15 February 2017
Franklin Expedition - Northwest Passage

Thule People of the Northwest Passage

At nearly 25,000 square kilometers, completely uninhabited and at the heart of the Northwest Passage, Somerset island holds a unique human history. For more than 1,000 years, the island was home to pre-inuit cultures such as the Thule and Dorset people. European explorers later visited the shores of Somerset Island; expeditions such as Parry, the ill-fated Franklin Expedition and more. 

Native history of Somerset Island - The Thule People

The Thule culture developed in Alaska near 1000 AD and reached Greenland by the 13th century. Througout the process of migration, the Thule people replaced the previous inhabitants of Canada's north, the Dorset people. Many Thule archeological sites on Somerset island remain today - tent rings, tunnels, tools and more. 

As whaling culture, the Thule tradition was thought to have lasted from 200 BC to nearly 1400 AD. The Thule culture is thought to have traded with Norse explorers during the 11th century and relied heavily on technology such as slate knives,  seal-skin floats, umiaks and toggling harpoons. The main source of food was subsistence hunting for bowhead whales - the second largest whale one earth. This Arctic whale is a slow-moving beast that sleeps near the surface of coastal Arctic waters.  The near-60 foot whale was a constant source of food (meat), heating oil (blubber) and materials for tools (bones). Many of the heavy whale bones such as ribs were used in the contruction of their homes and crucial tools such as dog sleds. 

Due to their unique access to technology (relative to the Dorset), the Thule culture's greatest stength was travelling to access food sites - fish, walrus, whale and caribou (when whales were scarce). Their migration across the Canadian Arctic was most likely due to the exploration and following of food sources. 

Thule homes consisted of a semi-submerged stone ring with skin cover. These "homes" were often linked together by stone tunnels. A community could consist of a few families side-by-side in these semi-permanent homes. Winter dwellings were better constructed with rock walls (often) four feet high and permanent tunnels, whereas summer camps (nearby food sources) consisted of tent simple tent rings. 

Several examples of sites near Arctic Watch: 


A semi-permanent dwelling from the Thule people. The stone ring would have been covered with an animal hide cover, creating a tent-like habitation. 

Note the whale ribs - most likely used as a frame for the fabric ceiling. 

European History of Somerset Island - Exploration of the Northwest Passage

Throughout the conquest of the Northwest Passage and whaling expeditions of the 19th century, numerous european ships sailed past the shores of Somerset Island. Expeditions such as thos led by Sir John Franklin, William Parry, Amunden (20th century) all stopped on the coastline to re-fill fresh water, hunt, sledge and more. Franklin's expedition overwintered just across the Northwest Passage at Beechey Island, where three of his men perished during the winter of 1845/46. Hudson's Bay erected a trading post on the eastern tip of Somerset Island (used for only a few winters). Fox traps, water barrel stays, tin cans, ship boilers - all items thrown away from these expeditions, have now become artifacts of past explorers, still sitting on the very same shoreline all those years later!


The Hudson's Bay outpost on Somerset Island, built in 1932. 


A steam boiler from a whaling ship abandoned on the shoreline of the Northwest Passage. Most likely used by ships in the late 1800s/early 1900s. 


 

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