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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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JOE, SYLVESTER (Joseph Sylvester or Silvester), Micmac; fl. 1822 in Newfoundland.

Sylvester Joe guided William Eppes Cormack* on his journey by foot across the island of Newfoundland in the autumn of 1822, the first such crossing by a white man. Cormack, although usually referring to him in his journal as “my Indian,” gave his name as Joseph Sylvester or Silvester, but family and given names are often reversed by the Micmac Indians of Newfoundland. Since the surname Sylvester is unknown among them, whereas the surname Joe is of relatively high frequency, it is probable that the explorer was misled.

Cormack apparently formed the idea for his trip some time early in 1822. The coast of Newfoundland had long been known to Europeans, but the interior, which was rocky, mountainous, and covered with forests, lakes, and high barrens, was not. The Micmac people who had established themselves on the island in the 18th century were the only people apart from the Beothuk Indians, the aboriginal inhabitants in the northeast, who were familiar with the wilderness areas in the interior. In Sylvester Joe, Cormack obtained the services of “a noted hunter from the south-west coast of the Island,” on whom he could rely as a guide. He would have had great difficulty finding his way and indeed would probably not have survived without the skills of his Micmac companion.

The two men made a trial excursion of about 150 miles in July 1822, walking a circuit from St John’s to Placentia and back. Then, on 30 August, they sailed for Trinity Bay. Having been landed on the east side, they set out on foot from a place close to the present town of Clarenville. They had to find their own way since, as Cormack said, “none of the inhabitants here or in the vicinity, as at other parts of Newfoundland, could give any information about the interior, never having been further from the salt water than in pursuit of animals for their furs, and for wood-stuff to build vessels and fishing boats.”

By 10 September they had climbed out of the coastal forests and reached the interior where Cormack named Mount Sylvester after his Indian guide, a place name that survives to this day. The going was difficult, and a month later, on 10 October, Cormack commented that they had “for some time past felt severely the effects of continued excessive exertion, of wet, and of irregular supplies of food. “At this point Sylvester Joe, who could see only hardships ahead and the possibility of encountering Beothuk Indians, proposed that they should turn due south to his home in Bay d’Espoir. Cormack, a truly eccentric individual, was determined to press on. Among his papers there is a contract written in the interior of Newfoundland and making promises of awards to Joe – including food supplies and a trip to Europe – provided he accompanied Cormack to St George’s Bay, on the west coast.

On 12 October they met up with the Montagnais hunter James John and his Micmac wife at Meelpaeg Lake; since neither of them spoke either English or French, Joe served as an interpreter to explain their project, and to obtain information for continuing the journey. The travellers were told that there was another Micmac party “at the next large lake to the westward”; they fell in with this group on 18 October only after running into serious difficulties in stormy weather. Once again Joe interpreted, and they were told that they might reach St George’s Bay in about ten days. Cormack, however, comments: “The Indian idea of a road is to Europeans little else than a probability of reaching a distant place alive; and I foresaw, from their report, much suffering before we could reach St. George’s Bay. “Indeed, 11 days later they fell in with another Micmac party, who informed them that they were still 60 miles from St George’s. From this group they picked up a further guide, Gabriel by name, and they reached the sea coast at St George’s early in November after a journey of incredible hardships that had occupied almost two months. Cormack himself remarked, “The toil and depredations were such that hired men, or followers of any class, would not have endured them.”

Sylvester Joe wintered in St George’s, to return to his friends and family in Bay d’Espoir the following spring. At this point he disappears from history, and no more is known of him.

John Hewson

[For a listing of the various forms in which Cormack’s accounts of the journey appear, see the bibliography that accompanies his biography in DCB, vol.9. The most easily accessible account is the one printed in Howley, Beothucks or Red Indians. G. M. Story’s “Guides to Newfoundland,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 75 (1980), no.4: 17–23, makes a sensitive attempt to cross the barrier of culture and consider how Cormack’s project must have appeared to his Micmac guide. F. G. Speck, Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922; repr. 1981), comments on the custom among Newfoundland Micmacs that has led to Sylvester Joe being known to historians as Joseph Sylvester.  j.h.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John Hewson, “JOE, SYLVESTER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/joe_sylvester_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/joe_sylvester_6E.html
Author of Article:   John Hewson
Title of Article:   JOE, SYLVESTER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   April 14, 2024