In his 1969 book Newfoundland, Harold Horwood recounts the story of a caribou drive in western Newfoundland in the late 1800s. He heard it in the Codroy Valley, from “an aged man named Placide White back in the 1950s.”
Placide White: 19th Century Caribou Drive
Mr. White, a hunter and woodsman as well as a farmer, took part in the great caribou drive of the last century – the only attempt that I know of to round up caribou and treat them like Lapland reindeer. It began when a European company hired a crew of Newfoundlanders to go to the southern end of Grand Lake at the time of the autumnal caribou migration, to round up a herd of the animals for export. The plan was to drive them into a crude corral, as the Algonkian Indians used to do when they wished to slaughter a herd of white-tailed deer, then to tame them, as far as possible, and finally drive them to the coast. The camp was built on the central plateau just east of the Long Range Mountains within sight of the lake, and the caribou came past by thousands.
‘You should see them – oh! my dear man! stretching off, you know, over the barren ground, as far as you could see, covering a whole hill at a time, thousands of animals on the move. And we cut out small sections of them, you know, like cowboys cutting out cattle from a herd. We rode horses wherever the ground was open enough. We had built a great enclosure of logs with an opening like a funnel in one side, and we’d drive the caribou in.
Kill themselves from panic
‘It didn’t work too well, though. They used to kill themselves from panic – break their legs, even their necks. And we couldn’t get enough feed for them. But finally we got the survivors quieted down and drove them out, in small herds, to the coast. We lost some of them on the way, and we lost others trying to load them on a ship, but the ones that survived were stowed, at last, in the hold of a vessel, and taken to Europe to stock game parks, you know…’ [pp 20-21]
Poor caribou! It’s kind of the reverse of another misguided and ill-fated tampering with fauna: introducing reindeer to Newfoundland. I’ve never heard of this caribou drive for export. And I couldn’t find anything more about it by googling.
Placide White was born “in the Codroy Valley almost a hundred years ago,” so likely in the 1860s. “He was a member of the widespread family named LeBlanc,” Horwood says.
There’s more from Mr. White and others about the history and peoples of the west coast. The book includes Horwood’s travels across the island and Labrador. Some copies of Newfoundland are available on Amazon, and maybe elsewhere in used bookshops. Horwood is not shy about sharing his opinions! It’s a good book, descriptive of place and history. And, at 50 years old, its ‘present’ is now itself history. Also see his 1986 Corner Brook: A social history, below.
This St. John’s Evening Telegram article is about Stephen Gallant and his wife Elizabeth Gaudet of Stephenville, Bay St. George. From 1942, calculating from the month and day shown. That year also fits with the information in the article.
I found this better reproduction of the article’s photo of the Gallants on YouTube, posted by Kevin Brake. There’s lots of great old pictures of Stephenville, so enjoy looking back!
Stephenville’s Grand Old Man is Ninety-Five
Settlement is named after him
By S. E. N. Cox
Stephenville, April 30 – One of the grand old men of Newfoundland is Mr. Stephen Gallant, 95 years of age, who was the first one to be born in Stephenville, which is named for him. Mrs. Stephen Gallant, his second wife, is 85 years old.
He made a sea trip early in life, for he was taken to Cape Breton when he was only two months old, to be baptized.
Mr. Gallant has three sons and three daughters – the oldest son is 67 years of age. He has no idea of the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has.
He was married the first time when he was 22. His present wife does not speak English, only Cape Breton French. His father died at 68 years of age and his mother at 90.
After a lifetime spent as a farmer and a fisherman, Mr. Gallant does not wear glasses and still seems to be in good health. He lives in a well-kept house, which is clean and comfortable and where hospitality is warmly extended.
Mr. Gallant thinks airplanes are wonderful things, but has no desire to fly in one of them. He does not resent the intrusion of Americans or the American base.
Stephen Gallant Family Tree
Like Mr. Gallant, I don’t know for sure how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren he had. A lot! Here is his family tree, from his children up through his parental lines, as best as I can make it. They go from Newfoundland back to what was Acadia, particularly Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island.
His first wife was Flora Delaney. After she died, he married Elizabeth Gaudet. I found ancestry trees naming a seventh child from his second marriage. However, this article only mentions six children. I have included all seven – four daughters and three sons – but I don’t know if that’s accurate.
In her Back of the Pond, Mercedes Benoit-Penney tells the Acadian and Mi’kmaq history of Stephenville before the American base. Like Stephen Gallant, she is descended from Etienne Leblanc and Anne Marie Cormier. She also discusses the genetic condition known as Allerdice Syndrome found among their descendants. Tap image for Amazon.ca link.
Jim John on the Gander River, a full page ad in MacLean’s magazine May 2, 1977 issue.
From the Dept. of Tourism, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, it reads in part:
“The Original. Micmac Indian guide JIm John Jr., like his father before him, is a legend in his own time. He poles a Gander River boat, unique to this area of Newfoundland, in search of splendid salmon and the mighty moose.”
On MacLean’s website recently, I saw “free access to archives for a limited time”. A quick search and I found a Newfoundland tourism ad I’d wanted to see for many years.
Tony John had told me about the ad. But he didn’t have a copy, and neither did anyone else. But he remembered what it said, and the implications. And I remembered what he said. ‘The government calls Jim a ‘Micmac guide’. Then they tells us we’re not aboriginal.’
Irony in advertising
Tony was Jim John’s nephew. He also had been president of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and chief of the Glenwood Mi’kmaq Band Council. So Tony well knew the irony of the ad in light of political reality.
Provincial governments argued against official recognition of Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland before and after the date of this ad. The province even commissioned a study to rebut the FNI and Conne River Band Council’s 1980 land claim statement to the federal government. Albert Jones’ Assessment and Analysis of the Micmac Land Claim in Newfoundland was released in 1982.
Despite provincial opposition, Conne River received status under the Indian Act in 1984 and became the Miawpukek reserve. A few years later, individuals closely related to living Miawpukek band members could apply for “off-reserve” status. Other families and communities, however, still had nothing until Qalipu, a landless Indian Act band, was created in 2008.
Johns of Glenwood
Jim John Sr. and his wife Helen Benoit were from Conne River. They settled in Glenwood in the early 1900s. Their children were Norah, Louis, Catherine, Gertrude, Gregory (Tony’s dad), Harry, Michael, Theresa, Philomena, Jim Jr., and Delphine.
I remember going on the Gander River with Jim and his cousins. He pointed out every landmark and every tricky bit of water. He knew them all. Jim knew the river like the back of his hand. All his siblings, especially Harry, did too.
Boats & Builders has more on Gander River boats. Dennis Bartels’ chapter in Native People, Native Land, written in the 1980s, gives a sense of the political times in Newfoundland (Amazon below). My Qalipu Band of the Mi’kmaq Nation looks back to those years.
Two hundred years ago today, John Peyton of Twillingate and his party abducted a Beothuk woman, Demasduit. Her husband Nobosbawsut was killed while trying to protect her. Shortly after, her child died. Demasduit’s captors called her Mary March. They took her to Twillingate, then St. John’s. Too late, they decided to take her back to her people. She died January 8, 1890 on board HMS Grasshopper.
In April 1823, Demasduit’s niece Shanawdithit was captured. Her mother and sister, who were abducted along with her, died of tuberculosis soon after. Shanawdithit lived another six years and taught her captors much about her people – their language and way of life. She died on June 6, 1829, believed to be the last of the Beothuk.
In 1966, nearly a century and a half after Demasduit was captured, Harry Cuff wrote about Annie Gabriel White of Stephenville. She said her great-grandfather was a Beothuk man named Gabriel. Annie and Richard White were the parents of the late chief Benedict White of Stephenville.
Great-Grandchild of a Beothuk, by Harry Cuff 1966
For years, most of those who have written about the Beothucks have been repeating, with apparent acceptance, the story that there were only thirteen Beothucks living at the time of Shawnadithit’s capture in 1823. The basis of this story is the report that Shawnandithit told this to W. E. Cormack. But giving full credit to the nomadic Beothucks for having had a thorough knowledge of the island, even the slightly sceptical reader would be inclined to question the reliability of a census for a 42,000 square mile area, given by a twenty-five year old woman, a century and a half ago.
Fifteen years ago when I began teaching Newfoundland history in Grand Falls (deep in Beothuck territory), I encouraged my students’ speculations about the actual fate of the Beothuck race. Having sparked their interest with a tale passed along to me by a friend who had been in conversation with a west coast Micmac, whose grandfather reputedly had shot a Beothuck on Red Indian Lake about the year 1850, it was necessary to curb the desire of some of the more romantic souls to organize an expedition to cross the Exploits River and seek a remnant of the Beothuck race. A more familiar story which served to intensify our historical cynicism was that of a white man who had been captured by Beothucks, married a Beothuck girl and fathered her child but escaped and return to live in a white settlement. Might not this have happened in reverse, we wondered? Might not a Beothuck man have married a white (or Micmac) woman and settled in a white community to raise a family, some member of which might be alive today?
Last month I talked to a woman who states with pride that her great-grandfather was a full-blooded Red Indian, i.e., a Beothuck. Mrs. Richard White, a resident of Stephenville, told me her grandfather, Joe Gabriel, never tired of telling her that he was the son of a full-blooded Beothuck named Gabriel who came from the interior of the island to Grand River in the Codroy Valley, where he married a Micmac girl. Mrs. White, whose picture accompanies this article, traced her ancestry as shown below.
Gabriel (full-blooded Beothuck) —m— Full-blooded Micmac girl
Is it possible that among the many descendants of Gabriel, there can be found some of the unique physical characteristics of the Beothucks?
During the interview I was told another fascinating story by Mrs. White’s husband—a story related to him about the year 1920 by Paul Benoit, then a man in his nineties, who had been told the story when a boy by John Young, an old Micmac trapper. Young, when in his prime, set out on a hunting trip one fall travelling by sea from Journois Brook to the mouth of the Humber, thence by canoe to Sandy Lake and overland to a place later called Mary March Brook. There he met some white hunters from Notre Dame Bay who were looking for Beothucks. Young joined them, and shortly thereafter they came upon a Beothuck couple. The male Beothuck fired several arrows at his pursuers, who finally had to shoot him in defence, and they then attempted to capture the woman. She shot two arrows at them, but in trying to escape, she broke her snowshoe strap, and she was captured with four arrows remaining in her “caribou pouch.” Despite her advanced state of pregnancy, the Beothuck woman was restrained only with difficulty, and had to be lashed to a sleigh, which event hastened the birth of her child. Related in the 1920’s before Dick White had heard the Mary March story, it bears a startling resemblance to the better-known story of John Peyton’s capture of Mary March in 1819.
Mr. and Mrs. White related these stories (which we have not attempted to verify) to the writer and Melvin Rowe, CBC News Director, during a social evening in Mr. Rowe’s home. We feel that a search for similar tales among the remnants of the Micmac race would yield rich dividends.
The Beothucks or Red Indians by James P. Howley 1915 has many accounts of the capture of Demasduit and subsequent encounters with Beothuk. See especially pp 91-129.
According to Ben White, Joseph Gabriel’s parents were Andre “Teesh” Gabriel and Mary Ann Hall. His wife was Ester Mary Rachel Gillam.
Mr. Cuff, publisher and author, died in August 2013 at the age of 85.
So what happened to the Newfoundland reindeer? The ones Mattie Mitchell helped herd down the Northern Peninsula to Millertown, who Dr. Grenfell took such great pains to bring from Norway? Everything seemed to be going well for them, but then they disappeared. Arthur Johnson tells the rest of the story in the Book of Newfoundland 3:419-422. Below is the conclusion of his article, from when they arrived in Millertown. Hugh Cole, of the title, worked for the AND Company.
Hugh Cole’s 400-mile Trek with Reindeer
Thanks to great devotion the herd was without mortality. One doe had joined the caribou, one had broken her leg at Millertown after arrival, and the stag bitten on March 13 was to recover completely: a remarkable record in reindeer driving and herding.
The aftermaths are also exceptionally interesting. First is that the A.N.D. Company reindeer were never worked but merely kept on exhibition, and they were visited by everyone from miles around, including people from Grand Falls and even St. John’s, including Governor MacGregor and party who made a trip for the sole purpose. The site was three and one-half miles above Millertown. The does had twenty-five fawns in May, which added to the interest. The animals were highly intelligent and very friendly, and in the later months roamed almost at large.
No forage in Millertown
However, there was discovered to be still another blunder: it was found that there was no reindeer-food of any consequence in the whole area. Actually the reindeer were fed on hay and grass during all the time they were at Millertown. No survey for food had been made because of the presumption that, if the herd could find its own food at St. Anthony, it would do so anywhere in Newfoundland. Suitable moss or lichens must really exist in the area, or the local caribou herds could not have lived there. One suspects that there was little support for the idea of reindeer-herding by the woodsmen and that even in the upper echelons of the A.N.D. Company that initial enthusiasm and novelty wore thin. It was another case of a good thing gone wrong for want of a fair trial.
Reindeer re-gifted to Grenfell
Be that as it may, the reindeer were offered back to Grenfell as a gift. Since the fifty animals had now become seventy-three this was an excellent offer which was promptly accepted. So, late in the year, after the breeding season, the herd was put on the move again, this time to South West Brook, Halls Bay, near Springdale. Hugh Cole went in charge again. In addition a number of A.N.D. Company men went along, such as the noted L. R. Cooper. The reindeer and all the equipment belonging to them went at leisurely pace to South Brook, where they were loaded on local schooners for delivery to St. Anthony.
True to their roaming practice and tradition, however, three of the reindeer wandered off from the herd and missed the boat. They were recovered and they finished the journey in state by the next coastal boat out of Springdale, the Clyde. Grenfell remarked that the reindeer were far from being in prime condition after having been fed mostly on hay all summer.
The Lap herder family, the Sombies, may have gone briefly to Lewisporte (definitely not to St. Anthony). The next record we have of them is their creating quite a sensation in St. John’s for a week as they arrived by the train to catch the R.M.S. Siberian December 18, 1908, en route to Liverpool and Lapland. As we can imagine: “They attracted much attention from the small boys and girls owing to their peculiar dress and high peaked caps. A large crowd assembled and followed them from the station.
Newfoundland Reindeer rise and demise
What happened to Grenfell’s herd? Briefly, the 300 became 481 that same year. They rose to 1,000 in 1911; 1,200 in 1912; 1,500 in 1913. Then came the War. The Laps went home, Grenfell went to France with the Harvard Surgical Unit. Then the widespread poaching of the reindeer stepped up and was engaged in, not only by the people of St. Anthony, but by most of the settlements in the north of the Northern Peninsula, and including fishermen going and coming from the Labrador fishery. These were rough and ready times fifty years ago, and the breed of empire frontiersmen traditionally lived by killing everything that moved in the water, on the land, and in the air. To them, reindeer fell into that category.
When Grenfell got back there were only 230 reindeer left. The dogs got some, and the fishermen the rest.
In disgust Grenfell packed the remainder off to the Canadian Government, who put the 125 survivors on Anticosti Island where they gradually died out. And so ended a noble experiment.
But the Newfoundland reindeer didn’t go directly to Anticosti Island. The government first sent them to the Innu of Quebec’s North Shore. When that didn’t work out, they were sent to Anticosti Island and left to fend for themselves.
The Reindeer Years
From The Reindeer Years: Contribution of A. Erling Posild to the Continental Northwest 1926-1935 (pdf), Patricia Wendy Dathan 1988 MA Thesis, Geography, McGill University, pp ix-x:
In 1917, the International Grenfell Association, short of funds and lacking encouragement from the Newfoundland Government to continue the operation, requested help from the Department of Indian Affairs. The surviving 126 deer were transferred to the north shore of the St. Lawrence near St. Augustin. The Indians who tended them had had no experience with herding and allowed a great deal of interference by people and dogs. In 1923, when wolves menaced the deer seriously and the problems of protecting and handling the animals mounted, the herd was moved to Anticosti Island and allowed to run wild. Although protected from further interference, they did not succeed, possibly due to lack of suitable forage, and by 1939, only 7 reindeer could be counted and were soon believed to be extinct.
Marie Rundquist writes about her journey into her family history. Not the history she heard from her mother and grandmother, although it’s part of the story. The story Ms. Rundquist tells starts with a DNA test she took.
The test didn’t lead to what, and where, she expected. Instead, it took her on a long journey through US archival history and then to Nova Scotia.
Marie Rundquist lives in Maryland and was born there. She decided to do a DNA test to learn more about herself, and the results surprised her. Some genetic markers didn’t add up with what she’d been told. So she started looking for the pieces missing in the family stories but present in her genes. Her tale is fascinating. I read part of it on the Cape Breton University website.
I am bemused by the popularity of DNA testing. It’s interesting, sure. Useful for medical information, of course. But its value for identity, for who you are? As the memes say, if you need a test to tell you that you are X or Y, you’re not.
So I surprised myself when I became engrossed in Ms. Rundquist’s story. Even the scientific bits. She explains DNA testing so that even I can understand it.
The journey starts
Then she starts the story, or stories. One her mother and grandmother told her. The second begins with the mtDNA test. It shows genetics through the maternal line. For Ms. Rundquist, the two didn’t match. Some genetic markers showing place didn’t make sense with the geographic history she had been told.
Like a forensic sculptor, she fleshed out the genetic skeleton. Her clay was archival materials and a community of relatives. The relatives weren’t those she knew. They were the list of genetic matches provided by the DNA testing company.
With their help, archives and her mother’s stories, she traced a journey back in time. She found a new history. Some parts intersected, others were way off. But put together, it’s a fuller story. Still not complete, but with new layers that mesh even if gaps remain.
The gaps are as interesting as the filled spaces in the way Ms. Rundquist writes about what this means for her self-identity. If you’ve ever said “I know I’m X but I don’t know how,” or “I thought I was X but found out I’m Y,” read this.
It shows the beauty of a journey. There are some answers, but best are the loose ends. They invite pondering, by readers as well as the writer, about lost history and the nature of identity.
You can get Marie Rundquist’s books, Revisiting Anne Marie and Cajun By Any Other Name at DNA-Genealogy-History. You can read my DNA Tests for a far less inquisitive look at family origins. Gallery Gevik has more of Sylvia Lefkovitz’s incredible art.
Vignettes of the West, by Don Morris (Apr. 11, 1992)
I was pleasantly surprised by the response to the two-part series on the story of the career, achievements and brief life history of Mattie Mitchell, the Micmac Indian, which appeared in The Western Star March 7 and 14. I got two phone calls from Corner Brook on the day the first column appeared; one from my good friend, Dr. Noel Murphy, who kindly gave me what information he had on Mr. Mitchell and family; the other from a granddaughter of the famed guide and prospector who expanded on Dr. Murphy’s data.
This particular caller said her grandfather had lots of descendants all over Newfoundland and elsewhere and on the very day the first column appeared many of them in the Corner Brook area, the caller informed me, were telephoning each other reporting that the Star “had an article on Mattie.”
Two other phone calls came during the days that followed, including one from John Mitchell who is a grandson of Mattie and whose father, also named John, was the person who travelled from Corner Brook to Curling to fetch a Roman Catholic priest to be at Mattie’s side at the time of death. This was one of Mattie’s last requests.
And letters came in also, including one from the United States. But probably the most informative of the phone calls and letters was a written communique from Ms. Irene Doucette… However, before dealing with Ms. Doucette’s letter, it is appropriate to state briefly here something about the man of whom I wrote.
Noted prospector and guide
Matthew Mitchell was undoubtedly the most noted of Newfoundland’s Micmac people. He was born either at Hall’s Bay or Norris Point about 1851. He was the son of a Micmac Chief whose ancestors came to Newfoundland in the mid-1700s from Cape Breton. He became widely known in the early part of this century as the prospector who, in 1905, discovered the rich ore bodies at Buchans River in the interior which was the beginning of the thriving town of Buchans.
While that made Mattie famous, (although not rich), his celebrity grew in 1908 when he was chosen by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company to act as guide in the most unusual wildlife venture in the island’s history. The company, builders of the Grand Falls pulp and paper mill, had ordered from the Grenfell Mission at St. Anthony 50 of the 300-reindeer herd which the mission had purchased in Scandinavia as a supplement to caribou as a big-game animal for the northern population.
Men from the AND Company went to St. Anthony, accompanied by Mattie, to escort the animals 400 miles southward to Millertown. It was intended to make this unique “reindeer drive” over the sea ice. However, vicious winds and heavy seas made this impossible and the only alternative was to herd the reindeer down The Great Northern Peninsula. This was accomplished in the very difficult month of March when the land was constantly swept by blizzards and the weather was most times below zero. However, the trek was completed without the loss of a single animal. Mitchell then went on about his usual business as a popular, eagerly-sought guide and prospector whose clients included some wealthy and influential American, Englishmen and Canadians.
Irene Doucette’s letter
Now to Ms. Doucette’s letter which, because of the apparent popularity of the Mitchell articles, I shall quote in full:
“Dear Mr. Morris: I just had to write to you and let you know how surprised I was when I read The Western Star today (March 7) about the amazing career of Mattie Mitchell. The reason for my surprise was that Mattie Mitchell was my grandfather and to me he was a Newfoundland legend and more should have been written about him. But thanks to you it is now coming to light.
“I didn’t know my grandfather. He died in 1922 before I was born. He was 72. But I have heard so many wonderful stories from my father, John Mitchell (evidently Ms. Doucette is the sister of the John Mitchell who telephoned me) and my mother, Agnes Mitchell, with whom he resided, that I just had to write and give you the additional information you requested.
Mattie Mitchell and Mary Ann Webb
“Mattie was married to a woman named Mary Webb. She was from Flat Bay, St. George’s Bay. She died when she was about 60. It was then that my grandfather went to live with my mother and father here in Corner Brook. My father told me that Mattie was a great fur trapper. He would cure all his own fur skins. He was a very big man, six foot four and he wore size 14 shoes. I guess back then they were called moccasins. I have in my possession a walking cane that he made and to me that is a priceless object. I also have a picture of Mattie, also priceless.
“My mother told me that Mattie was a very gentle man. She told me she never heard the man say a bad word; he was a very religious man and had a Micmac Bible which he carried with him at all times.
“My grandfather had six children: three boys and three girls. My father, John, was the youngest. The other boys were Matthew and Laurence. The girls were Margaret Rumbolt, Bridget Sheppard and Lucy Duhart, and, of course, there are numerous grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. My mother and father raised eleven of us. My father worked at the paper mill in Corner Brook for 40 years and he was very proud of his father. When my grandfather discovered Buchans’ mine he worked for the AND Co. and from what I understand he was given $2.50 (for the find). I also read somewhere that he was given a sack of flour for the discovery. I hope that the story about Mattie Mitchell hits the St. John’s papers as I have two sons and a daughter living out there. Thanks again for that long overdue story about my grandfather.”
More letters and calls
The other letters I received are similar to the one from Ms. Doucette, and all the writers are descendants of Mattie Mitchell. The one from the States came from John Alexander Atkins, a great grandson of Mattie. Apparently, the MItchell columns were sent to him by his mother, Helena Atkins of 29 Crescent Way, Corner Brook… This young correspondent said he worked as a logger and during his life had travelled to many places. He said he always wondered why he was so adventurous. May I suggest, John Alexander, the trait runs in the family…
Included in the phone calls I received was one from the west coast from a man who said he was a grandson of Mattie Mitchell. Although he gave me his name I shall not use it because he had some rather curious things to say which were not in keeping with all the other information I received on Mattie Mitchell. This particular caller said that Mattie Mitchell was of Beothuk extraction; was not at all friendly with the Micmac Indians; in fact detested them; and that he was not of the Catholic faith. I repeat, what this reader had to say goes against everything all other calls and letter writers have to say.
In any event, I wish to thank most sincerely all those who contacted me about the celebrated Mattie Mitchell. I agree with one writer who said that a monument should be erected to him and a definitive book written about his amazing career.
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
Interestingly, while looking through Amazon books, I found With the Lapps… A woman among the Sami, 1907-1908 by Emilie Demant Hatt (tap image to see more).
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.
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.
In July 1835, Archdeacon Edward Wix joined a night fishing party at the Main Gut, Stephenville Crossing, and described it in his diary. In his Vignettes of the West column, historian Don Morris told the story.
A moonlit sea-trouting scene
All was not work for the English Church of England missionary, Archdeacon Edward Wix, when he toured settlements along the south and west coasts of Newfoundland in 1835. Certainly, he attended most conscientiously to his priestly duties of marrying, baptizing, interring and holding church services in the various little hamlets he visited. But he also took time out to see first hand how the people went about their routine industry.
On one occasion he accompanied salmon fishermen to their site of work and he indeed experienced a singular scene. Before describing this in his diary, he wrote under the date of Sunday, July 5, (1835) the following:
“Three full services at Sandy Point (St. George’s Bay) so well attended that I regret exceedingly there should be no missionary stationed among this very teachable quiet people. This harbor and the barrisways, with an occasional visit to the Bay of Islands, and the settlements at Codroy Rivers and Island, would constitute a pleasant and no idle charge; and a school, as I found on an enumeration with one of the inhabitants, might in Sandy Point alone, congregate 70 children if it could be opened tomorrow.”
Following that entry for the Lord’s Day of July 5, the archdeacon penned in his journal:
“Monday [July 6, 1835] –
Went this week to visit the salmon fisheries, which are upon the Main Gut. Three or two families reside there. One night, as some of the families and an Indian boy were going out just at the rise of high tide, five canoes in all, to spear trout and eels, I joined them in the excursion. It employed us till an hour or two after midnight.”
Archdeacon Wix described the scene as an “animating one”. He wrote that a brilliant moon hung over the hills, which were finely wooded to the very cliffs and sand at the edge of the water. He continued his account: “Bunches of birch bark were packed together, a dozen in each packet. These were stuck, one at a time, as required, into a stick which was cleft at the top to let in this rude flame, in which a light was applied. The stick with the ignited birch bark was then put upright at the bow of the canoe; there, also, the man stood up, most insecurely balanced, as would seem, with his ‘nighor’, or eel-spear, a pole cleft at the bottom with a spike inserted. This, on his striking a fish of any size, would open and admit it till the spike perforated it, and then closing upon it, would press it and prevent its escape.”
The archdeacon continued his fascinating account: “The sandy or stony bottom of the river in the shallows, – for in deeper water this sport cannot be pursued, – was seen as clearly as in the day, and every fish in it. The fish seemed at least bewildered, if not attracted by the light; and the quickness of eye, and adroitness of the man who used the nighor, impelling as he did, the canoe with the thick end, and every now and then, reversing it to strike, was surprising. He struck successfully at eight out of 10 of each of the fish at which he aimed, and shook them off into the boat with a sudden turn of his arm, which left him at liberty to strike at two fish within a second or two.
Kept his balance
“He kept his balance, also, with great niceness, when he seemed to have poised himself so far over the side of the light canoe, that he must, it seemed to me, have gone overboard, or capsized our crank bark. the light of the flambeau in the other canoes, as they came round the projecting points of leafy green, and the shade, as we again lost view of them behind the tree or rocks in the distance, was most imposing.”
Archdeacon Wix went on to say that 400 trout were thus speared in the canoe in which he was an occupant. He added that some of these fish were of such a size, that they would have been taken, as they frequently were, in the salmon nets.
The archdeacon concluded his account of this unusual “excursion” by penning: “In the five canoes, above 1,000 (fish) were taken in a little less than two hours. I had the curiosity to weigh six of them, which together weighed 22 pounds, and had a barrel of this night’s catch salted that I might take them with me to St. John’s.”
Held more services
During the last days of July, Archdeacon Wix went about his duties, holding three full services at “The Barrisways” on Sunday the 19th.
The entry for his journal, Friday, July 24, said: “A new schooner belonging to my kind friends, Mr. Horatio Forrest and Joseph Pennall, for the launching of which I had been anxiously waiting, being now rigged and ready for sea, I took leave of the worthy inhabitants of St. George’s harbor – of whose kindness I shall ever entertain an affectionate recollection – in an evening service which was very crowded.”
He sailed from Sandy Point Saturday, July 25, at five in the morning, headed for Port aux Basques. No doubt his moonlit sea-trouting excursion was still fresh in his mind.
Who was fishing at the Main Gut?
Archdeacon Wix does not name those with whom he went fishing. However, Kirk Butt in Early Settlers of Bay St. George Vol. 1 writes about who it likely was:
The 1838 List of Inhabitants showed four settler families living in the area that is now known as Stephenville Crossing… Jean Pillet and Jean-Marie Luca/Lucas were included on the 1838 List of Inhabitants and it was indicated that both men had been at the Main Gut for 15 years (since 1823)… François Benoit’s time of residence in the area was given as 50 years. This number was also rounded off. He had actually been there for just under 49 years. James Young Jr. (Jacques LeJeune Jr.) was correctly entered on the list as having been there for 8 years (since 1830)…
During this period, there are known to have been Mi’kmaq families from Seal Rocks [St. George’s] who lived in the vicinity of Stephenville Crossing during the summer months in order to participate in the salmon fishery… In addition to the settlement at Seal Rocks (Anse des Sauvages), his map [Lieut. Vauhello 1819] showed two families a few kilometres away at the mouth of St. George’s River (the east end of Stephenville Crossing)…
The two Mi’kmaq families at the Main Gut would only have been living out on the point during the summer as that area was exposed to somewhat fierce winds and storms in wintertime. They may have returned to Seal Rocks in the winter. By about 1830, however, there were MI’kmaq families from Seal Rocks in permanent residence at Stephenville Crossing. [2007:279-280]
Mr. Butt says that the family of Jean Marche also lived in the Main Gut but was omitted on Captain Polkinghorne’s 1838 List of Inhabitants (2007:218).
How to make an eel spear
Should you wish to make your own eel spear, Kerry Prosper of Nova Scotia shows you how on YouTube.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.