Fort York or York Fort, Labrador

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.

Fort York or York Fort (1988?)
Fort York or York Fort. (1988?) – scanned slide – source unknown
Fort York plan (Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador)
Fort York plan. (Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and 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.

Fort York from the air
Fort York from the air. – Scanned slide – source unknown
Fort York from the ground. One of the points of the fort can be seen on the left.
Fort York from the ground. One of the points of the fort can be seen on the left. – Scanned slide – source unknown
Part of a stone wall of the Fort.
Part of a stone wall of the Fort. – Scanned slide – source unknown

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.

Painting of Mikak and her son Tukauk by John Russell in 1769.
Painting of Mikak and her son Tukauk by John Russell in 1769.

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.

Collected artifacts from Fort York - Iron nails and an unidentified piece of iron.
Collected artifacts from Fort York – Iron nails and an unidentified piece of iron.
Collected artifacts from Fort York - Glass bottle neck & base
Collected artifacts from Fort York – Glass bottle neck & base
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
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25 thoughts on “Fort York or York Fort, Labrador

  1. Wow! Awesome pictures, and great post. I was thinking about Mikak when I started reading this also – glad to see this part of her story presented here. Amazing site!

    1. They are nice shots. I was going to just post about the fort and how it seems to be in great condition. Then I found out about it’s role with Mikak and that made it all the better and more important!

    1. Yeah, I saw a few shots of the fort a few years ago from the air but these are somewhat better. It seems to be in awesome condition except for some water issues but that may be just a seasonal thing. Of course the wet may help with preservation too.

  2. This blog will help to put some momentum into my work on Chateau Bay. After our 1986 field season in that beautiful place, I always intended to write a history of it. By the early 2000s, it was still on my mind when I had the opportunity to fly over and a generous helicopter company allowed a brief landing to take measurements, note the poor drainage, and the fact that there are garden drills set into a section of the embankment. The fort has been known to the province for many years; in 1986 there was a provincial plaque already in place, which is still there but somewhat worse for wear and containing some incorrect information. Not long ago, I came across new documentation on Chateau Bay, which prompted me to finally get started on that paper. A first draft is finished and I can only hope that another decade won’t go by before it’s in print. I’ll count on you to keep me to the grindstone, Steve.

    1. Thanks for the comment Marianne.
      I made it up to Mary’s Harbour 2 years ago and that is as far north as I have been in Labrador. Despite this, I have to say I love the place, southern Labrador; it is easily my favourite place in the Province, so much history, beautiful land and friendly people. A history of Chateau Bay would be very interesting, a lot of very interesting events took place in the area. I look forward to reading the Chateau Bay history.
      So are these shots from the work you did with R. Auger? Is the drainage a problem seasonally, a spring melt off thing, or is the site wet most of the time?

  3. Great article. I’ve visited the site a few times, mid to late summer, no evidence of water at the site during that time of year. It would be great to have more work done on the site!

    1. Glad you liked the article. Thanks for the comment Jamie, I was curious if the water was just a seasonal thing.

  4. Couple of things: The fort supposedly had an interior well for water. This should be easy to confirm archaeologically. It also had a palisade and moat around the blockhouse. The palisade had raised gun emplacements for canons on each corner. Could this be what you’re seeing in the aerial photos? Also, when midshipman Francis Lucas had charge of the fort over the winter of 1767-68, when Mikak and the other captives were there, Palliser had instructed him to keep a journal. I’ve never been able to find a copy, or if such a journal exists. Have any of you Mikak scholars come across it? If not, it might make a fruitful research project for you.

    1. Those are interesting facts, thanks for the comment.
      An interior well should be easy to find. The raised gun emplacements could be what are visible in the photos. I’ve never heard of the Lucas journal being found. I know there is a woman doing her PhD at MUN right now focusing on Labrador Inuit and at least partially on Mikak. I don’t know if she knows anything about the Lucas journal, would you like me to email you her contact information?

      1. I can’t find your name on the blog or I’d address you in person.

        If you mean Amelia Fay, I heard her talk on Mikak at the 2012 Inuit Studies Conference in DC but never had a chance to chat with her. Feel free to send her (or others who might be interested) my contact info, but she’s probably aware of me and would know how to reach me if she thought I might have any information of use to her. As for me, I’m done with my Mikak research and focused now on turning it into good fiction and getting it published. Though I’m interested in corresponding with Mikak historians (I’m not an archaeologist) and curious about the journal, finding it would mean I’d have to rethink and rewrite a large chunk of a novel I’ve already devoted way too much time on. I’m glad the topic has inspired so much interest now, and that this will unearth a lot of new information, but I happily leave it to Amelia’s generation to make the new discoveries and write the next books.

        Lynne

      2. Yes I was referring to Amy. I’m glad you are aware of her work. Good luck with your writing.

  5. Great story Steve. I have an aerial shot of the Fort taken during the 1970s – a springtime shot that shows water as well. You’re welcome to have a scan of it if it’s of any use or interest.

  6. Wow! I had no idea it was in such good shape. I had always wondered about it…was hoping to get there this past summer, but the wind wouldn’t allow any change in plans when I was in the area.

    1. It seems to be in incredible shape other than some water and garden drills. Too bad you couldn’t get out there.

  7. Hi, I’m Paul Stone, a native of Henley Hr., Lab and have been to Fort York many times. I have been searching for info about the area and I/m glad that someone is doing something to give it the recognition it deserves. A lot of history in this area!. When we were children we use to hide in the then deep trenches as we berry-picked around the fort. there must be a wealth of info hidden somewhere on some dusty shelves.

    1. There is a lot of history in your area! The fort is just a small part of it. I’m glad you liked the post, feel free to share it with anyone you think may be interested.

  8. Hi All,
    I made a trip to Henley Hr (Chateau Bay) in the summer of 2002 and again in 2010 in our little boat the Lady ‘L’ from here in the Bay of Islands (near Corner Brook). I have an array of pictures to share if anyone wants them. We plan to return there this summer if I am well and able. It is just a fascinating place for me since my great grandmother was born in Pitt’s Arm and it has an amazing array of ghosts which you feel as soon as you step unto the wharf . I have also become an ardent student of the rich history of this particular bay and am looking forward to celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Inuit/European Treaty Event (1765) at Chateau Bay in 2015, being organized by the NunatuKavut Community Council. I hope you can all make it too.
    I am certainly looking forward to Marianne’s paper on the very eclectic history of this fabulous place!
    Cheers
    Greg Mitchell

  9. I taught school at Henley Harbour / Pitts Arm in the late 1950 ‘s. I , as a young man , was not aware of the historical signifigance of the area until much later in my life..I have been back there often since but to my shame I did not explore the area. I still have strong ties to Henley Harbour as I married Stella Stone a sister to Paul Stone who I believe knows more of the Chateau Bay / Temple Bay history then a lot of the academics of the present time

    1. Thank-you for the comment. I have never been in Henley Harbour, but I have seen many photos, it is a beautiful area.
      It very often is the case that the locals who grow up in an area are more aware of the history around them than anyone else.

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