Tag Archives: Beothuk

Sylvester Joe

Sylvester Joe is one of the best known men in the island of Newfoundland’s exploration history. He’s also one of the least known. A Mi’kmaq hunter and guide from Bay d’Espoir, Joe took William Epps Cormack across the island in 1822. By doing so, Cormack became the first non-indigenous person to cross the interior.

my-indian-cover-detail-sheila-oneillCormack, who called him Joseph Sylvester, told us most of what we know about him. Until now. Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill tell us more in their new YA book My Indian. It will be released April 30, 2021 by Breakwater Books.

Like Sylvester Joe, Chief Mi’sel Joe is from Miawpukek, or Conne River, on Newfoundland’s south coast. Sharing a community and culture, Chief Joe is well-placed to figure out who he really was. Although Cormack tells us a lot about his guide, he doesn’t say much about Joe’s personal history. Even his name, as given by Cormack, is unsure. Joe is a common surname among Newfoundland Mi’kmaq, whereas Sylvester is less common. (See Marshall and Macpherson 2018, and Sheila O’Neill’s  comment below.)

Narrative of a Journey

Guide and client spent July to November of 1822 together, getting ready for their trek and then doing it. They walked across the middle of the island west from Trinity Bay to St. George’s. Most often there was no one else with them. In his Narrative of a Journey across the Island of Newfoundland in 1822, Cormack tells us about the man he saw during this gruelling trip. He recorded Joe’s knowledge and observations in detail. His reactions to places and people too.

The two also must have talked about their lives, their families, where they were from. But that’s not recorded. Their life stories were not the point of Cormack’s account. It was the journey itself.

cormack-route-1822-MUN-heritage.nf_.ca
The pink line marks the route Joe and Cormack took. Map from Heritage NL.

“in the middle of that country”

Cormack’s objective was “to see the rocks, the deer, the beavers, and the Red Indians, and to tell King George what was going on in the middle of that country.” This, Cormack says, is how Joe described their mission to James John when they met the Innu hunter and his Mi’kmaq wife near Meelpaeg Lake.

Mt Sylvester Parks Canada
Mt. Sylvester, named by Cormack for his guide (Parks Canada)

Cormack does tell us about the flora and fauna, but also what he and Joe were doing and, sometimes, thinking. He gives details about every other person that they met. What they had with them, where they were going and what they were doing. And that, at least as much as the geographical knowledge, is the value of Cormack’s Narrative.

“from end to end of the land”

Historian J. D. Rogers wrote in 1911: “Cormack’s historical discovery – unexpected by him and unsuspected by historians – was that during a century or more, while Englishmen were gazing out seawards with their backs turned to the land, Micmacs with their backs turned toward the sea were hurrying to and fro from end to end of the land” (162).

My Indian by Mi'sel JoeWe know a lot about Cormack’s life, him being a writer and explorer and all. We know much less about Sylvester Joe, who made it possible for Cormack to do that exploring. The authors of My Indian tell the story from that other side. With knowledge of their shared history, and some educated guesswork, they give us Sylvester Joe’s backstory. The book’s beautiful cover is by Newfoundland Mi’kmaq artist Jerry Evans.

(Thank you to Sheila O’Neill for correcting and adding to what I had written here.)

Tap the book cover above to order My Indian on Amazon. Cormack’s Narrative, and much more, is in J. P. Howley’s 1915 The Beothuks or Red Indians. A link to it is below, as well as to All Gone Widdun, a 1999 historical novel by Annamarie Beckel about the Beothuk. Also see:

Beothuk Great-Grandchild

Demasduit_Mary_March-lady-henrietta-martha-hamilton-1819-collectionscanada.gc_.ca
Demasduit portrait by Lady Henrietta Hamilton 1819

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.

The_taking_of_Demasduit-drawn-by-shanawdithit-1829-wikipedia
The taking of Demasduit, drawn by Shanawdithit 1829, notes by W E Cormack (tap to enlarge)

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

Harry Cuff NQ 1966 Beothuk Great-Grandchild
Tap to enlarge or see original at Newfoundland Quarterly 1966 65:2:25

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

Joe Gabriel—married—Miss Gillam

Fred Gabriel —married — Margaret Cormier

Anne Gabriel (Mrs. Richard White)

______________________________________________________

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.

cover howley beothuk bookThe 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.

  • See my Sylvester Joe for more on the journey that W. E. Cormack made across the island in 1822 with a Mi’kmaq guide.