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William Eppes Cormack fonds (P239)

1822-1822. - 1 cm of textual records.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

William Eppes Cormack was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, on 5 May 1796, the son of a Scottish merchant who had opened a store in St. John's in about 1783. His mother was one of the daughters of William Eppes, commissary of stores and merchant in St. John's. Cormack studied in Scotland at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. While under the tutelage of Professor Robert Jameson, Cormack developed an interest in the natural sciences, namely, botany, mineralogy and geology, disciplines that would be very useful to him during his future explorations.

Cormack left Scotland around 1818 and went to live on Prince Edward Island with a group of Scottish immigrants. He worked there as a land broker before returning to St. John's in 1821. A few months later he decided to explore the interior of Newfoundland, crossing the island from east to west, the first white to attempt such a feat. His goal was three-fold: to study the morphology and other features of the land, to promote colonization by opening up the interior to immigrants and to make contact with the Beothuk Indians who lived there.

Cormack left on 30 August 1822 accompanied by the Mi'kmaq hunter Joseph Sylvester. The crossing was very hard: the terrain was often difficult and the small group was hit by an early winter. However, they arrived on the west coast of the island on 4 November. Cormack had succeeded in documenting the interior country he traversed, but his dream of colonizing it would not be realized for almost another century. In addition, although he came across several Innu and Mi'kmaq Indians, he failed to find a Beothuk. Some years later, in 1827, he founded the Beothic Institution in hopes of finding living Beothuk and learning more about their culture. He managed to organize a second voyage of discovery, which set out on 31 October 1827; although he found signs of the Beothuk, he was unable to make contact with them. He organized two more such trips, neither of which turned up any members of this First Nation. Nonetheless, over the years he made great progress in documenting the Beothuk lifestyle based on the numerous artifacts that he found and the fact that he sheltered for several years the last known member of the Beothuk, Shawnawdithit.

After 1830, Cormack travelled and worked in Prince Edward Island, Australia, New Zealand and then California, before moving to New Westminster, British Columbia. There, he became involved in municipal politics and also kept up his interest in botony and the natural sciences as well as his favourite sport, skating (a subject he even wrote a book about). Apart from a few trips to Great Britain and a brief stay back in Newfoundland in 1862, Cormack remained in New Westminster until his death, after a one-month illness, in April 1868 at the age of 72.

(Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

Scope and Content:

The William Eppes Cormack fonds covers his exploration of the interior of Newfoundland from August to November 1822. The fonds consists of his daily journal, that is, a handwritten copy of the original that Cormack produced for the Natural History Society of Montreal. The journal covers a variety of topics such as the villages visited by Cormack during his trek (Trinity Bay, Random Land, St. Georges Bay, etc.), fauna (beaver, deer, beer, etc.), flora (flowers, medicinal plants, tree species, etc.). Cormack describes the morphology, minerals and aboriginals that he encountered. He also discusses the French- and English-speaking peoples he met, as well as hunting and fishing methods. The journal contains a meteorological table covering the period September to October and a description of the equipment that he used during his trip.