Louis John

Newfoundland archivist and historian Don Morris wrote about Louis John in his Vignettes of the West column in The Western Star. The photocopy I have of the article is difficult to read, so I’ve typed it out. Unfortunately the date of publication is not on it. It would be between 1974 and 1989, the years that Mr. Morris wrote for The Western Star.

don morris louis john western star
Click or tap image for larger view

The great caribou-skin canoe journey

By Don Morris

One of the greatest outdoorsmen and hunting and fishing guides who ever trod and explored the pristine Newfoundland wilderness was a Micmac named Louis John. Born in Conne River in 1868, he entered the guiding business at the age of 18 under the expert tutorage of his father, Peter John.

During his long career as woodsman par excellence, Louis gained the respect of all who loved the great outdoors. He acted as guide to sportsmen in all walks of life, including affluent St. John’s merchants, well-heeled visitors to our island and to ordinary local folk who wanted to know the best fishing and hunting grounds. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the vast and – to some – forbidding Newfoundland interior and its wildlife long before any train began snorting its way across the island. When he died in 1957 at the age of 89 he was already a Newfoundland legend.

Paddled hundred of miles

His stories of his experiences in the wilds captivated young and old alike. One such adventure was about a remarkable journey he and a partner, Micmac guide and trapper Noel Mattis (Matthews), made from St. George’s to Bay d’Espoir where they lived. They made the trip in a canoe of caribou skins and paddled many hundreds of miles of interior waterways without a single portage.

st-georges-to-bay-despoir-map.
Red line is a very rough indicator of their journey. My apologies to geographers. Click to enlarge.

Mr. John related that they left St. George’s and trekked along the Lapland River and over the mountains until they came to the base of the Anniopsquotch Mountains. Heading northeast, they came out at the head of Red Indian Lake by a place now called Lloyd’s River. They made camp there for a few days. They set their camp between what Mr. John described as “two old Red Indian houses.” He was obviously referring to the remains of Beothuk Indian abodes.

He said he couldn’t sleep well that night and was always waking up, explaining that “in those days, I guess, I was pretty scared of spirits and superstitions, because I thought those Red Indians were always after me.”

Killed caribou with rock

The men built a raft and poled their way down Red Indian Lake until they came where it emptied out into the Exploits River. One Sunday when they were out of meat Louis suggested to Noel, who apparently was older than Mr. John, that they shoot a caribou. The older man objected strongly that they hunt on the Sabbath Day and hid the rifle under the bed in camp.

Louis told his companion that they would have meat anyway. He picked up a heavy rock. One caribou looked over his shoulder at some others. Louis took aim and threw the rock with all his might. Recounted Louis in later years: “I hit him (the caribou) hard and he fell down. Quickly I leaped on him and cut his throat, dressed him and put him on my back and walked up to the camp.”

“The old man”, as Louis described his companion, was surprised that Louis had the animal as he had not heard a gunshot. Louis explained that the “gun” he used made no noise. He said that he threw the rock with such force that he had to dig it out of the caribou with his knife. The “old man” chuckled and remarked that they would not go hungry if there were rocks around.

The two men decided to build a canoe out of the hide in which to continue their overland journey. In later life, in describing this experience, Louis explained that the method of making the canoe was simple and used by many guides and trappers in the old days.

mikmaq-canoe-the-rooms-heritage.nf_.ca
ca 1983 Michael Joe and Martin Jeddore, caribou skin canoe, Newfoundland Museum, Traces

Louis and his companion cut a keel, tied a stem to the keel with roots. The caribou skin was laid out flat and the keel placed under it. Side timber and ribs were cut from crooked spruce and tied together. The ribs were placed under the hide, which was punctured on one side to hold the frames. They used spruce roots to tie the whole canoe together, and it worked very well, tight and buoyant.

Louis and his companion then paddled down river to Paul’s Brook and made camp. While there, they made a pine tree “dug-out” to carry them in country to the south and eventually home. With the dug-out Louis and his friend made their way up Noel Paul’s Brook and by hitting smaller tributaries eventually reaching Bay d’Espoir, covering a total of about 400 miles of water routes. Mr. John boasted as he recounted the adventure to his eager listeners in later years: “We never made one portage during the entire trip with the raft and boats.”

Louis John, when an elderly man, said that in one season he killed 50 caribou. He estimated that he had killed more than 1,000 in his lifetime and he packed every pound of meat out of the woods, leaving nothing to waste.

It would take a series of “Vignettes” to recount all the experiences of this remarkable man of the forest. For the material for this particular column I am indebted to William Peter Dugan of Gordon Terrace, Corner Brook, who is the great grandson of Louis John. Mr. Dugan is intensely interested in his genealogy and the history of the Micmac people in Newfoundland. It was said at the time of the death of Louis John: “The John Micmac ancestry is worn as a proud banner.”

Louis John 1868-1957

The Atlantic Guardian  published a long and interesting obituary of Louis John (pp 27-32). Above is the first page.  Also, his daughter Kathleen (Cassie) Humber talks about him in Calvin Coish’s Stories of the Mi’kmaq (pdf pp 9-26).

The caribou skin canoe pictured above was made by the late Michael Joe and Martin Jeddore, of Miawpukek. It was part of the Newfoundland Museum Mi’kmaq material culture project Traces. The construction method, as I remember, was just as Mr. John described. All photography for the project was done by Dave Quinton.

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2 thoughts on “Louis John”

  1. As a final note…my family of Pecks never talked about the Johns or any other Newfoundland Mi’kmaq…older Peck family members going back 2-3 Gens as well as Old Johnnie Martin, both families residing at Eel Brook, Long Point, THr, TB South (and Indian Cove, Brown’s Island, PHR, PB), only talked about Old John Barrington, and that was it…and sometimes the Brazils but no other Mc family….Johnnie Martin went on and on every day talking about Old John Barrington and the Old Indians from Piper’s Hole (Swift Current), but everyone thought he was crazy or clinically insane and no one paid attention to him..he was just a laughing stock or butt-of-jokes, a buffoon if you will…….a true fact…my family were very, very secretive and evasive in general and more so on all matters relating to Piper’s Hole and Indian identity….it was tabooed and off-limits as to be expected no questions asked asked unless they willfully volunteered the information on their own free volition…after talking to many older NL Mc w/ connections to Piper’s Hole before they passed on I now know that none of the NL Mc that I interviewed knew anything about the Peck family from PHR, PB, and if they did they never talked about us or passed it on to their offspring, so that mutual respectful secrecy went both ways…the only thing that I ever heard about my family from some older Mc was that when NL Mc came from Conne River to Piper’s Hole to visit or work-hunt all they said or queried was “are they [the Pecks] still around here [in Piper’s Hole]” and that was it…they never talked about us but gave us our space to conduct our personal business alone and away from others….because that was the way that we wanted it-to be left alone unmolested and in peace…namaste…

  2. Interesting and informative article….here are a few tidbits on Louis John…Alphonse Barrington Jr. told me once that “the only Indian [Micmac] that father [Alphonsus Barrington Sr., of John Barrington and Mary Hawco, of Indian Cove, PHR, PB] ever trusted was Louis John (A. Barrington, personal communication, Badger, NDB, 2004)….Howard and Bryan Barrington, of Thos. Francis Barrington and Eva Silk, of Garden Cove-Black River-Swift Current, PB) spoke very highly of Louis John saying “poor father talked a lot about Louis John….did you ever hear of Louis [John] ?”(H. & B. Barrigton, Garden Cove, PB, pers. comm. 2002)….and one resident of Tickle Harbour, TB, whose father worked with Louis John at the turn of the 20th century in logging camps in Gander Bay and Exploits, said that if he was ever lost in a fog with no wind in the interior, he would trust his scent to bring him to the coastline[saltwater] or a body of freshwater in the interior…his favorite saying was “I can smell water” or “I can smell bog”….laughing to himself (T. Walsh, pers. comm., Tickle Harbour, TB, 2016)….I do know that when he walked overland from Conne River, FB to Indian Cove, Piper’s Hole, PB in the late 1800s-early 1900s he stayed with John Barrington Sr. Mary Hawco of same said place, until he build his house there, next to Mr. & Mrs. John Barrington & John Martin & Mary Harriet Peck/Pick of same said place (W. Dugan, pers, comm. 2010 & A. Barrington Jr., Badger, NDB, 2003-4)…the close, trusted relationship of the John and Barrington patrilines is well known in Barrington & John family and Swift Current & Conne River community oral traditions, as well as RC parish registers of the era….beyond that I don’t know much about Louis John or the John family, other than what is already out in the public…I hope this helps interested descendants and/or researchers…..namaste….

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