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Authors: Gary Collins

Mattie Mitchell

BOOK: Mattie Mitchell
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Cabot Island

“Collins' focus on an ordinary event taking place under
extraordinary circumstances sheds a tender, respectful
light on how strength of character can be forged at the
anguished intersection of isolation and bereavement.”


“The story is intriguing . . .”


The Last Farewell

“The writing here is at its best when the danger and beauty
of the sea is subtly described.” — 

The Last Farewell
tells a true story, but Collins' vivid
description and well-realized characters make it read like
a novel.” — 

The Last Farewell
not only because it is a moving
historical tale of needless tragedy but also because it's
a book enriched with abundant details of Newfoundland
life not so widespread anymore.”— 

The Last Farewell:
The Loss of the Collett
is informative
and intriguing, and not merely for experienced sailors or
Newfoundlanders.” — 


Soulis Joe's Lost Mine

“There is a magic in the interior of this island that
few will write about or speak of to others—an endless
fascination with the land. Gary Collins is entranced in the
same way that the allure of rock, tree, and bog seized the
indomitable Allan Keats, and before him, his ancestor,
the Mi'kmaq Soulis Joe. This book gives voice not only
to these men but to the great and wonderful wilderness of
Newfoundland. Read it and be prepared for the wonder
and love of the wild places. It will grab and hold on to you,
too.” — 

Soulis Joe's Lost Mine
is a number of stories in one:
it's a great mystery-adventure; it's a fascinating look at
prospecting for precious metals; and it's a heart-warming
story about the importance of family pride.”


“This tale also serves to cement Collins' status as one of
the region's better storytellers; he has a journalist's eye
for detail, his writing is crisp and lean and the narrative
arc runs smooth and seamless and is well-peppered with
shakes of home-spun humour.” — 


What Colour is the Ocean?

“Delightful rhyming story.”


“Scott Keating's illustrations are an asset to the book. The
double page illustrations revealing the colour of the ocean
are particularly successful in conveying the moods of the
ocean and the land.” — 

“This tale, set by the sea in Newfoundland, is told in a
simple repetitive refrain that will capture the imagination
of young readers. . . . Illustrations by Scott Keating,
award-winning artist and illustrator, capture the beauty
of Newfoundland and the many seasons and moods of the
ocean.” — 

Where Eagles Lie Fallen

“Some truly breathtaking stories of tragedy . . .”


“A gripping story,

which cuts to the true heart of tragedy.”


Other books by Gary Collins






Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Collins, Gary, 1949-

Mattie Mitchell: Newfoundland's greatest frontiersman / Gary Collins.

Includes bibliographical references.

Also issued in electronic format.

ISBN 978-1-926881-01-0 ISBN EPUB 978-1-926881-02-7

1. Mitchell, Mattie, 1850-1921. 2. Micmac Indians--Newfoundland
and Labrador--Biography. 3. Prospectors--Newfoundland and
Labrador--Biography. 4. Loggers--Newfoundland and Labrador--Biography. 5. Fishing guides--Newfoundland and Labrador--Biography.
6. Hunting guides--Newfoundland and Labrador--Biography. 7. Frontier
and pioneer life--Newfoundland and Labrador. I. Title.

FC2173.1. M58C64 2011 971.8004'973430092 C2011-907125-8

© 2011 by Gary Collins

. No part of the work covered by the copyright hereon may be reproduced or used in any
form or by any means—graphic, electronic or mechanical—without the written permission of the publisher.
Any request for photocopying, recording, taping, or information storage and retrieval systems of any part of this
book shall be directed to Access Copyright, The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency, 1 Yonge Street, Suite
800, Toronto, ON M5E 1E5. This applies to classroom use as well.

Cover Photo: Mattie Mitchell with salmon, taken in Lomond River, circa 1918.

Photo by D. K. Boyd, donated by Colin Boyd.

Cover Design: Peter Hanes Illustration and cover art by Clint Collins


 2522, S

. J
, NL


TELEPHONE: (709) 739-4477 FAX: (709) 739-4420 TOLL-FREE: 1-866-739-4420


15 14 13 12 11 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program
(BPIDP) for our publishing activities; the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and
publishing throughout Canada; the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation

I respectfully dedicate this book to Marie Marion
Sparkes née Mitchell, whom, sadly, I never met.
She passed from this earth before I started to write
about her grandfather, Mattie Mitchell.

And grasps me now a long-unwonted yearning

For that serene and solemn Spirit-Land:

My song, to faint Aeolian murmurs turning,

Sways like a harp-string by the breezes fanned.

I thrill and tremble; tear on tear is burning,

And the stern heart is tenderly unmanned.

What I possess, I see far distant lying,

And what I lost, grows real and undying.



the incredible life of Mattie
Mitchell the frontiersman has been a joyous one. The wilds of
Newfoundland have always been a sacred, mysterious place for
me. As Mattie's pages lengthened, so did my respect for the man.
When the manuscript was nearing completion, I was hired along
with my partner, Allan Keats, to spend the summer prospecting
in the wilderness of Newfoundland. One of the areas we worked
was the Great Northern Peninsula. I could not believe my good
fortune! I would be paid to traverse the same country where
Mattie Mitchell had spent the most exciting part of his life.

For thirty days Al and I drove, canoed, and walked most of
the area between Gunners Cove in the north to Daniel's Harbour
in the south. And as we walked the land, with maps, compass,
and GPS in hand, my respect for Mattie Mitchell grew daily. This
area of our province truly is great! There is no other place like
it. Away from the stunted, twisted tuckamore trees that line the
coastal gulf highway there lies a hidden world.

Among the distant mountains of grandeur there are hanging
green valleys of incredible beauty. Untouched forests of fragrant
balsam firs, gun-barrel-straight drokes of black spruce, and
stately, castor-scented white spruce grow in profusion. Twisting
along the mountain valleys, the clearest of river waters course
along limestone beds and sometimes mysteriously disappear
without a trace. From the heights one can see endless vistas of
the distant ocean sheltering white-clad villages. Verdant green
hills and deep valley winds fill your senses.

This is an area of our province about which few south of that
peninsula know. It is more than worth it to take a day's journey
off the beaten path. It is a hunter's paradise, a photographer's
delight, and it will test the mettle of the most ardent hiker. And
always, the great mountains will witness your journey. The place
truly amazed me and will forever stay with me.

Somewhere, in one of the hidden valleys we walked through,
I found the true spirit of Mattie Mitchell. It was more than the
mere admiration for a man who could travel across this great land
without any of the modern navigational aids Al and I carried.
That fact in itself astounded me.

No, it was the realization of the man's true being: he had
been one with such a vast wilderness. This knowledge finally
connected me spiritually to a great man I had never met, but with
whom I have gladly walked.




to hear the adults in her
family tell their stories, Marie Marion Mitchell was an avid
listener and something more. As she grew, Marie learned that she
was blessed with a near-photographic memory.

She was born in the Newfoundland west coast city of Corner
Brook on May 20, 1936. She was baptized in the Roman Catholic
faith in that same city on May 24 of the same year at the Holy
Redeemer Cathedral Parish.

Her childhood years were a time without television. Her
family owned a dry-cell battery-operated radio. It was the only
mechanical source of entertainment in their home. Between the
bouts of static emerging from the radio—turned on only at night—
came the crackly voice of a newsman. It was not entertaining to a
child. Marie's favourite source of amusement and entertainment
came from the stories she heard in her mother's kitchen.

She remembered cold winters evenings especially. The kitchen
door would open without anyone knocking, and stepping through
the doorway with a brief kick of their feet to dislodge the snow
caked to their boots, their visitors would enter. Great drafts of cold
winter air came with them, meeting the warmth of the kitchen to
produce misty wreaths above the hats that covered their heads.

It was almost always men of the Mi'kmaq race who came.
They were hunters who knew the ways of the wilds, and they
came to tell their stories. They also knew their own oral history.
Their favourite stories to tell were of the man who was a legend
in their world, Mattie Mitchell. And while they spun their yarns,
Marie listened with all of her attention. She never tired of hearing
about her famous grandfather.

The rugged men with bristly beards smoked short-stemmed
pipes or thin cigarettes they rolled themselves. As they talked,
the room warmed and they removed their coats, but never their
boots. Smoke leaving their mouths was drawn by the heat of the
wood range and, rising blue above the hot stove, escaped through
the seam between the black funnel and the silver flange nailed to
the white ceiling.

This was where the young Marie first heard about Mattie
Mitchell. Without knowing it, she was holding in her head the
storied history of a man who was legend among his people. And
from her memory she would record in her personal journals the
incredible lore she had heard about the grandfather she always
wished she had known.

affinity toward rivers. Maybe it
was because the man was intelligent enough to realize that river
valleys almost always provided easy access into the wilderness.
All river valleys are conduits for game, whose ceaseless
wanderings established trails for the knowing traveller. Or maybe
it was simply Mattie's love for the romance of a swift river and
burbling stream that spawned some of the stories Marie cherished.

He found ruby red and emerald green garnets and jaspers on
Flat Bay Brook and the Humber River. He knew where to find
a coal seam on the Humber. He found a salt deposit on Crabb's

And on one of the rivers that flow into the Bay St. George, he
found gold. For many years the tale of Mattie Mitchell's gold was
figured to be just a tall tale.

Mattie was finding his way along the shoreline of a river
one day in late autumn. The day was late. The sun was settling
down among the trees, its lowering light blazing through the trees
and glinting on the rushing water as it sank. He carried upon his
broad shoulders a pack heavily laden with animal skins. In one
hand he carried his heavy Martin Henry rifle. In his other hand
was a long-handled, broad-faced axe.

He was returning to the coast after a month-long trapping
venture. He was taking his furs to the only furrier on the coast he
trusted to give him a fair price.

Mattie rarely saw any money from his work. His furs—
always in prime condition and well cured—he exchanged for
provisions for his family. His own needs were simple: tea and
salt and, if he was lucky, sugar, a small bag of gunpowder, and a
handful of bullets would do him just fine. Mattie traded the bulk
of his furs for his family's needs before he set off once again into
the wilderness.

His way had been long. The autumn had been warm and
unusually dry. River bottoms showed. Some of the brooks and
streams had slowed to a trickle. Yellowing birches and golden
aspens shed shrivelled leaves that rustled noisily down, crisp and
weathered. The broad lower branches of the white spruce trees
discarded their sun-burnt reddish brown tips as he brushed past
them. The pungent, musky smell that comes with late autumn
rains, which every true hunter loves, was missing. It was a time
without rain. Mattie had journeyed along this waterway many
times, but he had never seen the water level so low.

He was picking his way over a rocky riverbank when the
sunlight filtering through the trees reflected off a shiny white
surface just ahead of him. When he reached the rock formation
he saw a narrow vein running down through the reddish outcrop.
Mattie knew the white, crystalline rock in the vein was quartz. He
had learned about quartz veins, in particular that they appeared
in rust-coloured rocks, from his time guiding geologists. They
always paid attention to such places and hammered away at the
rocks with the backs of their axes, sometimes studying the pieces
for hours. And as they talked, Mattie listened and never forgot.

The low water level had revealed the vein. Mattie lowered his
load to the ground and approached the white vein, axe in hand.
Settling onto his haunches, he studied the rock. The quartz vein
was no more than five inches wide, but it ran from the bank and
disappeared under the river water. Mattie scanned the other side
of the river but could see no sign that the rock formation had
reached across. Looking again at the cliff and noticing the steep
angle at which it entered the water, he calculated that it went deep
underground at the river's centre.

A brownish cliff several feet wide bordered the quartz on
either side. With the back of his axe, Mattie broke a large piece of
the white rock loose. The rock was very heavy. He turned it over
in his hand and immediately saw the yellow sheen of gold flakes!

Brown stains ran throughout the fractures in the rock. In places
the quartz appeared grey. It also smelled bad. Stinky quartz, the
geologists had called it. Pyrite cubes glittered everywhere, but
the “fool's gold” did not trick Mattie. The pyrite appeared to have
been placed into the rock, and its colour changed when he turned
it against the dying sun. But the gold seemed to be spattered
into the rock, and no matter how he shifted it around, it never
lost its deep lustre. He broke several more pieces away and was
rewarded again with the buttery colour.

Mattie was neither excited or surprised at his discovery. It
was just something his quick eye had found. His remarkable
power of recall had done the rest to conjure up the memories of
his time with Alexander Murray and James Howley.

Walking back to where he had laid down his pack, with several
pieces of the rock cradled in his hands, he thought for a minute
where he would put the samples. The day was late and he was
hungry. He would not make the coast before dark. He decided to
spend the night here on the wooded, mossy bank of the river.

Mattie soon had a small campfire going below the high
riverbank. He filled his quart-sized kettle, which was long
blackened and dented, with water from the river. Hooking the
kettle from a green alder by its wire handle and placing it over the
crackling fire, he climbed up over the bank and prepared to build
a shelter for the night.

Steam rising from the fire caught his eye. At first he thought
the water had boiled over. As he neared the fire, he heard the hiss
of water falling on hot coals. His kettle was leaking! He pulled it
away from the fire and dumped the few drops left onto the ground.
Holding the kettle against the sky, he saw two small holes in its
bottom. Resigning himself to a dry meal, he was about to throw
the kettle away when he remembered his gold. The kettle was
still strong and would make an excellent container in which to
carry the rocks.

The next morning broke cold and misty, but the rising sun
soon burned through the “pride of the morning,” and when Mattie
loaded the heavy pack on his shoulders, the day was warm. Mattie
picked up the heavy kettle and considered how he would carry
it. It would surely make a noise if he carried it in either hand
along with his gun and axe. He fully intended to have a goose or
a couple of ducks before he reached the end of this day's travel,
so the kettle would have to remain behind.

He scraped a hole in the coarse gravel under the riverbank
and placed the kettle inside. Then he filled in the shallow hole
with the gravel and placed several heavy rocks on top of it. He
shouldered his pack again and without once looking back he
walked away down the bright river valley.

The years went by and Mattie never returned for his “kettle
of gold.” He told the story of his gold find many times. Everyone
listened to him. Some believed him. But without the “golden”
proof, many did not. The river rose and fell with the seasons.
Some years its waters peaked and some seasons they did not.
Mattie's golden kettle was forgotten.

Until one late summer day in 1943.

coastal plain around the
largely French-speaking town of Stephenville on Newfoundland's
southwest coast had been converted to one of the world's biggest
runways. War had come lording over the lands of the earth.
Since 1939, the free peoples of Europe had been fighting against
a tyranny unequalled in history. The isles of Britain, the plains
of southern Europe, and the deserts of North Africa were fierce
battlegrounds. On December 7, 1941, the richest nation on earth
declared war against the far-off nation of Japan. And now the
dogs of war scoured the globe, snarling and fighting as they went.

Stephenville had become an American base of more than
8,000 acres. The airstrips created there on the edge of the western
sea were 150 feet wide and stretched 6,000 feet toward the distant
mountains. During the peak war years from 1943-1945, more
than 30,000 American troops per year passed through the base at
Harmon Field.

Day and night the planes came in from the western gulf which
separated the island nation of Newfoundland from the land mass
of Canada. And just as regularly they flew away again, heading
for distant battles that went on and on. And when it was over, all
of the dead names could fill pages of books that would never be
written. The Greek philosopher Plato said it best: Only the dead
have seen the last of war.

Mattie Mitchell's bones had long since blended into the earth
he so dearly loved when a young American airman came walking
up the river valley. He was accompanied by another man who
was little more than a teenager. The American's nickname was
“Stringer.” He was the leader of his squadron. When he came
roaring in from the Atlantic for the airstrip at Stephenville, he
always had a group of fighter planes in his “string.”

Stringer had met and fallen in love with a local dark-haired
girl. The young airman was an avid fly fisherman who until now
had never tried his hand at fishing for Atlantic salmon. Stringer
learned that his fiancé's younger brother knew all about fishing
for salmon. The brother and sister were of Mi'kmaq descent. And
so it was that the two men made their way up the river where
Mattie Mitchell had found gold so many decades ago. They
headed toward a deep pool where the boy assured the airman the
salmon always rested.

BOOK: Mattie Mitchell
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