Before coming to the States from his home in Torbay, Newfoundland, my maternal grandfather Uriah J. Cole (“Pop”) was a fisherman and sealer, a “Swiler” as they were called, a certain enemy of PETA , killing white baby Harp Seals for their pelts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the eastern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador in the arctic area. In his heavy brogue, he told me of once having been lost at sea on an ice floe after a sealing ship had left him and several other men off to club and skin seals. His ship also offloaded coal and planned to pick up the seal pelts and the coal along with the men on the return trip several days later, but a fog set in and the ship passed close by without making contact.
When the fog lifted, the ship was gone. Pop said that when the ship passed just offshore they could hear the ship’s crew walking the deck and they sounded much closer than they probably were. One of the stranded hunters in his group went crazy in the fog, and tried to swim to the ship but was lost. After an unknown period of time (family legend stretched it into weeks, but at least several days) during which time Pop and the other survivors had to subsist on seal’s blood and keep warm by wrapping themselves in the pelts, Pop and the remaining men were rescued. According to family tradition, the rescuer was a Captain Robert Bartlett of Newfoundland.
I vividly remember Pop illustrating the drama of his rescue by using an upright finger to depict the mast of the sailing ship as it gradually emerged on the horizon formed by the back of his other hand. He was probably the first to demonstrate to me that the world was not flat.
Pop emigrated to Rutherford, NJ in the early 1890s, became a carpenter with his brother Sam, and built many houses in Rutherford. He lived at 143 Springfield Avenue all the rest of his life. He was Fire Chief of Rutherford Volunteer Fire Dept. Besides raising chickens and pigeons, he fished a lot, sharpened saws, repaired tools, and did roofing work.
It was noted, in National Geographic, Jan 1990, page 46, that Captain Robert Bartlett, who rescued Pop, sailed his steamer, the Roosevelt (image to right), with Admiral Peary, on his 1909 Polar Expedition. Cap’n Bob’s soundings and position determinations helped to confirm that Admiral Peary indeed had reached the North Pole. Pop told me clearly that the ship that rescued him had sails, but the early steamers did have sails.
The sealing ship that Pop worked on was obviously a steamer. He also said that his rescuer later brought him by ship to Hoboken, New Jersey (around 1892), where he settled in nearby Rutherford. Do those facts help pin down the time of this incident? The expansion of the steamer fleet continued until 1880, when 24 vessels averaging 320 tons each and carrying a total of 5,000 men participated in the seal fishery. To the left is an 1885 image of the sealing steamer SS Diana. For more information about sealing before the turn of the century, see the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage pages.
In 1998, my brother Dan and his wife Mary, and my wife Mary Lou and I visited Brigus, Newfoundland, and the home of Captain Bartlett. It is now a museum. I read his “Ship Log” but it was actually an autobiography. He mentions in the book that day-to-day ship logs were usually not preserved. Since Pop’s rescue probably occurred between 1880 and 1890 (possibly as late as 1892– my search of newspaper archives turns up no mention of the event), Bob Bartlett may have then been a few years too young to be master of his own ship. Born around 1875, Bob actually was made a master at about 17 years of age, in 1892. Therefore, while Bob may have been on the sailing vessel, he was probably not the Master at the time of Pop’s rescue.
According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador biography of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett, he sailed his ship Roosevelt on Peary’s arctic expedition in 1908. This younger Bartlett was born 15 August 1875 at Brigus, NF. He was the son of Captain William James Bartlett who was born at Brigus on 27 August 1851. In 1884 the elder Captain Bartlett was master of the SS Panther, then one of the few sealing steamers. Things do not add up nicely. Was the younger Bartlett indeed on that sailing ship, as an officer if not Master? Did his father William command Pop’s sealing vessel?