The True and Deadly Story Behind My National Geographic Article on the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Four years ago I went to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to write the story of a place, a giant body of water in which the history of North America has steeped. It is a place of wild beauty, indigenous heritage and exploitation. I wrote about the Gulf in general, but particularly about the history of its harvest, an exhaustible bounty of cod, seals, whales, lobsters and now, it appears, oil. I wrote about what I already knew, what I read, and what I learned when I traveled to the Gulf. But there was more, something I missed, a founding murder on the Gulf’s shores, a murder in which my family is involved.

In 1536, Thomas But (or Butt or Butts), the young son of William Butts, the doctor to King Henry VIII, and his friends decided to stage an expedition

[1]. The men were privileged and restless. They sought to explore the riches in the “New World,” a world knowingly encountered by Europeans just four decades prior, a world in which a fecund possibility seemed to grow out of every piece of “uncivilized” land. But whereas others would go seeking spices, gold, or animals, these men appear to have been seeking primarily to see “the strange things of the world.” They were tourists.

As tourists, they set sail in late April of 1536 from London down the Thames and headed slowly west in two ships, the Trinity and the Minion. Almost from the start, the travel was much more difficult than imagined. Storms. Mishaps. Disease. It all befell them. But after about two months at sea, finally, fortune shone. The rocky shore appeared and the men sailed to it in exhilarated exhaustion. They had landed somewhere on the shores of Cape Breton. From this rocky point, they made it along the coast of Newfoundland to Penguin Island (now Funk Island). On Penguin Island they found great auks, enormous penguin-like, flightless birds. They gathered auk eggs and armfuls of the flightless adults. On subsequent days of travel north, among pieces of floating ice, they saw bears both black and white, which they killed and ate. Penguin Island and its vicinity were fertile, and auspicious.

From Penguin Island onward the two ships went in separate directions. The Trinity which included most of the experienced sailors and fishermen, as well as Richard Hore, headed to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland, an area the Vikings had been then been fishing for more than century. They filled their ship with cod and then returned home. Perhaps Hore and his men had a sense that something might soon go wrong. Maybe they just liked fishing.

Meanwhile, the Minion had its first encounter with Native Americans. A peapod shaped vessel was spotted moving along the coast. Butts and those with him wanted desperately to engage. Quickly, several men tumbled into a rowing boat and headed out. The rowing boat pursued the Native American vessel, a canoe dug out of a single tree. The British rowing boat and its men were too clumsy to keep up. The Native Americans disappeared toward a far shore. When the men from the Minion finally reached that same shore the men (who we would now describe as belonging to the Beothuk tribe) were gone. All that was left in the place they had been was a fire burning in a fire pit, warm meat on a spit, a decorated skin boot and a single skin mitten.

In the weeks that followed, the Minion and its men continued to explore. But winter was approaching. The leaves fell. The wildest birds disappeared. These were signs that even these men, as oblivious to the cycles of nature as they might have been, knew enough to note. It was time to go home. The men had no aspirations of colonization (the first real attempts at British colonization of North America would wait more than five decades). But their ship had begun to leak; it gushed. Worse still, no one among them was readily able to mend the leaks. They were stranded in a foreign northern land. Worse yet, as it soon became apparent, their food was gone.

Like many tourists on long journeys, the men underestimated the cold and overestimated their own abilities. The nominal leader of the expedition, the man who had already sailed home, Richard Hore, had not checked the soundness of the ships. Nor had he carefully calculated the amount of food that would be required (and anyway, he had left on the ship full of fish rather than the one that remained). The men soon became desperate. One man found an osprey nest. The osprey brought fish “of divers sorts” back to its babies. The men began to retrieve the fish, one by one, whenever the osprey left to look for more. These fish though were not enough to feed a ship of men. What was more, the osprey parents, realizing what was up, moved their nest (or, more likely, the chicks simply fledged, which occurs at the end of the summer in northern osprey). The men began to dig into the hard ground for roots. They ate bark. They ate anything that did not make the first man who tried it sick. Their story, they must have all known, was headed for tragedy. A kind of madness was creeping through their small society. Several among them disappeared without a trace.

Then one day it happened. While out in the forest gathering, one man from the ship, let’s call him Pete, looked up to see another man, let’s call him Tom, standing over him, with a rock. The rock came down again and again. Pete died. Tom then proceeded to dismember and cook Pete’s body over a fire. Once Pete was cooked, Tom began to eat him piece by piece. Pete was not the first of Tom’s shipmates he had eaten. But this time was different. As Tom sat eating, several of the other sailors stumbled upon him and asked the obvious question, “Tom, where did you get food?” to which Tom reportedly replied that he was eating Pete’s roasted buttocks. What of it?

The captain was notified. In ordinary times, the perpetrator (or even perpetrators as it was never entirely clear how many killings there had already been nor who exactly had done all the killing) would have been identified and executed. But these were not ordinary times. Instead of punishing the murderer or murderers, the captain appears to have decided to make a moral appeal. The captain begged for an end to the killing. “Please,” he said, “eat grass rather than flesh. Please men, don’t loose your humanity.” The men listened and then decided to enact another sort of civility, something more modest. Instead of refraining from eating each other, they would instead at least draw straws to see who should be eaten next. Just as they were about to draw straws, a French ship arrived.

The French, Butts and the other sailors realized, were well provisioned. They had food, ample food, tempting food. One pictures croissants, fine dried ham, and wine. How the interaction between the hungry Britons and the French proceeded is poorly documented and, at that, recorded only from the perspective of the British. The French might have offered to share. The men might have broken baguettes together. Or maybe the French sensed trouble and started to flee.

What is known for sure is that several days later, the French were stranded on the shores of Nova Scotia and Butts and his colleagues were sailing home, on the French ship. Upon returning to England, even after eating all of the French food, Butts and his colleagues were in such poor shape that they were unrecognizable. Thomas Butts’s own mother and father did not recognize him. Thomas said, “I am your son,” but neither parent would believe him until he lifted his pant leg and showed them both an old and distinctive wart on his knee.

Butts and his colleagues came back with no tangible riches. They returned to their ordinary lives. But their reports of the new world, reports of the fish, birds and people, lived on. All of this is of consequence because their reports, even though they were partial and often conflicting, were among the earliest written stories of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the surrounding territory. They may have also been, as it turns out, among the first recorded stories about my family.

I knew nothing about Thomas Butts when I was writing about the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I finished the story (which appeared in the magazine in the spring of 2014) in 2012 and didn’t think about it much afterward. But a few weeks ago I was reading in my living room and my wife was reading in another when she said, “Hey, there is a guy named Thomas Butts in this book, I wonder if he is related to you.” Butts, you see, is one of my family names. My grandmother was Barbara Butts, her father was Benjamin Butts and, as we would discover later that night, through some excited searches of genealogies and old books, her great, great, great, … grandfather was, it appears, Thomas Butts.

Thomas Butts may have been my direct ancestor. He was also the very beginning of the story of European extraction I wrote about. I had actually read his report about the auks without knowing it. Butts left some of the earliest reports of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its surrounds, brief reports of what it was like before Europeans began to change it. He was one of the first Europeans to report upon (and eat) a great auk, a fact that, like much about this story, we know about because of his own chronicles.

One of the things Butts did not write about was what happened after his return, but we know the rest of the story from other sources. Back in England, the men feared they would be punished by King Henry VIII for cannibalism among others of their indiscretions, such as stealing a French ship. But the King forgave them, recognizing, it seems, their hardships. A year later when the French finally found a way home and alerted their government of what had happened and said government contacted the King to demand punishment, the King simply paid the French, in gold. But the King would have no more of such exploring. It was for this reason as much as anything else that the reign of Henry VIII (which ended with his death in 1547) was one of empire but not exploration. It would be another fifty years before the British would officially head west again with the goal of exploration (though the fishermen, having discovered the cod, seals and whales of the Gulf of St. Lawrence simply kept fishing), chastened by the story of my ancestor and his friends. Not everyone was as chastened though.

Sir Walter Raleigh, upon reading the story of Butts’ expedition, fifty years after it occurred, would ultimately decide to embark on a similar expedition. We know how that story turns out. Raleigh established Roanoke, which failed but led to Jamestown which in turn fledged a colony and ultimately a nation and its complicated ideals. I now live in a town named for Raleigh. I was living in that same town several years ago when I was asked by National Geographic Magazine to explore the Gulf. There must be some lesson in the coincidence that Thomas Butts and I both ended up traveling to the Gulf as tourists to comment upon its riches. Maybe it is just that things have improved. I didn’t have to roast any of my traveling companions in order to get home, or steal a ship from any French tourists. I saw an osprey nest, but left its babies in peace. Or maybe it is that a great deal has already been lost. The auk is gone as are the native Beothuk that Butts encountered. Or maybe there is no lesson at all in the coincidence, just the story of two people called, five hundred years apart, to the majesty of the same marvelous body of water, a body that has changed and yet, for now, remains riotous with life.

[1] A trip that would come to be known as the expedition of “M. Hore and divers other gentlemen.”

Read Rob’s article, “The Generous Gulf,” featuring photos by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes, in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Header Image: Gulf of St. Lawrence Coastline by Jimmy Emerson, DVM | Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


By | 2016-11-22T13:47:05+00:00 June 9th, 2014|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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