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Labrador Collection

History Archive - Labrador Collection

LABRADOR, a great peninsula in British North America, bounded E. by the North Atlantic, N. by Hudson Strait, W. by Hudson and James Bays, and S. by an arbitrary line extending eastwards from the south-east corner of Hudson Bay, near 51° N., to the mouth of the Moisie river, on the Gulf of St Lawrence, in 50° N., and thence eastwards by the Gulf of St Lawrence. It extends from 50° to 63° N., and from 55° to 80° W., and embraces an approximate area of 511,000 sq. m.

From the Portuguese llavrador (a yeoman farmer). The name was originally given to Greenland'(1st half of 16th century) and was transferred to the peninsula in the belief that it formed part of the same country as Greenland. The name was bestowed “ because he who first gave notice of seeing it [Greenland] was a farmer (llavrador) from the Azores.” Recent explorations and surveys have added greatly to the knowledge of this vast region, and have shown that much of the peninsula is not a land of “ awful desolation,” but a well-wooded country, containing latent resources of value in its forests, fisheries and minerals.

Population.-The population is approximately 14,500, or about one person to every 35 sq. m.; it is made up of 3500 Indians, 2000 Eskimo and 9000 whites. The last are confined to the coasts and to the Hudson Bay Company's trading posts of the interior. On the Atlantic coast they are largely immigrants from Newfoundland, together with descendants of English fishermen and Hudson Bay Company's servants. To the north of Hamilton Inlet they are of more or less mixed blood from marriage with Eskimo women.

The Newfoundland census of 1901 gave 3634 as the number of permanent white residents along the Atlantic coast, and the Canadian census (1891) gave a white population of 5728, mostly French Canadians, scattered along the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, while the whites living at the inland posts did not exceed fifty persons. It is difficult to give more than a rough approximation of the number of the native population, owing to their habits of roving from one trading post to another, and the consequent liability of counting the same family several times if the returns are computed from the books of the various posts, the only available data for an enumeration.

The following estimate is arrived at in this manner: Indians—west coast, 1200; Ungava Bay, 200; east coast, 200; south coast, 1900. Eskimo—Atlantic coast, 1000; south shore of Hudson Strait, 800; east coast of Hudson Bay, 500. The Indians roam over the southern interior in small bands, their northern limit being determined by that of the trees on which they depend for fuel. They live wholly by the chase, and their numbers are dependent upon the deer and other animals; as a consequence there is a constant struggle between the Indian and the lower animals for existence, with great slaughter of the latter, followed by periodic famines among the natives, which greatly reduce their numbers and maintain an equilibrium. The native population has thus remained about stationary for the last two centuries.

The Indians belong to the Algonquin family, and speak dialects of the Cree language. By contact with missionaries and fur-traders they are more or less civilized, and the great majority of them are Christians. Those living north of the St Lawrence are Roman Catholic, while the Indians of the western watershed have been converted by the missionaries of the Church Mission Society; the eastern and northern bands have not yet been reached by the missionaries, and are still pagans. The Eskimo of the Atlantic coast have long been under the guidance of the Moravian missionaries, and are well advanced in civilization; those of Hudson Bay have been taught by the Church Mission Society, and promise well; while the Eskimo of Hudson Strait alone remain without teachers, and are pagans. The Eskimo live along the coasts, only going inland for short periods to hunt the barren-ground caribou for their winter clothing; the rest of the year they remain on the shore or the ice, hunting seals and porpoises, which afiord them food, clothing and fuel. The Christianized Indians and Eskimo read and write in their own language; those under the teaching of the Church Mission Society use a syllabic character, the others make use of the ordinary alphabet.

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Physical Geography.—Labrador forms the eastern limb of the V in the Archaean protaxis of North America (see Canada), and includes most of the highest parts of that area. Along some portions of the coasts of Hudson and also of Ungava Bay there is a fringe of lowland, but most of the interior is a plateau rising toward the south and east. The highest portion extends east and west between 52° and 54° N., where an immense granite area lies between the headwaters of the larger rivers of the four principal drainage basins; the lowest area is between Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay in the north-west, where the general level is not more than 500 ft. above the sea. The only mountains are the range along the Atlantic coast, extending from the Strait of Belle Isle to Cape Chidley; in their southern half they rarely exceed 1500 ft., but increase in the northern half to a general elevation of upwards of 2000 ft., with numerous sharp peaks between 3000 and 5000 ft., some say 7000 or 8000 ft. The coasts are deeply indented by irregular bays and fringed with rocky islands, especially along the high Atlantic coast, where long narrow fiords penetrate inland. Hamilton Inlet, 250 m. north of the Strait of Belle Isle, is the longest of these bays, with a length of 150 m. and a breadth varying from 2 to 30 m. The surface of the outer portions of the plateau is deeply seamed by valleys, cut into the crystalline rocks by the natural erosion of rivers, depending for their length and depth upon the volume of water flowing through them. The valley of the Hamilton river is the greatest, forms a continuation of the valley of the Inlet and extends 300 m. farther inland, while its bottom lies from 500 to 1500 ft. below the surface of the plateau into which it is cut. The depressions between the low ridges of the interior are occupied by innumerable lakes, many of great size, including Mistassini, Mishikamau, Clearwater, Kaniapiskau and Seal, all from 50 to 100 m. long. The streams discharging these lakes, before entering their valleys, How on a level with the country and occupy all depressions, so that they frequently spread out into lake expansions and are often divided into numerous channels by large islands. The descent into the valleys is usually abrupt, being made by heavy rapids and falls; the Hamilton, from the level interior, in a course of 12 m. falls 760 ft. into the head of its valley, this descent including a sheer drop of 315 ft. at the Grand Falls, which, taken with the large volume of the river, makes it the greatest fall in North America. The rivers of the northern and western watersheds drain about two-thirds of the peninsula; the most important of the former are the Koksoak, the largest river of Labrador (over 500 m. long), the George, Whale and Payne rivers, all flowing into Ungava Bay. The large rivers Howing westwards into Hudson Bay are the Povungnituk, Kogaluk, Great Whale, Big, East Main and Rupert, varying in length from 300 to 500 m. The rivers flowing south are exceedingly rapid, the Moisie, Romaine, Natashkwan and St Augustine being the most important; all are about 300 m. long. The Atlantic coast range throws most of the drainage northwards into the Ungava basin, and only small streams fall into the ocean, except the Hamilton, North-west and Kenamou, which empty into the head of Hamilton Inlet.

Geology.—The peninsula is formed largely of crystalline schists and gneisses associated with granites and other igneous rocks, all of archaean age; there are also large areas of non-fossiliferous, stratified limestones, cherts, shales and iron ores, the unaltered equivalents of part of the schists and gneisses. Narrow strips of Animikie (Upper Huronian or perhaps Cambrian) rocks occur along the lowlying southern and western shores, but there are nowhere else indications of the peninsula having been below sea-level since an exceedingly remote time. During the glacial period the country was covered by a thick mantle of ice, which flowed out radially from a central collecting-ground. Owing to the extremely long exposure to denudation, to the subsequent removal of the greater part of the decomposed rock by glaciers, and to the unequal weathering of the component rocks, it is now a plateau, which ascends somewhat abruptly within a few miles of the coast-line to heights of between 500 and 2000 ft. The interior is undulating, and traversed by ridges of low, rounded hills, seldom rising more than 500 ft. above the surrounding general level.

Minerals.—The mineral wealth is undeveloped. Thick beds of excellent iron ore cover large areas in the interior and along the shores of Hudson and Ungava Bays. Large areas of mineralized Huronian rocks have also been discovered, similar to areas in other parts of Canada, where they contain valuable deposits of gold, copper, nickel and lead; good prospects of these metals have been found.

Climate.-The climate ranges from cold temperate on the southern coasts to arctic on Hudson Strait, and is generally so rigorous that it is doubtful if the country is fit for agriculture north of 51°, except on the low grounds near the coast. On James Bay good crops of potatoes and other roots are grown at Fort George, 54° N., while about the head of Hamilton Inlet, on the east coast, and in nearly the same latitude, similar crops are easily cultivated. On the outer coasts the climate is more rigorous, being affected by the floating ice borne s0uthwards on the Arctic current. In the interior at Mistassini, 50° 30' N, a crop of potatoes is raised annually, but they rarely mature. No attempts at agriculture have been made elsewhere inland. Owing to the absence of grass plains, there is little likelihood that it will ever be a grazing district. There are only two seasons in the interior: winter begins early in October, with the freezing of the small lakes, and lasts until the middle of June, when the ice on rivers and lakes melts and summer suddenly bursts forth. From unconnected observations the lowest temperatures of the interior range from -50° F. to -60° F., and are slightly higher along the coast. The mean summer temperature of the interior is about 55° F., with frosts during every month in the northern portion. On the Atlantic coast and in Hudson Bay the larger bays freeze solid between the 1st and 15th of December, and these coasts remain icebound until late in June. Hudson Strait is usually sufficiently open for navigation about the 10th of July.

Vegetation.—The southern half is included in the sub-Arctic forest belt, and nine species of trees constitute the whole arborescent flora of this region; these species are the white birch, poplar, aspen, cedar. Banksian pine, white and black spruce, balsam fir and larch. The forest is continuous over the southern portion to 53° N., the only exceptions being the summits of rocky hills and the outer islands of the Atlantic and Hudson Bay, while the low margins and river valleys contain much valuable timber. To the northward the size and number of barren areas rapidly increase, so that in 55° N. more than half the country is treeless, and two degrees farther north the limit of trees is reached, leaving, to the northward, only barrens covered with low Arctic flowering plants, sedges and lichens.

Fisheries.—The fisheries along the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence and of the Atlantic form practically the only industry of the white population scattered along the coasts, as well as of a large proportion of the inhabitants of Newfoundland. The census (1891) of Newfoundland gave 10,478 men, 2081 women and 828 children employed in the Labrador fishery in 861 vessels, of which the tonnage amounted to 33,689; the total catch being 488,788 quintals of cod, 1275 tierces of salmon and 3828 barrels of herring, which, compared with the customs returns for 1880, showed an increase of cod and decreases of salmon and herring. The salmon fishery along the Atlantic coast is now very small, the decrease being probably due to excessive use of Cod-traps. The cod fishery is now carried on along the entire Atlantic coast and into the eastern part of Ungava Bay, where excellent catches have been made since 1893. The annual value of the fisheries on the Canadian portion of the coast is about $350,000. The fisheries of Hudson Bay and of the interior are wholly undeveloped, though both the bay and the large lakes of the interior are well stocked with several species of excellent fish, including Arctic trout, brook trout, lake trout, white fish, sturgeon and cod.

Political Review.—The peninsula is divided politically between the governments of Canada, Newfoundland and the province of Quebec. The government of Newfoundland, under Letters Patent of the 28th of March 1876, exercises jurisdiction along the Atlantic coast; the boundary between its territory and that of Canada is a line running due north and south from Anse Sablon, on the north shore of the Strait of Belle Isle, to 52° N., the remainder of the boundary being as yet undetermined. The northern boundary of the province of Quebec follows the East Main river to its source in Patamisk lake, thence by a line due east to the Ashuanipi branch of the Hamilton river; it then follows that river and Hamilton Inlet to the coast area under the jurisdiction of Newfoundland. The remainder of the peninsula, north of the province of Quebec, by order in council dated the 18th of December 1897, was constituted Ungava. District, an unorganized territory under the jurisdiction of the government of the Dominion of Canada.

Authorities.—W. T. Grenfell and others, Labrador: the Country and the People (New York, 1909); R. F. Holmes, “ A Journey in the Interior of Labrador,” Proc. R.G.S. x. 189–205 (1887); A. S. Packard, The Labrador Coast (New York, 1891); Austen Cary, “ Exploration on Grand River, Labrador,” Bul. Am. Geo. Soc. vol. xxiv., 1892; R. Bell, “ The Labrador Peninsula,” Scottish Geo. Mag. July 1895. Also the following reports by the Geological Survey of Canada:—R. Bell, “ Report on an Exploration of the East Coast of Hudson Bay,” 1877–1878; “ Observations on the Coast of Labrador and on Hudson Strait and Bay,” 1882–1884; A. P. Low, “ Report on the Mistassini Expedition,” 1885; “ Report on James Bay and the Country East of Hudson Bay,” 1887–1888; “ Report on Explorations in the Labrador Peninsula, 1892–1895," 1896; “ Report on a Traverse of the Northern Part of the Labrador Peninsula," 1898; “ Report on the South Shore of Hudson Strait," 1899. For History: W. G. Gosling, Labrador (1910). (A. P. Lo.; A. P. C.)


See the historical sketch of Labrador by W. S. Wallace in Grenfell's Labrador, &c., 1909.

Albert Peter Low and Arthur Philemon Coleman, 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16. pp. 28-29.

Available Books


Image Name
Map of the River Moisie and Adjoining Country
Escape From a Fire on the Portage
Battle Harbour [II]
Seal Hunting in the Gulf
Montagnais Camp on One of the Mingan Islands
Second Gorge
Resting on the Portage Path
Nasquapees - Otelne,
Quidi Vidi
The Winding Sheet
Otelne's Dream
Front Cover
Nasquapees on the Moisie
Taylor's Gulsh
Perpendicular Rocks on the Moisie
Title Page
Book Display
Nasquapee Copper and Iron Fish Hooks
To the Burying Ground
Mosquito Lake
Back Cover
Bell Isle Beach
Petty Harbour
Seal Hunting on the Moisie
Front Cover
Cape Spear
Domenique, Chief of the Montagnais of Lake Ashwanipi
Front Cover
Roman Catholic Procession of Montagnais and Nasquapees at the Mission of Seven Islands
On Eagle River
Title Page
Bear Lake
Mingan Falls, a Famous Salmon Leap
A Visit to Otelne in His Lodge
Caribou Lake Near the Table Land
The Start
Eagle River Fishery
St. Johns [I]
The Conjuror in his Vapour Bath
Deep Water Creek
Almost an Accident
Battle Harbour [I]
The Third Rapid on the Moisie
Building Canoes, Squaws Stitching the Birch Bark
Hawk Island
Toad's Cove
An Escape at the Fourth Rapid
Descending the Nipisis
Back Cover
Starve Harbour
St. Michael's Bay
Cutting out a Road
View from the Ojiapisitacan, or top of the Ridge Portage at the Summit
Back Cover
Forteau Church
Henley Island
Book Display
St. Johns [II]
Canoes Crossing the Foot of the Grand Rapids
Title Page
Nasquapee Indians at the Hudson's Bay Company's Post at Mingan
Portugal Cove Church
Land-Slide on Cold Water River Portage
Falls of Eagle River
A Montagnais Squaw
Tracking up the First Gorge
Esquimaux Point Looking West
St. Francis Harbour


Map Name
Explorations in the Interior of the Labrador Peninsula Vol. 2 - Map of the Peninsula of Labrador (1863)
Explorations in the Interior of the Labrador Peninsula Vol. 1 - Map of the River Moisie and Adjoining Country (1863)


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