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Port Au Choix, Newfoundland: Once Home to Four First Nation Cultures

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Canada has a rich archaeological heritage. There are many sites from early First Nations cultures and the first European settlers. This means that there are a great variety of archaeological sites in Canada. One of the best examples of the richness of Canada’s varied past is Port au Choix, which has only been recognized in recent decades. The small port was established as a national historic site in 1970, in recognition of its rich history.

Where is Port au Choix?

The port was only incorporated as a town in 1966 and it has a population of less than 1000. It is situated in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The small town of Port au Choix is located on a peninsula in the north-west of Newfoundland.  The name of the town comes from the Basque word for a ‘little port’.

Port Au Choix is Well Known for Hikes through Exquisite Beauty

Port au Choix is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The town has many attractions, from historic monuments to a lighthouse. It is possible to visit the archaeological sites in the area, which are located outside the town.  Many visitors go on hikes through the remarkable limestone landscape around the town. During these, they can visit an ancient First Nation settlement and a burial site that are very important in the history of Canada. There are also rare artic flowers to be seen on these hikes.

Port au Choix lighthouse (Public Domain)

Port au Choix lighthouse ( Public Domain )

If you would prefer something more leisurely you can visit the Port au Choix visitor center, which is open nearly all year round. At the center it is possible to visit interactive exhibits and see a recreation of a First Nation village from the Dorset Culture . There are many artifacts from the two important archaeological sites in the area on display at the Visitor Center, which was established in 2001. Visitors can see artifacts from the four First Nation cultures which flourished here before the coming of the Europeans.

History of Port au Choix

This small town is a special place for those who love history. It is estimated that it has been inhabited for about 6000 years. Port Au Choix is near great fishing grounds and there is also a large seal population. The area, because of its natural resources, has drawn fishermen and hunters for thousands of years.  There have been four ancient First Nation cultures who have inhabited the general area where the town is located and extensive remains of these cultures have been found in the hinterland of the town. In particular, there have been two very important archaeological finds in Port au Choix.

In the 1950s, a large site that is believed to have belonged to the people of the Dorset Culture was uncovered. The site had the remains of houses with outdoor hearths. A great many tools, ornament, and artifacts were discovered and this provided experts with a great deal of insight into the Paleo-Eskimo society that flourished in the north of Canada from 500 BC to 1500 AD. Experts have dated the site to about 200-600 AD.  

In the 1960s, archaeologists uncovered a burial site that belonged to the Maritime Archaic Culture. This site provided experts with a treasure trove of grave goods, including religious objects and weapons. The site again helped researchers to identify and define the Maritime Archaic Culture. The people were expert fishermen and engaged in long-distance maritime trade.

Port au Choix Dorset meeting place (CC BY 4.0)

Port au Choix Dorset meeting place ( CC BY 4.0 )

The arrival of the Europeans disrupted the First Nation societies in Newfoundland. It appears that the native people largely disappeared sometime before or during the period when the first Europeans settled in Canada. It has been speculated that new diseases introduced by Europeans, or climate change were responsible for their decline.

The first Europeans to settle the area were from the Basque region of France. They were expert fishermen and Port au Choix became a major fishing port in the 1500s. Later the French established a station in the area. After the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1713), France was awarded exclusive fishing rights in this area and this part of Canada became known as the ‘French Shore’ and there is a monument in the town which commemorates this historic event. In the 19 th century, French and English fishermen occasionally clashed over fishing rights in the seas around Port au Choix. Today, the town is still an important fishing port and is regarded as the fishing capital of Western Newfoundland.

French Shore plaque (CC BY 3.0)

French Shore plaque ( CC BY 3.0 )

Getting to Port Au Choix

There is a small airport some three miles (5 kilometers) from the town. Most visitors arrive in Newfoundland by air or ferry and drive to the town as part of a tour of the area.  Port au Choix is quite accessible. There are also many amenities in the town for visitors and there are some great restaurants. There is plenty of accommodation near Port au Choix with a motel and an RV park.  

Top image: Newfoundland                            Source: ( Public Domain )

By Ed Whelan

References

Renouf, M.A.P. 1993. P alaeoeskimo seal hunters at Port au Choix, Northwestern Newfoundland . Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 9(2).

Available from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/viewFile/941/1294

Renouf, M.A.P. ed. 2011. The cultural landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact hunter-gatherers of northwestern Newfoundland . Springer Science & Business Media (Google Books)

Tuck, J.A. 1971. An archaic cemetery at Port au Choix, Newfoundland . American Antiquity, 36(3), pp.343-358.

Available from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-antiquity/article/an-archaic-cemetery-at-port-au-choix-newfoundland/0EFDEBC91CF69E4D831E79555CFEF559

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