Tag Archives: Don Morris

Sea-trouting at Main Gut

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.don-morris-sea-trouting at main gut

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.”

main gut google-mapsArchdeacon 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 summer-eel-spear-ffallop.tripod.combalanced, 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.”

Fish bewildered

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.

thetownofstephenvillecrossing.comWho 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).

vauhello-bay-st-george-map-1819
Lieut. Vauhello Bay St. George 1819 survey, published 1822. Main Gut is gap at right. At its upper tip, he notes “two families of Indians who are involved in fishing salmon.” He also notes MI’kmaq settlement at Seal Rocks (lower middle). Provincial Archives Map Collection, St. John’s.

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.

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.