“Nutakuanan – the parable of Herman J. Koehler and his 1931 disappearance”

Peter Armitage

ABSTRACT for Newfoundland Historical Society Lecture

8:00 pm, September 27, 2007

Hampton Hall, Marine Institute, Ridge Road, St. John's, Newfoundland

 

 

To the extent that anyone knows anything about Herman J. Koehler, it is largely through accounts by John Michelin and Tshishennish Pasteen published in Them Days. Koehler died trying to cross Labrador from Kuujjuaq in 1931 along with two companions, fellow New Jerseyman, Fred Connell, and guide, Jimmy Martin, from Cartwright.

 

Tshishennish Pasteen, who met Koehler on the George River in late September 1931, described him as a stubborn man who would not accept direction from the Innu, and who died trying to travel the wrong way to the coast along the unnavigable Notakwanon River. Parts of John Michelin’s account of his 1928 trip with Koehler and his son, Hans, from Voisey’s Bay to North West River/Sheshatshu by way of the George River and Mishikamau are not flattering. His description of the full-moon altercations between Herman and Hans dominates the memories of Labrador old-timers and others who know the story.

 

However, these accounts do little justice to Herman J. Koehler who cannot be reduced to such a simplistic portrayal. He was an experienced outdoorsman with many trips across Labrador and northern Quebec under his belt, and his motivations for repeatedly visiting the territory are complex, and worthy of our investigation and appreciation.

 

What was the social and historical context for Herman J. Koehler’s fascination with Labrador and northern Quebec, and with the great outdoors in general? This is not an easy question to answer, but some clues can be found by reading his diaries, by looking at his friendships with other gentleman explorers such as William Brooks Cabot and Dillon Wallace, and his membership in utilitarian conservation organizations such as the Campfire Club of America. The “strenuous life” led by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (who inspired many American men to develop their masculinity through the pursuit of outdoor activities), the flourishing outdoor tourism industry on the Quebec North Shore in this period, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s promotional work in the New England states also likely played a role in shaping Koehler’s love for the north.

 

The various efforts to find Koehler, Connell and Martin, retrieve their remains from the George River area, and Jim Lynch’s investigation into the missing remains on behalf of Herman Koehler III, are presented as part of this story. Herman J. Koehler is a mystery man, and the efforts to find him make for a good detective yarn.