Vignettes of the West, Don Morris – Mar. 14 1992
Newfoundland’s most noted Micmac Indian, Mattie Mitchell, passed away at Corner Brook in the autumn of 1921 at about the age of 71. He became locally renowned during his lifetime as the prospector who, in 1905, discovered the rich ore bodies at Buchans River in the interior which was the beginning of the thriving mining town of Buchans.
That was Mattie’s greatest claim to fame. But three years later, in March of 1908, he was chosen by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company to act as guide in probably the most singular wildlife venture in local history. The AND Company, builders of the Grand Falls pulp and paper mill, had ordered from Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, founder of the Grenfell Mission, head-quartered at St. Anthony, 50 of the 300-reindeer herd which the medical missionary had purchased in Scandinavia. The animals were intended as a supplement to caribou as a food source for the northern population.
Reindeer in harness
However, the AND Company wanted 50 of them for an experiment; to see if reindeer could be used in harness for hauling logs in the lumber woods. These were originally intended to be landed at the convenient harbor of Lewisporte. However, when the overseas steamer arrived with the animals and their Lapland herders, it was found that Lewisporte was ice-choked and the deer were then landed at Cremaillere Bay near St. Anthony.
The mill builders sent a team of men north, under supervision of a key employee, Hugh Cole, to escort the reindeer south to Millertown. Mattie Mitchell was contracted to act as the guide for the company men and the reindeer. Because the sea ice was unsuitable, it was decided that the “reindeer drive” would be down The Great Northern Peninsula. The project was a first (and only) of its kind in our annals.
Reindeer drive route
It had been a long and severe winter. From the outset the drive showed promise of being an arduous undertaking. On March 22, the unusual caravan, which included four Lap herdsmen and their trained dogs, had reached the headwaters of Cat Arm River inside White Bay, after 20 days of torturous travel. Because of storms and sub-zero weather which had slowed both men and deer, provisions were now practically gone.
Forced to turn eastward in an effort to survive, the hikers and their charges reached an empty logging camp at Sop’s Arm River March 28.
20 miles in 52 hours
At Cole’s direction, Mitchell and another man headed by dog-team to the village to find food. When the pair reached the settlement, they found it deserted. The inhabitants had moved across the bay to their more sheltered winter quarters. The men pushed ahead, reached the people, obtained some supplies and returned to Cole’s camp. It took them 52 hours to make the round trip of about 20 miles. The party and the deer then continued towards Deer Lake.
At the foothills of the Long Range Mountains caribou were encountered and the trekkers dined on welcomed venison. Thirty days after leaving St. Anthony, the Cole party and deer had reached the summit of the great peninsula’s mountain range. But sub-zero temperatures and storms made travel appalling. When they eventually descended and again reached foothills on the other side of the range, the most difficult part of their journey was over. The intense cold and severe gales persisted, but there was more shelter and now the waterways were opened, permitting the herd to swim across St. Paul’s Inlet.
Reindeer on railway cars
Bonne Bay was reached April 23, after 53 days on the trail. Cole left his party and made a sled trip to the railway depot at Deer Lake where he took a train for Millertown to arrange building of corrals for the reindeer. Mattie Mitchell stayed with the party in his capacity as guide. Cole returned to meet his crew and the reindeer at a point halfway between Bonne Bay and Deer Lake. Then the animals were loaded into railway boxcars and eventually reached Millertown. The long, unusual journey was completed by April 30. They had been on the trail 58 days and covered 400 miles of the most grueling nature.
After a while the AND Company lost interest in the experiment of using reindeer as beasts of burden. But the animals, together with the Laplanders clad in their attractive native garb, proved to be a showpiece at Millertown and attracted visitors from as far away as St. John’s. Even the colony’s governor was curious enough to organize a party to go and view the novelty. Eventually, the reindeer were donated to the Grenfell Mission and shipped back to St. Anthony. The Laplanders returned home and Mattie Mitchell went about his business as a fishing and hunting guide and prospector. It is said he did not lack for clients.
Mattie married to Mary Ann Webb
Mattie Mitchell was married to a lady named Mary Ann Webb. They had a large family. One of their sons, also named Matthew, became a well-known guide and prospector in his own right.
Mattie, Sr. was a local celebrity when he died at Corner Brook. One of his last requests was that a priest be at his side in his final moments. This was fulfilled when one of his sons, John, travelled to nearby Curling and returned with a clergyman.
A Roman Catholic priest was at the veteran woodsman’s side when he breathed his last.
As disclosed in last week’s column on Mattie Mitchell, he was born either at Hall’s Bay or Norris Point about 1851 and was the son of a Micmac Indian Chief whose ancestors came to Newfoundland in the mid-1700s from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Information on Mattie’s parents or on his early years and on his own wife and family are indeed scanty.
I would be keenly interested in hearing from any reader who can shed more light on the family and career of this remarkable man. Are any of his descendants still residing in Newfoundland? If so, a letter from them would be greatly appreciated.
A highly interesting footnote to this two-column series on Mattie is that, according to several reference sources, family tradition has it that this particular Mitchell Clan had a presence in Bay St. George during the early days of the French migratory fishery and that Mattie’s great grandfather was given a vessel by the king of France in order… “to facilitate the movements of the Micmac on the water in the interests of France.”
In Mr. Morris’ next column, a Mitchell family member responds. I will post it next week. (Last week I posted Part 1 – Buchans.) The reference to Mattie’s great grandfather is from Frank Speck’s Beothuk and Micmac 1922 (Internet archive). For more on the Mitchell forebearers, see ‘father,’ ‘grandfather,’ ‘Captain Jock’ in sidebar of The Mattie Mitchell Webpage. Reindeer in Newfoundland as well as the 1966 Newfoundland Quarterly article is in a pdf newsletter 2010 from the Dept. of Environment and Conservation.
With the Lapps… 1907-1908
So, at the same time as Mattie Mitchell was herding reindeer with Saami herders in Newfoundland, a Danish woman was with the Saami in Northern Sweden and Norway herding reindeer.
See my Newfoundland Reindeer for what happened to Dr. Grenfell’s reindeer.