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d. 15 April 1906 in Central Falls, R.I.


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Original title:  Image courtesy of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.

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CORMACK, WILLIAM EPPES (Epps), explorer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, agriculturalist, and author; b. 5 May 1796 at St John’s, Nfld, second of four children of Alexander Cormack; d. unmarried on 30 April 1868 at New Westminster, B.C.

William Eppes Cormack was the son of a Scottish merchant who arrived in St. John’s about 1783 as a partner in the firm of Hart, Eppes, and Company trading mainly in lumber and miscellaneous supplies to Quebec and the West Indies; his mother was a daughter of William Eppes, assistant commissary and merchant in that town. After 1805 the family moved to Scotland. William studied at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and graduated ma from the latter. A lasting influence was Professor Robert Jameson of Edinburgh, who inspired his interest in natural history, especially in botany, geology, and mineralogy, and was to act as adviser and mentor in Cormack’s wide-ranging career of exploration and scientific collection.

Cormack left Scotland about 1818 to lead a group of Scottish immigrants to Prince Edward Island where they settled on the Hunter River near Charlottetown and where Cormack was land agent for David Rennie, a Glasgow merchant. But Cormack’s restless energy seldom permitted him to restrict his activities to any one occupation or to reside long in any one place. Late in 1821 or early 1822 he returned to St John’s where there were family business and property interests. John Peyton of Twillingate described him at this time as tall, lithe, and energetic and with great powers of endurance.

Within a few months Cormack had determined to undertake a task never before attempted by a European, to explore the interior of Newfoundland. Despite more than three centuries of English presence in Newfoundland, settlement was still in 1822 confined to the coast; the interior of the island was almost unknown. In undertaking his journey Cormack had three aims: to satisfy his geographical curiosity about the interior and its resources, to further colonization by opening up the hinterland, and to establish friendly contact with any surviving native Beothuks, or “Red Indians.”

Governor Charles Hamilton*’s opposition to the expedition deprived Cormack of the participation of an enthusiastic volunteer, Charles Fox Bennett*, then the governor’s aide-de-camp and a magistrate. Cormack’s only companion was Joseph Sylvester*, a young Micmac hunter from Bay d’Espoir. The month of July 1822 was spent in training for the crossing; Cormack and Sylvester walked the 150 miles from St John’s to Placentia and back by way of Trinity and Conception bays. This trial reassured Cormack about the reliability of his companion (and presumably reassured Sylvester about Cormack), indicated to him the equipment required, and convinced him that the best season for the attempt would be early autumn when subsistence could be most easily procured from the land. The route was to be a direct crossing through the centre of Newfoundland, from Trinity Bay on the east coast to St George’s Bay on the west.

On 30 August, lightly equipped, Cormack and Sylvester went off on their expedition. The travellers sailed from St John’s to Bonaventure, a fishing settlement on the west side of Trinity Bay near present-day New Bonaventure, and from there on 3 September up the north arm of Random Sound. Early on the morning of 5 September Cormack and his guide struck inland through heavily wooded terrain towards the summit of the coastal range. Progress was slow and painful through the thick growth and the oppressive heat and flies. Within five days the character of the land had begun to change; marshes and open rocky spots became common. After crossing Clode Sound River they noticed that the land began to rise and soon found themselves on a great granite ridge, the highest point of which, The Look Out, afforded the travellers a last view of the sea coast; to the west Cormack noted that the “mysterious interior lay unfolded below us, a boundless scene, an emerald surface; a vast basin.” Though the journey was to prove protracted and hazardous, at the beginning the travellers’ buoyant spirits were supported by the richness of wild fruit and the signs of abundant game. Having consumed their provisions, and determined to adopt the self-dependent mode of Indian life, on 11 September they descended from the heights of the coastal ridge into the interior of east-central Newfoundland.

The area they were now traversing was for the most part composed of fine black compact peat mould covered with wiry grass, immense steppes, or “savannas,” as Cormack called them, stretching northward and southward, with running water and lakes, often skirted with woods, lying between them. The month spent crossing this land was laborious, with repeated detours around bodies of water, though Cormack and Sylvester occasionally made crude rafts to cross the larger lakes. Day after day they walked 20 to 30 miles in order to advance five to seven miles westward. Yet Cormack’s subsequently published Narrative everywhere bears witness to the care and acuteness of his observations, jotted down at the end of each day, and embracing the conditions of weather, soil, flora, and fauna. The only mountain in this whole territory, a granite peak of solitary splendour rising conspicuously from the plain, Cormack named Mount Sylvester in honour of his companion.

By early October they had reached the centre of the island and came across a hilly ridge, which Cormack named, after his Edinburgh teacher, Jameson’s Mountains (now Jamieson Hills), and which marked a change of landscape. They soon found themselves at Pipestone Pond, which Cormack named Serpentine Lake, near the easterly pivot of the Micmac canoe route from the west to Bay d’Espoir. Sylvester proposed that they should abandon the expedition and proceed south to Bay d’Espoir. But despite his apprehension of being overtaken by winter before they could reach the west coast, Cormack was determined to continue and a new agreement with his guide, which included promises of some foodstuff and a round-trip visit to Europe, was worked out before they once again stepped westward.

The land now became a series of mountains in irregular succession, and notes on the geological formations Cormack observed bulk large in the Narrative. While surveying one of the lakes between the mountains Cormack spotted the camp of a Montagnais named James John who had come from Labrador with his Micmac wife for his second hunting season in Newfoundland. They were entertained that night by their hosts, the woman at Cormack’s request singing several songs in her own tongue, and Sylvester astonishing them with tales of what he had seen in St John’s. From the Montagnais they learned that the Beothuk country lay nearby but that at this season these Indians were probably well to the north at Red Indian Lake. John also told them that St George’s Bay was about two weeks’ walk away, if they knew the best way to travel. After a day’s rest Cormack and Sylvester continued their journey.

On 16 October they awoke to find the ground covered with three feet of snow. Dependent on game for provisions, and with winter fast approaching, Cormack was more than ever anxious to press on, even though the journey was taxing the strength of both men. A thaw two days later enabled them to continue and that day they came upon the camp of some Micmac hunters where once again they were hospitably received. These Micmacs were members of a band of some 150 Indians whose territory embraced the south-central and southwest parts of the interior; these natives told Cormack of the distribution of the interior between their own tribe, a smaller group of Labrador Montagnais, and the native Beothuks. They confirmed that Cormack would be unlikely to encounter the Beothuks so far south at that time of year.

Resuming their journey on 21 October the travellers now found progress slow in the mountainous country covered with low, dense foliage, frozen ponds, and deep snow. Moreover, the game birds had disappeared. Cormack felt his strength failing and knew “that it would not obey the will and drag along the frame beyond two weeks more.” On 29 October they found another camp of eight Micmacs. Still a five-day walk from the coast, Cormack engaged two of these to accompany them on the final stage of the journey. On the evening of 1 November, from the summit of a snowy ridge, Cormack at last saw St George’s Bay. In the last stages of exhaustion, he pressed down the precipitous Flat Bay Brook and on 4 November reached the Jersey and English settlers on the coast. A few days later he took leave of Sylvester, who proposed to remain on the coast with his own people for the winter.

Since all European and other vessels had left the west coast a month before, Cormack rested for ten days at St George’s, and then set out southward along the coast, hoping that by walking and travel by small boat between the scattered fishing villages he would reach Fortune Bay in time to take passage on one of the large mercantile firms’ vessels before all had sailed to Europe for the season. On 16 December, after “a four month excursion of toil, pleasure, pain, and anxiety,” Cormack took passage from Little Bay, Fortune, and reached Dartmouth, England, on 10 Feb. 1823.

Only one of Cormack’s original three objects had been successfully achieved: his plan of geographical discovery. He explored and described the interior of the island with an accuracy no subsequent traveller has matched; his Narrative is the undisputed classic of Newfoundland travel. His botanical observations were the most important since those of Sir Joseph Banks* in 1766, and his account of the mineralogy and geology of the interior paved the way for Joseph Beete Jukes in 1840 and for the extension in 1864 to Newfoundland of William Edmond Logan*’s geological survey by Alexander Murray* and James Patrick Howley. Cormack failed in his other two aims, however. The opening of the interior through railway, roads, and settlement lay almost a century away. When J. G. Millais, the other great traveller of Newfoundland’s interior, published his work in 1907, it could still be appropriately called Newfoundland and its untrodden ways, for with the exception of Grand Falls the island, after four centuries of European settlement, still had no town of any importance out of sight or smell of the sea. Cormack also failed to establish contact with the Beothuks, but in this enterprise he had yet to exhaust his persistent efforts.

He spent the winter and spring of 1823 in Scotland where Professor Jameson examined and helped identify the rocks brought back from Newfoundland. On 22 July Cormack wrote Lord Bathurst, the British colonial secretary, enclosing a sketch of the interior of the island and a short account of the route followed, drawing particular attention to the state of the Beothuks and expressing his intention to pursue further inquiries into their condition, as well as to examine further the natural resources of the colony. No response to this letter has been found. A few days later he sailed for St John’s.

During the rest of the decade Cormack resided principally in that town where in 1825, in partnership with John Thompson, a merchant from Greenock, Scotland, he engaged in the provisions and lumber trade with Canada. His leisure he devoted to the investigation of the flora of the colony, sending specimens of plants to the Linnean Society, preparing a monograph on the British and French fisheries in America, joining the agitation for representative government [see Laurence O’Brien; Brooking], and above all furthering attempts to open communications with the remaining Beothuks. On 2 Oct. 1827 he formed the Beothic Institution to establish contact with the Red Indians; it numbered among its members leading figures of the Newfoundland community as well as Professor Jameson, John Barrow, secretary to the Admiralty, and John Inglis*, Anglican bishop of Nova Scotia. Cormack himself was president and treasurer and was indefatigable in his efforts to promote the institution’s aims. These culminated in his second journey to the interior of the island in 1827.

Accompanied by three Indians, a Canadian Abenakis, a Labrador Montagnais, and a young Micmac from the island, Cormack left St John’s by sea in mid-September. Bad weather prevented the party from pursuing its intended northerly route inland from White Bay and they entered the country, on 31 October, at the mouth of the Exploits River in Notre Dame Bay. After 30 days, having traversed some 200 miles of the interior, the expedition returned, exhausted. In a moving passage Cormack described their discovery of Red Indian Lake, the central winter residence of the Beothuks, which was now deserted. Among the ruins of the camp, reposing on one of the wooden repositories for the dead, they found the skeleton of Mary March [Waunathoake*]. No living Beothuk was seen, though traces at Badger Bay Great Lake convinced Cormack that a party of the unfortunate tribe, soon to disappear without a trace, had been there with two canoes the year before.

All his efforts now went towards finding these survivors. Believing that the presence of Europeans on an expedition diminished the chances of establishing friendly contact with the tribe, Cormack organized under the sponsorship of the Beothic Institution two further expeditions to the unexplored area in the north of the island using trusted Montagnais and Micmacs. The capture of three Beothuk women by a party of furriers in 1827 spurred these efforts, but both expeditions failed to locate the Beothuks. Through it all Cormack remained an intent student of these Indians: he collected for the institution numerous objects of their material culture and, as the host for several years in St John’s of the last known survivor of the tribe, Shawnawdithit*, he collected valuable information about her people, their habits, beliefs, movements, and language. There is evidence that Cormack believed these tragic people to be of Scandinavian origin. But, depressed by what seemed to him the lack of vigorous interest by the local authorities, he gradually despaired of preventing the extirpation of the indigenous people of Newfoundland.

By the autumn of 1828 Cormack was writing to John Inglis about plans for “a change of profession.” Early in the new year the business partnership with Thompson was dissolved. On 10 January he forwarded to Inglis his manuscript on the fisheries, undertaken, he explained, for the Natural History Society of Montreal. At the end of the month he sailed for Liverpool, England, to become for a while the guest of John McGregor*, the Scottish writer and statistician who had lived in Prince Edward Island. Various projects were in his mind including a volume entitled “Sketches of Newfoundland interior, aborigines or Red Indians, fisheries, &c.,” evidently a consolidation of the several manuscripts on which he had been working for a number of years. He returned to St John’s in May 1829, and further reduced his business by leasing his waterfront premises; he was also declared insolvent.

Cormack was in Prince Edward Island around 1830, settling British immigrants and exporting grain to Britain. In 1836 he left for Australia. An offer to Sir George Murray* of the Colonial Office “to cross and explore New Holland and New South Wales in any direction” had been made as early as 17 Sept. 1829, but of his career in Australia few details survive other than that he cultivated tobacco with much success for two or three years. He left for New Zealand in 1839 and purchased extensive lands from the natives for raising horses and cattle. He also exported spars to London for the Admiralty and continued his botanical collecting. He was forced to leave New Zealand when trouble arose with the British government which interfered with the enterprises of the first settlers. He appears to have gone to California around 1848–49, and there engaged in various mercantile and mining pursuits as well as in experimental horticulture.

Apart from occasional visits to Britain, and another brief visit to Newfoundland in 1862, Cormack’s later years were spent in British Columbia. He was active in promoting representative government in the colony and served in the municipal government of New Westminster where he resided. He was instrumental in establishing an agricultural society in the colony and, as its secretary, corresponded with the Royal Highlands and Agricultural Society of Scotland on the possible production of various feed grains and grasses. He was also, as usual, an untiring collector of the flora and fauna of the west coast, and he interested himself in Indian affairs. In 1862 he helped prepare the ichthyological section of a British Columbia exhibition. He was the correspondent, acquaintance, or friend of Sir William Hooker, Michael Faraday, Thomas Hodgkin of the Aborigines Protection Society, John McGregor, the British writer John Wilson, and his university friend the 2nd Marquis of Breadalbane.

To the end he was a lover of field sports; passionately fond of fishing and skating, in 1855 he revised and expanded a treatise on skating by Robert Jones. At the age of 70 he could still astonish his friends by his graceful evolutions on the ice. A friend of his later years speaks of his “buoyant and happy disposition, genial and kindly; his manners were suave and dignified.” He died after a month’s illness in April 1868.

In Newfoundland a granite cairn marks the spot at which Cormack and Sylvester crossed what is now the Bay d’Espoir Highway on their way westward, and an inland agricultural community on the banks of the Humber River, established in 1947, bears his name.

G. M. Story

[W. E. Cormack’s accounts of his travels appeared in the following forms: W. E. Cormack, “Account of a journey across the island of Newfoundland, in a letter addressed to the Right Hon. Earl Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies, &c. &c., with a map of Mr Cormack’s journey across the island of Newfoundland,” Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, X (1823–24), 156–62; “Report of Mr W. E. Cormack’s journey in search of the Red Indians in Newfoundland, read before the Boeothick Institution at St John’s, Newfoundland,” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, VI (1828–29), 318–29; Patriot (St John’s), 27 Oct., 3, 10, 17, 24 Nov., 1, 8 Dec. 1856; Narrative of a journey across the island of Newfoundland, the only one ever performed by a European (St John’s, 1856; repub. 1873); J. P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians; the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge, Eng., 1915), 130–68, 189–96; Narrative of a journey across the island of Newfoundland in 1822, ed. F. A. Bruton (London and Toronto, 1928). He also wrote “On the natural history and economical uses of the cod, capelin, cuttle-fish, and seal, as they occur on the banks of Newfoundland, and the coasts of that island and Labrador . . . ,” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, I (1826), 32–41. He was the editor of Robert Jones, The art of skating practically explained . . . (London, 1855).  g.m.s.]

Arts and Culture Centre (St John’s), Provincial Reference Division, Census of the district of St John’s, 1794–95; W. E. Cormack to John Peyton, 28 Oct. 1828. Memorial University of Newfoundland, Maritime History Group Archives (St John’s), Cormack file. PABC, Colonial correspondence; John Copland correspondence; W. E. Cormack correspondence. PRO, CO 194/66. British Columbian (New Westminster, B.C.), 9 May 1868. Newfoundlander, 19 Sept. 1827; 22 May, 26 June, 9 Aug. 1828. Patriot (St John’s), 20 Oct. 1856. Public Ledger (St John’s), 14 Dec. 1827; 24 June, 2, 5 Sept. 1828. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 18 Sept., 6, 13 Nov., 1827; 19 Feb. 1828; 1 July, 21 Oct. 1829. Keith Matthews, A “who was who” of families engaged in the fishery and settlement of Newfoundland, 1660–1840 ([St John’s], 1971), 90. J. P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians; the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge, Eng., 1915), 129–252. J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its untrodden ways (London, 1907), 24–30, 197–99. J. G. Rogers, Newfoundland (Oxford, 1911), 159–69.

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Cite This Article

G. M. Story, “CORMACK, WILLIAM EPPES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cormack_william_eppes_9E.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/cormack_william_eppes_9E.html
Author of Article:   G. M. Story
Title of Article:   CORMACK, WILLIAM EPPES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   April 15, 2024