Monday, February 8, 2010

James John, a Monarch of All He Surveyed...

In continuing to devour James P. Howley's The Beothucks or Red Indians, I've come across the following account of a true man of the forests & streams: James John, a Montagnais-Naskapi Indian from Labrador.
John was encountered by W.E. Cormack, ESQ. during Cormack's 1822 journey across the island of Newfoundland. Cormack, a Scotsman like Buchan, wrote a detailed narrative of his journey. The following was found in Part V of the narrative (page 147 in Howley's book):

October 11th. -- While surveying a large lake in the south-west we described a faint column of smoke issuing from amongst islands near the south shore, about five miles distant. This time we hoped had at last come to meet the Red Indians. Rivers rise here, as they had throughout our journey, owing to our track being central, that run to both sides of the Island, but it could not be seen to which side this lake contributed its waters. The Red Indians had been reported not to frequent the south side of the Island. It was too late in the day to reconnoitre; and my Indian went in pursuit of a herd of deer in another direction, we having no provision for supper. At sunset he did not meet me at the appointed wood in a valley hard by, nor did he return by midnight, /148/ nor at all. I dared not exhibit a fire on the hill, as a beacon to him, in sight of the strange encampment. His gun might have burst and injured him; he might have fled, or been surprised by the party on the lake.
October 12th. -- At daybreak the atmosphere was frosty, and the slender white column of smoke still more distinctly seen. There were human beings there, and, deserted, I felt an irresistible desire to approach my fellow creatures whether they should prove friendly or hostile. Having put my gun and pistols in the best order, and no appearance of my Indian at noon, I left my knapsack and all encumbrances, and descended through thickets and marshes towards the nearest part of the lake, about two miles distant. The white sandy shore, formed of disintegrated granite, was much trodden over by deer and other animals, but there were no marks of man discernible. The extent of the lake was uncertain; but it was apparent that it would require two days at least to walk round either end to the nearest point of the opposite shore to the occupied island. I therefore kept on my own side to discover who the party were. By firing off my gun, if the party were Red Indians, they would in all probability move off quickly on hearing the report, and they having no firearms, my fire would not be answered. If they were other Indians my fire would be returned. I fired. By and by the report of a strange gun travelled among the islands from the direction of the smoke, and thus all my doubts and apprehensions were dispelled. The report of this gun was the first noise I had heard caused by man, except by my Indian and myself, for more than five weeks, and it excited very peculiar feelings.
In about an hour my lost Indian unexpectedly made his appearance from the direction we had parted on the preceding evening, brought to the spot by the report of my gun. He accounted for himself, "that after having shot a stag about two miles from the spot appointed for our encampment, he attempted to get round the west end of the lake to reconnoitre the party on the island, but found the distance too great, and getting benighted, had slept in the woods."
Soon afterwards, to my great delight, there appeared among some woody islets in front, which precluded the view of the other side of the lake, a small canoe with a man seated in the stern, paddling softly towards us, with an air of serenity and independence possessed only by the Indian. After a brotherly salutation with me, and the two Indians kissing each other, the hunter proved to be unable to speak English or French. They, however, soon understood one another, for the stranger, although a mountaineer from Labrador, could speak a little of the Mickmack language, his wife being a Mickmack. The mountaineer tribe belongs to Labrador, and he told us that he had come to Newfoundland, hearing that it was a better hunting country than his own, and that he was now on his way hunting from St. George's Bay to the Bay of Despair to spend the winter with the Indians there. He had left St. George's Bay two months before, and expected to be at the Bay of Despair in two weeks hence. This was his second year in Newfoundland; he was accompanied by his wife only. My Indian told him that I had come 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. He said St. George's Bay was about two weeks walk from us if we knew the best way, and invited us over with him in his canoe to rest a day at his camp, where he said he had plenty of venison, which was readily agreed to on my part.
The island on which the mountaineer's camp was, lay about three miles distant. The varying scenery as we paddled towards it, amongst innumerable islands and inlets, all of granite, and mostly covered with spruce and birch trees, was beautiful. His canoe was similar to those described to have been used by the ancient Britons on the invasion by the Romans. It was made of wicker-work, covered over outside with deer skins sewed together and stretched on it, nearly the usual form of canoes, with a bar or beam across the middle, and one on each end to strengthen it. The skin covering, flesh side out, was fastened or laced to the gunwales, with thongs of the same material. Owing to decay and wear it requires to be renewed once in from six to twelve weeks. It is in these temporary barks that the Indians of /149/ Newfoundland of the present day navigate the lakes and rivers of the interior. They are easily carried, owing to their lightness, across the portages from one water to another, and when damaged easily repaired. There were innumerable granite rocks in the lake a little below and above the surface; on one of these our canoe struck and rubbed a hole through the half-decayed skin, and was attended with some risk to our persons and guns. His wigwam was situated in the centre of a wooded islet at which we arrived before sunset. The approach from the landing place was by a mossy carpeted avenue, formed by the trees having been cut down in that direction for fire-wood. The sight of a fire, not of our own kindling, of which we were to partake, seemed hospitality. It was occupied by his wife, seated on a deer skin, busy sewing together skins of the same kind to renew the outside of the canoe we had just found, which required it. A large Newfoundland dog, her only companion in her husband's absence, had welcomed us at the landing-place with signs of the greatest joy. Sylvan happiness reigned here. His wigwam was of a semicircular form, covered with birch rind and dried deer skins, the fire on the fore ground outside. Abundance and neatness pervaded the encampment. On horizontal poles over the fire, hung quantities of venison stakes, being smoked dry. The hostess was cheerful, and a supper, the best the chase could furnish, was soon set before us on sheets of birch rind. They told me to "make their camp my own, and use everything in it as such." Kindness so elegantly tendered by these people of nature in their solitude, commenced to soften those feelings which had been fortified against receiving any comfort except that of my own administering. The excellence of the venison, and of the flesh of young beavers, could not be surpassed. A cake of hard deer's fat with scraps of suet, toasted brown, intermixed, was eaten with the meat; soup was the drink. Our hostess after supper sang several Indian songs at my request. They were plaintive, and sung in a high key. The song of a female and her contentment in this remote and secluded spot, exhibited the strange diversity there is in human nature. My Indian entertained them incessantly until nearly daylight with stories about what he had seen in St. John's. Our toils were for the time forgotten. The mountaineer had occupied this camp for about two weeks, deer being very plentiful all around the lake. His larder, which was a kind of shed, erected on the rocky shore for the sake of a free circulation of air, was in reality a well-stocked butcher's stall, containing parts of some half-dozen fat deer, also the carcasses of beavers, of otters, of musk rats, and of martens, all methodically laid out. His property consisted of two guns and ammunition, an axe, some good culinary utensils of iron and tin, blankets, an apartment of dried deer skins to sleep on and with which to cover his wigwam -- the latter with the hair off; a collection of skins to sell at the sea coast, consisting of those of beaver, otter, marten, musk rat, and deer, the last dried and the hair off; also a stock of dried venison in bundles. Animal flesh of every kind, in steaks, without salt, smoke-dried on the fire for forty-eight hours, becomes nearly as light and portable as cork, and will keep sound for years. It thus forms a good substitute for bread, and by being boiled two hours recovers most of its original qualities.
The Red Indians' country, or the waters which they frequented, we were told by the mountaineer, lay six or seven miles to the north of us, but at this season of the year these people were likely to be farther to the northward at the Great Lake of the Red Indians; also, that about two weeks before there was a party of Mickmack hunting at the next large lake to the westward, about two days walk from us, and that the deer were very plentiful to the westward. He also described the nature of the country, and made drawings upon sheets of birch-rind of the lakes, rivers, mountains, and woods that lay in the best route to St. George's Harbour. He kept a register, ascertaining when Christmas Day would arrive; having ascertained at St. George's Bay the number of days intervening, he cut a notch on a stick every morning to the number of that holiday. He had missed a day and now rectified the mistake. This lake, called Meelpegh, or Crooked Lake, by the Indians, I also named in honour of Professor Jameson. It is nine or ten miles in length, by from one to three in breadth, /150/ joined by a strait to another lake nearly as large, lying south east, called Burnt Bay Lake, and is one of the chain of lakes connected by the East Bay River of the Bay of Despair, already noticed as running through Serpentine Lake which forms a part of the great route of the Indians.
October 14th. -- We left the veteran mountaineer (James John by name) much pleased with our having fallen in with him. He landed us from his canoe on the south shore of the lake, and we took our departure for the westward, along the south side. Truly could this man proclaim:
"I'm monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute."

To Cormack's description of James John I would only add "Once, he was there".

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