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.
Cormack, 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.
“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.
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).
We 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:
- Imperial Influence on 1820’s Newfoundland, a 2018 MUN Geography paper (pdf) by Kelly Young, for more on the journey and the men themselves.
- Cormack’s Trail Retraced, about a 1970 snowmobile trip across the island, in Sledworthy Magazine.
- My post Beothuk Great-Grandchild includes an article about Annie Gabriel White by Harry Cuff that talks about Cormack’s contact with Shanawdithit, a Beothuk woman.