In Newfoundland and Labrador, July 1st is Memorial Day. It’s been that longer than it’s been Canada Day. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. But July 1st has had special significance for 99 years, since 1916.
On July 1st 1916, 801 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont Hamel in France, part of the Battle of the Somme. Only 68 answered roll call July 2nd. Of the rest, about half were killed or missing and the other half wounded.
After Beaumont Hamel
The Regiment quickly regrouped and continued fighting, six weeks later at Flanders then back in the Somme. After the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, they were honoured by King George V and renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The casualties of the First World War for Newfoundland soldiers and sailors were about 1,500 killed and 2,500 wounded. A huge chunk out of a whole generation. And a huge public debt for financing that war effort: about 10 million dollars plus pensions for veterans.
The price of fish dropped in the 1920s, followed by the depression of the 1930s. Debt, deprivation and instability led in 1933 to Newfoundland giving up self-government in favour of direct rule by Great Britain, in a Commission of Government. Another 15 years of debating how Newfoundland would be governed and by whom. Another world war to which Newfoundland again sent troops. And in 1948 a referendum, narrowly won by those who wanted to join Canada.
So July 1st is now a day of national celebration in Newfoundland and Labrador, just as it is on the mainland. But it’s a sombre day as well. It’s the day to mourn, remember and honour the men known as The Blue Puttees and their proud country.
If you haven’t already, read Kevin Major’s 1995 novel No Man’s Land.
A 1988 interview with Ronald Dunn, a veteran of Beaumont Hamel pictured above, is here.
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.
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 established 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. Then 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.
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 and 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.
The Newfoundland Museum, when still on Duckworth Street, had a small collection of films to screen for visitors. The first one I ever showed was The Viking. I had never heard of the film or the story behind it. After I got the reel running, I stood in the doorway to make sure it was working okay. And I began watching. Finally I pulled a chair over so I could watch the movie more comfortably while also keeping an eye on the lobby. It was spellbinding – the 1930 seal hunt with ice and cold and deprivation, and a romance and survival story.
Later I learned that the sealing ship, SS Viking, had exploded during the filming and 27 men had died. One of them was the film’s producer Varick Frissell, along with his dog Cabot. The real life story was as filled with ice and cold and deprivation as the fictional one, and it had a much worse ending.
I read Earl B. Pilgrim’s book The Day of Varick Frissell. It is wonderful. Pilgrim tells how Frissell came to Newfoundland and how he came up with the idea for a movie he called White Thunder and got practical and financial backing for it. The Viking sailed to the sealing grounds with a film crew aboard. She had two captains for that 1930 voyage: Captain Sid Jones commanded her and real-life captain and explorer Bob Bartlett portrayed her captain in the movie.
Frissell didn’t get the dramatic shots of the huge ice fields, the “white thunder,” that he wanted. The following year, in March of 1931, the film crew sailed with the Viking again with Captain Abram Kean Jr. in command. The objective was less to seal and more to film, and dynamite, the northerly ice fields. The journey soon became disastrous, due to human error as much as nature.
Loss of the SS Viking
Pilgrim includes a full list of all aboard the Viking on her final voyage and of the men who lost their lives on her. Despite the loss of the ship and men and presumably the footage shot on that second journey, the film was released in 1931 as The Viking.
It is a tribute to the men who sailed on the Viking and other sealing vessels. It is also a tribute to Varick Frissell who saw the beauty in the sea-ice and the men who battled it every spring. He also believed it was important to share that dangerous beauty with a world that enjoyed seal fur without thinking of the rigour of its production. Pilgrim’s book pays further tribute by giving us a glimpse of the real and tragic events, through reconstruction of known facts and surmise of what may have happened. He tells also of romance in Frissell’s life, with a Grenfell Mission nurse named Sarah who came from north of St. Anthony. If her existence is fact, I wonder who she was.
The Day of Varick Frissel is available on Amazon. If you are connected to the Northern Peninsula Kean family of ship captains, you’ll be especially interested in this story. If you would like to see the movie, you no longer have to wait for a museum attendant to show it. You can buy it here on Amazon. Brooklyn newspaper accounts are here.
A while back, I was looking online for a family in response to a query. I found them. A note on their kinship chart said the wife was sister of Otto Kelland, maker of the model fishing boats displayed at the Fisheries College in St. John’s and composer of the song Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s. I sat back, stared at the screen and said “Wow!”
Instantly I was back in the Newfoundland Museum, the old one on Duckworth Street, about 1982. I worked as a weekend attendant and we tried to have a staff person on each floor, to keep an eye on things and be available to visitors who had questions. One Saturday, I was on the 3rd floor, the Newfoundland history display.
Two men stopped for a long time at the display case of model fishing boats. The older man would point a finger to something on one of them while talking. Their conversation looked interesting, so I wandered over close enough that I could eavesdrop. I had spent a lot of time studying those models. I loved the workmanship and I would compare all the little parts, seeing what made one type of vessel different from another.
Father and son, as it turned out they were, noticed me nearby and included me in their discussion. After knowledgeably talking about the models, the elder man explained to me: “I built these, y’see.” I thought, sure you did, just after you finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We had a lot of rather odd people who spent time in the museum. But the more he talked, the more likely it seemed that he really had built these model ships.
Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s
The son decided introductions were in order so he told me his name and “this is my father, Otto Kelland.” I sneaked a peak at the cards propped beside the model ships just to verify what I already knew: made by Otto Kelland. Then another realization hit me: Otto Kelland also was the name of the man who wrote the most beautiful Newfoundland song I’d ever heard. I said “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s?” “Oh yes my dear, that was me,” he laughed.
My eyes filled up as I stared at him, open-mouthed. I felt like a fool, but I was totally awestruck. The beautiful models that I had spent so many hours looking at, the song that moved me to tears every time I heard it – and the maker of both smiling at me.
Then we reversed roles up there on the 3rd floor. The museum attendant was given a tour by the museum patron. Mr. Kelland explained the design and equipment of the fishing vessels using his models as illustration. Then he took me and his son around the other displays of fishing stages and stores, industrial equipment and household items. I learned more that day about my museum and about Newfoundland than I ever had before.
I’ve never forgotten the thrill of meeting him that day. And seeing that note about him on a genealogy page brought it all back fresh as the day it happened. So I’m proud to say that Mr. Otto P. Kelland is now entered in my database.
*If you’ve never heard the song, here’s a beautiful version by The Irish Descendants. Also here’s a book written by Otto Kelland on Amazon:Dories and Dorymen
If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Theatre. 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 coast. 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
There 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 Passageabout Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.
Theatre 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.
The telling of a place often is told through the people who make up the place. Conversely, the telling of a family can be told through the place they lived. Here are books about places or families in Newfoundland that may be of interest to those researching their origins.
Many prolific writers and storytellers have told Newfoundland’s past and present. There are also historical sources and contemporary analyses of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq. I have not included those here.
These books are about specific family or community history. They have real names and details of family history as well as the history of areas in which Mi’kmaq people lived. The exceptions are those by Kevin Major, Horwood and Butts, Erin Sharpe, Percy Janes, and Barbara Rieti. You may not think of Major’s book when you think “history”, but it’s well worth reading. Horwood and Butts’ book tells about the pirate Peter Easton in Newfoundland. Sharpe’s article, through the eyes of one young woman, gives the reasons why people track their Mi’kmaq ancestry. Percy Janes’ novel beautifully presents place; Corner Brook in the first half of the 20th century. Rieti studies witchcraft beliefs in all of Newfoundland, but includes Mi’kmaq people and areas.
Please let me know if you know of a book that should be here. The titles below are links to find them. If you buy from Amazon, doing so through my links (or ‘Search Amazon’ box in right sidebar) means a fraction of every sale goes to me. For that, I am most appreciative.
Relevant, but included elsewhere in this site, are Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting Into Doom, my own Nogwa’mkisk: (Where the sand blows): Vignettes of Bay St. George Micmacs (out of print) and Lark Szick’s Young/LeJeune Family.
Click book titles (in green) for info and purchase
Rogers, John Davidson Newfoundland Vol. V, Pt. IV of A Historical Geography of the British Colonies Clarendon, Oxford 1911 Forgotten Books Classic Reprint Series 2012 Esp. ch. 8 for Mi'kmaq history (Amazon sometimes, or libraries)
Speck, Frank Beothuk and Micmac New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation 1922 (online - see top left for formats, also on Amazon hard copy and Kindle)
Styles, Cindy 3 or 4 Years an Indian Friesen Press 2015 ("A little story about one girl's attempt to claim her heritage, and the maneuvering by the Canadian government to discredit that heritage." - Amazon blurb. Kindle, paper, hardback eds.
Thirty years ago the Ocean Ranger drill rig sank off the coast of Newfoundland. The entire crew, 84 men, drowned. During the early hours of February 15th, in a bad winter storm, the rig began listing. Emergency personnel got there but there was nothing and no one left to save.
That night I was awake. My new cat had put her week-old kittens in bed with me. One by one, she picked them up in her mouth, jumped up on the bed and deposited them beside me. She then went as far away on the bed as she could get, gave me a look that clearly said “they’re yours” and went to sleep. Needless to say, I couldn’t, not with five tiny bodies beside me. So I listened to CBC Radio until it went off the air, then thought about stuff and drifted off for a few minutes at a time. When CBC came back on the air at 5:30 a.m., it was all about the Ocean Ranger.
No one knew what was going on. Announcers gave details as they got them then corrected themselves. Reporters were with officials and emergency responders from Mobil, Odeco and whoever else was available on land and at sea. Boats and helicopters searched for survivors. But the rig had sunk and no survivors. I knew many of the oil industry voices on the radio. I worked as an office temp, and drilling and oil companies, including Mobil, were my regular clients.
And, like pretty much everyone in Newfoundland, I knew people who worked on the rigs. A fellow student and friend worked on the Ocean Ranger. Was he on or off that week? I couldn’t remember. He was off, thank God. So was a friend of his, also someone I knew. But the husband of another fellow student was on the rig. She was widowed and their infant son left fatherless.
Newfoundland was shattered. The offshore oil industry was new and had so far delivered only jobs and good times for all. Then, just like that, 84 men dead – the biggest single sea disaster in many years. It took the shine off the paradise that Hibernia had promised. “And have not shall be no more”, in the ringing words of Premier Brian Peckford who got a good deal for the province in oil revenues.
Investigations into the disaster showed slipshod safety practices and rig design that really could not withstand the worst that the Grand Banks could give an unmoving platform. The workers’ nickname for the rig became widely known: The Ocean Danger.
I’ve never forgotten that night – the joy of a cat trusting me with her babies, all of us warmly tucked up while the storm lashed my windows, then listening to early morning radio to hear panic and confusion happening right here, right now. So that’s why I never will have faith that any technology is fail-safe against nature’s powers.
The names of the men lost on the Ocean Ranger are:
Robert Arsenault, George Augot, Nicholas Baldwin, Kenneth Blackmore, Thomas Blevins, David Boutcher, Wade Brinston, Joseph Burry, Paul Bursey, Greg Caines, Kenneth Chafe, David Chalmers, Gerald Clarke, Daniel Conway, Gary Crawford, Arthur Dagg, Norman Dawe, Jim Dodd, Thomas Donlon, Wayne Drake, Leon Droddy, William Dugas, Terrance Dwyer, Domenic Dyke, Derek Escott, Andrew Evoy, Robert Fenez, Randell Ferguson, Peter Fogg, Ronald Foley, Melvin Freid, Carl Fry, George Gandy, Guy Gerbeau, Reginald Gorum, Cyril Greene, Norman Halliday, Fred Harnum, Tom Hatfield, Capt. Clarence Hauss, Ron Heffernan, Gregory Hickey, Robert Hicks, Derek Holden, Albert Howell, Robert Howell, Robert Howland, Jack Jacobson, Cliff Kuhl, Harold LeDrew, Robert LeDrew, Robert Madden, Michael Maurice, Ralph Melendy, Wayne Miller, Gord Mitchell, Perry Morrison, Randy Noseworthy, Ken O’Brien, Paschal Joseph O’Neill, George Palmer, Clyde Parsons, Donald Pieroway, John Pinhorn, Willie Powell, Gerald Power, Douglas Putt, Donald Rathburn, Darryl Reid, Dennis Ryan, Rick Sheppard, Frank Smit, William Smith, William David Smith, Ted Stapleton, Benjamin Kent Thompson, Greg Tiller, Craig Tilley, Gerald Vaughn, Woodrow Warford, Michael Watkin, Robert Wilson, Robert Winsor, Stephen Winsor.
from memorialsonline.com/ranger.asp and Gonzaga High School Annual Prayer Service Feb. 13/15 (in photos on Friends and Family of the Ocean Ranger FB page )
In January 1883, a dory was lost at sea off the south coast of Newfoundland. On it were Howard Blackburn and Tommy Welsh. They became separated from their schooner in a sudden storm. The Captain and crew reluctantly had to give them up for dead.
Sixteen-year old Tommy Welsh did die, but Howard Blackburn managed to put in at the tiny village of Little River (now Grey River) near Burgeo on the south coast of Newfoundland. There, through the skill of Jenny Lushman and Susie Bushney, he was brought back to health, minus his fingers and toes.
An incredible story, made more incredible by Blackburn’s continued adventures sailing solo across the Atlantic and north on the Pacific. His rowing abilities are commemorated in The Blackburn Challenge, a rowing event in Glouchester Mass.
But the story doesn’t end with him. Publicity around his survival led to the reunification of a family after fifty years and the discovery of branches of the family totally unknown to each other.
Lushmans of Little River and USA
Blackburn had lived with the Lushman, or Lishman, family of Little River. The story of his rescue came across the desk of a Massachusetts newspaper editor named Litchman who showed it to his father. The senior Mr. Litchman, as a boy, had left Newfoundland with his father in search of work. The father then left Massachusetts and the son stayed, later changing the spelling of his name from Lishman to Litchman.
Hmm, the Litchmans thought, worth a letter to Little River. So the Lishmans of Little River found their brother who had left for the United States 50 years earlier. Siblings were reunited, but what had happened to the father who had left Newfoundland and then Massachusetts?
Publicity about this led to another man making a connection. A letter he’d found in his late father’s possessions explained the missing father. He had gone to Louisiana and indeed had tried to find his son in Massachusetts.
The trail went cold until a woman from Minneapolis contacted the Litchmans. She had been born a Lishman in Louisiana. Her late father had come from Newfoundland. She knew nothing more about his family. Yes, she was a half-sister.
Here’s my transcription of the story from the Dec. 1912 Newfoundland Quarterly by Sir Edward Morris, Prime Minister of Newfoundland. The only point that confuses me is that Francis Lishman says his mother’s name was Susannah née McDonald and in Earl Pilgrim’s book* she is called Jenny. But that’s a small mystery compared to those with which these people lived. Family vanished – abandoned or lost, a daughter orphaned. Loss and grief, betrayal, survival, reconciliation and renewal. As Morris says, it’s the stuff of novels. I say movies too.
*Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting Into Doom led me into this incredible tale. I wrote about it here.
Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch – A Tale of the Sea
By The Right Hon. Sir Edward Morris, P.C, Prime Minister
It is just twenty-five years since I first visited Little River, twenty-one miles east of Burgeo, on the South Coast. It was the Jubilee Year of Her late Majesty, Queen Victoria. We were on the good ship Leopard, Captain Feild, with the late Mr. Justice Pinsent presiding. We had a goodly company, plenty of law work at the points touched, glorious weather, and good fishing. Only a few remain of those who were on that Circuit. Judge Pinsent, D. J. Greene, I. R. McNeily, T. Walsh, James Milley, M. H. Carty, Captain Field, John Burke the Crier of the Court, and the late R. H. Parsons, Photographer — have all passed away.
We put into St. Pierre on the way, and were the guests of the Anglo American Telegraph Company at the Jubilee Ball, and were also entertained at dinner by the Governor of St. Pierre. We stopped at Little River for some fishing and were not disappointed in the result. Little River is a long, deep inlet, about 130 yards wide, extending about five or six miles, where it branches out into the North-East and South-East Arms. The shores are steep and bold, falling precipitously from a height of a thousand feet. The scenery is not unlike that of Bonne Bay, Placentia and Bay of Islands, perpendicular hills, through which the tide rushes with great velocity at ebb and flow. On the evening of the second day at Little River, returning from fishing, I first learned from my guide, the astounding story of Howard Blackburn, his marvellous escape from death, as well as the sad fate of his dory-mate, Thomas Welch.
This summer, when at Burgeo, I went over the incident again with my friend, Magistrate Small, from whom I obtained further particulars. The story aptly illustrates the time worn adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.” A three volume novel might be written from the facts which make up this story; the tragedy of the cruel sea, the romance of quiet lives, and the heroism of those who go down to the sea in ships. At the present time I shall have to content myself with the barest outline.
Christmas Eve, 1834
The first streaks of dawn on Christmas Eve 1834 were just perceptible when William Lishman with his little son, aged eight, left his home at Little River, his wife, two sons and three daughters, never to return. His course lay through the trackless woods between Little River and Burgeo. Arriving there he put up for the night, and on Christmas moming, with several inches of snow on the ground, he and the boy started for LaPoile. There he boarded an American fishing schooner, bound for Marblehead, Mass., on board of which he was taken and given a passage. That was the last ever seen or heard of William Lishman and his boy, either by his family at Little River, or by his aquaintances at Burgeo or La Poile; and it is probable that if it had not been for the casting away of Howard Blackburn, and Michael [sic] Welch on the Burgeo Banks fifty years later we should never more have heard of them.
Christmas Eve, 1882
With flags flying, in good trim, with fresh bait, iced down, and everything promising for a successful halibut voyage, the schr. Grace L. Fears sailed out of Gloucester Harbour, bound for the Burgeo Banks. After fishing there for three weeks, and with fair success, on the morning of the 25th January, 1883, shortly after dawn, the crew left the schooner’s side in eight dories, to overhaul their trawls, the position of the vessel being then about thirty miles from the Newfoundland coast.
In one of the dories was Howard Blackburn, by birth a Nova Scotian, from Port Medway, then a citizen of the United States, and Thomas Welch, a native of Newfoundland. The weather was not stormy, but it had been threatening snow. They had only been a short while from the side of the vessel, when the wind started to blow, the snow falling thicker and thicker. The hauling of the trawls half-filled the dory with halibut, and the boat continued to ride with safety the sea which the freshening breeze had made. As the day wore on, the wind veered from south-east to north-west. The effect of this was to alter their position with regard to their vessel, placing them to leeward. On realizing this both men started to pull towards the schooner, but owing to the strong wind and the buffetting waves, they were forced to anchor.
Shortly after dark the weather cleared, and they could discern the schooner’s riding light, as well as the flare-up which their shipmates maintained on board to indicate their whereabouts. On seeing their ship, they pulled up anchor and bent all their energies in an effort to reach her, but, owing to the wind which by this time had increased to almost a gale, no headway could be made. An attempt was then made to again anchor but they had evidently drifted over the shoal ground and were now in deep water, and could get no anchorage. Accordingly their dory drifted away to leeward. Their first night was spent in the open boat, with the weather bitterly cold and a piercing wind, with no food or water, both men being occupied pretty well the whole time in keeping the dory free. At that season of the year there is not much daylight before seven o’clock, and dawn brought them no sight of their ship.
Giving up all hope of reaching the schooner, they set to work to lighten their boat by throwing overboard their trawls and fish, and by the aid of their oars helped their frail craft to drift towards the land. The wind increasing towards noon, it was not deemed safe to continue running before the heavy sea and accordingly they “hove to” by improvising a drag made by attaching a trawl keg to a small winch. Whilst rigging this drag or floating anchor, Blackburn had the misfortune to lose his mittens overboard, a mishap which largely increased his after sufferings. Shortly afterwards, both his hands became frozen. On realizing this, he saw that there was nothing left for him but to grasp the oars, so that his hands might freeze around them, and thus, stiff in that position, when he required to row, all he would have to do would be to slip his hands over the oars.
During the whole of that day and the following night the boat lay to the drag, the two men continually bailing out the water. At five o’clock the following morning Welch succumbed to the cold, hunger and exposure, and died. The weather conditions that day were much the same as the preceding one, Blackburn’s time being fully occupied in bailing the boat. Another night passed, and another day dawned, and rowing again all that day he again anchored with his drag for the night, and early the next morning, resuming rowing, he saw the first sign of land. Pulling on all that day until the night, he again threw out his drag and on the following day, Sunday, reached the mouth of Little River, just inside the headlands where he saw a house. The house was unoccupied, but served as a shelter for Blackburn. He had the misfortune, however, of having his dory stove at the stage head during the night. In order to repair her next morning, he had to lift the body of Welch out, and in endeavouring to get it up the stage head it fell into twelve feet of water.
Having repaired the dory he headed her west, and after a few hours rowing up the river, was gladdened by the sight of the people who lived there. Notwithstanding his terrible condition, having been practically without food for five days and five nights, except portions of the frozen raw halibut, with hands and feet frozen, he refused any assistance for himself until the men went and recovered the body of his dory mate.
Within a few minutes after landing, Blackburn was comfortably housed in the home of Francis Lishman [sic], where cod-oil and flour, the local remedy, were applied to draw the frost from his feet and hands. In this process, he must have suffered excruciating pain. There was no doctor available, nearer than Burgeo. The fingers and thumbs of both his hands had been worn away in the work of rowing, and during the days that followed, gangrene set in and nothing being left in the end except two stumps. For over fifty days the process of decay went on. The heel and three toes of the right foot were completely destroyed, as well as some of the toes of the left foot.
For over a month the poor but hospitable people did everything in their power for him, and contributed to his comfort from their own small and meagre store. Fortunately the s.s. Nimrod that year was frozen in on the Burgeo coast, and, being boarded by the inhabitants, some few delicacies were obtained for the unfortunate man.
On May 3rd Blackburn left Burgeo, where he had gone a few days earlier, for treatment, and proceeded to Gloucester. The body of Welch which had been brought to Burgeo at the same time that Blackburn came there, was buried in the Church of England cemetery. The people of Gloucester subscribed $500 for Blackburn, and started him in business. It must be recorded to his credit that, having once established himself in business, he returned the whole amount, unsought, to the citizens, and it was transferred to the Fishermen’s Widows and Orphans Fund.
“Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction,” and there are more vagaries of romance in real life than would be admitted into any well-written novel.
Upon the first authentic story of the casting away of Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch having reached Burgeo, Mr. J. P. Small now Magistrate wrote an account of it for the Gloucester Times with particulars of his rescue and whereabouts, pointing out that he had been cared for by one Francis Lishman of Little River.
It so happened that a copy of the Times containing the story fell into the hands of the Editor of the Essex City Statesman of Marblehead, Mass., whose name was Litchman. On reading the account he remembered to have heard his father say that his name had been Lushman, and that he had changed it, that he was born in Newfoundland, and that he had left that country when only a lad, with his father, who had carried him on his back and had conveyed him to Marblehead in a fishing vessel from LaPoile. Handing the paper to his father he said “It looks as if you had some relations living in Newfoundland.” The father, William Litchman, the boy that had left Little River fifty years before, on the, to him, memorable Christmas Eve morning, exclaimed – “This Francis Lishman must be my – brother. I remember him quite well, although I was very young when I left.” Communicating with Francis Lishman led to the identification of their being brothers.
William Litchman, with his father, having come to Marblehead. had there been apprenticed to the shoemaking trade, his father for several years continuing to fish out of Gloucester, seeing the boy from time to time. In the year 1838 he saw his father for the last time, and from then until 1883 had never heard of him and supposed he was dead. In 1845 young Litchman married, and had no idea that he had any relations whatever in the world. At the time of his marriage he altered his name to “Litchman.” Though, from the year 1838 he had never heard from his father, it afterwards transpired that it was through no fault of the latter. In 1874, thirty years after the death of one Mason, to whom the boy had been apprenticed as a shoemaker, on examination of his papers a letter was found written thirty-two years before, addressed to Mason by Thomas Lishman, as follows:
Franklin, Louisiana, March 27th, 1842.
Having located myself in Louisiana, St. Mary’s Parish, and wishing to get some information of my son, that I left with you, I take this liberty to write this letter, and wish you to answer me and state where he is. In so doing you will much oblige me, as I wish him to come to this country. I expect to continue here for some time, and if he will come I will be able to do something for him. Direct your letter to me, Franklin, Louisiana.
Mr. Litchman was unaware of the existence of this letter until it was handed to him in 1874. Writing to his brother, after reading the article in the Gloucester Times, he received the following letter from Little River in reply:
Little River, Nfld., Nov. 21[or 28], 1883
My Dear Sir, — Your valued favour of June 5th received, and read with great interest. I will now give you a brief history of our family. It is as follows; — My father’s name was Thomas Lishman, a native of England. He married Susanna McDonald, a native of Hermitage Bay where he resided for some time, moving afterwards to Little River. My mother is now dead nine years. I am married and have eight children. My brother Thomas is living near me with a wife and three children. We both get a living by fishing, but as a rule we do not do well. My sister Bridget is dead six years. My father and brother William left Little River forty-seven years ago, and I have heard they resided at Marblehead, Mass., U.S.A. I have heard my father died four years ago; and I think it is likely that you are my brother. If so, you are minus a part of one of your fingers, as I remember a man named Organ cut it off by accident making kindling. I am fifty years of age, and my brother Thomas is fifty-three. If you are a brother, you should be between fifty-seven and fifty-eight. On reading the above, you will certainly be able to decide on the relationship, if any, between us. My brother and I will be much pleased to hear from you on receipt of this. With kind regards,
I remain, yours very truly, Francis Lishman
The Essex City Statesman published in its columns an account of the discovery by Mr. Litchman of his relatives in Newfoundland. This Item being copied into a Minneapolis paper, was read by a Mr. Smith, a lawyer of that city, who had formerly lived in Massachusetts. His wife was a Miss Lishman, born in the State of Louisiana. She was an adopted daughter of wealthy people, her father and mother being dead. She had informed her husband that her father had told her that he had come from Newfoundland. On Mr. Smith taking to his home the paper containing the article referred to, his wife was convinced that the Lishmans of Little River were half brothers and sisters of herself, and she then learned for the first time that her father had been married before he had come to Louisiana.
Mrs. Smith then opened correspondence with Mr. Litchman of Marblehead, and the proofs being enquired into, the relationship was firmly established. Mr. and Mrs. Smith also communicated with the Lishmans at Little River. In the following June, Mr. Litchman left Marblehead and proceeded to Burgeo where he was the guest of the Magistrate, Mr. Small. His two sisters, Susanna and Jane, had previously arrived from Little River, and the two brothers Francis and Thomas had also come up from there with their sons. Mr. Litchman remained eight or ten days with his relations in Burgeo. Whilst there he met one of the old fishermen, Charles Collier, the last man to whom he and his father had spoken on the memorable Christmas Morning, fifty years before, when they had left Burgeo for LaPoile.
On his return to the United States, Mr. Litchman visited Minneapolis, and saw his half-sister Mrs. Smith, who was undoubtedly a Lishman, she having every feature of the family. Believing her husband to be dead, Mrs. Lishman had married one Stiles in 1846, just fourteen years after her husband had left Little River. Since then the Lishmans of Little River and those of Marblehead and the Smiths of Minneapolis have been in communication, and no year passes without a tangible proof of the relationship from the wealthy relatives abroad to the kindly hospitable fisher-folk at Little River.
• • • • • • • •
If the tale were to stop here it would be in itself remarkable, as illustrating a most extraordinary adventure, involving the casting away from his ship, imminent peril, fearful exposure and ultimate rescue of Howard Blackburn, but this would seem to be only the beginning of the venturesome career of this most wonderful man.
One would think that after having been in such peril, and in the presence of death, and having by almost a miracle escaped, he would have been content to live at home in quiet and comfort, in his maimed condition, for the rest of his life. But no, his escape seems only to have fired him with a desire for further adventure.
In 1889, in a small thirty-foot sloop called the Great Western, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone, having sailed from Gloucester, Mass. on June 17th and arrived in Gloucester, England on August 18th, after a voyage of sixty-two days.
On October 18th, 1897, in company with some friends, he sailed for the Klondike in the schooner Hattie J. Phillips.
On June 9th, 1901, he again crossed the Atlantic alone, in the twenty-five-foot sloop Great Republic, having left Gloucester. Mass., on June 9th, arriving at Lisbon, Portugal, on July 18th, just thirty-nine days.
In 1905 he made an unsuccessful attempt to again cross the Atlantic in the seventeen-foot dory America sailing from Gloucester Mass. on June 17th. On Sunday. July 5th, when 160 miles South-East of Cape Canso, Nova Scotia, he had his little craft stove by a heavy sea, abandoned the voyage, was picked up and returned to Sydney, Cape Breton.
He is now a settled-down citizen in Gloucester, Mass., running a Tobacco Store at 289 Main Street.
It was a dark and stormy night when I began reading Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting into Doom: Tragedy at Sea. Winter rain blew at the windows and tree branches hit the house. Reading about two men drifting in a dory during a January 1883 storm on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I got chilled and thought “I knows how you feel!” Then I recollected myself, realized I was in a warm house, on a couch, with the wind and rain outside. No, I had no inkling of how Howard Blackburn and Tommy Welsh felt.
The story of the Banker schooner Grace L. Fears and the loss of one of her dories is itself a harrowing one. Trawling cod from tiny two-man boats set off the side of a schooner was a hard way to fish, especially for the dorymen. Many lives were lost on the Grand Bank fishery. This is the story of the loss of Tommy Welsh, a 16 year old from Grand Bank on the south coast of Newfoundland. It is also the story of the saving of the life of his dory mate, Howard Blackburn, an experienced fisherman originally from Nova Scotia who worked out of Glouchester, Mass.
Blackburn got the dory to shore near the tiny settlement of Little River (later called Grey River) on Newfoundland’s south coast. His frozen fingers and toes could not be saved but his hands and feet were by the skill of a local woman called Aunt Jenny Lushman. She was helped by a Mi’kmaq woman named Susie Bushney. Experienced healers and midwives that they were, neither woman had ever dealt with frostbite so severe. But Mrs. Bushney’s advice and Mrs. Lushman’s steely nerves kept Blackburn alive.
Blackburn went on to become a well-known businessman in Glouchester and a world adventurer. His dorymate Tommy Welsh was buried in Little River. The story of these men was not lost on the Grand Banks. Accounts were published at the time and Pilgrim uses these to tell a tale that lets you get to know them, the Blackburn family, the fishing company personnel and the people of Little River and Burgeo. As the cover blurb says, it keeps you “spellbound”.
The Lushman Family
Another story came from this one. Aunt Jenny Lushman lives on her own with her grown children. There is no Mr. Lushman. That’s the other story. As a result of publicity over Blackburn’s rescue, the story of what happened to Mr. Lushman came to light. It is also one of unbelievable happenstance and hardship. Probably it too is not an isolated case of people lost and believed gone, but it is one that became known and loose ends could be tied up. It is as epic as is the story of Howard Blackburn.
Jenny Lushman’s husband and one son left Little River for the United States in search of work. I found the story of what happened to them in a December 1912Newfoundland Quarterly article by Sir Edward Morris.* You’ll want to be tucked up in your Snuggly while reading it too. Thank you, dear reader Jim F., for this book. And Newfoundland filmmakers? Movie here!