On the Trail with Joseph Iserhoff, 1905

I posted a while back about Labrador diaries.

Here’s a peek at one that I’ve had the pleasure to read: the 1905 expedition diary of Joseph Iserhoff, who one of Mina Hubbard’s guides on her famous trek from North West River to Ungava Bay.

Hubbard’s diary from that expedition is well known, and you can see scans of the original via Memorial’s online collection, or better still, borrow the e-book version of the wonderfully annotated edition by Roberta Buchanan and Bryan Greene, with a biography by Anne Hart, from the public library.  The celebrated George Elson also kept a diary on that trip, and it too can be read online, if you’re good at puzzling out pencilled century-old cursive writing in none too clear a hand!  Iserhoff’s diary has not yet been posted.  The original is kept at Memorial’s Archives and Special Collections in St. John’s, but some time ago, the Labrador Institute Archive offered to digitize it, and therefore we have scanned copies. They too will eventually be posted online in full.

Joseph Iserhoff was a James Bay Cree, whose Russian surname comes from a shipwrecked sailor in his ancestry. The biographical sheets at the HBC Archives have a lot of John and Joseph Iserhoffs, so there is some work to be done there untangling exactly who is who. This Joseph, at any rate, worked in various capacities, mainly in northern Ontario, including taking on surveying jobs and tasks for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He knew George Elson and Job Chapies well, and was engaged by George to help him and Job with the 1905 expedition.  Local Labradorian Gilbert Blake also joined the party, so that in all it comprised four men, plus the expedition leader, Mina Hubbard.

Here is the diary page for today’s date, 115 years ago, and for good measure the previous page too, which relates when the group first set out from North West River. Click to enlarge the photos—or for an easier online read, see my transcription below, which is also lightly edited for spelling, standardized dates, etc.

Saturday, June 24th – Gillisport
Blowing hard all day and raining. Left the boat this evening.

Sunday, June 25th – North West River
Arrived here this morning. Raining most all day. Cleared up this evening. Went across to the HBC to see some Indians had a talk to them.

Monday, June 26th – North West River
Cloudy all day, not very warm. Getting ready to start. Mrs Hubbard taking photos today. Mr Wallace off this evening.

Tuesday, June 27th – Grand Lake, Silver Pine Lodge
Left the post half past three this afternoon and got here 11 p.m. Made 22 miles or more. Very calm.

Wednesday, June 28th – Nascopie River
Made a pretty good day’s travel today. Seen a large bear. Job fired at it and wounded it. George killed a porcupine and had it for supper. Had a fine day, but head wind blowing hard all day and pretty strong current.

Thursday, June 29th
Had a splendid day camping at first rapid, halfway up. Boys killed another porcupine today. Job poling up the rapid alone in the canoes and the rest of us packing along the shore. No trail and very rough. Made about 10 miles today.

Friday, June 30th
Very warm and clear all day. Having a very rough portage.  No trail. Camping little over halfway up the rapid. Very tired.

Saturday, July 1st
Got over long portage at noon. Came about four miles above very swift stream and lots of rapids. Made three portages this afternoon. The weather very fine.

Sunday, July 2nd
Having a rest today. Very warm before noon. After noon rained a little. Mrs Hubbard taking photos of the river this evening.

Iserhoff does not waste words, but even this little detail accumulates over the course of the whole expedition, and for me it soon becomes impossible to stop turning pages (or clicking them over onscreen), until the group is safely at George River Post.

It is also sometimes interesting to read Iserhoff’s account alongside Mina Hubbard’s and George’s accounts of the same events—and extraordinary to reflect that doing so gives us access to three eye-witness accounts of the minutiae of an expedition that happened in Labrador 115 years ago. Usually the accounts are similar, but even small differences reveal the characters of the writers.

Here are three versions of the encounter with the bear on June 28, and an image of that passage of Elson’s diary:

Joseph Iserhoff
“Seen a large bear. Job fired at it and wounded it. George killed a porcupine and had it for supper.”

Mina Hubbard
“Started about 3 P.M. and just a short time later Geo caught sight of a huge black bear walking along hill on opposite side of river. Crossed and went ashore. Great chase. Job shot him but he got away. Killed porcupine and had him for supper. N.G. for me. Say not right time of year. First wild bear I ever saw. First porcupine ever saw.” (from Hubbard, Buchanan, Greene, and Hart 2005)

George Elson
“Saw a big black bear. Job wounded him, but we did not get him. I killed one muskrat and one porcupine.”

The contrast between Hubbard’s style and the men’s is clear—but for me it is equally remarkable how often (and not just here) the men choose the same details of the day to preserve, in their terse entries!

One thought on “On the Trail with Joseph Iserhoff, 1905

Add yours

  1. Thanks really quite Something! to be able to see the events from the perspective of three different people . Great read


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