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Historical Information

West Coast Region - Codroy District

The Early Settlers in the Codroy Valley

See errata table
Some Notes for a History of
The Early Settlers in the Codroy Valley
as related by
John H. Bruce IV
To His Nieces and Grandchildren

circa 1954

Shut in by the Cape Anguille Mountains on the North, by the Mountains of the Long Range on the East and South, and facing the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Codroy Valley offers some of the most attractive prospects in this Island.

Settlement in the Valley began probably in the late eighteenth century, or early in the nineteenth century. Like other pioneers in this Canadian Dominion, the families who first ventured to the shores of Western Newfoundland must have been blessed with vigor of body and strength of mind above the ordinary. Their entrance into this unknown and untrodden land called for a buoyant spirit of adventure. it demanded no less resourcefulness of no common degree. The settlers had to utilize what could be gleaned from the wilds around them to supply food, clothing, and shelter. They had need of strong minds and a sound outlook on life and death, that they might not succumb to the loneliness and hardship inseparable from the life of the pioneer.

The land that now bears rich crops of hay and root vegetables was then heavily wooded. The sole means of access into the region was from the sea, by way of two rivers that flow into the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the height of land to the north and east. At present both of these streams have encumbrances at their mouth formed of sand bars.

The coast is beset with perils in the shape of promontories such as Point Rosy near Codroy Harbour and the lower but still treacherous Shoal Point at the mouth of the Little Codroy River.

While there was the possibility of securing abundant game and fish, these early days must have offered lean fare, rude shelter, danger from winter storms, as well as the ever present loneliness of pioneer life, the lack of skilled aid in time of illness, the dearth of the solaces found in religious services and the need of friends and near neighbors in time of bereavement.

It is much to be regretted that the memory of these pioneers should be lost in the passing of the years. Surely their descendants of this generation and those of the coming years would wish to keep alive the remembrance of their forefathers, of those who toiled, and dreamed of the future; a future wherein their children and their children's children might enjoy freedom and a measure of comfort in this new land. That is why it has been thought desirable to gather such information as could be gleaned, and to circulate it so that perchance those who read may be encouraged to draw upon their family traditions and tales, and to add to these meager details. Thus some record may be preserved of our forebearers and of the hardships they endured in order that they might build a home and a heritage for us.

Some years ago a roving reporter interviewed some of the senior members of the Valley's first families, and found that these men had vivid memories of their youth, and that they could make the past live again in their tales, in a way that the printed page can scarcely hope to equal. As they talked, they gave colour and drama to the old tales of danger and high courage, so that one could live and rejoice and suffer with the men and women of whom they spoke. Among those who offered most interesting and valuable reminiscences were John H. Bruce who died in 1956 at the age of 98, and Archie D. MacIsaac who went to his reward some years earlier. At the time they were interviewed, these gentlemen were well past the allotted span of three score years and ten; but their faculties were still alert, their memory clear, and their style of narration such as to hold the listener's interest for longer than it was possible to linger in the past with them. What follows is, in summary, the bare details of the tales they told.

The Gale Family

Earliest European Settlers

As far as can be learned, the earliest white settlers in the Valley were the Gale brothers from west England. It has been suggested that they settled in the Valley in the late eighteenth century. It was surely not far into the nineteenth when they were carrying on a thriving trade in fish and furs. The information on this family was offered by John H. Brucy IV. He affirmed that four brothers of the name came direct from England to the locality and settled at first in what was later known as Grand River Gut.

When they found this location too much exposed to winter storms, the brothers moved across the "Gut" to what is now known as Millville, a sheltered area with wooded glens, yet not far removed from either river or sea, the source, in great part, of their livelihood. In this sheltered spot, the Gale brothers cleared land, and built a home. The land is still occupied by their descendants of the fourth and fifth generations.

At the time of this attempt at settlement, a band of Indians of the Micmac tribe had homes a mile or so farther up the Grand River, and from these Indians the Gales bought fish and furs. Each spring they would make a voyage to England to dispose of these commodities, (and) to bring back in their sailing vessels cargoes of food and supplies for trading. New vessels had to be built, and their smaller craft repaired, so it would appear that these pioneers could turn their hand to boat building as well as to fishing and trading. One suggestion has it that the price agreed upon with the Indians was pound for pound in fish or fur for flour and other grain. The fish they bought would seem to have been in the main salted or dried salmon which abounded in the river and which could be caught in the waters off shore during early summer.

The sea however, took it's toll. The story goes that on a second voyage to England, two of the brothers were lost with their vessel. These men had deposited most of their profits in the Bank of England and it is said that early in this century, one of their descendants tried to recover some of the family savings. It is said that while they could find the record of the deposits, technical difficulties prevented their being recovered.

No record of the marriage of James Gale could be found, a not unusual circumstance in the history of early settlers.

According to tradition held in the Valley, James Gale the great-grandfather of the would-be claimant. one of the surviving brothers, built a smaller ship and began trading on the South coast. From one of his voyages, he returned with a wife; but no record of the marriage had been kept. One may conjecture that in a milieu such as existed in the Valley in the early nineteenth century, marriages were frequently contracted with witnesses, but without benefit of clergy, since clergymen there were none., The contracting parties were joined in marriage by mutual consent, with family and friends as witnesses. Seldom were written records considered necessary, the entire community, small as it was, had witnessed the ceremony, and had joined in the celebrations.

According to our narrator, the fourth of the Gale brothers, voyaged to the northern part of the island, and eventually settled in Hamden, White Bay. It is said that Alex Gale, a grandson of James Gale of Millville, visited his relatives in that settlement early in this century.

James Gale raised a family of five - three sons, James, William and John and two daughters. All settled in Millville and continued the trade in fish and furs. The fur trade gradually dwindled but the family continued fishing and farming and, in later years, set up wholesale and retail stores in the area; they also operated a water mill for carding and rolling the wool from the sheep later introduced to the settlement. They early staked a claim to extensive tracts of land on the north side of the Great Codroy River.

It is said that the land on which the Roman Catholic chapel was built by Monsignor Thomas Sears in the latter part of the nineteenth century was purchased from the Gale family by the Prefect apostolic. This site is now in possession of the Downey family who came to the Valley somewhat later than the Gales.

The third generation of the Gales, Edward and John, maintained the home site at Millville and each reared large families. Their descendants are now scattered far and wide, but there are some of them still in the Valley; two at least on the site of the original settlement. Some of the family moved to what is known as Codroy Village to engage in fishing. There are also Gales in Robinsons who are probably members of the original settlers.

The Bruce Family

from St. Malo

The Bruce family came to Newfoundland via St.Pierre, having come to the French Islands from St. Malo in Brittany. Information and traditions concerning this family were gathered from the reminiscences of John H. Bruce IV who died in Sydney, N.S. in the summer of 1956, aged 98. According to his story, the first John Bruce of whom he had knowledge went to France and Belgium from Scotland during the wars that followed the French Revolution. Late in life this Scotsman married a girl of St. Malo and settled in that town where his two sons, Joseph and John were born and grew to manhood. The former had been enrolled in a French seminary when he was stricken with some form of disease that resulted first in blindness and, soon after, in death. Not long afterwards the parents died thus leaving the younger son completely alone. John Bruce thereupon gathered what was available of his patrimony and set sail for the New World, landing in St.Pierre somewhere, it would appear, in the early 1830s. Soon after his arrival, John Bruce II came to Newfoundland, spending his first winter in the island in a small settlement called Wolf Harbour on the southeast coast. He then built or purchased a vessel and with a crew of five, went fishing off shore. His fishing voyages brought him to Codroy Island where he settled somewhere in the early 1830s. During his second year in Newfoundland was able to purchase a second ship which he sent fishing with a crew of four and a captain from St. Pierre. The ship was lost though the crew managed to reach land safely.

John Bruce II married a girl from Prince Edward Island whose family name, according to family tradition, was Bourgeois. The newlyweds settled on Codroy Island which we are told was an open port for fishermen in these days of the French shore. There was considerable trade with the French Islands and there is reason to believe that the family lived in the French Islands for a period in order to have the boys acquire some degree of literacy. Their home was however, on Codroy Island.

When a member of the family suggested seeking family records in St. Pierre, John Bruce IV said "You will not find any of our family name in St.Pierre; my grandfather was the last of his family and all of his sons grew to manhood on Codroy Island." There were five in the family, three sons of only one - John Henry III settled in the Valley. Joseph and Julian made homes for themselves in the Port-au-Port Peninsula - possibly Cape St. George - but their families moved to the United States early in this century.

John Bruce married Sarah McLean of a family who had settled in the Valley at about the same time as the Bruces. The two families lived on Codroy Island within a stones throw of each other.

John Henry, the eldest son of the family spent much of his time with his grandfather; and, as the latter in his declining years appears to have been somewhat of an invalid, the boy heard much of the old patriarch's early life. Decades later as an old man, John Bruce IV recalled those days. The old man, worn with many hardships of his seafaring life, sat looking out on the sea he loved and told the youngster of his journeyings. "My grandfather loved to tell me stories of his youth," the boy grown to old age would remark, "and these stories were some of the best entertainment a boy could wish for. They were more exciting than the westerns and the science stories you young folk like to read. I listened eagerly as the old stories are fresh in my mind as the day I heard them."

It is worth noting that John Bruce IV inherited his grandfather's gift of vivid narration. The boys and girls who gathered round him on a summer evening - preferably within sight and sound of the sea - were held entranced by his tales of "by-gone things and battles long ago." Battles indeed, with the sea in it's fury with hardship and loneliness and privation. But battles that were fought in a spirit of daring and courage, and that were often won.

When the lad was about fifteen he went one day with his father to search for seals on the drift ice. It was a clear, cold day of March and the joy of the hunt must have stirred the young boy's pulses as he thought what tales of daring he, in turn, could relate to his grandfather. But when the hunting party returned to Codroy Island, the grandfather was no more. He had died quietly while he watched for the men of the family to return. He was not old in years - not much more than the allotted three score and ten - but the years of seafaring and hardship had taken their toll. His memory and the wonder of the tales he had told lived in the heart of the boy who had shared his enjoyment of the lure of the sea and ships.

Some years later the family of John H. Bruce III staked a claim to a section of land facing the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the south of the Great Codroy River - a section that for what reason we have not been able to discover, came to be known as "The Block". There the family grew up, first in a log house, and later in a frame structure built about 1875 which is still in good condition and has been the home of two succeeding generations. Some members of the family still live in the Valley in the home that sheltered three generations. Some of them have journeyed afar to build new homes and raise families in situations better calculated to offer educational opportunities and chances of material advantage. The greater part of the section of the land claimed by John Bruce III is still in the hands of his descendants.

The McLean Family

of Greenoch, Scotland

The McLeans came to the Codroy Valley from Mabou, Cape Breton a few years later than the Gales had come from England. This Scottish family had emigrated from Greenoch in Scotland and had settled in Cape Breton. Not finding the land as productive as they had hoped, or as some suggest, not relishing the political situation of the Maritimes, they put their family and furnishings into their vessel and set out for Newfoundland.

According to family tradition they landed at Sandy Point in St.George's Bay, but their final destination was the land around the mouth of the Great Codroy River. The story is told that as Hugh McLean sailed along the coastline, he landed in a small cove and climbed the tallest tree he could find in order to survey the surrounding countryside. Apparently he approved of what he saw for he sailed on, entered the Gut at the mouth of the river, and spent one winter there in a house owned by the Gale brothers. There is some confusion here in the location of his first home. One version describes his going some few miles up the river to a projection point of land that came to be known as Hard Winter Point, just below the farm owned by the late Thomas Downey. One of the oldest residents claimed that the rocks supporting Hugh McLean's wharf could be seen at the Point in the early years of this century. They claim that he built a cabin there in a sheltered glade later occupied by the home of Paul Jennings. The final location of the McLean's however, was Grand River Gut where a member of the family carried on a flourishing retail business well into the twentieth century. They held land to the west of the Gut for more than a mile. This land has been purchased by the families of Hynes, Young and Burns.

Hugh McLean had two sons John and Dan, the latter we are told was four times married. His first wife was a Bragg whose mother had been a Gale. He owned two vessels, was successful in fishing and set up a retail business that was carried on by his sons.

The MacIsaacFamily

of Inverness, Cape Breton

One of the earliest families to settle in the Valley was the MacIsaacs who came there from Inverness County, Cape Breton. While the Gales and the McLeans had made their home on or near the banks of the Great Codroy River, the MacIsaacs sailed up the Little Codroy which at that time was an open stream, though it is now blocked by a sand bar. There is still to be found, near a farm once owned by Martin Hynes, a cemetery where some of that family were buried. Nearby too, we are told, was the site of an old chapel, the first ever to be built in the Valley. It is said to have been a small frame building erected by the McIsaacs to serve as a place for gathering in community prayer as well as to offer some shelter to the occasional visiting priest. Father Belanger came occasionally from Sandy Point in St. George's Bay to marry, christen or bury members of these sturdy Highland Catholics and to offer here in their little chapel the sacrifice of the Mass; thence to find his way to other small groups of settlers where Mass would be offered in a kitchen-living room.

The MacIsaacs, like the McLeans, came from the west of Scotland and had originally made their home in Cape Breton. Why they made this second venture into the unknown we do not know. It may well be that the lure of the unknown led them further afield. It would seem that they found some measure of contentment in the valley of the Little Codroy, for they made a permanent home there and their descendants are still to be found in that locality.

Another branch of the MacIsaac's came direct from Scotland.

Angus MacIsaac of South Branch has told us that the first of their family to settle in the Valley came about 1852. The man who made this settlement was the great grandfather of Angus MacIsaac. His name was John MacIsaac and his wife was a Kennedy of Scotland. They took land on a wooded hill some five miles from the mouth of the Great Codroy River on the south bank. The hill was well wooded, bearing tall birch and maple which furnished excellent material for building as well as for fuel. As a result we are told, this family came to be known as the John Hardwoods to distinguish them from their namesakes in the Valley of the Little Codroy.

John MacIsaac raised a family of four sons and six daughters.Their first years in the new land were difficult. Mr. Archie D. MacIsaac, who lived to a ripe old age, used to recall how he had heard from his grandparents of the hardships of the first long and cold winter. The supplies of food they had brought with them dwindled and had to be used sparingly, that they might survive the months of cold and storm in this rigorous climate. Things improved when spring came; they found ample supplies of game in the forest and salmon and trout in the river. They planted the seeds they had brought and the succeeding years were less trying to health and morale.

But one catches a glimpse of the doughty courage of these men and women in the tales so simply told. The women folk who came with their men must surely merit the title of "valiant women" found in the old testament. Had they not put their fingers to the spindle and kept their lamps alight well into the night, who knows if the courage of husbands and sons could have endured the strain. As one listened to Mr. Archie MacIsaac as he would remark: "I have heard my grandmother say....." one would hear a tale of heroism simply told as though heroic deeds were the stuff of everyday life.

The Grand River MacIsaac's cleared the land and built flourishing farms where they raised strong and vigorous sons and daughters to carry on the tradition of their fathers. Many of their descendants went farther afield in search of better prospects for their children; but there are still MacIsaac's on the Hill of the Hardwoods, though the trees have been cut and the land bears rich crops of hay and roots and cattle graze on the intervales in the river.

The AuCoin Family

The Earliest French Settlers

The Gales had come to Newfoundland from west England; the Bruces, though they came by way of France, originated from a Scottish forebearer; the McLeans and the MacIsaacs had come directly or indirectly from Scotland.

The first family of French extraction were the three AuCoin - or O'Quinn - brothers who came from Cape Breton some time about the middle of the nineteenth century. Isaac, the eldest of the brothers, was twice married; his second wife was Mary McNeill from the Head of the Great Codroy - the Grand River as it came to be called.

The other two brothers, Mesmin and Onesime married two Doucet sisters. A fourth brother came later in the century and settled in Stephenville.

Events show that the AuCoins were good seamen. Frequently they made voyages as far as Quebec to trade salt cod for flour and other staples. It is believed that this family was the first to undertake the seal fishery on the West Coast of Newfoundland. The old home farm of the AuCoin's is no longer in the family. Two of them moved to a more favourable location on the northern bank of the Great Codroy and continued to follow the sea in their graceful schooners which one remembers admiring as they lay at anchor in the sheltered inner waters of the river. In the early decades of this century the writer remembers in particular a beautiful vessel which they called "The River Queen".

Other First Families of the Valley

Employees of the CNR used to be familiar with the name of McDougall. For years it was Lochie McDougall who decided whether or not it was safe for the lamented "Newfie Bullet" to continue their journey over the exposed terrain in the face of the dreaded southeasters that are frequent in the area. The McDougall's lived some miles south of the Little Codroy River, between St. Andrew's and Cape Ray. One source holds that the McDougall's came to the Valley at about the same time as the McLeans. They settled in the fertile glen that still bears the name McDougall's Gulch.

John H. Bruce, whose reminiscences form the greater part of this sketch, married Mary Ann McDougall some time in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. She was indeed "a woman of sterling worth, whose heart was in her home."

The Halls came from Lunenburg we are told, and were of Dutch descent.

Then there are the Ryans who came from Margaree in Cape Breton - William, Basil and Patrick. It is said that it was the Ryans who offered hospitality to Father Belanger when he came from Sandy Point to visit the people of the Valley.

Readers of Cape Breton Over will recall that one of the Ryans married a daughter of the Ross family of Cape Breton. One of the early Cormier settlers was married to another of the Rosses. The Ross family are still remembered in Cape Breton and one at least of the women seems to have combined the qualities of housewife, huntress and physician if one can depend upon the author of the work mentioned.

The sketch of some of the early settlers in the Valley given thus far is obviously incomplete. In the case of the last three families mentioned practically nothing is known except that they may be numbered among our pioneer families.

There are other names that claim the name of pioneer - the McNeills settled in the area at an early date. The Doucet, Cormier must also be numbered among the first families. There are the families of Chaisson, Hynes and Jennings who have long been established there. The families of Doyle and Tompkins arrived in the Valley late in the nineteenth century and hail from Margaree. These were among the earliest to engage in the tourist industry.

With the opening of the Trans Canada Highway, and the influx of settlers from the Mainland that followed, it is surely desirable that we do not lose the memory of our pioneer settlers. Tradition does mean something even in our age of technology. Henry Cabot Lodge, speaking to the New England Society in 1888, put it this way:

"Let every man honour and love the land of his birth
and the race from which he springs
and keep their memory green.
It is a pious and honoured duty."

Name in RecordDescription of error or additionMy Name
The Author I have a hard copy of this item and according to my information, the paper was written by "Sister Teracina Bruce" who still resides at a convent in St. John's Nfld. She apparently gathered the information. I am a descendent of these bruces and I would be interested in corresponding with anyone working on this family. Robert G. McNeil

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