A storm exposed the bones of children on a Canadian beach, reigniting a 170-year-old mystery


In the spring of 2011, a powerful storm swept across the rocky shores of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, just as another had 164 years earlier.

After the squall ended, the damage was documented when a surveyor spotted something horribly out of place among the rocks and driftwood.

This grim discovery launched a years-long scientific quest to identify the remains and solve an intercontinental mystery that had been in the making for more than a century and a half.

Last week, Canada’s national parks agency announced that chemical analysis of the bones and others later found nearby indicated they belonged to Irish immigrants who fled the country’s Great Famine to drown in a shipwreck in 1847, within sight of their new home.

“It’s like an episode of ‘Columbo’,” said Mathieu Côté, resource conservation manager at Forillon National Park, where the remains were found. “We now have all the clues together, and we can have some sort of conclusion.”

The finds shed light on local folklore and fragmentary scholarship surrounding the sinking of Carricks, Côté said. They also shed light on a lesser-known chapter in Irish and Canadian history at a time when mass immigration to North America is once again in the news.

Next month, the remains will be interred by officials from Canada and Ireland as well as the descendants of survivors of the sinking.

“We often have to remember our history,” Côté said. “Science and technology have brought us the end of this story.”

Escape the great hunger in a “coffin ship”

In March 1847, nearly 200 people crammed inside a small two-masted ship called the Carricks of Whitehaven, which linked Sligo, in the northwest of Ireland, with Quebec in Canada. Many were women or children. Some were suffering from typhus, cholera or dysentery.

Everyone was probably starving.

They were sharecroppers who had plowed the fields of Henry John Temple, known as Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary and future British Prime Minister, according to a forthcoming documentary called ‘Lost Children of the Carricks’.

Palmerston was one of the most powerful men in Britain, with 20,000 acres and more than 14,000 tenants, according to the film’s website. But even he had been affected by the potato blight that had begun to devastate Ireland two years earlier. As the crops withered and his tenants stopped paying rent, Palmerston evicted them but, unlike other landlords, put them on boats bound for North America.

When the Carricks withdrew from Sligo harbour, it was one of hundreds of ships bound for Quebec from Ireland in ‘Black ’47’, the peak of the Great Famine. About a million people would flee the island during the Great Hunger, as it was also called. Another million would die of disease or starvation. Between death and emigration, a quarter of Ireland’s 8 million people would disappear in just four years.

But a place on a brig bound for North America was not a guaranteed salvation. The same diseases that had torn through famine-weakened Ireland followed the migrants onto the ship. So many people died during the voyage that the boats became known as “coffin ships”.

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Even if the migrants escaped the disease, there was also a good chance that their ship would never arrive in North America. Of the approximately 400 ships that sailed to Quebec in 1847 – most filled with Irish – 1 in 5 never made it there, according to the Globe and Mail.

On April 28, 1847, the Carricks had been at sea for a month. But just as the ship approached Cap-des-Rosiers – named after the wild rose bushes that covered its green hills and white-faced cliffs – a storm hit.

“The ship encountered a strong gale … and was driven, about two o’clock the next morning, over a dangerous shoal about sixty miles east of [Cap-des-Rosiers] and collapsed within two hours,” according to British magazine John Bull, quoted in the Globe and Mail.

Of the nearly 200 people on board, only 48 survived, according to “Lost Children of the Carricks”.

One, a 12-year-old girl, remembered the carnage years later as an old woman.

“After a difficult and uncomfortable passage of twenty-three days, the captain miscalculated in a blinding blizzard, and in the dark of night struck the cruel cape,” Margaret Grant MacWhirter wrote in her story of the region of 1919, “Treasure in Gaspésie and in the Baie des Chaleurs.

“A single stroke of the wave of anger swept over her,” MacWhirter wrote of the woman, whom she interviewed. “Relatively few were saved, after hours of cold, hunger and fear as one can imagine. The locals came to the rescue and treated the pitiful survivors kindly. Truly, the beach was a horrible sight the next day, littered over a mile and a half with corpses. For a whole day, two bullock carts carried the dead into deep trenches near the scene of the disaster.

More than half of the dead have never been found.

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Little has been written about the sinking. But some of the survivors have settled in the area and the story of the bodies on the beach has passed into local lore.

In 1900, St. Patrick’s Parish in Montreal erected a monument to the victims near what was thought to be the site of the unmarked mass grave.

The monument was later joined by the ship’s bell, which ran aground on a beach 360 miles from the wreck in 1966.

This would not be the last reminder of the terrible toll of the sinking.

Boxes of “molten” bones

The bones arrived at Isabelle Ribot’s office in boxes filled with packing peanuts. The University of Montreal scientist carefully opened them like gruesome Christmas presents to find three partial skeletons. One was about 30% complete, including a miniature skull. But the others were little more than a scattering of teeth and small limbs.

Adding to their mystery was their condition.

“The bones almost melted,” Ribot told The Washington Post.

“Almost disintegrating,” Côté added.

Ribot sent samples to a geneticist in Spain in hopes that DNA would reveal their origin, only to receive bad news.

“The bones were too fragile, too poorly preserved,” she said. “The bodies were buried on a beach where you only have rocks, not much sand or dirt, so all the rocks actually grew on top of the skeletal remains.”

The salty sea water had also taken its toll.

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But Ribot, a bio-archaeologist specializing in the investigation of human remains – some 40,000 years old – was undeterred. She and a small team of students examined the teeth and bones for other signs of belonging.

Slowly, clues began to emerge.

Tests revealed that the bones came from three children, two aged 9 to 11 and one aged 12 to 15. A curve in a limb suggested rickets, caused by vitamin D deficiency. A wooden pimple found at the site was determined. come from 19th-century Europe, Ribot said. And then there was the location of the bones, near the Carricks memorial.

As she and her team struggled to find answers, however, they heard of more bones on the beach.

For five years, Côté answered calls whenever something suspicious was discovered in Cap-des-Rosiers.

“Sometimes it was whale bones,” the park official said with a laugh.

But in 2016, when Parks Canada was restoring a road along the beach, employees quickly came across clearly human remains.

After months of excavation – again near the memorial – they unearthed 18 additional sets of remains.

“It was a much bigger finding,” Ribot said.

The second dig provided more evidence pointing to the sinking of Carricks. The bodies had not been buried in coffins but rather placed in a common grave, so close together that they got mixed up over time, according to Ribot. And they were of all different ages, not just vulnerable groups like infants and the elderly, indicating some type of tragic event.

There were nine adults, three teenagers and six children.

Perhaps the most painful discovery, Ribot said, was the whispering of a tooth belonging to an unborn fetus.

“It was very emotional,” she said.

Some of the bones were better preserved than the first batch, allowing for increased testing. Scientists determined that some of the children were siblings. They also saw signs of iron deficiencies and multiple births.

The last clue was a chemical analysis of the remains.

“A bone is like a book,” Ribot said. “It gives you a story of the individual, what that person ate, whether they moved from place to place, even what time the person was weaned in childhood.”

The bones on the beach indicated peasants who had survived on potatoes alone.

“These people had a low-protein diet,” Ribot said. “They had a famine in Ireland, food shortages, it could reflect that.”

There were also no signs of corn consumption, as in the Americas or the wealthier parts of Europe.

The food analysis, completed last year, was the last piece the park service needed.

“Now we can conclude that the bones are from the Carricks,” Côté said.

The announcement comes weeks before the reburial ceremony in early July, when all 21 sets of remains will be interred at the memorial – itself moved to more stable ground in 2017.

But Ribot said she would like to do further testing – including an attempt to extract DNA from the second batch of bones – and will ask Parks Canada to keep some samples. She said working on the project left her with a mix of emotions.

“I’m very sad to see lives cut short at such a young age,” she said. “But, in a way, I’m happy to be able to give information back to the dead.”

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