The amazing career of Mattie Mitchell
– Vignettes of the West, by Don Morris
Mattie Mitchell was a Micmac Indian with strong western Newfoundland connections. It was he who, in 1905, discovered the valuable ore lodes which gave rise to the mining town of Buchans. And it was Mattie who, three years later, acted as guide for an unprecedented “reindeer drive” down the Great Northern Peninsula from St. Anthony to Millertown, a distance of 400 miles. The man became a legend in his own lifetime.
Yet, frustrating, little is known about the early years of Mitchell. The Dictionary of Newfoundland Biography states he was born about 1851 at Hall’s Bay. The Smallwood Encyclopedia gives two possible birth places – Hall’s Bay or Norris Point. I was surprised to learn during research that Mattie (his given name was Matthew) was of Indian aristocracy. He was the son of a Micmac Chief whose ancestors came to Newfoundland in the mid-1700s from Cape Breton. It is obvious that Mattie gained an intimate knowledge of the local interior in his youth. It was this cognition of the Newfoundland wilderness and its resources which brought him fame in later life.
Before his discovery of the Buchans River mineral deposits and his subsequent guiding a group of white men and their herd of reindeer down the Great Northern Peninsula, Mattie was already renowned as a superb woodsman, fishing and hunting guide and his clients included many wealthy and influential American, Canadian and English sportsmen.
In the early 1900s Mattie was commissioned by the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company, builders of the impressive Grand Falls pulp and paper mill enterprise, to prospect for mineral deposits on their land grants which the English concern had obtained from the Newfoundland government. The company had sulphur particularly in mind; it being an essential ingredient in the pulp-making process.
Accompanying the Indian on a January, 1905, prospecting trip to the Buchans River area was William F. Canning, an English assayer who had studied mining engineering at McGill University. With some prior knowledge of the mineral characteristics of the region, Mitchell succeeded in locating the ore deposits which would one day give rise to the thriving mining town of Buchans.
The company was very interested in the rich ore bodies and claimed right over them. They held the ore bodies under concession for over a decade.
Then, in 1915, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) learned about the Buchans River mineral deposits of copper, lead and zinc and began experiments for the separation of sulphides. In 1925 ASARCO was successful in concentrating the minerals and smelting them. The following year the American company made an agreement with Grand Falls mill builders by which ASARCO would manage and process the property. Two years later, in 1928, the mine milling operations began and the first shipment of lead and zinc was sent to Botwood. A 22-mile rail line was built to carry the concentrates to Millertown where the main railway took the ore to the Botwood seaport for overseas markets.
The town of Buchans had been born. The early employees lived in bunk houses and log cabins but by the end of 1928 the fledgling town had 60 houses, a post office, a hospital and churches. Schools and other facilities were to soon follow. By this time, Mattie Mitchell had been deceased for about seven years.
After the discovery of the Buchans River valuable mineral lodes, the enterprising Mitchell became involved in another historic adventure and this was also associated with the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company. But more directly concerned was the Grenfell Mission at St. Anthony established in 1892 by the famous medical missionary, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.
Grenfell had bought in Scandinavia a herd of 300 reindeer to augment the food supply of the northern Newfoundland people. Fifty of the animals were earmarked for the AND Company which wished to try an experiment – the use of reindeer in harness for hauling logs in the interior. It was intended that the company’s portion of the herd be landed at the convenient harbour at Lewisporte. However, when the steamer arrived that port was ice-blockaded and the reindeer, accompanied by their colorfully-dressed Lapland herders, were landed at Cremaillere Bay, near St. Anthony.
A party of men from the company, under the direction of Hugh Henry Cole, a prominent employee with the mill builders, left for St. Anthony for the unique “reindeer drive” southward. And it was only natural for the company to choose Mattie Mitchell to guide the men and animals down the Great Northern Peninsula to Millertown.
At the Grenfell Mission Mattie and the AND Company men were joined by four Laplanders for the southward drive. This event, unmatched in the colourful, long history of Newfoundland, began on March 8 (1908).
Overland on Northern Peninsula
It was originally intended to drive the herd over the sea ice, but this surface was broken by violent storms. The alternative was the high, windswept plateau of the Great Northern Peninsula, a formidable route in summer weather, let alone in a harsh, punishing winter. But that was the only route if the company’s goal was to be achieved.
The men, particularly Mattie, were aware that it had been a late, lingering winter with the land being constantly swept by blinding blizzards. The herd consisted of 40 female reindeer all heavy with fawn, and 10 male deer. The Laplanders had four trained reindeer herd dogs which they had brought over with them, as well as six local huskie sled dogs.
It was, indeed, a very strange caravan which headed down the long peninsula towards the destination of Millertown, 400 miles distant.
NEXT WEEK: Conclusion: the arduous trek, final success and the passing of Mattie Mitchell at Corner Brook.
Published in the March 7, 1992 Western Star, Corner Brook. This column is the first of three that Don Morris wrote about Mattie Mitchell. I will post the others over the next two weeks. For more on the Buchans mine, see Buchans Miners Museum. To read more about the ore deposit and mining operations, see Great Mining Camps of Canada 3, The History and Geology of the Buchans Mine by J. Geoffrey Thurlow (2010). See Fred Powell’s Mattie Mitchell Webpage for more on the man himself.