Mina Benson was designated as a National Historic Person in 2018. This writer had never heard of a designated person! Tom Hanks once wrote, “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown”, this describes Mina perfectly. Mina was in good company among several famous people in Canada to qualify for this honor. The following lists several others most of us will recognize, with the year of designation in brackets. Archibald Lampman, Gore’s Landing Ontario, poet. (1920); Wilfred Laurie, prime minister. (1938); Frederick Banting, medical researcher, insulin, shared a Nobel Prize. (1945); John Franklin, Arctic explorer. (1945); Stephan Leacock, writer/humorist. (1946; Sir Sanford Fleming, inventor of Standard Time. (1950); Thornton & Lucia Blackburn, escaped slaves founded Toronto’s first taxi operation. (1999); John Kinder Labatt, businessman/brewer. (1971); Billy Bishop, World War 1, Victoria Cross recipient. (1980) and Jacques Cartier, paved the way for settlement. (2011).
Mina Adeline Benson, (1870-1956), was born on an apple farm on the Rice Lake Plains south of Bewdley Ontario on Lot 28, Concession 7 in Northumberland County. The daughter of Irish immigrants James and Jane Woods Benson. The sister of Robert William, Mary (Benson) Roberts, Annie (Benson) Ritchie, Rachel (Benson) McCall, Harriet (Benson) Underhill, George and Albert James Benson. Mina grew up in a vine covered frame house built by her father James on their apple farm on Cavan Road. James Benson, Mina’s father served on Hamilton Township Council in 1861 and was elected Reeve soon after. Mina received her primary education in a one room school in Bewdley and was a teacher for two years, teaching in nearby Cobourg. When the Benson timber frame home was dismantled in 1936, a neighbor commented “the timber from the home contained the finest pine I have ever seen.” Was it likely the lumber came from the Sackville saw mill on Cold Creek?
A historic plaque now stands on Cavan Road in front of the former Benson home. The plaque was erected in 1996 by the Township of Hamilton with the assistance of the Ontario Heritage Foundation and the Cobourg Historical society. The plaque reads: “Mina Benson (1870-1956, an early twentieth century Canadian female explorer of Labrador and writer, Mina Benson was born on this property, Lot 28, Concession 7, Township of Hamilton, County of Northumberland. From June 27 to August 27, 1905, Benson completed the ill-fated 1903 Labrador expedition of her late husband Leonidas Hubbard Jr., a distance of 576 miles from the Northwest River to Ungava Bay. Her maps, accepted by the American Geographical Society, were some of the first to record the Naskaupi River and George River Systems. In 1908, she published an account of her trip. “A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador.” She later remarried, had three children and moved to England where she died.”
Mina trained and graduated at the top of her class from the Brooklyn Training School for Nurses in 1889. She found employment as a superintendent of the S. S. Smith Infirmary, a small hospital on Staten Island, New York. This was where she met her future husband, Leonidas Hubbard, who she had nursed through typhoid fever. The couple were married in Manhattan N.Y. in 1901, and they shared common interests in boating, hiking and outdoor adventures. Leonidas, after recuperating, was hired by Outing Magazine and assigned a camping and writing trip through the South Eastern United States. They used this trip as their five month long honeymoon.
In 1903, Leonidas Hubbard began his ill-fated expedition into the unchartered interior of Labrador with Dillon Wallace and a Scots-Cree guide George Elson. Encountering a serious food shortage, because the team had lost so much time by missing a turn to their destination, Hubbard died of starvation while his companions were seeking help. In 1905, Mina mounted an expedition to complete her late husband’s work and because she felt Hubbard’s name had been blemished by Wallace’s account of the failed expedition. The Wallace book, “Lure of the Labrador Wild” was a commercial success in England and America. In 1905, Mina, both to complete Hubbard’s work, and as a memorial to her late husband, recruited George Elson, from Hubbard’s failed expedition and who had tried in vain to save his life. George brought along three other Metis Crees from James Bay and an Inuk from the North West River. Mina commanded the expedition and Elson and crew executed it. From the North West River, by canoe they travelled the shores of Grand Lake heading for the Naskaupi River. Although neither an experienced wilderness traveler nor a geographer, she completed her well planned expedition in record time.
Mina’s photographs and records of the interior landscapes and the people (the Innu), her maps of the region of rivers and lakes were published in 1906 were the basis for official maps of North America for decades, only updated with the later use of aerial photography! The only white man, John MacLean was known to have explored this area but he left nothing in terms of written descriptions.
Fortunately for history, Mina kept a meticulous diary, always had her camera at hand, and had meteorological and survey equipment as she planned to write a book about the expedition. She did pen a few articles, one was printed by Harper’s Magazine in 1906. Mina started giving ‘lantern slide’ lectures and met publisher John Murray who published her book “A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador” in both Britain and in Canada.
Mina Benson Hubbard later met Harold Thornton Ellis (1875-1935) in England and they returned to Canada where they married on September 14, 1908. she and her new husband again retuned to England where they raised three children: Muriel Jane (1909-2006), John Edward (1911-1961) and Margaret Shipley (1913-1998). Harold Ellis was a devout Quaker from a very Liberal family. Mina was never a Quaker but she became a pacifist and an anti-imperialist. Mina and Harold later grew apart and the marriage was strained. They divorced in 1924, and Harold Ellis left Canada to live abroad with a new wife. As her children grew to adulthood, Mina had considered returning to Canada, but decided to remain in London England. One of her trips back to Canada was to visit the grave site of her first husband Leonidas Hubbard buried in a New York cemetery. On arriving here she read a ‘letter to the editor’ of the New York Times newspaper in 1935 by an admirer of Hubbard who complained about the fact that there was no memorial on his grave. Mina was so immensely incensed that she organized not one, but three, memorials recording the achievements of Leonida, herself and George Elson their trusted Scot-Cree expedition guide.
In 1936, Mina now aged 66, was honored by an invitation to return to Canada to give a prestigious lecture about her expeditions through the wilds of Labrador. In 1956, Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis, now living in a retirement home in London and completely tired and worn out from her years of work, accidently stumbled onto a nearby railroad track and was struck and killed by a speeding train. According to one writer, “She was never destined to die in her own bed”.
Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis left her mark in Bewdley area: A historical plaque in her honor, a road named after her-Benson Road, running south from County road #9 (now Oak Ridges Drive south to Vimy Ridge Road and Edgar Benson Road, running between Eagleson and Fisher Roads in Hamilton Township. Three cemeteries with many of her family and relatives buried; Plainville United, Plainville Bible Christian both on Cavan Road and the Pioneer Cemetery, Minifie Road, Coldsprings. Over the years, this writer knew or worked with many of her descendants, but never knew their connection to the famous Benson name!