Tag Archives: Grenfell Mission

Newfoundland Reindeer

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.
Unidentified_man_with_reindeer_during_the_winter-c-1907-Mar-Hist-Arch-mun-digitalArthur 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.

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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

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Nils Turesen Turi, herder in Newfoundland 1907-10

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

Newfoundland Reindeer c-1907-IGA-Lantern-Slides-MHA-MUN-digital-collWhat 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.

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“The Last Sad Story of the Reindeer” by Sir W. Grenfell, Book of Newfoundland 3:423-26

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:

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Reindeer: Newfoundland (right), St Augustin (red dot), Anticosti Is. (lower left). Tap to enlarge

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.

Mattie Mitchell, Reindeer

The unique 400-mile ‘reindeer drive’Reindeer_Jukkasjärvi_Lappland_Sweden_1930-1949

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.

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Saami and reindeer, Newfoundland 1907 photo Vashti Bartlett (Johns Hopkins archives)

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.reindeerboat-vashti-bartlett-medicalarchives.jhmi

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.

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Reindeer drive route, Nfld Quarterly 1966 (click to enlarge)

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.

mun-maritime-history-archive-ca1907-harnessed reindeer in St. Anthony
Reindeer in St. Anthony ca. 1907

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.grenfell-reindeer-hooked mat-crescentlanehooker.blogspot-2010_02

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.

Mitchell ancestry

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.

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Frank Speck Beothuk and Micmac 1922:134 Mattie Mitchell on list of Nfld hunting territories

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.”

Don Morris column Reindeer Drive Mar. 14 1992

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

With the Lapps Amazon linkInterestingly, 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.

See my Newfoundland Reindeer for what happened to Dr. Grenfell’s reindeer.

A Grenfell Mat

At the annual Sussex Flea Market in Princess Louise Park you can find almost anything. But a Grenfell hooked mat was probably the last thing I expected to find. Grenfell mat showing hunter and dogs in winter

It hung on a canvas wall, shining among the antiques and bric-a-brac around it. Fortunately the seller knew what it was, a unique piece of early 20th century Newfoundland art and a beautiful example of a particular type of craft production.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, later Sir, was an English physician who Grenfell_1940_Issue-5c newfoundland stamp-wikicommonsestablished nursing stations and cottage hospitals in coastal Labrador and northern Newfoundland. In order to raise funds for the Grenfell Mission and to provide a source of cash income for local women, he started a handicraft production industry.

One of the main items produced by what was known as “The Industrial” were hooked mats. At first they were the geometric and floral design rag mats the women already made for use in their own homes. Later they began making “picture mats” of silk, like the one in Sussex.

Mats made of stockings

“When your stockings run, let them run to Labrador!” the Mission’s newsletter asked of its readers. So donations of “silk stockings and underwear in unlimited quantities” were sent to the Grenfell Mission. There they were cut in strips and dyed. Grenfell, his wife and some of the mat-makers themselves drew designs for the mats. Then using the sketch as a guide, the artisans hooked the scene into burlap with the silk strips.

Amazon link for Silk Stocking Mats about Grenfell mats
Click for Amazon link

The lightness of the silk and fineness of the hooking makes the mat almost like a tapestry. The surface sheen is visible these 80 or 90 years after this mat was made.

The height of the Grenfell mat-making industry was in the 1920s and 1930s. Mats were sold throughout the world, marketed through the Mission newsletter as well as Grenfell’s own contacts. They are still collected as the pieces of art they are. If I’d had the money, the one at the Sussex flea market would have found a home with me.

For detailed photographs and discussion of mats and other Grenfell craftwork, from a 2010 talk given by Silk Stocking Mats author Paula Laverty, see this blog.  

Grenfell Mats etc. on eBay

Tempting Providence TNL

If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Poster for Grand Theatre's Tempting ProvidenceTheatre.  Tempting Providence, by Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, runs until Friday March 31st.

It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years.  She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100.  We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived.  My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week.  Like us, she loved it.

Tempting Providence  tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west Myra Bennett from northernpeninsula.cacoast.  They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be.  Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England.  Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.

In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system.  There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help.  Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches.  Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.

Midwives and Healers

Mary Francis Webb, Flat BayThere were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced.  Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines.  Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away.  Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them.  Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.

Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed.  They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did.  Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could.  All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills.  But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills.  Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passage about Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.

scene from Tempting ProvidenceTheatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work.  It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.