Many things have changed in archaeology since I started in the discipline in the mid 1990s. Computers were used heavily when I started but now they have become almost as important as a good trowel. Other tools such as a GPS and a digital camera are as commonplace as a shovel and screen. When I started in archaeology, I took a course at Memorial University in which I learned how to use a manual camera for shooting slide and film photos. At that time, many archaeologists would use two cameras in the field, one for slides and one for black & white or colour shots. I still have hundreds of slides at home of my work on my thesis site. Unfortunately, slides and slide projectors are now artifacts. Archaeologists who have been in archaeology longer than me must have thousands of slides. We recently had several hundred slides at the office converted to digital files. There are some nice shots which, over time, I’ll likely share on this blog. Most of these slides have no provenience information in terms of who took them or when. Therefore, if you recognize who took these photos can you let us know so we can give proper credit to the photographer.
A few of the shots stood out to me because they are shots of sites that I wanted to write a blog post on but I had few or no shots of the site. One of those was Fort York or York Fort (FaAx-09), Labrador – I have seen the name written both ways. I have seen a shot or two of the fort before but the half dozen slides that showed the fort that we had scanned suggest to me that this fort is in great condition archaeologically speaking with minimal disturbance. We suspect the shots were taken either during a survey of southern Labrador done by Reginald Auger & Marianne Stopp in the mid to late 1980s or possibly Callum Thomson took them on one of his trips to Labrador.
The fort was supposedly built on the foundation of an earlier French fort called Fort Baie-Chateau in 1766 in Chateau Bay, Labrador. There is also some information about York being built over a block-house that was referred to as Fort Pitt. However, this is not confirmed. Fort York’s construction was commissioned by the Governor of Newfoundland Hugh Palliser in part to improve relations with the local Inuit population, to increase the British merchant presence and decrease the presence of illegal New England whalers and privateers in the area.
According to a Palliser letter the fort was supposed to be one of several ‘strong block-houses’ constructed along the Labrador coast to protect English interests. Palliser wrote:“I have visited and examined York or Chaleaux Bay, with all its contained Harbours; And as This will always Be the principal Port on that Coast. If I am empower’d, I will undertake myself to see One of these Useful Block-Houses finish’d at that Place this year…” “I would propose to leave in these Block-Houses, either a Sea Officer with a Party of Seamen, or a Marine Officer with the like Number of Marines, belonging to the Stationed Ship (or a Detachment from the Garrison at St. John’s) such Officers and Men to be relieved Every Year. “6 or 7 Men in each or at the Most 10 Men, Officer included. fully sufficient… “Such Part of These Block-Houses, as are to be of Wood, may either be framed and prepared here, carried out, and Immediately set up there, or a proper Number of Workmen may be sent out in Each Frigate, and Build them with the Timber there, carrying such other Materials as may be wanted;… “I would therefore recommend that One Block-House on the a fore-mentioned Plan, this Year, be first erected of Wood, at York Bay… “
Palliser’s discussion of a blockhouse does not seem to match the evidence of a star shaped fort with stone foundations seen in the photos of Fort York. So it seems likely there was a Fort Pitt ‘block-house’ but we are not sure if it was under Fort York or somewhere nearby.
An American privateer named Grimes captured the fort in 1778. In 1796, after several days of bombardment by French ships the fort was again taken, this time by the French Admiral Richery. The English soldiers are reputed to have made a gallant attempt at defending the fort but finally were forced to retreat inland after destroying their stores.
The fort played a role in the life of a famous Inuit woman named Mikak. In 1767, she was captured with several other Inuit by English soldiers and brought to the fort. Mikak is a central figure in Labrador and Inuit history for several things including becoming an important Inuit trader, for learning English at the fort which helped her play a central role in helping establish the Moravian church in Labrador and for being one of the only Inuit to travel to and from Europe and not succumb to European diseases.
No one has conducted formal excavations at the site. One archaeologist (Dr. Stopp) has visited the site a few times and on one of those trips provided measurements for the fort; ~100 feet wide from both east to west and north to south. We are aware of one person who collected artifacts from the site in the late 1960s. These artifacts were turned over to The Rooms, Provincial Museum in 2011.References Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador Volume 2. Fort York. Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage http://www.heritage.nf.ca/exploration/labradorfishery.html Stopp, Marianne 2009 Eighteenth Century Labrador Inuit in England. http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic62-1-45.pdf Wikipedia – Mikak