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James Patrick Howley (1847-1918)
James Patrick Howley, born in 1847 into a prominent Irish Roman Catholic family in St. John’s, lived all of his life in his native Newfoundland. His legacy is both cultural and scientific, ranging from his definitive study of the Beothuk culture to the creation of the institution that became Newfoundland’s first public museum. As well, he spent 40 productive years pioneering the geological, mineralogical and topographical exploration of the island.
In 1867, at the age of 19, Howley entered the service of the Newfoundland Government as a clerk in the office of the Colonial Secretary. One year later, he was hired as an assistant to Alexander Murray, who had been appointed first Director of the Geological and Topographical Survey of Newfoundland in 1864. Trained under Murray, Howley’s work as an assistant and then as Director of the Geological and Topographical Survey of Newfoundland between 1868 and 1909 produced much of the scientific basis for understanding the geography of the island’s interior, geology and mineral deposits.
Upon retirement in 1909, Howley lectured, wrote and represented the colony overseas as the recognised authority on its geology, mineralogy, natural history, geography and human history. He is regarded as the creator of the institution that became the Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador and served as its first curator, overseeing the consolidation and expansion of the core collections.
His fundamental study of the Beothuk, an Amerindian culture distinct to Newfoundland, is perhaps his best-known legacy and remains the cornerstone of all subsequent research on the topic. The Beothucks or Red Indians -The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (1915) is a classic in the field of Aboriginal history and ethnography in North America and presented Howley’s decades-long research on the Beothuk, whose last member, Shanawdithit, had died in 1829.
Howley’s completed memoirs were not published before his death and lay forgotten in storage boxes for 60 years. Excerpts were published in 1966 as Reminiscences of James P. Howley: Selected Years. Since then, the full document, titled Reminiscences of Forty-two Years of Exploration in and about Newfoundland, as well as Howley’s fine photographs of Newfoundland’s interior and his exploration work have been made available as digital documents. They serve as a valuable record of Newfoundland’s earliest scientific explorations from a personal perspective and constitute a unique historical record of late 19th and early 20th century Newfoundland life beyond St. John’s.
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Hon. Catherine McKenna Parks Canada History and Archaeology
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