Nfld. & Labrador

Tracing the legacy of Aunt Lydia in Labrador: A Land & Sea archival special

From the 19th-century writings of Lydia Campbell to Them Days, Labrador women worked to preserve stories from times past.

From 1984: Work to keep Labrador's past alive through storytelling

Lydia Campbell, known as Aunt Lydia to many, was the first known native-born Labradorian to record her daily life in written English. (Land & Sea)

Lydia Campbell was a rarity in her time: a Labrador woman who could both read and write.

She and her two sisters were taught by her father, who arrived in Labrador from England in the early 1800s, using a Church of England prayer book.

Being out around Lake Melville, called Eskimo Bay during Aunt Lydia's time, is a way to connect with her ancestor, Jean Crane says. 'I can be Lydia when I'm here.' (Land & Sea)

From her mother, an Inuit woman, Campbell learned to live off the land and survive in the harsh but beautiful area around Lake Melville. She trapped and fished, hunted partridge and snared rabbit, and worked into her senior years to support her family.

"We never stop work unless we are eating or sleeping in the night, or are singing or reading prayers," she wrote in 1894, when she was 75.

"On Sunday, we have a spell on that happy day."

We know what life was like for the woman affectionately called Aunt Lydia, because she wrote it all down.

Her writings, preserved in a notebook at the request of a visiting missionary, give a glimpse into life in Labrador during the early days of European arrival.

'We're quite proud of Lydia'

Artist Jean Crane, a descendant of Aunt Lydia, lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay but enjoyed heading out to the area around Lake Melville and enjoying the land of which Campbell had been so fond.

"I can be Lydia when I'm here," Crane said of her ancestor, who was the first known native-born Labradorian to write in English about the area. 

Them Days records and preserves the stories of daily life in Labrador's past. (Land & Sea)

Snowshoeing, painting and getting lost in the times Campbell wrote about, spending time on that land was a connection to a woman who was a source of pride for Crane and her family.

"We believe that she had a great philosophy on life and that she was a very fine person," she said. 

"We're quite proud of Lydia."

Them Days

Another of Aunt Lydia's descendants, Doris Saunders, was also continuing the woman's traditions through her work as the editor of Them Days, a magazine that preserves the stories of Labrador's past.

Read in homes across Labrador and beyond, Them Days records the stories of the land's elders, saving them just as Lydia Campbell's stories had been saved.

Them Days editor Doris Saunders attributed her love of the history of daily life in Labrador to her ties to Lydia Campbell. (Land & Sea)

The work fostered the connection Saunders felt to Aunt Lydia, one that she had long held and that she saw in her own father.

"I'd love to see where her grave is," she said of the woman, who was unheralded in her day and buried in an unmarked location.

"I think that is something that would bring tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat."

Watch this archival episode of Land & Sea from 1984

For more archival Land & Sea episodes, visit the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador YouTube page.

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