In the spring of 2011, a powerful storm swept over the stony shores of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, just as another had 164 years earlier.
After the squall ended, the damage was being documented when a surveyor spotted something sickeningly out of place among the pebbles and driftwood.
The grim discovery launched a years-long scientific quest to identify the remains and solve an intercontinental mystery more than a century and a half in the making.
Last week, Canada’s national parks agency announced that chemical analysis of the bones and others later found nearby indicate that they belonged to Irish immigrants who had fled the country’s Great Famine only to drown in an 1847 shipwreck, within sight of their new home.
“It’s like an episode of ‘Columbo,’ ” said Mathieu Côté, a resource conservation manager at Forillon National Park, where the remains were found. “We now have all the clues together, and we can have some kind of conclusion.”
The findings shed light on the local folklore and fragmentary scholarship surrounding the Carricks shipwreck, Côté said. They also illuminate a lesser-known chapter of Irish and Canadian history at a time when mass immigration to North America is again in the news.
Next month, the remains will be reburied by officials from Canada and Ireland as well as descendants of the shipwreck’s survivors.
“We often have to be reminded of our history,” Côté said. “Science and technology has brought us the end of this story.”
Fleeing The Great Hunger in a ‘coffin ship’
In March of 1847, nearly 200 people crammed inside a small, two-masted ship called the Carricks of Whitehaven, which was bound from Sligo, northwest Ireland, to Quebec City in Canada. Many were women or children. Some were sick with typhus, cholera or dysentery.
All of them were probably starving.
They were tenant farmers who had tilled the fields of Henry John Temple, known as Lord Palmerston, then the foreign secretary and the future prime minister of Britain, according to a forthcoming documentary called “Lost Children of the Carricks.”
Palmerston was one of the most powerful men in the U.K., with 20,000 acres and over 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 some other landlords, put them on boats bound for North America.
When the Carricks pulled out of Sligo harbor, it was one of hundreds of ships bound for Quebec from Ireland in “Black ’47,” the peak of the Great Famine. Roughly 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 inhabitants would vanish over the course of just four years.
But a spot on a brig to North America was not sure salvation. The same diseases that had torn through famine-weakened Ireland followed the migrants onto the ship. So many died on the journey that the boats became known as “coffin ships.”
Even if migrants escaped disease, there was also a good chance that their ship would never make it to North America. Of the nearly 400 ships that sailed toward Quebec in 1847 — most of them filled with Irish — 1 in 5 never made it, according to the Globe and Mail.
By April 28, 1847, the Carricks had been at sea for a month. But just as the ship neared the Cap-des-Rosiers — named after the wild rosebushes that covered its green hills and white-faced cliffs — a storm struck.
“The vessel encountered a strong gale … and was driven, about two o’clock the next morning, on a dangerous shoal about sixty miles east of [Cap-des-Rosiers] and went to pieces in the course of two hours,” according to the British magazine John Bull, cited in the Globe and Mail.
Of the nearly 200 people onboard, only 48 survived, according to “Lost Children of the Carricks.”
One of them, a 12-year-old girl, recalled the carnage years later as an old woman.
“After a rough and uncomfortable passage of twenty-three days, the captain missed his reckoning in a blinding snowstorm, and in the darkness of the night, struck the cruel cape,” Margaret Grant MacWhirter wrote in her 1919 history of the region, “Treasure Trove in Gaspé and the Baie des Chaleurs.”
“One stroke of the angry wave swept her clean,” MacWhirter wrote of the woman, whom she interviewed. “Comparatively few were saved, after hours of cold, hunger and fear such as may be imagined. The inhabitants came to the rescue, and treated the pitiable survivors with kindness. Truly the beach presented a gruesome spectacle the following day, strewn for a mile and a half with dead bodies. For a whole day two oxcarts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster.”
More than half the dead were never found.
Little else was written about the shipwreck. But some of the survivors settled in the area, and the story of the bodies on the beach 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 washed up on a beach 360 miles away from the wreck in 1966.
It would not be the last reminder of the shipwreck’s terrible toll.
Boxes of ‘melted’ bones
The bones arrived to Isabelle Ribot’s office in boxes filled with packing peanuts. The scientist at the University of Montreal carefully opened them like macabre Christmas presents to find three partial skeletons. One was about 30 percent complete, including a miniature skull. But the others were scarcely more than a scattering of teeth and small limbs.
Adding to their mystery was their condition.
“The bones were melted, nearly,” Ribot told The Washington Post.
“Almost disintegrating,” added Côté.
Ribot sent samples to a geneticist in Spain in the hope that DNA would reveal their origin, only to receive bad news.
“The bones were too fragile, too badly preserved,” she said. “The bodies were buried in a beach where you only have stones, not much sand or soil, so all the stones actually pushed on the skeletal remains."
The salty seawater had also taken a toll.
But Ribot, a bio-archaeologist who specializes in investigating human remains — some as old as 40,000 years — was undeterred. She and a small team of students scrutinized the teeth and bones for other signs of to whom they had belonged.
Slowly, hints began to emerge.
Tests revealed that the bones came from three children, two between the ages of 9 and 11 and one between 12 and 15. A curve in one limb suggested rickets, caused by a shortage of vitamin D. A wooden button found at the site was determined to have come from 19th-century Europe, Ribot said. And then there was the location of the bones, close to the Carricks memorial.
As she and her team were struggling for answers, however, they heard of more bones on the beach.
For five years, Côté had been fielding calls anytime something suspicious was found at Cap-des-Rosiers.
“Sometimes they were bones from whales,” the parks official said with a laugh.
But in 2016, when Parks Canada was restoring a road running along the beach, employees quickly came across remains that were clearly human.
After months of excavation — again near the memorial — they unearthed 18 additional sets of remains.
“This was a much bigger discovery,” Ribot said.
The second dig provided more evidence pointing to the Carricks shipwreck. The bodies had not been buried in coffins but rather had been placed in a mass grave, so close together that they had intermingled 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 adolescents and six children.
Perhaps the most painful finding, Ribot said, was a whisper 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. The scientists determined that some of the children were siblings. They also saw signs of iron deficiencies and multiple childbirths.
The final clue was a chemical analysis of the remains.
“A bone is like a book,” Ribot said. “It gives you a history of the individual, what that person ate, if they moved from one place to another, even what time the person was weaned as a child.”
The bones from the beach pointed to peasants who had survived on little other than potatoes.
“These individuals had a diet low in protein,” Ribot said. “They had a famine in Ireland, food shortages, that might reflect this.”
Nor were there signs of corn consumption, as in the Americas or wealthier parts of Europe.
The dietary analysis, completed last year, was the final piece the park service needed.
“Now we can conclude that the bones are from the Carricks,” Côté said.
The announcement comes a few weeks before the reburial ceremony in early July, when the 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 additional testing — including an attempt to extract DNA from the second batch of bones — and will ask Parks Canada to preserve a few samples. She said working on the project had left her with a mix of emotions.
“I’m very sad to see lives that were stopped so young,” she said. “But, in a sense, I’m glad to be able to give back some information to the dead.”
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