18th Century Graffiti at Churchill
We first came upon Sloop Cove almost by accident. We had heard of it, mostly because of Samuel Hearne’s much-photographed signature carved into the quartzite. We knew roughly where it was across the estuary from Churchill, but we had no intention of visiting it when the helicopter dropped us off at the back of the beach one gloomy summer afternoon in 2001. After all, we were seeking fossil sites, not historic ones.
Nevertheless, as we trudged across the rock and moss that lay between us and the likely location of some interesting outcrops, we came upon this long cleft that ran back from the river into the side of the quartzite slope. A pool of water lay in the bottom of the little valley. The rusted chain fence showed that this was an important place, since in general not much is marked or labelled in the Lowlands. Then we saw what the fence was protecting: scratched into the quartzite were many signatures and other markings from the early fur trade days, not just Hearne’s!
The great majority of these date from the mid 18th century, with a smattering of more recent examples (it appears that Parks Canada removes anything added nowadays, though). But why are they here? And why did these men spend so much time laboriously carving into this famously hard and tough stone?
The answer lies in the use to which the cove was put in those early historical times. Although we like to think of land as stable and solid, the Hudson Bay Lowlands have been rising ever since the removal of a huge weight of glacial ice a few thousand years ago. Various estimates have been made for the Churchill area, but it is most likely that the river mouth has been rising about one metre per century, and as a result Sloop Cove has risen two metres plus since the 1750s (a pdf showing detailed analysis can be found here).
Back then, the bottom of the cove was probably flooded by salt water at very high tides, and in any case it was close enough to sea level that small ships (sloops) could be hauled out there. Of course this may have been done for maintenance, but most importantly this was the first really protected spot upriver from the Prince of Wales’ Fort, and it was essential to get boats out of the river in winter so that they were not subject to ice damage.
Even now the sea ice at Churchill can remain well into the time that southerners think of as “summer”, and as a result the men waiting to re-launch their little ships would have had many days of warm weather before they could set sail. What better way to pass the sunny hours than to leave your mark on the stone? Permanently, as it turned out.
With fossils to be found down the shore, we had far less time on our hands and took some quick photos before tramping off toward the strandline. We wondered about the stories behind some of these marks, but in 2001 there did not seem to be all that much information available. Recently there has been some wonderful explanation by Lorraine Brandson in her excellent guide to Churchill. And online there are various resources, including this photographic documentation of the entire set.
© Graham Young, 2012, with thanks to Dave Rudkin for permitting me to use so many of his images!