Sto­ries from Long Is­land

The Compass - - OPINION -

My late mother was born in Ward’s Har­bour, which is lo­cated on Long Is­land. Her birth name was Bur­ton; I am her name­sake. One of my re­grets is that I never asked her to tell me her life story. I once spent an af­ter­noon on the is­land, too brief a time to col­lect much ge­nealog­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. In the ab­sence of her mem­oirs, I’m forced to piece to­gether her life from odds and ends col­lected here and there.

Which is why I en­joyed read­ing “Dis­ap­peared: Sto­ries from the Coast of New­found­land,” writ­ten by Eric Col­bourne, who was also born on Long Is­land. Mind you, my mother isn’t men­tioned in the book, but there is a tan­ta­liz­ing con­nec­tion to her.

Col­bourne wrote the book, he ex­plains, “to record some of the sto­ries that to­gether form part of the his­tory and ex­pe­ri­ence of one com­mu­nity in ru­ral New­found­land.”

One such story, “The Death of Wil­liam Henry,” piqued my in­ter­est.

On April 17, 1888, 48-year-old Wil­liam Henry Mor­gan and his 16year-old son James left Lushes Bight on a seal-hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion over the har­bour ice.

“Now, Wil­liam Henry,” his wife Elizabeth said, “don’t you take no chances, and James, you take care of your fa­ther.”

Within the hour, snow flur­ries made it dif­fi­cult for them to see land. They rested for a while on Flint Is­land. By mid­morn­ing, the snow had cleared, so they re­sumed their jour­ney. Soon, rafted slabs of heavy arc­tic floes slowed their progress. Early in the af­ter­noon, they stopped for a mea­gre lunch be­fore strik­ing east. An­other hour of trudg­ing brought them to a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove of seal meat.

“Af­ter a long hard day,” Col­bourne writes, “there was success at last and they quickly tied a rope into three seals each and headed back to­wards Gull Rock.”

Mean­while, a sea was mak­ing, the ice pack was start­ing to break up, and a bit­ing north­east wind had sprung up. The se­nior man de­cided to seek shel­ter in a cabin on Stag Is­land, two miles dis­tant.

Fif­teen yards from Stag Is­land Point, the un­think­able hap­pened: the ice un­der Wil­liam Henry’s feet gave way. James hooked him by the col­lar, but the whirling mass sucked him un­der.

“With great ef­fort,” Col­bourne con­tin­ues, “James pulled him back on a solid pan and got him stand­ing. This time he grabbed his fa­ther’s arm, but had no sooner done so when the ice gave way again. The shock of the cold ocean water had now sapped Wil­liam Henry’s strength. He could no longer stand but, sum­mon­ing some in­ner strength, he crawled to the icy rocks on the shore­line.”

Un­able to get a firm foot­ing, James pulled his fa­ther over a ridge. Los­ing his grip, the teenager watched in mute hor­ror as the man rolled back into the water. Res­cu­ing him with his gaff, he heard his fa­ther say, “James, we shall all sleep to­gether.”

There’s more, much more, to this story. Suf­fice it to say, to quote the au­thor, “Wil­liam Henry sighed softly, breathed his last, and slid back into the icy black­ness.”

Ear­lier I men­tioned a tan­ta­liz­ing con­nec­tion to my mother in Col­bourne’s book. Here it is: the sur­vivor of this tragedy at sea, James Mor­gan, mar­ried Amelia Ann Bur­ton, who was born in 1883. She and my mother’s fa­ther, Ti­tus Bur­ton, were sib­lings. In other words, Amelia Ann Mor­gan, who died in 1987, was my mother’s aunt and, there­fore, my great-aunt.

This is but one of 10 sto­ries in Col­bourne’s his book. “They are sto­ries,” he says, “of tragedy, child­hood fan­tasy, strug­gle, and the re­al­ity of ev­ery­day life dur­ing a pe­riod that is largely for­got­ten.”

Set in the pe­riod be­tween the 1880s and early 1960s, the sto­ries in­clude “The Great Purge,” “The Black Arts Book,” “Still Wa­ters,” “Ban­ner- man of the Dan­de­nong,” and “The Stran­gling An­gel.” All of them are told, not with nos­tal­gia, but with a sense of re­al­ism that comes from hav­ing been raised in ru­ral New­found­land be­fore the ad­vent of such things as tele­vi­sion, the In­ter­net and mod­ern trans­porta­tion.

“What unites th­ese pages,” ob­serves fel­low writer Paul But­ler, “is a love of place and peo­ple and the truly im­pres­sive craft of the writ­ing.”

“I hope,” Col­bourne says, “read­ers will take away an un­der­stand­ing that the seeds of change in ru­ral New­found­land were planted a long time ago. More im­por­tantly, I hope peo­ple come away with an un­der­stand­ing that sto­ries have an im­por­tant hu­man el­e­ment. They bind us to­gether as fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties; the sto­ries of the past are records of who we are to­day.”

“Dis­ap­peared: Sto­ries from the Coast of New­found­land” is pub­lished by Michael Grass House, Kingston, On­tario. Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at


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