The winter of 1534 was particularly cruel to the first French adventurers in the New World led by Jacques Cartier. In their camp on the coast of the St. Lawrence River, near what would become Montreal, scurvy broke out.
The hideous disease had taken the lives of twenty-five men whose bodies were piled under snowdrifts. The ground was too frozen to properly bury the dead. Among the remaining one hundred and twenty-five, only ten men were healthy. Those ten attempted to make enough noise to prevent the nearby Algonquin tribe from finding out just how weak they were.
When their neighbors did find out, is was just in time to save their lives. The medicine man boiled the bark of a certain tree to make a brew they called “annedda,” and had the men drink this strange brew. To a man, all were saved, their scurvy cured by the concoction.
The British navy would not “discover” the cure for scurvy until 1795, which was based on the same foundation the native seagoing peoples of Canada had understood from centuries before.
The discussion of the ability of pre-Columbian North American peoples has never amounted to anything more than isolated accidents, in part because of the need to paint a picture of American peoples as savages. With ships as large or greater than that of Columbus, cities certainly greater than those of Europe, and more exacting science of mathematics and timekeeping, the Americas clearly transcended our own previous understanding.
That the Native Americans had a cure for the greatest plight of long distance sailors was not the last surprise for the French. What would grow to become Montreal was Hochlaga, a planned village with streets emanating from a central square. They were simply not the savages that they would become in the histories of the New World. Just as the Spanish would find the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan to be greater than their own great city of Seville, the Europeans would also encounter many surprises from the native Americans of the North.
One of the greatest surprises was from a branch of Algonquin language tribes called the Micmac. Upon entering the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the French met this tribe who surrounded their own ship with two separate fleets of fifty canoes each. The ability of the native population to mass a large number of people on the river was surprise enough, and the French were soon to discover they could navigate great distances as well, possibly making numerous voyages to Scotland and the northern isles.
Europeans would find that the native populations of the northeast actually did engage in a vast trade that brought both goods and knowledge from far flung corners of the continent. From Mexico came the ability to farm beans and corn. From the southeast came conch shells, from the northeast came obsidian, and from the Great Lakes came copper. Much of the trade was conducted by water routes.
The ability to sail great distances by sea was made known to Columbus as well. We know that the Carib people who Columbus encountered had canoes, complete with masts, that held twenty-five to seventy people. Columbus seized a ship of the Putun Mayans larger than his own. It could hold as many or more sailors than his own ships held. The Mayans had fleets of a hundred ships and more and built wharves in Tulum and on the island of Cozumel for trade. On the other side of the continent, the Kwakiutl in the Northwest would have had ocean-going “canoes” that held 70-100 individuals. Clearly trade was well established in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.
Could American Indians have crossed the Atlantic?
Actually, we know that they did cross the ocean, and long before Columbus. After Caesar had conquered Gaul, a canoe with three survivors landed in Germany. A chieftain of a Germanic frontier tribe handed the men over to the governor Quintus Meltellus, who recognized that they were not Europeans. The incident was recorded by the Roman historian Pliny. Other instances were mentioned in other works of the same period. Inuit people had been known to cross the icy North Atlantic in kayaks and one such kayak decorated the cathedral at Nidaros in Norway.
When Columbus was still a mapmaker he sailed to Galway in Ireland. Here a powerful current reaches the British Isles all the way from the Gulf of Mexico. When Columbus was there it washed ashore with two brown skinned, flat-faced individuals who Columbus assumed were “Indians,” that is, from India. The incident helped convince him of his mission to reach Asia via the Atlantic.
Stranger still than these accidental visits, Native Americans had crossed the Atlantic, hundreds of years before, and “discovered” Europe and may have colonized Scotland.
They were the seagoing tribe that Cartier would meet, the Micmac. Historians confine these people to an area of Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, although part of the tribe was not the taller Algonquin stock but a shorter, darker people who adorned themselves in blue ink.
Tattoos and faces dyed in blue earned them the name “blue noses,” a moniker that still exists on hundreds of fishing boats from Newfoundland to Maine. It is even a nickname for the coastal residents of the Northeast.
Micmacs could wear loincloths, but they could keep warm with a liberal coating of animal fat rubbed into the skin. This coat kept out the freezing weather and enabled them to sail the icy Atlantic.
When they landed in Scotland, the taller Celtic peoples called them “pixies,” a name that still exists in the folklore of the British Isles. The Romans called them Picts.
The Micmac/Picts stayed apart from the Celts, living in the Highlands and keeping their own customs and language. In AD 81 the hostilities with their neighbors in the south led to war, and the Picts laid waste to one-third of Briton. Two Roman historians, Nennius and Gildas, record these ancient hostilities.
Gildas said that they came from across the sea. He had no understanding of just where over the sea meant. Because he would have understood the closer locations such as France or Scandinavia, the implication is that it was elsewhere. Nennius described the war that followed. Rome could not defeat the Micmac/Picts. At best they could keep them confined to the Highlands despite the two walls that were built across the island. Here in the North they ruled until AD 844, when they united with the Scotti, a tribe that migrated from Ireland, a shorter over-the-sea distance.
The Algonquin speaking American Indians had a name for the ocean, “Katai” or “Katai-ikan” meaning “great ocean”. Such a word might have led Europeans, including Columbus, to believe survivors of the Atlantic current might have come from “Cathay” or China.
It must be said that historians would find a relationship between a North American people and a Northern European people remote at best, yet there are some “coincidences” that are not easily explained away.
Both the Micmacs and the Picts wore loincloths. Unlike the practice of other tribes the loincloth of the Micmac described his clan. He was easily recognized by the insignias on his cloth. The loincloth of the Picts, and of course the later Highlanders, was the “kilt,” an article of clothing that still in the twenty-first century allows the wearer to distinguish himself as a part of a clan. Early kilts carried the animal names of the clans along with the color chosen— the Red Deer Clan, the White Dog Clan etc.
The Picts also painted their faces and tattooed their skin. Like the Micmacs, they wore little clothes, because they did not want to cover their artwork.
Feathered headdresses existed among the Micmac peoples, with rank determined by the amount of feathers worn. This custom was also exhibited among the Picts, the only European people to denote rank by this method.
Both Micmac and Pict were matriarchal. This meant that individuals traced their family through the mother. The Celts were patriarchal. Families of both Picts and Micmacs were extended into the clan system. While the family was the first loyalty, clan was very important. The Clan Chattan, which means the Clan of the Cat, was the largest in Scotland.
In making decisions among the clan, women sat on the councils of the Picts and Micmacs as well as the fierce Iroquois. The women would determine which man would be the chieftain of the people.
When it came time to celebrate, the dances of the American Indian are well known. Among the lands in the British Isles, it is the Scots and Irish who are known for their dancing. The Highlanders are known for an annual Gathering of the Clans as practiced among wider tribal units of American Indians.
Racial characteristics are also shared among the Picts and Micmacs. They were both shorter than their neighbors, and both had darker complexions. The Celts in comparison were more likely to be the taller, red or blond haired, blue-eyed inhabitants of the later British Isles. The expression “dark Irish” or “Black Irish” survives today to distinguish them from the Celtic cousins. Anthropologists claim a Mediterranean melding, or even African, although there is no proof.
Other links are found in language. The prefix “maqq” is found in the Pictish language. It means “son of” but is not followed by a name. Dr. John Fraser, an Oxford professor of Celtic languages, said it is because the Picts placed no importance of an immediate father but a great deal of importance on their clan. They were sons of a wider clan group. It resembles the fosterage custom found in the Isles. In many cases, sons left their families and went to train as warriors. The teachers might be female or male. Property was owned by the woman and inherited often by the first daughter. A Pictish wife would not leave her family to live with her husband until she bore a child.
Finally, when Pict and Celt united, it was Celtic influence that made the father more important. “Mac” was followed by a proper name.
Historian Charles Seaholm pioneered the concept of the Pict/Native American connection. He developed his theory by comparing Scottish surnames with place names found in New England.
Pennycook was a Pictish settlement that only became a surname much later when the Normans brought the use of surnames to the British Isles. Pennacook was a settlement in New England that would later become Concord when Europeans settled there. It was a Native American word meaning “sloping down place.” Other places were found using that same description to dub the place Pennacook. In Scotland, the Pennacook Clan took their name from a place with a similar description.
Hossack, in the rocky lands around Inverness, also lent its name to a family name. In New England, “Hoosac” means “stone place,” and as such there are several in those states.
Kinbuck, in Scotland, is a word that combines “kin” with the “uck” ending, which is generally Pictish. “Kin” and “ken” can often signify a relation to water. In New England, Kennebunkport, Kennebec, and Kennebago are all places with water meanings in the name.
The late Harvard professor Barry Fell produced a large list of Algonquin and Scot-Irish names as well. Merrimack, a New Hampshire River in the Algonquin language means deep fishing. In Gaelic “merrio-mack” means “of great depth.”
“Monad” in Algonquin is “mountain,” in Gaelic, “Monadh” means the same. “Nock” is an Algonquin word meaning “hill” and it corresponds to the Gaelic “Cnoc” meaning the same.
Seaholm’s and Fell’s work on place names produced scores of words that have the same or similar meanings on both sides of the Atlantic—words that mostly describe features of geography from hills, to rivers, to arable land. Neither agree with just who brought these commonly shared words to whom. Fell insists the Celts carried them west, while Seaholm thinks the Picts went east.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there are places where it appears the inhabitants were very small people. In New Hampshire there is the “Stonehenge of the Americas” where rooms created from rock exist in a stone village complete with astronomically oriented stones. At Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands, are very similar stone rooms, near astronomically oriented monuments. Inhabitants of both places would have had to be very small.
Similarly, homes dug into the earth with only the top portion above ground in Scotland were called “wee gammes,” little houses. The homes of American Indians in some places were similarly called “Wigwams.”
When Cartier, the man who would be rescued by a more knowledgeable primitive people, came to North America, he met a chief and recorded the chief’s name as Donnacana. He said the name was a title, sort of related to “royal king.” He believed that all the high chiefs would take this title.
In Scotland, the Duncan Clan received its name originally from Donnacaidh, who was their high chief. The word itself was also a title this time meaning “Brown Warrior.” Similarly, Verranzano would encounter a chief with the name Magnus.
The reality of pre-Columbian ocean crossings would one day be discounted by nationalism and in the attempt to legitimize land grabbing by the Europeans. Clearly the evidence of voyages of discovery made from both directions presents us with a different picture.