A Local Legacy, Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis Bewdley Ontario

Thanks to Benson Russell, a grandson of Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis, this post is an updated version of an earlier post of her local history in the Bewdley area (and beyond).  Benson commented about a few “small inaccuracies” in the original post and flagged them to the Ranger to counter the ‘Chinese whispers’ elements that can bedevil historical accounts.  For those, like myself this term was a mystery.  The term now called ‘Telephone’ is a situation in which a piece of information is passed from one person to another and is changed slightly each time it is told.  Thank you Benson and feel free to add any new information that keeps our posts as accurate as possible for our readers.

Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis 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 honour.  The following lists several others most of us will recognize, with the year of designation in brackets.  Archibald Lampman, Gores Landing Ontario, Poet (1920); Wilfred Laurie, Prime Minister (1938);  Frederick Banting, medical researcher of Insulin shared a Nobel prize (1945);  John Franklin, Arctic explorer (1945); Stephan Leacock, writer and 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);  Jacques Cartier, early French explorer (2011).

Mina Adelaide 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 (Wood) Benson.  The above gravestone picture, shows Mina Benson’s parents’ final resting place in the Plainville cemetery.  James Benson emigrated to Ontario after the famine from Ireland, Jane Woods was from Thorne in Yorkshire, United Kingdom.  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 farm on Cavan Road.  James Benson, Mina’s father served on Hamilton Township Council in 1861 and was later elected Reeve.  Mina received her primary education in a one room school in Bewdley and was a teacher for several years, taught school at Glourourim  briefly and in nearby Cobourg.  When the Benson timber frame home was dismantled in 1936, a neighbour commented “the timber from the home contained the finest pine he had ever seen”.  Was it likely the lumber was sawn at the nearby Sackville saw mill on Cold Creek?  Gravestone picture below shows  Mina Benson’s uncle William Benson, Plainville cemetery.

A historical 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 Women’s Way Through Unknown Labrador”.

Mina later trained and graduated at the top of her class as a nurse in 1889 from the Brooklyn Training School for Nurses and found employment as superintendent of the S.S. Smith Infirmary a small hospital on Staten Island, New York where she met her future husband, Leonidas Hubbard (1872-1903) a journalist and explorer who she had nursed through typhoid fever.  The couple were married in Manhattan New York 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 and used this trip as their five month honeymoon.

In 1903, Leonidas Hubbard began his ill-fated expedition into the uncharted interior area of Labrador with Dillon Wallace and a Scots-Cree guide George Elson.  Encountering a serious shortage of food, Hubbard died of starvation while his companions were seeking help.  In 1905 Mina mounted an expedition to complete her late husbands 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 in America.  In 1905, Mina, both to complete Hubbard’s work and as a memorial to her late husband, Mina recruited George Elson from her late husband’s expedition and who had tried in vain to save his life.  George brought along three other Metis Cree’s 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 576 mile expedition in record time.

Her photographs and records of the interior landscapes and the Innu people, 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 very little in terms of a description of the area.

Fortunately for history Mina kept a meticulous diary and as she always had her camera at hand, had her meteorological instruments and survey equipment as she planned to write a book about the expedition.  She did pen two articles about her expedition, one was printed by Harper’s Magazine in 1906.  Mina started giving ‘lantern slide’ lectures and having met publisher John Murray who published her book “A Women’s Way Through Unknown Labrador’ in both Britain and in Canada.  In 1927, Mina Benson Hubbard was made a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society for her many scientific contributions.

According to Benson Russell, Mina went to England to give a Royal Geography Society Christmas lecture (1907?) which was hosted by the Ellis family.  Harold Ellis helped her organize her diaries and get published, and they fell in love.  They went over to Canada fairly briefly to marry, then returned to England and produced their three children there.  Number three, Margaret, was my mother”.  The three children were 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 and they divorced in 1924 and Harold Ellis left England for Switzerland, to live with his new wife.  As her children grew to adulthood, Mina considered returning to Canada, but decided to remain in London England.  One of her trips back to Canada was to visit the grave of her first husband Leonida Hubbard interned 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 Leonidas, 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 expedition through Labrador.

According to her grandson Benson Russell, “She was living with us near Reading, Berkshire, where I was born in April 1956.  She went to stay with some friends in South Coulsden, Surrey to simplify the domestic situation.  The South Coulsden friends shared Mina’s interests in theosophy and ran a guest house.  She had dementia, and would often get disoriented while out walking in our village, and some kindly persons would get her back to our house.  In South Coulsden she had discovered a nearby quarry, which she enjoyed exploring, but getting there involved crossing the railway tracks.  She was doing that, oblivious to the approaching train, when it hit her”.  According to one writer, “she was never destined to die in her own bed”.

According to Benson Russell, “Mina’s three children, my mother, uncle and aunt stayed in the UK and all but a handful of her grandchildren remained there.  I moved to Ireland, and a couple of cousins ended up in the United States.  In Canada, any family connections would have been her siblings descendants and/or her uncle’s descendants”.

Mina Benson Hubbard Ellis left her mark in the Bewdley Ontario area.  A historical plaque and a road named in her honor.  Benson Road runs south from County Road #9 (now Oak Ridges Drive) south to Vimy Ridge Road and another road Edgar Benson Road running between Eagleson and Fisher Road near Coldsprings.  Edgar John “Ben” Benson (1923-2011), Mina’s great nephew was born in Cobourg and was a Federal politician, businessman, diplomat and a university professor.  There are three local cemeteries of Benson descendants:  The Pioneer Cemetery, Minifie Road, Coldsprings, has the gravestone of Mina’s  great niece Muriel (Benson) Campbell;  Plainville Bible Christian Cemetery, Cavan Road and the Plainville United Church, Cavan Road where many of the Benson descendants are buried.

Regards,   Ranger.

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