Life in the Avalon wilderness

Better than work which enslaved a person

Published on July 31, 2013
 One of the rivers flowing out of the Avalon wilderness. This one finds the sea between Ferryland and Renews. — Submitted photo

You can imagine the cold shivers that shot through the four youths who, in a miserable huddle in the woods behind Ferryland were suddenly surrounded by a band of navy men. You can imagine their terror as they were marched stumbling out of the woods and pushed aboard a naval frigate in the harbour. Finally, some of Peter Kerrivan’s men had been caught. Finally the navy could exact revenge for being made the dupes of that elusive band for so long. The time is the mid-1700s. If you were not nobly born, or did not have the kind of rare talent to project yourself forward in business, politics, the arts or the church, you were little more than a beast of burden. In what was then the newly-minted “United Kingdom,” as elsewhere in Europe, your role in life was likely preordained even as you screeched for milk. Newfoundland was, of course, a huge fishing station. Behind its coves and beaches, it was unknown and largely unvisited country. To put the times in context, the Americans had not fully begun their push for independence; France has not yet embarked upon its revolution and Reign of Terror. It was a time when England’s Royal Navy had no problem securing recruits to man its intimidating fleet. It was necessary only for a naval vessel to send a team of men ashore in a small and unsuspecting town, and forcibly round up able-bodied men. The press gang was feared. It tore families apart. It deprived the harvest or the fishery of needed workers. And under the sanctity of law it robbed a man of his freedom. The episode which follows is from what the late Harold Horwood called “our unwritten history.” To my reading, it has many earmarks of wishful thinking. Based on what appears to be some small segment of fact, it seems to have grown into a legend as elusive and as misleading as the footpaths through the Southern Shore goowithy. The price of freedom One thing all sane humans have in common is a high regard for personal freedom. Once pressed into “service” aboard a naval ship, or even taken on by a fishing master, a man’s love of freedom would likely have grown to the point of obsession for he had essentially become enslaved. If an Irish “youngster” (a young man usually brought out to Newfoundland for the fishery) jumped ship here and hid himself in the woods, he would have been free, but his freedom would have been dearly purchased, requiring unending vigilance and a great resourcefulness just to stay alive. His best chances would have been to find a sympathetic community. The name Peter Kerrivan (also Kerevan) has come down to us as the lead figure in what was to become a band known as The Masterless Men. That band is said to have endured for a generation in the lonely and desolate centre of the Avalon Peninsula. If that is true, the authorities must have acquired a certain tolerance. Consider that through so many Newfoundland winters, a group living in the wilderness would have required many fires ... and where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Having fled his ship and, perhaps, not looked up until he found himself plunging inland from Ferryland harbour through the brush and bog, Kerrivan became the nucleus of a tightly, interdependent group of freedom-seekers. They quickly learned to embarrass and frustrate the law as search parties scoured the wilderness to try and make “justice” prevail. For the most part, the law is said to have succeeded only in discovering abandoned tilts which they burnt before returning to the coast. Kerrivan’s group lived off wildlife — caribou especially, but also trout from the many brooks, rivers and ponds in the region. And they must have maintained contact with sympathetic people in the community for, if their story is true, they were “tipped off” whenever a search party was en route. That kind of sympathy may well have arisen among those of Irish extraction, all too happy to frustrate the English who had rarely demonstrated any sense of consideration to their kind. There was one time, however, when the inexperience of four young followers proved fatal. Several years after Kerrivan’s initial flight, these four young men suddenly found themselves surrounded by a search party in the woods. They were taken back to civilization to face the consequences of their rash behaviour. Harold Horwood (1923-2006), whose writerly efforts produced much of what we know about The Masterless Men, wrote this 47 years ago: “A hasty court martial was convened on the deck on an English frigate, the ship’s company summoned to witness punishment and the outlaws strung up to a yardarm by their necks ... “You can still hear an orally-preserved account of this ancient incident from Howard Morry in Ferryland. Mr. Morry’s great-grandmother, who lived in Aquaforte, was taken as a small child on a visit to Ferryland, and there saw the four boys hanging from the yardarm as an example to all who might be tempted to flout authority.” The tolt in back of Ferryland/Renews is known as the Butter Pot. Horwood described it as “a solitary peak of red and grey stone far off to the west, beyond the marshes and the low forests of stunted spruce.” Down the Southern Shore earlier this month I was told that unless I was an exceptional hiker I’d need an ATV to get in there to Kerrivan’s tolt. It rises almost 1,000 feet, “a veritable mountain among the mole hills of the Avalon Peninsula,” Horwod wrote. It was this tolt that was critical to the survival of the Masterless Men, for it was their lookout and when authority was spotted, they could melt into the wilderness — even as far over as the shore of Trinity Bay — and wait for the situation to cool. When renowned Canadian writer Farley Mowat was on the Southern Shore some 40 years ago in the interest of what was to become “the boat who wouldn’t float,” he experienced a little “evidence” of the Masterless Men, pretty much as a tourist must-do. Mowat wrote: “Young Peter Morry, age ten, took me on long, secret walks into the country over trails made by the Masterless Men.” Peter is today a medical doctor, I do believe. The band’s collective ingenuity was said to be such that they even cut maze-like trails that went nowhere, serving only to corral and confound any pursuers. The Newfoundland Encyclopedia says that only scant evidence supports the tradition of the Masterless Men. It says in 1789 a petition from Ferryland residents was sent to the governor requesting military defence against an unlawful group of men. Charles Pedley’s 1863 history of Newfoundland puts this event at 1787. In any case, here is what Pedley writes in response to a statement by one of our Governors at the time that everything here was flourishing, peaceable and quiet: “To the latter favourable feature there seems to have been an exception during the preceding winter. From a memorial (defined in the 1750s as “a writing delivered by a publick minister of state about part of his negotiation, concern or the treaty he managed”) purporting to come from ‘the magistrates, principal merchants, traders and inhabitants of the district of Ferryland,’ to which 19 names are subscribed, His Excellency learnt that there had been such manifestations of a riotous, lawless spirit that the memorialists were in fear for their lives and property and considered themselves in absolute need of military protection.” Pedley puts the problem down to religious animosity. I tend to think, in reading his history elsewhere, that if there was even a hint that this had been prompted by a lawless band living in the woods behind Ferryland, he would have alluded to it. It is known that subsequent to this petition, more than 100 Irishmen, including a Thomas Kervan, were convicted of riotous and unlawful assembly, although many appeared to be absent from the hearing.” (Source: Encyclopedia of Newfoundland & Labrador). I believe that what we have today is a story nurtured by many. Given that the Irish would most likely have been delighted to see British authority made to look foolish, I can certainly see the tellers and re-tellers embellishing Peter Kerrivan’s resume. Note: I have not yet read it, but 12 years ago, Eldon Drodge wrote a novel “Kerrivan,” published by Jesperson. Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: