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Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada

The Iroquoians of the Québec Area

The inhabitants of the province of Canada undoubtedly belonged to the Iroquoian cultural universe, for which they served as eastern gatekeepers, so to speak. They shared traits which were common to all Iroquoians. However, they stood out from their kindred nations on a number of major accounts, owing to their particular geographic situation.

Late adoption of small-scale farming

Jacques Cartier's narratives provide remarkable descriptions of the crops of corn, beans and squash grown by the Iroquoians in the region surrounding Québec. Then as now, however, the local climate offers only a meagre average of 135 consecutive frost-free days, practically the minimum period required to grow corn in. The region's gardeners thus had little room to maneuvre in when weather conditions turned bad.

A drawing of two amerindian women preparing the corn. Corn-farming by pre-contact Iroquois.
© Videanthrop inc., Montréal

In Iroquoia, small-scale farming was first adopted around the 7th century A.D. by groups in southwestern Ontario. The practice gradually spread eastward during the subsequent centuries. In the case of Montréal, for example, the transition toward a mode of subsistence based on producing food commenced a short time after the year 1000 A.D. The Iroquoians in the Québec area (the Stadaconans) were in all likelihood the last Iroquoians to make this transition. The oldest archaeological vestiges of corn in the region were found at a site located in the Place Royale of Québec's Lower Town, and in another site located at Cap Tourmente. Both finds date to the 13th century.

The Iroquoians in the Québec area were slow to incorporate farming into their mode of subsistence, possibly on account of the climatic limitations of their northerly location. It would appear that their preference for game lasted longer than among the other Iroquoian nations. It is conceivable that in the period of Jacques Cartier's explorations, the transformation to an agricultural economy had not been entirely completed.

A case of adaptation to a marine environment among the Iroquoians

An amerindian family is baking the fish on a firecamp. Fishing by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, around 1300.
© Videanthrop inc., Montréal

The hunting economy continued to be of vital importance to the Québec area Iroquois even after they had adopted small-scale farming. Moreover, for having located to the area where the St. Lawrence River begins its transition into the sea, the Iroquoians of the region naturally continued to find many of their resources in the rich ecosystems of the estuary. There they hunted small marine mammals, especially the harp seal and the harbour seal, as well as small whales such as the beluga, and possibly porpoises. There they also fished for mackerel, sea sturgeon and other fish species, and harvested shellfishsoftshell clams in particular.

During his voyages, Cartier encountered a number of Iroquoians far from their home country. They demonstrated great familiarity with the regions comprising the estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Archaeological research has borne out this fact. At present, more than 20 Iroquoian sites have been discovered in the St. Lawrence estuary beyond the eastern boundaries of the province of Canada. Most of these sites were hunting camps, with most of them being located in two main areas on both sides of the St. Lawrence, in the vicinity of the mouth of the Saguenay River. The first such area extends along the Upper North Shore between Tadoussac and Les Escoumins, and the second is concentrated on Île Verte and Île aux Basques. Further to the east, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a sprinkling of Iroquoian sites have been found along the Middle and Lower North Shore as far as the Strait of Belle Isle. Along the southern shore of the St. Lawrence, no sign of Iroquoian presence has been found east of Bic, a town located near the beginning of the Gaspé peninsula.

The mobility of the Québec area Iroquoians

An additional feature demonstrates how the Québec Iroquoians had adapted to a marine environment, and that is the type of travel they engaged in. These Iroquoians regularly covered the area contained between the vicinity of present-day Québec and the mouth of the Saguenay River, a distance of about 200 km one way. It is also known that they travelled much further down the North Shore or as far as the tip of the Gaspé peninsula, where they encountered Cartier in 1534, making for a distance one way of about 700 km!

A group of amerindians in a canoe, on a river. Group movement by the Iroquoians.
© Videanthrop inc., Montréal

However, the most amazing fact of all is that the Stadaconans travelled in great numbers or in family groups. When Cartier first encountered the Iroquoians in Gaspé in July 1534, there were more than 200 of them in some 40 canoes. On the basis of the figures recorded by the navigator, each canoe thus held five travellers, not counting the space required for transporting supplies. Quite obviously, this was no hunting expedition or a war party involving only a few young men. Instead, it was a form of mobility that involved an entire segment of the population. Nomadism would be a misnomer in this case, as the remainder of the population continued to inhabit semi-permanent villages in the vicinity of present-day Québec and raised crops. Rather, this type of movement would appear to be a kind of transhumance, in other words, a form of migration between two distinct poles, whereby an autonomous portion of a population sets out from the villages during a particular season.

As for the Iroquoians from the province of Canada, they planted their corn in early summer, as soon as warm weather permitted, and then packed up, taking with them whatever supplies they had not consumed during the previous winter. Entire families set out by canoe toward the estuary or to even more remote destinations, where they took up the ancestral customs of seal-hunting and sea fishing customs which they refused to give up despite having integrated small-scale farming within their mode of subsistence for several centuries. At the end of the summer season, they returned home to the province of Canada. They then set about harvesting their corn, beans and squash, and preparing for the winter, when men organized hunting parties further inland. The following summer, the cycle started over once again.