August 2010

Mining Lore

Soulis Joe’s lost silver: The legacy of a Newfoundland prospecting family

By C. Baldwin

Portrait of Mi'kmaq Man 

Portrait of Mi'kmaq Man photographed on board the French naval vessel Sésostris, Newfoundland, 1859

In 1969, Ted Keats and his son Allan showed up in Gander, Newfoundland, at the newly opened Noranda office — one of the largest mining and exploration companies in Canada. They met with Ron Hawkes, the district geologist, and explained to him that there was silver in the area.

The story went that Keats’ grandfather, a trapper by the name of Soulis Joe, had come across a silver deposit in the bush but had never revealed its location to anyone. Keats’ brought out a silver sample to prove that it was not just a story — Soulis Joe’s original nugget had become something of a family heirloom.

Ron Hawkes was intrigued, but he knew that Noranda would need more to go on than a silver nugget and a family story. The company was looking for prospectors, however, and Keats’ and his son were offered the job. They were given a canoe, supplies and $250 a month, and were flown to upper Terra Nova River.

The father-and-son team had to rough it in the backcountry — they were alone and had to hunt for their own food. It was a life that Ted Keats knew well. He had begun working in the woods at an early age, and had tried his hand at prospecting for the first time when he was 12, looking, of course, for his grandfather’s lost silver.

Keats’ and his son  were sure that Soulis Joe’s silver was out there, and now that they were prospecting for Noranda, they were intent on finding it.

The family tree

The Keats family traces its ancestry back to a Mi’kmaq man from Nova Scotia named Soulis Joseph — a name given to him by the French priests to whom he had spent several years in servitude. He was later sold to the captain of a merchant ship who called him Black Soolie — a reference to the low status that he shared with the other black slaves on the ship. In 1760, when the ship docked at St. George’s Bay, Newfoundland, he escaped into the wilderness.

Soulis Joseph made a home for himself in the Mi’kmaq settlement of Conne River on Bay d’Espoir on Newfoundland’s south coast. He became a trapper, as did his sons and grandsons.

In the mid-1800s, a young man named Soulis Joe from the same family left Conne River and headed into the interior in search of good trapping territory. He travelled far, becoming an expert trapper, woodsman and guide. He also built a reputation for finding mineral deposits, seeking them out whenever he checked his trap lines. Eventually he made his most famous discovery, returning to Port Blandford on Bonavista Bay after a hunting trip, carrying a high-grade silver sample. He claimed to have found a quartz vein deep in the bush that contained a massive silver showing.

He told few people about his find, but the story of his silver grew, and people became determined to find it. Soulis Joe, however, was not interested in giving away his secret, especially not to anyone whose attitude he did not like, and especially not to a white man. He was known to play tricks on people and lead them astray. He became an expert at losing those who tried to follow him into the bush in hopes of finding his silver.

The elusive deposit

The silver had eluded prospectors ever since. Ted and Allan Keats were hoping to change this in 1969 while prospecting for Noranda. But after a month and a half in the backcountry, Soulis Joe’s silver remained elusive, and father and son emerged from the bush without finding it. They did not come out empty-handed, however, but found several other impressive samples that proved invaluable to Noranda. More than that, a family legacy of prospecting had begun.

Keats and his son had become an excellent team and the two discovered the Point Leamington and Tally Pond deposits together. Keats worked for Noranda throughout the 1970s and 80s, and was involved in the Burnt Pond and Duck Pond discoveries. When it came time to retire, Keats was working beside all four of his sons — Allan, Fred, Calvin and Suley — and he opted to remain as camp cook to be close to them. When Ted Keats died on February 4, 2010, he was described as an independent, industrious, adventurous and generous man.

Each of Keats’ sons has made a name for himself as a prospector, and together they have racked up an impressive list of finds. They also married into the Stares, Crocker, Barrett and Smith families, all involved in mining and prospecting. Now, Keats’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are involved in the industry, four of them as CEOs.

Twenty-one members of the five families over four generations have been involved in prospecting and mining, and in 2007 the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada awarded the Keats-Stares family the Bill Dennis Prospector of the Year Award.
Soulis Joe’s legacy remains as strong as ever. Although his silver remains lost, he has come to inspire what has been called Newfoundland’s first family of prospecting.

Soulis Joe eventually settled down in the Bonavista Bay area, where he married and spent the rest of his life hunting, trapping, guiding and prospecting. A few modest landmarks bear his name: Soulis Brook flows out of Soulis Pond near Benton on the way to Gander, and another Soulis Pond lies west of Conne River, his original home on the south coast. Even though he has left his mark on the map of Newfoundland, his gravesite is unknown. His final resting place, just like his silver find, remains a mystery.

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