July 8, 1824
The Sadlermiut were "discovered" in the summer of 1824 by the explorer Captain G.F. Lyon of the Royal Navy. 150 years later, a visit to this island found "Ashore were ancient stone houses, man-high cairns, box-like graves built of large flat stones, and everywhere masses of bleached bones of caribou, walrus, bowhead whale, and seal." The Sadlermiut were killed off by infectious diseases by 1902.
In 1967, I lived some months at Coral Harbour on Southampton Island in northern Hudson Bay and often traveled with Tommy Nakoolak, then, at sixty-two, patriarch of the island's sizable Nakoolak clan. Of Knud Rasmussen, the great Danish ethnologist, it was said that he was the only man known who collected old women. They, of course, were the repositories of the ancient tales he loved and recorded. Similarly, whenever possible, I lived and traveled with older Inuit who told and taught me many things the lore, the legends, the skills of their people.
Tommy Nakoolak was small and wiry, kind and considerate, and he owned a Peterhead boat, the Tereglu (the word for a baby bearded seal), which he handled as if it were a racing yawl. One day along Coats Island, south of Southampton Island, he spotted a herd of walruses on a rocky promontory. "You want pictures?" he asked, and when I said yes, he swung the boat around and headed full speed for the rocks. He sheered past them so closely, I tensed instinctively for the coming crash, but Tommy only smiled. Like many old-time Inuit, he had an astounding geographical memory and knew every rock and ridge along hundreds of miles of coast.
One day while his sons were hunting caribou on Coats Island, Tommy said: "Come, I'll show you something." He took the Tereglu to a secluded bay near Cape Pembroke. Ashore were ancient stone houses, man-high cairns, box-like graves built of large flat stones, and everywhere masses of bleached bones of caribou, walrus, bowhead whale, and seal. "This is where the Sadlermiut lived," said Tommy. A mysterious, long-isolated Stone Age people, the Sadlermiut were briefly known to the outside world and then all were killed by a whaler-brought disease in the winter of 1902. They may even have been Tunit, the powerful Dorset-culture people. Extinct everywhere else for 800 years, they had found a final refuge on these isolated islands. (The people who now live on Southampton Island are descendants of mainland Inuit brought by whalers and traders to the island to replace the extinct Sadlermiut.)
The Sadlermiut were "discovered" in the summer of 1824 by the explorer Captain G.F. Lyon of the Royal Navy. He anchored his ship, HMS Griper, off Cape Pembroke. From the camp which Tommy Nakoolak was showing me, a man approached the Griper, riding on a most peculiar craft. It consisted of "three inflated seal- skins, connected most ingeniously by blown intestines, so that his vessel was extremely buoyant." The man's legs dangled in the water while he propelled this strange float toward the ship with a narrow- bladed paddle made of whale bone. The poor man had never seen other humans before and he was afraid: "his teeth chattered and himself and seal-skins trembled in unison.
Lyon went ashore. The people were shy but friendly, of "mild manners, quiet speech, and as grateful for kindness, as they were anxious to return it." The men wore pants of polar-bear fur; their mittens were the skins of murres, feathers inside. The women were slightly tattooed, and "their hair was twisted into a short club, which hung over each temple." The men's topknots were even more impressive: "Each man had an immense mass of hair as large as the head of a child, rolled into the form of a ball, and projecting from the rise of the forehead."
Once the Sadlermiut had been numerous. At Native Point on Southampton Island, the archaeologist Henry B. Collins of the Smithsonian Institution found, in 1954, "the largest aggregation of old Eskimo house ruins in the Canadian Arctic." But whalers began to stop at the islands and contact with another world was fatal to the long-isolated people. When the whaling captain George Comer visited Southampton Island in 1896, only seventy Sadlermiut were left. Comer admired the strength and courage of these "fearless people" who had only stone-tipped harpoons and spears: "For an Eskimo in his frail kayak to attempt to capture a [50-ton/ 45-tonne] whale with the primitive implements which they manufactured meant great courage.
In the fall of 1902, the whaler Active stopped at Southampton Island. One sailor was sick; he may have had typhus or typhoid. Sadlermiut visited the ship and took the disease back to their village. That winter the last Sadlermiut died in lonely agony upon their island. Collins studied their house ruins and graves in 1954 and 1955 and "found evidence that the Sadlermiut descended from the Dorsets - that they were in fact the last survivors of the Dorset culture."