James Howley’s The Beothucks and the historian’s imagination

by Jeff A Webb

As a much younger man I worked as a crew member on a couple of important archaeological sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. Among the pleasures of that work was the teamwork, in contrast to the largely solitary historical research in which I am now engaged, and of literally uncovering the past was immensely rewarding.  Kneeling in the middle of a sixteenth century Basque tryworks as the wind blew in from the ocean, it was easy to imagine the men who once worked in that exact spot. It was evocative to sit in a sleeping hollow in an eighteenth century Beothuk house and uncover finely made tools that had last been touched by those remote and mysterious people. (Forgive the romantic prose; we know the tropes of remoteness and mysteriousness say more about us that they do about the Beothuk.) In contrast to much of my undergraduate experience in which I learned of the past through the publications of historians, hardly a day passed that I didn’t feel that we were adding something to what was known.


The Beothuks

Archival research can spur the imagination too. Sometimes a letter in the archive speaks so eloquently that we can imagine the voice of the author. I once happened upon a letter to Joe Smallwood, while he was the Barrelman, from my wife’s grandfather. Handwritten letters always seem more intimate that typewritten ones, and in that instance my imagination read the letter in Clayton’s voice.

I know that these are tricks of our mind, that we are no closer to the past when holding an artifact than when reading a document. But I feel them none the less. A life story is more evocative than a quantitative study of economic productivity, but the past is not living in either case.


One of James Howley’s field notebooks.

My retrospective mood, this autumn morning, was prompted by my current research on James Howley. I first read his book, The Beothucks or Red Indians while working in Boyd’s Cove in the early 1980s. I used the 5X8 inch facsimile edition published by Coles, and I read it as a source of ethnographic description. Last year, for the 100th anniversary of its publication, I bought a first edition — a cloth bound 9X12 inch volume. Reading the 1915 Cambridge University Press edition, which is a beautiful artifact of ink on white paper with full size plates, can’t help but draw attention to the text as a material object.

Metaphorically, reading the small format facsimile while I was working on an archaeological site encouraged me to use the text as a source, but reading the original book encouraged a full sized appreciation of the book as a product of its time. My rereading 35 years later emphasised Howley’s accomplishment, his context, his ideology, and the beauty of the product of his labour.

Howley was a self taught surveyor and geologist, whose passionate collecting of anecdote and artifact of the Beothuk culminated in that book. The next step for me was to consult his source material, including the field notebooks he filled as he walked the land. The notebooks are themselves compelling artifacts; they were sized to fit into a pocket when the surveyor was travelling over the country, and each binding had a slot in which a pencil would fit. The pencil remained in its place in one of the notebooks; that notebook was by chance contained Howley’s sketch of an adze with its hafting in place. That artifact was illustrated in The Beothucks, and is now among the collection of the Newfoundland Museum at The Rooms.

My copy of the first edition, and the notebooks in the library at Memorial, are artifacts which are tangible links to an imagined past, and encourage me to see something fresh in a well known source.

Jeff A. Webb is a professor in the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
This entry was posted in Indigenous, Newfoundland and Labrador, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to James Howley’s The Beothucks and the historian’s imagination

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of December 11, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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