The Labrador Boundary

Privy Council Documents

Volume VI

p. 2655



No. 1062.



The peninsula of Labrador is bounded on its eastern, northern, western and southern sides by the Atlantic ocean, Hudson's Straits, Hudson's Bay and the Gulf and River of St. Lawrence. The line of division separating what may be properly called Labrador from the rest of Canada has never been authoritatively laid down. Consequently, different writers have adopted different arbitrary lines, in some cases for reasons related to the subjects, of which they were treating. Father Laure, for instance, was advocating in 1715, the founding of a great state of Labrador, with its principal outlook on the Atlantic. It was necessary for his purpose to exclude all the territory on the Gulf, which had already been appropriated ; and he declared the eastern limits of Mingan seigniory to be the south western boundary of his proposed state. Low 1 and Hind,2 for no assignable reason, assume Seven Islands or Bersimis to be the point on the St. Lawrence from which the south western limits of the peninsula should be drawn to Hudson's Bay. Recent writers, observing the course of the waterways running southward from Lake St. John to the River St. Lawrence, and of those which follow the Nottaway river to Hudson's Bay, and noting the comparatively small stretch of land which separates these systems flowing in opposite directions, consider that a line to be drawn from the mouth of the Saguenay river to the mouth of the Nottaway river, would be a more logical line of demarcation for the peninsula.
But the point is of little consequence, since the physical characteristics of Southern Labrador, and the racial and other peculiarities of the inhabitants

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are precisely the same as those of the regions lying far to the west of any line, that could properly define Labrador. The territory occupied by the Naskapis, the more northerly of the two races who inhabit the Labrador, extends westward to lake Mistassini.1 The tract ranged over by the Montagnais, the second of the two races inhabiting the Labrador Peninsula, extends as far to the west as the head waters of the St. Maurice,2 which empties itself into the St. Lawrence at Trois Rivières.
The Labrador peninsula is described by Mr. A. P. Low,3 whose explorations in that territory give him a unique authority, as a high rolling plateau, which rises somewhat abruptly within a few miles of the coast to levels varying from 1500 to 2000 feet. The interior is undulating, and is traversed by ridges of low, rounded hills that seldom rise more than 500 feet above the general level, which varies from 1600 to 1800 feet.
On its Atlantic side the coast is deeply indented by many long, narrow bays or fiords, which are surrounded by rocky hills, rising precipitously from the water to heights of from 1000 to 4000 feet. The deepest of these indentations is that known on its outer side as Hamilton inlet, and, in the interior, Lake Melville. To the head of Lake Melville there is a stretch of 150 miles. The most considerable among the other bays are Sandwich, Kaipokok, Saglek and Nachvack, which vary from 30 to 50 miles in depth.
The coast line on the Atlantic increases in altitude as one passes from the Straits of Belle Isle northward. From the Straits to the Moravian settlement at Nain the coast runs from 1000 to 1500 feet in height ; from Nain to Cape Chidley it rises to from 2500 to 4000 feet. North of Nachvack, there are some elevations as great as 6000 feet.
The western coast line, that is the coast on the eastern shores of Hudson's Bay, is much lower than that on the Atlantic. Between Cape Wolstenholme, the most northerly point on the west, and Cape Jones at the entrance to James Bay, the land reaches to a height of 1000 feet within a few miles of the sea, and then rises rapidly to the general level of the plateau. On James Bay the eastern coast line is low, and the rise is so slight that at a distance inland of 100 miles, the land is only 700 feet above the sea.
The highest point in the interior is towards the south and west, near the headwaters of the rivers that flow westward into Hudson's Bay, southward into the St. Lawrence, and northward into Ungava Bay.
The interior as its configuration would suggest is covered with numberless lakes, which occupy not less than one quarter of the total surface. These lakes are of all sizes, from mere ponds to great bodies hundreds of miles in extent, and so interlocked are they by the network of streams through which they find vent, that one may traverse the peninsula in any direction by canoe, with portages, where the canoes must be carried, never exceeding two or three miles.

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The Inhabitants (Enmity between Indians and Esquimaux).

The inhabitants of the peninsula are either Esquimaux or Indians. The regions inhabited by the Esquimaux are described by Mr. Lucien Turner, an ethnologist of the highest authority as “ strictly littoral,” 1 their habitations being found on the three northern maritime sides of the peninsula.* Those dwelling on the Atlantic coast are all within the spheres of influence of the Moravian missionaries, whose stations extend from Hopedale about 175 miles above Hamilton Inlet, to Cape Chidley. Belonging to this group are a few families living on the southern shores of Hudson's Straits as far west as the Koksoak river. From this river to the Leaf, whose waters enter Ungava Bay at its south western corner, the coast is uninhabited. The coast from the Leaf to the entrance of Hudson's Bay and thence down the eastern shore of the bay to below Fort George is inhabited, more or less continuously, by people of this race. The Esquimaux on the north western portions of the peninsula carry their furs and the products of their fisheries to the Hudson's Bay posts at Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay, and to Fort George on James Bay.
Between the Esquimaux and the Indians, who dwell in the interior of the peninsula, no relations exist except those of mutual animosity. This is a point on which all writers on Labrador dwell, and which, with possible racial predilections, accounts for the fact that the Esquimaux confine themselves to the coast regions, while the Indians remain within the shelter afforded by the interior.
Between the Esquimaux and the Indians, who dwell in the interior of the peninsula, no relations exist except those of mutual animosity. This is a point on which all writers on Labrador dwell, and which, with possible racial predilections, accounts for the fact that the Esquimaux confine themselves to the coast regions, while the Indians remain within the shelter afforded by the interior.
Lieutenant Roger Curtis, who served under Commodore Shuldham while the latter patrolled the Labrador coast, drew up an account of the peninsula, which he published in 1772 with a dedication to the Earl of Dartmouth.2 In the course of a description of the inhabitants he says : “ a good way in the country live a people distinguished by the appellation of Mountaineers, between whom and the Esquimaux there subsists an unconquerable aversion ”; and, again, the Esquimaux “ live always upon the sea shores from this dread of the Mountaineers.” In the Journal of Captain George Cartwright, who made his home on the Labrador coast for 16 years between 1770 and 1786, there are frequent references to this hostility, and to his efforts to abate, if not extinguish it, by bringing people of the two races to a better understanding through actual contact with one another.
W. H. A. Davies, who was in charge of the Hudson's Bay post at North West River in 1840, speaking of the Mountaineers in that district, in a lecture delivered before the Literary & Historical Society of Quebec,3 said : “ As they stand greatly in awe of the latter people (the Esquimaux), they rarely descend the Bay.”

* Father Arnaud, in a letter of Dec. 16, 1872, bears similar testimony. In the course of a description of his missionary journey to Ungava he says : “ The Esquimaux always remain on the coast; they du not, like our Naskapis or Moutagnais, go into the interior of our country to hunt.” See p. 3075.

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The mistrust bred of these enmities had its reactions in the operations of the trading companies in the peninsula. The embarrassments it caused to the Hudson's Bay Company are repeatedly mentioned in their records. An explorer1 sent in 1828 by the Company to make a journey from the Gulf of Richmond to Cape Chidley reported that, on reaching the South or Koksoak river, he found indications of the presence of Esquimaux ; and his Indians, who until that time accompanied him willingly, required strong inducements to proceed further ; and he gave it as his opinion that it would be of no advantage to establish a post at that point, since, as the Esquimaux frequented the country, Indians would not be found there. When in 1830, the Company, notwithstanding this warning, established Fort Chimo, on the Koksoak river, about thirty miles from the sea, the officer in charge had again and again to take account of the ill-will between the two peoples. In his first report on the conditions prevailing in the district, he observes that his efforts to induce the Indians to hunt in that vicinity proved to be futile. The Indians were afraid that in his trading with the Esquimaux, he would sell them guns and ammunition, and thus put them in a position to retaliate the many injuries they had suffered at the hands of the Indians. The Esquimaux, on their part, were afraid to go into the interior on account of the Indians. He entertained a hope of reconciling the two races.2
But the hope has hitherto proved vain— “ The memories still live, and the Esquimaux and Indian, although never engaging in actual hostilities, have a mutual hatred and “ never intermarry.” 3
The Indians, who inhabit the interior of the peninsula are all of the family stock known to ethnology as the Algonquian, which in its day occupied a vast area of the continent. The Indians of Labrador are of the divisions known as the Mountaineers and the Naskapis. The former occupy the territory extending southward from the southern shores of the Hamilton river system to the river and gulf of St. Lawrence, and westward from the Atlantic ocean to limits still imperfectly defined,4 but including the region about the upper waters of the St. Maurice, which empties into the St. Lawrence at Trois Rivières.5
The chief habitat of the Naskapis is the territory known as the Ungava basin, that is, the region lying north of the watershed, separating the rivers flowing into lake Melville from those running northward to Hudson's Straits. But the Naskapis are not confined to this country. The Indians about lake Nichicun are classed by Low as Western Naskapis, and the thirty families who trade at Mistassini are also placed by him in the same tribal division.
The Montagnais have many local names—Papinachois, Bersiamites, Porcupines. Oumaniois and many others. Murray in his report of 1762, noted this, saying that “ they take as many different names as they have villages, but they are all the same people and speak the same language.” 7
The Montagnais and Naskapis are in most essential respects practically identical. They speak the same language with only dialectal differences8 and Father Lemoine after several years of life among them stated in 1895

p. 2659

that they now form one tribe.1 By the Canadians, of the French regime, the Naskapis were taken to be a branch of the Montagnais2
The outstanding feature in the life of these Indians—Montagnais and Naskapis alike—is its extraordinary mobility. To the same degree, and in pursuit of the same objects, they are as nomadic as the Bedouins of the eastern deserts. They have no permanent dwellings. What Cartwright said as the result of his observations in the last quarter of the eighteenth century is equally true today : “as these people never stay long in a place, consequently they never build houses, but they live the year round in miserable whigwams, the coverings of which are deerskins and birchrind.” 3
Their modes of locomotion and transportation are adapted to their habitat. To quote Cartwright again : “ These people inhabit the interior parts of the country which they traverse by the assistance of canoes, covered with on the coast, birchrinds, in the summer ; and of rackets or snow shoes in the winter.” 4 Curtis also says : “ Their canoes are covered with the rind of birch, and though so light as to be easily carried, yet sufficiently large, to contain a whole family and their traffic. By means of the amazing ponds throughout the country, they convey themselves a vast distance in a very little time. Whenever they find a pond in their way, they embark on it and travel by water ; when its course alters, and by following it they would lengthen their distance anything considerable, they land, place the canoe on their head, and carry their baggage on their shoulders until other water gives them an opportunity of re-embarking.” 5*
For winter travel, snow shoes are universally employed, and for transportation, the sled. The ease with which a sled is drawn differs according to the state of the snow. In mid winter when the snow is hard and gritty, 200 lbs. drawn ten miles in a day would tax a strong man ; but as the snow settles, towards the spring, loads of 500 pounds could be hauled from twenty to twenty-five miles in the same time.
The prime object of the constant wandering of the Indians is food. Pritchard in his “ Through Trackless Labrador ”gives a vivid account of this aspect of Indian Life. “ By hunting and fishing the Indian obtains his food from the country over which he travels, and about August he pitches his shifting tepees deep in the interior, where the chief event of the year, the autumn killing of the migrating caribou, takes place.”
Both to the Montagnais of the more wooded south and the Nascaupees of the Barren Ground, the caribou forms the main support of life. From time immemorial the Indians have gathered to slay them at this season, while they cross the lakes on their mysterious journeyings, the beginning and the end of which no man really knows. Even the path of the migration changes from year to year, and in some seasons the tribes fail to meet with the deer at all. At these times starvation visits the tents, and sits, a grim

* For an interesting account of the mode of life and of other particulars of the Montagnais Indians, and of the point of distinction between them and the Esquimaux, see Judge Pinsent's report to the Newfoundland Government, dated Dec, 31, 1873, p. 1474 (Vol. III.)


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