First Contacts Along the East Coast

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First Contacts Along the East Coast


Newfoundland Fisheries. The first Western Europeans to reach North America in the late fifteenth century may have been fishermen from Bristol in western England. Certainly Christopher Columbus spoke with Bristol fishermen and gathered information from them before sailing across the Atlantic for the first time in 1492. Drawn to the fish-laden waters off the Newfoundland coast, fishing fleets from the Atlantic ports of England, France, Spain, and Portugal sailed yearly in search of cod, the inexpensive beef of the sea. Their cargo filled the bellies of Europes armies, navies, and poor and stocked the tables of obedient Catholics on the 165 meatless days in the Churchs liturgical calendar. By the early sixteenth century more than one hundred ships frequented Newfoundlands coastal bays and inlets, processing and drying their catch for shipment to European markets at the close of the season. The discovery of the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks in the 1530s only increased the traffic between Americas North Atlantic coast and Europe. These regular seasonal visits to northeastern North America initiated the first sustained contacts between Europeans and the indigenous inhabitants of the region surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Basques. The Basques of southwestern France and the western Pyrenees of Spain were among the first

to frequent the fishing grounds of the North American coast. Well known as accomplished seafarers, whalers, and fishermen in medieval Europe, their shipbuilding techniques were among the most advanced in Europe. Whaling in the Gulf of Biscay was crucial to their economy as early as the eleventh century, and by the early fifteenth century they were apparently engaged in fishing and whaling in Icelandic waters. Basques reached Newfoundland and Canada in the first decades of the sixteenth century, making seasonal summer voyages for cod and frequently staying well into the winter for whaling. While French Basques focused their efforts on the cod fishery, those from Spain sent much larger ships for whaling. At the height of the Newfoundland trade in the sixteenth century twenty to thirty ships brought two thousand Basques to work out of the ports of Labrador and Newfoundland each season. Although they came to the area primarily for whales and cod, they also established a thriving trade with the local natives.

Sixteenth-century Trade. Most fishermen engaged in the cod fishery practiced dry fishing, which required that the fresh catch be flayed and dried upon stages ashore before being packed for shipment. Many also brought along winter crews of boatbuilders and scaffold-men who remained in the area during the winter months preparing for the arrival of the next seasons fishing fleet. In addition nearly all European ships had to put ashore every few weeks for repairs and provisioning. If the arrival of large floating islands peopled by strangely dressed men did not sufficiently arouse native curiosity, their presence on shore certainly merited investigation, and a cautious exchange of goods and informationas well as the occasional arrow or musket ballsoon began. As familiarity grew, a regular trade in furs and European goods and foodstuffs was quickly established. Furs and hides made welcome additions to cargoes of cod and whale products for fishermen and merchants trying to maximize profits, particularly when they could be purchased with items of little value to Europeans. Most commonly mentioned as items desired by the Indians are metal tools and utensils, clothing, bread, ships biscuits, liquor, and decorative trinkets and beads. Apparently, individual seamen unofficially conducted much of this early trade in furs, but by the mid sixteenth century fishing vessels regularly left Europe stocked with merchandise taken for the express purpose of trading with the natives. In the early seventeenth century French fishing crews were notorious for practically selling their ships out from under their captains in attempts to accumulate private cargoes of furs for sale in European markets on their return home.

Basque-Indian Relations. Among the various European groups engaged in the sixteenth-century fishing and fur trades, the Basques seem to have enjoyed particularly good relations with the native inhabitants of the area surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In addition to trading, natives apparently occasionally worked side-by-side with Basque fishermen. Montagnais along the banks of the St. Lawrence River helped them exploit the fish on the coast in exchange for a little cider and a piece of bread. Basque whalers found the Beothuks of Newfoundland ready to assist them with great labour and patience in the killing, cutting, and boiling of whales without expectation of other reward, then [sic ] a little bread, or some such small hire. Basques and Native Americans also apparently shared other common activities, including feasting and possibly playing games. According to several European sources, Basques also occasionally took natives home to Europe with them. Messamouet, a Micmac chief from the region east of the St. John River, visited Bayonne, a seaport in southwestern France just north of the Spanish border, sometime before 1580 as the houseguest of the French Basque mayor. Another Micmac chief claimed to have been baptized in Bayonne before 1611. Most of these sojourns were apparently voluntary and temporary and fostered rather than impeded the growth of a stable, friendly relationship between the Basques and the coastal inhabitants.

Jargons and Pidgins

Jargons And pidgins are languages that emerge in the special circumstances found during the early stages of intercultural contact. They arise as makeshift adaptations, usually in response to specific communication needs such as those surrounding trade. As a result most are short-lived, quickly replaced by true bilingualism if the contact continues and intensifies. Basically, a pidgin is a greatly reduced or simplified form of a language that is typically used between speakers of different languages who do not share a tradition of bilingualism. All areas of the base language are reduced: inflection is eliminated; vocabulary is limited; and pronunciation is simplified. Pidgins are also hybrid, or mixed, languages. While the grammar, syntax, and morphology (rules of word formation) may generally be a simplified version of one language, the lexicon, or vocabulary, often includes words and parts of words taken from all of the languages in contact. Ultimately, a true pidgin is not the native language of any of its speakers and usually is unintelligible to speakers of the languages from which it is derived; in other words, it must be learned. Three stages of pidginization can be distinguished. Jargons (normally trade jargons) have very small vocabularies, almost no grammar, and are suitable for communication on only a very limited range of topics. Pidgins are jargons that have been fleshed out. They have rules of grammar and syntax and greatly expanded vocabularies, often consisting of loan words from the parent languages, and can be used to discuss almost any topic. Pidgins that become the native language of a speech community are called creóles. Europeans and native North Americans developed several pidgins during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, among them the Basque-Algonquian Pidgin used in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland; the Pidgin Unami Delaware used throughout the Hudson and Delaware Valleys; Pidgin Massachusetts, used among the Indians of southern New England; and Pidgin Virginia Algonquian, used by the early settlers of Virginia.

Sources: Ives Goddard, The Delaware Jargon, in New Sweden in America, edited by Carol E. Hoffecker and others (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995), pp. 137149;

John A. Holm, Pidgins and Creoles, volume 1: Theory and Structure, Cambridge Language Surveys (Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Basque-American Indian Pidgin. Trade between Europeans and native North Americans required communication. Finding themselves without a shared language, they first resorted to body language in the form of signs, gestures, and facial expressions. Since such corporeally demonstrative tongues are as open to cultural interpretation and influence as are spoken ones, misunderstandings no doubt occurred. For trade, which involved concrete objects, pointing, counting, and nodding probably sufficed most of the time. Similarly, facial expressions undoubtedly conveyed basic human emotions quite clearly. As contact intensified, however, more sophisticated methods were required to express ideas and abstractions less closely tied to the material world. Perhaps as a result of the particularly close relations between the Basques and the natives of the St. Lawrence area, Basque formed the basis of the oldest known trade language in eastern North America. The earliest allusion to the existence of this pidgin, which was used for more than a century, dates to 1542. According to Basque fishermen questioned in 1710, this Basque-American Indian pidgin was composed of Basque and two different languages of the Indians, predominantly Micmac and Montagnais. The grammar of this language consisted of simplified Basque rules for word formation and syntax while the vocabulary, or lexicon, contained words from Basque, Portuguese, French, and several Algonquian languages. The first French settlers on the St. Lawrence during the early seventeenth century learned this pidgin from the natives and continued to employ it for trade for many years. Marc Lescarbot, who encountered the Micmacs in Acadia in the early years of the century, noted that in addition to a language of their own, known only to themselves, they spoke to the French in a language which is more familiar to us, with which much Basque is mingled. In fact, in Lescarbots opinion, the language of the coast tribes was half Basque. Another French observer, Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune, who worked among the Montagnais in the 1630s, reported that in studying their language he had discovered a certain jargon between the French and the Savages, which is neither French nor Indian. To further confuse matters for this early linguist, when the French use it, they think they are speaking the Indian tongue, and the Savages, in using it, think that they are speaking good French. The facts that the pidgin words orignal (moose) and tabagie (tobacco store) found their way into Québécois French and that a number of Canadian place-names have a Basque etymology are further indications that the early settlers used the pidgin. Such survivals were not onesided, however, since two words of Basque origin, atlai (shirt) from Basque atorra and elege (king) from Basque errege, are still used in Micmac.

Coastal Algonquians

European fishermen and explorers of the eastern North American coast encountered a great variety of indigenous peoples who spoke a babel of different languages. Most of these distinct tongues, however, belonged to just four or five language families, or groups of related languages: Eastern Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan-Catawba, Timucuan, and Muskogean. Along the coast and immediately inland, from the Canadian Maritimes to North Carolina, the native inhabitants spoke Eastern Algonquian languages. Consequently they are often referred to collectively as Coastal Algonquians. Although the languages of the Coastal Algonquians exhibit considerable diversity, each shared features with its immediate neighbors and often a certain amount of mutual intelligibility. In addition, neighboring groups often had cultural traits in common, which also fostered intergroup communication. The primary languages included within this eastern branch of the larger Algonquian family are Micmac (Canadian Maritimes); Maliseet-Passamaquoddy (western New Brunswick and eastern Maine); Etchemin (Maine coast between the Kennebec and St. John rivers); Eastern Abenaki (central and western Maine); Western Abenaki (probably the upper Connecticut River Valley); Massachusetts (southeastern New England coast and islands); Narragansett (southern Rhode Island); Mohegan-Pequot (Connecticut, east of the Connecticut River); Mahican or Mohican (upper Hudson River Valley); Munsee (western Long Island and southeastern New York); Unami (southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania); Nanticoke (Chesapeake coast of Maryland); Powhatan (James and York River drainages in Virginia); and Carolina Algonquian (northeastern North Carolina). Once Europeans moved farther inland, they encountered other eastern language families, predominantly Iroquoian speakers in the northeast and Siouan-Catawba speakers in interior Virginia and North Carolina. In the Southeast the surviving evidence is less clear, but at least two language families have been identified: Timucuan in central and eastern Florida and Muskogean along the northeastern gulf coast of Florida, the interior of Alabama, northwestern Georgia, and eastern Louisiana.

Sources: Ives Goddard, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 17: Languages (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996);

Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 15: Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

Native Middlemen. European trade goods, trade practices, and, apparently, variants of Basque pidgin spread down the coast of Maine and into the interior of North America along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes waterways during the sixteenth century. Archaeologists have discovered metal tips from belaying pins, spiral brass earrings worn by Basque sailors, and ships bolts and rigging rings on sixteenth-century Seneca sites on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, items apparently carried there by native travelers or traders long before Europeans penetrated the interior of the continent. By the early seventeenth century and probably before, Algonquian entrepreneurs bartered furs for European goods in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in turn traded them for more furs along the coast of Maine. In 1580 English explorer John Walker landed in Penobscot Bay and took from an unattended building on shore more than two hundred dried moose hides. Such a large store concentrated in a single structure probably indicated that the hides were intended for trade with the Europeans fishing to the northward rather than for the local inhabitants. Twenty years later a member of explorer Bartholomew Gosnolds company recorded an encounter with several Micmacs off the coast of Cape Neddick, Maine. The party included six Indians in a baske [Basque] shallop [whaling boat] with a mast and saile, an iron grapple, and a kettle of copper [who] came boldly aboard us, one of them apparrelled with a waistcoat and breeches of black serge [woolen cloth], made after our seafashion, hose and shoes on his feet. In addition to their European appearance and accoutrements these Indians could name Placentia of the New foundland and spoke divers

Christian words. During the next decade other explorers in the area recorded similar encounters with shallop-sailing Indians, clothed in bits and pieces of European apparel, speaking Basque pidgin, and desiring to barter their stores of skins for European food and trade goods. As these native middlemen carried European merchandise along indigenous trade routes, knowledge of the newcomers spread, laying the foundation for future intercultural encounters and communication along the eastern coast of North America.


James Axtell, At the Waters Edge: Trading in the Sixteenth Century, in his After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 144181;

Emerson W. Baker and others, eds.,American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994);

Peter Bakker, The Language of the Coast Tribes Is Half Basque: A Basque-American Indian Pidgin in Use between Europeans and Native Americans in North America, ca. 1540-ca. 1640, Anthropological Linguistics, 31 (1989): 117143;

Ives Goddard, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 17: Languages (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996).

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First Contacts Along the East Coast

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