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The North Baffin Gold Rush of 1912

By the early 1900s, bowhead whaling in the eastern Arctic was in decline. Whales had been over-hunted and the demand for whalebone (baleen) and whale oil was diminishing. Only one Scottish whaler set off for the Baffin whaling grounds in 1912, and she returned home empty-handed. This was a far cry from the 40 whaling ships tied to the Pond Inlet floe edge in 1843.

As whalers and traders began looking elsewhere for profits, it was that elusive element gold that brought new activity to north Baffin. In the summer of 1912, three expeditions arrived at Pond Inlet in search of gold.

The first expedition to arrive was led by Henry Toke Munn. Munn was in command of the Algerine, a Newfoundland sealing vessel, captained by John Bartlett. Munn had discovered a map drawn some 50 years earlier by a crew member of a Scottish whaler, who reported finding gold on north Baffin. Munn arrived at Pond Inlet in early July.

Burchell’s map of Pond Inlet 1912. (from E.F. Burchell “Wrecked in Baffin Island” 1912. Canadian Museum of History archives)
Burchell’s map of Pond Inlet 1912. (from E.F. Burchell “Wrecked in Baffin Island” 1912. Canadian Museum of History archives)

The second expedition was based on reports in the press in early 1912, that gold had been discovered at Pond Inlet during the cruise of the Arctic in 1910-1912, a Canadian expedition headed by Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. This new expedition was organized and led by A.W. “Lucky” Scott, a prospector from Ontario. A member of Bernier’s crew, Robert Janes, had persuaded Scott that he had found gold on the Salmon River. Scott and his backers chartered the sealing ship and former Canadian government ship, Neptune, to search for the reported gold. Leaving St. John’s in July, they arrived in Pond Inlet on August 1.

The third expedition was led by Captain Bernier and sailed from Quebec on July 29, on his schooner Minnie Maud. With plans for searching for gold on the Salmon River, they arrived at Igarjuaq (just east of the present hamlet of Pond Inlet) in late August.

The sources for information on these three gold rush expeditions are limited: Munn’s 1932 book, Prairie Trails and Arctic By-ways, and A.B. Tremblay’s account of explorations during Bernier’s 1912 expedition, The Cruise of the Minnie Maud (1921). There is no published account of Scott’s adventures.

Thus the recent discovery of a journal written in 1912 by one of Munn’s party, Ernest Francis Burchell, titled “Wrecked in Baffin Land,” provides a welcome new dimension to our limited knowledge of the Arctic Gold Rush. Burchell not only describes the loss of the Algerine, but also the interactions with the local Inuit, and the details of Scott’s explorations in Eclipse Sound and Admiralty Inlet. The following is just a tantalizing glimpse of the gold rush expedition based on Burchell’s journal.

Inuit hunters on the whaler Maud, Pond Inlet. July 1889. W. Livingstone-Learmonth. LAC # C88383.
Inuit hunters on the whaler Maud, Pond Inlet. July 1889. W. Livingstone-Learmonth. LAC # C88383.

“The 10th of July we sighted our destination, but were kept from getting up the inlet by a vast sheet of ice. We were not content with staying still though, so the ship was kept on along the edge of the floe. All at once we came upon a large crack, this seemed to lead in a direction somewhat like the one in which we wished to go, so the ship was headed in.
The Eskimo were on the ice to meet the ship and… it looked as though she had been captured by a mob of pirates. Most of the men had rims of whaler’s caps jammed down over their foreheads, some wore part cloth and part fur clothes… and laughed and grinned continually.”

On July 16, Munn and his prospecting party, Bill Woodley, Phil Cleary, and Joe McDonough, went ashore over the ice to the Baffin coast to prospect the area shown on the old map. “Shortly after they had left a bad snow storm blew up, and with the wind driving against the land, the outside pack of ice began to close on us… one spike of ice pushed clean through her side into the engine room.

I was about to go on deck when Capt. Bartlett came to me and said that she was sinking rapidly. Biscuit, rifles, cartridges, blankets, trunks, valises, dishes, tobacco, tents, packsacks, and other bundles of stuff were thrown on the ice.”

The second engineer, Edward Perg, climbed down into the boiler room to let off the steam, saving them all from injury as the ship would have been “blown to pieces.”

“She filled to the rail in thirty-five minutes, raised in the bow, then in the stern, then dived bow first, carrying away her foremast on the edge of the floe.

We all stood for a few seconds looking at nothing, saying nothing, but thinking a whole lot I guess. We put the tents up and dragged what had been saved into shelter. There was an Eskimo aboard and he offered to guide us ashore, a distance of some thirty miles and it just pelting snow.”

It took the first party 14 hours to reach the shore of Bylot Island at Button Point, a traditional Inuit camp and former whalering station. From there two men travelled 60 miles west to Albert Harbour where the Inuit hunters told them they would find a food cache left by Captain Bernier.

On July 26, Munn re-joined his men, his search for gold being completely unsuccessful, and then continued on to Albert Harbour and the Salmon River.

On the first day of August, Captain Woodney “noticed an odd looking speck away off in the ice. …When we could see it quite plainly with the naked eye, we let out in a roar together: A Ship! …The ship was the S.S. Neptune of St John’s Nfld. With Luckie Scott and his prospecting party.”

Inuk woman from Pond Inlet area, at the wheel of a ship. From the cover of Henry Toke Munn’s 1925 book, Tales of the Eskimo.
Inuk woman from Pond Inlet area, at the wheel of a ship. From the cover of Henry Toke Munn’s 1925 book, Tales of the Eskimo.

Scott promised the castaways that he would return to Button Point after his prospecting venture and take the men of the Algerine aboard before heading back south. Burchell and the others continued hunting ducks and narwhal and exploring Bylot Island, then paddled west to Albert Harbour and the old whaler’s station at Igarjuaq where they rejoined Captain Munn and the local Inuit.

The prospectors on the Neptune examined the reported gold placers at Salmon River, but they too found nothing. With no success in finding gold Scott turned to other ways of gaining back his investment, including hunting and trading with the local Inuit.

On August 22, Burchell and three companions boarded the Neptune at Albert Harbour for a trip to Admiralty Inlet. They travelled north up Eclipse Sound and around into Admiralty Inlet intending to trade with the Inuit at what is now called Arctic Bay.

“25th Aug. There was brisk trading for about an hour. We took aboard a ton and one half of Narwhale horns, and Walrus tusks; the Eskimo were given barrels of molasses, accordions, biscuit, rifles and ammunition, and tobacco in exchange.”

As they were returning to Pond Inlet they sighted a sailing vessel: “…some Eskimo came aboard and told us it was Capt. Bernier who was on the schooner and that he was going to stay there for the winter.”

On the last day of August, they “had a dance on deck with the Eskimos; the music was furnished by Eskimo accordion players.”  The next day they went ashore for the last time, embarked the rest of the Algerine’s crew, and Scott gave their Inuit helpers one of the ship’s whale boats as a parting gift. The Neptune then sailed back to St. John’s, with the crew and passengers of the Algerine on board, arriving in late September.

Bernier also prospected for gold at Salmon River, and also had no success. Instead, he traded with the Inuit of Pond Inlet and over-wintered at Albert Harbour. He left north Baffin in late August 1913 and arrived back in Quebec in late September with a valuable cargo of furs, ivory, and seal oil, but no gold.

I recently discovered that movie footage of the people and wildlife of northern Baffin Island, taken by a member of Scott’s expedition, had been made into a documentary film and shown in theatres in the United States and Canada in 1913. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many early films, the documentary no longer exists in the major film archives.

So there is today another “Arctic Gold Rush,” but now it is the search for historical gold: a film that captured the people of north Baffin over 100 years ago. When we find this documentary film in some obscure archive, we will have the oldest-known film showing the life of the Inuit of Arctic Canada.