Gros Morne History: The Imaginary Lake Named After Mattie Mitchell

PART OF THE 1770 MAP of James Cook and Michael Lane showing the supposed route of the Upper Humber River (yellow line) with its imaginary source lake (encircled by blue line).

There is an odd story about a fictitious lake in the Northern Peninsula, named after Mattie Mitchell, one-time resident of Bonne Bay. Cook’s 1770 map shows an elongated NE-SW lake running for many miles in the centre of the Northern Peninsula, east of St John Bay: this is indicated as the source of the Humber River. The same un-named lake turned up in a number of other maps, which were largely copied from Cook’s work, but disappeared after the 1860s.

Then in 1905, the first detailed map of the Northern Peninsula showed a new body of water somewhat to the south of Cook’s lake. This was produced by Englishman H.C. Thomson, who walked in 1904 a circuitous route from Bonne Bay to Flowers Cove, guided by Mattie Mitchell. Going by Mattie’s descriptions of a huge lake dotted with many islands that he had once visited, Thomson included on his map “Lake Michel”, indicating with a dotted symbol his uncertainty about its existence.

Though this large body of water also appeared in Prowse’s 1905 Newfoundland Guide Book and a few later charts, it soon quietly disappeared from all published maps, as evidence mounted of its non-existence.

Part of Thompson’s sketch-map showing Lake Michel and the route of his northern trek in 1904.

*Mattie Mitchell lived in Bonne Bay with his wife Mary Anne Webb and their son Lawrence. There were other Mitchells in Norris Point with Mi’kmaq ancestry. One of them married the sister of Bryant Harding.

Antony Berger

Antony Berger is the author of The Good and Beautiful Bay: A History of Bonne Bay (to Confederation and a Little Beyond).