yielded fewer and fewer pelts the native trappers turned themselves into traders and went inland. The Europeans, following the age old custom of cutting out the middle man, "began to send their vessels up the river either to tap virgin sources of furs or to intercept the flow of them from the interior which the Gulf barter had already brought into being." This process started when in 1534 the merchants of St. Malo financed and sent Cartier off and continued beyond 1793 when, finally, MacKenzie, popped his nose out of the bushes and peered out into an arm of the Pacific ocean. And thus, America proceeded in its development; almost exclusively through private enterprise.

I finish this part with a sad note on Walruses, a quote from Quinpool:

In 1534 Jacques Cartier was the first to report an extensive walrus fishery in 'Acadian' waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which has practically become extinct, south of Greenland. The St. Malo navigator stated the Magdelen islands were surrounded with "many great beasts, like huge oxen, with teeth (tusks) like an elephant, that go in the sea." This is the first walrus or seacow record in America. Colonel Richard Gridley, Boston, was at the siege of Louisburg and at the fall of Quebec in 1759. He received a grant of the walrus fishery the French had conserved.
One of the earliest executive acts following erection of Prince Edward Island into a separate government in 1770 was an attempt to check destruction of the walrus fishery, which nevertheless, was finally ruined during the succeeding half-century. None have been taken for 100 years. These animals weighed up to 4,000 pounds. Oil from the blubber was fine quality, a little of the flesh was eaten, the rest thrown away or some used for fertilizer, while the skins were accounted valuable for harness and similar uses. After the War of Independence in 1783, Governor Patterson of St. John's Island (Prince Edward Island) advised British authorities: - "New England vessels are in a fair way to destroy the sea-cow fisheries, if there are not some steps taken to prevent them. The chief resort of these fish is about this island and the Magdalen islands."
Colonel Gridley, Magdalen islands, admitted killing 5,000 principally females, in a summer. The young were little value and were abandoned. Gridley's slaughter was mainly on land and out of season. He fled to Boston, when an order was issued for his arrest. Females, in the spring calving season, frequented shallow water or established themselves at sunny places on land. Relatively few males were taken, as they usually kept in deep water. If a calf was captured or killed, the mother would not leave the spot and became an easy victim. Fishing captains generally kept a calf on board and caused it to make noise to attract females.
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[NEXT: Chapter 3, Early European Explorers]

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