By Robert J. Galbraith 2008.
In October 2005, Quebec City archaeologist Yves Chretien, was conducting what he thought would be a routine archaeological survey on a bluff overlooking the St Lawrence River. But what he found on that cool October day was anything but routine. Chretien had stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological mysteries in North American history; the remains of the oldest French settlement on the continent; Charlesbourg-Royal, built in 1541 by French navigator and explorer, Jacques Cartier.
Located in a suburb just 10 km’s from historic Quebec City, the find is being heralded as the most important archaeological discovery made in North America since the 1000-year-old Viking village, Anse-Aux-Meadows, was discovered in the coastal province of Newfoundland in the early 1960’s.
Charlesbourg-Royal is the location of the first attempt at founding a permanent colony in the America’s; older than the first European settlement in the United States; that being St. Augustine, Florida, dated to 1565.
“This is where the Europeans made their first attempts at colonizing the continent north of Mexico. There is no comparable site in North America for this time period,” explained Chretien. “This is where it all started.”
With the ongoing archaeological exploration, the site is expected to unravel many lingering questions about what happened to the fortress and its inhabitants; made up of nobles, doctors, priests, carpenters, iron workers, farmers, apothecaries, craftsmen, tailors and ex-convicts, (who had been plucked right out of prisons in France).
What is incredible, but not unheard of in the field of archaeology, is that Chretien had uncovered the missing link to the 465-year-old Cartier-Roberval site by sheer accident.
He had been conducting a routine archaeological survey prior to the building of a proposed public lookout on a promontory of land situated 100 metres above the convergence of the St Lawrence and Cap Rouge Rivers.
Working alone, Chretien was digging a small test pit where the lookout was to built, when he uncovered a quarter-sized piece of colourful European pottery, something he had never seen before. In the back of his mind he had a hunch that it may be from the Cartier-Roberval site, but he wasn’t certain or convinced. After all, archaeologists had been looking for this site in this region for over 50 years.
The lookout had been planned as part of the City of Quebec’s 400th anniversary in 2008, celebrating its founding in 1608, by French explorer and cartographer, Samuel de Champlain.
Later that evening, he researched the fragment on the Internet and found an inventory of historic ceramics that showed an identical polychrome faience plate, made in Italy and dating to the mid-16th century.
“When Yves found the polychrome shard, we realized that we had a fragment of an “Istoriato” plate, manufactured in Faenza, Italy, between 1540 and 1550,” explained Pierre LaHoud, an official at the Quebec Ministry of Culture. It was a history defining moment. “There have been a lot of surveys done in the area with no success, but we always knew it was there somewhere. Now we have it, and it’s one of the most beautiful and important sites we’ve seen and one of the most important pages in Canadian history.”
Chretien says that with the discovery of the Cartier-Roberval site, his life has changed dramatically. “Yes definitely, it has really changed my life. Prior to this find, I worked alone and quietly as an archaeologist, now I have become a public director, handling interviews with journalists and showing other historians and government officials the site and describing the dig. Everybody wants to visit it and talk with us about the discovery,” stated the effervescent 43-year-old French Canadian archaeologist.
Chretien and his colleagues have barely scratched the surface of the 750-square-meter site, but already they have found over 150 objects, including glass beads, ceramics, burnt wood and mortar, forged nails, a ring, an axe, a shard of Iroquoian pottery and crucibles used in melting metals. Radiocarbon tests conducted on seven burned wood samples found inside the site confirm that the location dates from the mid-16th century.
Another key to the site’s age comes from a shard of St Lawrence Iroquoian pottery found mixed amongst the European artifacts. “When Cartier was establishing his settlement, the St Lawrence Iroquoian inhabited the region. So we knew they were in the area prior to the 1600’s, but by the time Champlain arrived in 1608, these people had disappeared from the entire region. This piece of Iroquoian pottery, along with the carbon dating and the polychrome faience shard, supports the site as being pre-16th century” says LaHoud.
Cartier actually built two settlements in close proximity at the same time, one for the nobles and one for the workers. The second is yet to be discovered and is believed to be only a stone’s throw away from this site, perhaps on the nearby shores of the St Lawrence or Cap Rouge Rivers. Archaeologists are keeping a close eye open for any evidence of the second fort that may come to the surface during road and home construction in the direct vicinity of this site, perhaps even within view of this site. The short-lived colony only lasted from 1541 to1543.
Cartier abandoned the settlement after surviving a brutal winter and returned to France in 1542. On his return, he met the Sieur de Roberval in St John’s harbor, Newfoundland. Roberval had been sent to replace Cartier as colony leader and ordered Cartier back to the infant colony. But Cartier couldn’t stand the thought of his colony being led by Roberval and against his orders to return to the colony with him, Cartier secretly slipped out of port that evening for France, leaving behind Roberval and the nearly 200 settlers Roberval had brought along.
Regardless, Roberval sailed on to the settlement, which he renamed France-Roy. During that bitter winter of 1542-43, scurvy claimed the lives of 50 settlers. Six men were hanged for theft and other charges (the first public executions of Europeans in North America) and more were flogged for misconduct. Roberval was a hated man by the settlers and their relationship with the native people had turned sour, threatening the colony further. (Archaeologists believe that as many as 85 settlers may be buried in or very close to the fort-settlement).
In the spring of 1543, the iron-fisted Roberval decided it was prudent to get out of New France while he still could, sailing back to France with the remaining colonists. But before leaving, he burned the colony to the ground to prevent it from falling into the hands of France’s rival, the Spanish.
No further attempts at colonizing New France in the St Lawrence region would happen until 65 years later, with the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1608, who established the colony of “l’Habitation” where Quebec City now stands. This fortress/residence was built to house 28 people, of which during the first winter, 20 of the 28 men died.
However, an earlier colony was established by Pierre Du Gua de Monts (de Champlain accompanied him as his cartographer) on Isle Ste Croix (1603-1604), now in Maine, but it only lasted one winter when 35 out of 79 colonists died of scurvy. After this failure, in 1605 the settlement of Port Royal, Acadia was established, (again by de Monts) in the Annapolis Basin of Nova Scotia. This colony was destroyed by British military forces in 1613.
The Cartier-Roberval site is to be the object of an extensive archaeological dig, with the Quebec government investing $8 million into the project over the next three years. Part of the site will be open to the public during the 2008 Champlain celebrations, while the excavations are expected to continue for at least the next ten years. An interpretation center is also slated to be built to house the artifacts and to serve as an educational facility.
This article is dedicated in memory of Montreal archaeologist Mario Bergeron, who died on December 15, 2010 while excavating the site of Canada’s first Parliament building, in Old Montreal.