Life of Mattie Mitchell highlighted in new book

Frank Gale fgale@thewesternstar.com
Published on December 15, 2011

STEPHENVILLE  Mattie Mitchell, who critically acclaimed author Gary Collins describes as “the Daniel Boone of Newfoundland,” is brought to life in Collins’ latest book.

The book came together after Collins was approached by Gary Cranford, president of Flanker Press, to specifically do this biography on Mitchell — a hunter, trapper and guide of Mi’kmaq descent whose daring feats became known worldwide, but which history books don’t record.

After doing five books prior for Flanker Press, Collins was only too happy to get Mitchell’s story told.

“We decided to write this book and put the recognition out there for this man. There have been a lot of things the Mi’kmaq people did that they weren’t recognized for, despite the fellows that they led around having towns and streets named after them,” he said.

It’s a book he believes anyone of aboriginal ancestry would be proud to have in their house to see where they came from and what this man accomplished.

Collins said had Mattie Mitchell been a white man he certainly would have been considered royalty in his day, as he came from great stock. A tall man, believed to be at least 6' 6" in stature, Mitchell was said to be fairly quiet and unassuming. As a guide, he led geologists and a mapmaker in their work, and even British royalty on hunting expeditions to the western interior of the province.

He led Reid Railway people and showed them how to get the railroad through western Newfoundland and into the central part of the province — all without map or compass, using only his knowledge of the land.

Mitchell was a prospector as well and was responsible for discovering Buchans Mine back in 1905, which was the largest sulphides discovery on earth at the time.

The discovery was rich, it wasn’t until after Mitchell’s death that they had the technology to extract all the minerals from the rock.

Despite his discovery, the Mitchell family received nothing in the way of royalties from the profitable mine that is estimated to have turned over more than $10 billion during its lifespan.

Born in Hall’s Bay in 1844, this frontiersman died in Corner Brook — where he was living at the time, in 1921, having traveled the west coast of the province extensively by foot during many of those years.

There are many other of Mitchell’s exploits highlighted in the book, including one in which he led a party and a herd of 50 reindeer that Sir Wilfred Grenfell had come to the province and that the Anglo Newfoundland Development company purchased, on a 450-mile trek in the middle of the winter from St. Anthony to Millertown, with all of the reindeer intact when they arrived at their destination.

“There were lots of adventures and while there were many Mi’kmaq men who trapped and guided, Mattie Mitchell was the greatest of them all,” Collins said. 

During the launch of his book at Island Treasures in the Corner Brook Plaza on Saturday, Collins was honoured to have dozens of Mitchell’s descendents show up.

In researching the life and times of Mitchell, Collins got lots of insight on his subject from the diary and personal papers of Marie Sparkes, who kept a journal for years. She was Mitchell’s granddaughter.

He said the personal papers were in the possession Brian Sparkes of Corner Brook, Mitchell’s great-grandson, who loaned him the papers for his research, for which he is so grateful.

Ray Neilson of Pasadena said he’s quite pleased with this book, which depicts a biography of his great-grandfather.

“It’s a good read and represents Mattie very well. It’s a true reflection of how Mattie was very adaptable to the many situations he was involved in, and how he could figure out things before others could,” he said.

Neilson said now the Mi’kmaq people in this province have their status, it’s even more fitting. He said there are a lot people back through the years that would have been proud now of this status, and they are the ones who blazed the trail.

He was so proud to see the book in print that he picked up 12 copies, one each for three of his boys living on the mainland, five for siblings and the other few will go here and there.

Neilson done a lot of research on his great-grandfather as well and said it’s incredible that there are 500 to 600 people from one man, which makes a big family.

“I’d certainly recommend this book to anybody as it shows the way things were for Mattie Mitchell, who was for some time a forgotten man. Our family is proud that Parks Canada erected a monument to him at Deer Arm in Gros Morne National Park as a “person of historical significance.”

“Now with this book on him and the Mi’kmaq people getting their status, it has really come full circle,” Neilson said.

Collins said the book is moving so well that the publisher expects a reprint before Christmas.