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Thread: Pottery shard unearths North America’s first French settlement

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    Pottery shard unearths North America’s first French settlement

    One of the greatest archeological mysteries in Canadian history — the precise whereabouts of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s 1541 settlement near present-day Quebec City — has been solved after experts matched the shard of a broken plate found at suburban Cap Rouge with an identical, 465-year-old porcelain treasure held by the famed Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

    The startling discovery of Cartier’s short-lived Fort Charlesbourg-Royal, announced Friday by Quebec Premier Jean Charest and quickly hailed as the most important find in Canada since a 1,000-year-old Viking village was unearthed in northern Newfoundland in the early 1960s, is expected to shed light on many lingering questions about what exactly happened to North America’s earliest French settlement.

    The fort was built during Cartier’s third and last voyage to Canada where the Cap Rouge River runs into the St. Lawrence.

    “On both sides of the said River there are very good and fair grounds, full of as fair and mighty trees as any be in the world, and diverse sorts, which are above ten fathoms higher than the rest,” says an account of the site attributed to Cartier. “At the mouth of it toward the East there is a high and steep cliff, where we made a way in manner of a pair of stairs, and aloft we made a Fort.”

    After the explorer returned to France in 1542, the French nobleman Sieur de Roberval took command at Charlesbourg-Royal, but it was abandoned in 1543 after disease, foul weather and hostile natives drove the would-be settlers to despair. Documents detailing the fort’s two-year existence are scanty, and historians have long craved further information about one of Canadian history’s seminal episodes.

    The discovery of the remains, including aboriginal pottery, may also offer clues to the fate of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, the natives Cartier encountered during his landmark voyages to Canada but who had disappeared by the end of the 1500s.

    “The site is very extensive, and very important,” said Yves Chretien, the 43-year-old provincial archeologist who discovered the fort last year while excavating at the site of a proposed scenic lookout on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River. “We will be going over it very, very slowly — with a toothbrush.”

    Chretien told CanWest News Service on Monday that pieces of charred wood about 30 centimetres below the surface were the first signs that he and his team had found traces of a historic building.

    “I was aware of the archeological potential,” he said, “but researchers had been looking for this site for more than 50 years, so I would say I had little hope.”

    But faint hope turned to pure excitement when the bit of broken plate, painted blue and evidently centuries old, was exposed in a test pit.

    “My initial thought was that I didn’t know that kind of material. So I did a quick Internet search to try to identify that kind of ceramic.”

    The hunt led, via a U.S.-based scholarly inventory of historic ceramics, to the Hermitage and a decorative “Istoriato” plate manufactured in Faenza, Italy, between 1540 and 1550.

    The same flowery blue swirls found on the four-centimetre fragment from the dig site at Cap Rouge could be seen on the intact example in Russia.

    “It matched perfectly,” Chretien recalled.

    Because such a plate would only have been owned in the 1500s by a wealthy, cultured member of the French nobility, Chretien suspects it might have belonged to Roberval himself.

    Further radiocarbon tests on six wood samples were conducted at a U.S. laboratory this summer. When the results brought further confirmation that the site dated from the mid-16th century, “we got the green light” to announce the discovery, said Denis Angers, spokesman for the provincial agency that oversees the development of Quebec’s capital.

    “It’s absolutely a dream,” he added. “We found the lost colony.”

    Archeological evidence of a European presence in North America prior to 1600 is extremely rare. Such coveted sites in Canada include the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, N.L., a UNESCO World Heritage site, sunken ships and other traces of a 16th-century Basque fishery at Red Bay, Labrador, and remnants of a building and mining activity on Kodlunarn Island, Nunavut, from English sailor Martin Frobisher’s 1577 voyage to the Arctic.

    Despite the failure of the Charlesbourg-Royal settlement, Cartier’s explorations along the St. Lawrence River opened the interior of Canada to French control. In 1608, the legendary Samuel de Champlain established France’s first enduring settlement — Quebec City — at a site not far from Cartier’s abandoned fort.


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    ...North America"s first French settlement

    Later, in the early 17th century, there was briefly a French Jesuit settlement on Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. As I recall, the Jesuits, before fleeing, were abused and mutilated by the Indians who considered them transvestites.

    Of especial interest to this forum, though perhaps not relevant to this thread, is something which I remember from about 35 years ago. I recall seeing a bronze(?) plaque on the face of a cliff on the Atlantic side of Mt. Desert Island which purported to mark the site of a Viking landing on that island.

    When I was last there, perhaps about 10 years ago, I could find only one person at the Acadia National Park ranger station who "seemed to remember" such a thing but did not know its location . I couldn't find it myself during that visit, but I had too little time to search for it.

    Perhaps Allenson has heard of it and could enlighten us, especially me.

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