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Pioneers of Canada - Newfoundland & Labrador


Aboriginal Settlement

During the prehistoric period, a group of people referred to by archeologists as the Maritime Archaic lived in the area now known Newfoundland and Labrador from about 8000 to 3200 BCE. They were followed by the Palaeo-eskimo, who lived in the region from about 2800 to 600 BCE, and then the Recent Indians, present from about 2000 BCE to the historic period. On the Island, the Recent Indians were the ancestors of the Beothuk, and in Labrador, the Innu. The ancestors of the Labrador Inuit were the Thule. When John Cabot arrived in 1497, the Beothuk inhabited all parts of the island. While they did have some contact with the Europeans, they generally tried to avoid them, retreating inland. Without access to the coast, their food sources were limited, and they also began to suffer from European diseases, particularly tuberculosis. The best known Beothuk were two women, Mary March (Desmasduwit) and Shawnadithit, who were captured in 1819 and brought to St John's. They, like the remainder of their community, soon died.
Following Cabot’s arrival the Mi’kmaq, originally of the region now known as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé Peninsula and New Brunswick, began to travel the Gulf of St Lawrence in order to trade fur for European goods. Eventually some settled in Newfoundland. Today there is a Mi’kmaq community at Conne River. Like the Beothuk, the Innu and Inuit of Labrador also suffered upon the arrival of the Europeans. Among other challenges, they died from foreign disease, and their land base was encroached upon. However, there remain two Innu communities in Labrador today, Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. In 2004, the Inuit won the right to self-government. Called the Nunatsiavut Government, the settlement area is in Northern Labrador and includes five Inuit communities: the Nain, Hopedale, Rigolet, Makkovik and Postville.


At the end of the 10th century, Norse, including Leif Ericsson, made several voyages of exploration from Greenland to overseas lands to the west and southwest, and established a temporary settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows on the Great Northern Peninsula of the Island. In 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian navigator, sailed on a voyage of discovery for Henry VII of England and discovered new lands, which are believed to have been between Nova Scotia and Labrador, and included a "new isle." In 1500 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real made a more thorough exploration, and named several bays and capes along the east coast of the Island. In 1535–36 Jacques Cartier demonstrated that Newfoundland was an island by sailing through Cabot Strait as well as the Strait of Belle Isle. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed into St John's Harbour and claimed the Island for England. Europeans had been exploiting the rich cod stocks off the coast of Newfoundland since shortly after John Cabot's voyage. During the 16th century this was a migratory fishery with crews from ports in France, Spain, Portugal and England sailing each spring and returning in the fall with salt cod. Starting in the 1540s, Basques from France and Spain also carried on whaling operations on the south coast of Labrador. Although England was involved in some of the earliest voyages to Newfoundland, its role in the migratory fishery was small before the 1570s. However, war in Europe crippled the other nations' fisheries and opened up markets for English salt cod. By 1600 the English fishery had grown to include approximately 150 ships sailing mostly from West Country ports, and the coast from Trepassey to Bonavista had come to be known as the English Shore.

European Settlement

Relative peace in Western Europe in the early 17th century resulted in various attempts to settle the east coast of North America. Although it was well known for its fishery in many western European ports, the English were reluctant to use Newfoundland as anything more than a fishing colony. To this end women were initially prohibited from venturing to the island, as it was thought that their presence would increase the likelihood of permanent settlement. Keeping Newfoundland’s population flexible and transitory was in the best interest of the British Crown and its merchants as it could be used as a training ground for its naval officers, they owed little responsibility to those who visited the island and migratory fishing had already proven profitable. Nevertheless, women were eventually allowed to settle on the island once it became apparent that having small settlements could prove even more advantageous for the fishing industry. The first colony was founded by the London and Bristol Company at Cupers Cove (now Cupids) in Conception Bay in 1610, and in 1611, 40 men and 16 women arrived to start the settlement. By 1618 some of the Bristol merchants had established a second colony, called Bristol's Hope, at Harbour Grace. In 1621, George Calvert began a settlement at Ferryland, and Carbonear was settled by at least 1627. Over the next 50 years settlement gradually expanded and by 1675, there were 1,655 people living in 31 small fishing villages on the English Shore. The tradition of appointing the master of the first fishing vessel to arrive in a harbour each spring the "admiral" of that place dates back to the 16th century. However, despite popular belief, it seems that these "fishing admirals" usually restricted their activities to various fishery related matters. In the first half of the 17th century, the various proprietary governors, such as John Guy at Cupids and David Kirke at Ferryland, were responsible for maintaining order among the colonists; and during England's Interregnum (England was without a monarchy from 1649–60), Parliament appointed a commissioner, John Treworgie, to oversee the Island's affairs. However, despite various petitions from some of the more prominent settlers, little attention was paid to the Island's governance between 1660 and 1697. Certain elements in the West Country fishery objected to year-round settlement and some legislation was passed in an effort restrict it. In 1675 those opposed to settlement persuaded the English government to order all the settlers to leave. However, John Berry, the naval commander sent out to enact this policy, soon realized that any such attempt was futile and became a staunch defender of settlement, arguing that the planters were both an asset to the migratory fishery and a defense against the French. Two years later the English Privy Council recognized the settlers' right to remain in Newfoundland. In 1662, the first French colony was established in Newfoundland at Placentia. Over the next 20 years, a number of other settlements grew up, and by 1687 there were more than 600 French settlers in Newfoundland and on the nearby island of Saint-Pierre. War between England and France broke out in 1689 and continued with only a short respite until 1713. It was during these conflicts, known to the English as King William's War and Queen Anne's War, that the issue of who would control Newfoundland was finally decided. The French launched two devastating campaigns. In the winter of 1696–97 when a French force and some native allies, led by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, destroyed almost all the English settlements. However, the French failed to consolidate their victory; and by the summer of 1697, the settlements were re-occupied and a British garrison had been established at St John's. In the winter and spring of 1705 another French force, led by Jacques Testard de Montigny, destroyed many of the English settlements but it too was a short-lived victory and the English soon returned. Despite the devastation of the French attacks, the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, awarded Newfoundland to England and left the French with fishing rights to the French Shore, a section of the coast between Cape Bonavista and Point Riche. In 1762, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the French captured St John's briefly and used it as a base to attack other settlements, but the British soon drove them off. King William's Act, issued in 1699, recognized the rights of settlers but made no allowance for a settled government. Instead it confirmed the position of the fishing admirals and gave the commanders of the Royal Naval ships that accompanied the English fishing fleet the right to act as appeal judges. Over the course of the 18th century the Royal Navy was to become the dominant judicial and political force in Newfoundland. In 1729 Newfoundland's first naval governor, Captain Henry Osborne, was appointed. The naval governors sailed to Newfoundland each spring and returned to England in the fall. To maintain order during the rest of the year, Osborne divided the Island into six judicial districts, and justices of the peace and constables were appointed from among the local population. Twenty-one years later, the first court of oyer and terminer (hear and determine) was held at St John's with a jury made up of local residents. By 1776 a customs house was built at St John's to regulate trade and suppress smuggling, and in 1792 a Supreme Court of Judicature was established. The removal of the French in 1713 led to an expansion of English settlement beyond the original English Shore. Along the south coast, settlement spread into St Mary’s, Placentia and Fortune bays. Settlement also expanded northwest onto the French Shore. Fogo Island and Twillingate, both in Notre Dame Bay, were settled in 1728 and 1732 respectively. There were a few Irish settlers among the first colonists in Newfoundland but the majority was English. More Irish arrived in the latter part of the 17th century. These were mostly female servants, many of whom married local servants and planters. Some of the Irishmen among the soldiers stationed in St John's in 1697 also settled on the Island. By the 1720s Irish servants were arriving in Newfoundland in considerable numbers. This mixture of West Country English and Irish cultures has continues to shape the identity of the Island's peoples. By 1775 the population of Newfoundland had risen to nearly 12,000. Although the cod fishery remained the main industry, increased population led to a more diversified economy: logging, shipbuilding, trapping, salmon fishing and sealing all came to play a more important role, and the demand for a variety of skilled tradesmen increased. This period also saw the beginning of a seasonal fishery between Newfoundland and Labrador, and merchants establishing premises on the Labrador coast to collect furs and exploit the cod, salmon and seal fisheries. The French Revolution (1789–99) and Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) saw dramatic change in Newfoundland. The English migratory fishery ground to a halt and never fully recovered as the dangers of a trans-Atlantic crossing increased; and many West Country fishermen were pressed into the British Navy. Increased danger at sea also meant that many more people chose to remain on the Island, thus spurring population growth. The defeat of the French in Spain in 1811 reopened the markets in southern Europe for Newfoundland salt cod and initiated an economic boom that saw many new arrivals, especially from Ireland. By the time peace arrived in 1815, the Newfoundland population had risen to more than 40,000 and the fishery was firmly in the hands of the resident population.

Click here for the pioneers of the Labador Region