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History of Newfoundland

A brief introduction to Newfoundland's history and where the province's hidden wonders fit into it

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The Indigenous People of Newfoundland and Labrador

It is believed the first people to arrive here were people of the Maritime-Archaic tradition who arrived in southern Labrador around 9000BP to 7000BP and on the island around 7000BP. The Maritime Archaic’s way of life was based heavily on resources from the sea and from hunting and gathering. However, by 5000BP the Maritime Archaic and their culture had completely disappeared.

Around 4000BP, the second group of people named the Early or Pre-Dorset Paleo-Eskimos arrived in Northern Labrador and then travelled to Newfoundland shortly after. However, like the people before them, they disappeared from the region by 3200BP. The next culture to appear is the Groswater people who lived in Newfoundland and Labrador between 3000BP to 2200BP. This trend occurs again with the Dorset Paleo-Eskimos who arrived here around 2000BP before either leaving or becoming extinct around 1000 to 500BP.

Around 800 years ago, the Thule Eskimos, descendants of the Inuit, arrived in Labrador from Greenland and by the time Europeans began expropriating the land of North America, the Innu and Beothuk had also come to call Newfoundland and Labrador home.

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First Europeans

The first people from the east to travel to Newfoundland were the Vikings who arrived here in 1000CE. The only confirmed and authenticated settlement of these Norse travellers in North America is at Lanse Aux Meadows on the Northern Peninsula.

This settlement was short lived however and there was not another mass emigration into Newfoundland until the 1600’s when thousands of English, French, and Portuguese fishermen begin travelling to Newfoundland in order to fish the island’s bountiful cod stocks.

In the early 1600s the English attempted to set up multiple colonies on the east coast of Newfoundland, with the first in Cupers Cove (later named Cupids). The colony did not survive long and after several rough years was abandoned in 1632. Another attempted settlement was the Colony of Avalon (modern day Ferryland) established in 1621. Many reasons were to blame for the failure of these colonies which include harsh weather, poor soil conditions, and conflicts between the French and English.

The French also began establishing colonies on the island in order to better protect their fishing grounds. The most significant of these colonies was setup in Plaisance (or in English, Placentia) where the French built a permanent settlement protected by a fort on Castle Hill.

French and English Relations

Historically the tensions between the French and English were always high and the two countries were constantly at war. Because of this their wars followed them across the Atlantic and caused havoc for the settlers and fishermen here. But after a long war and very little progress was made in establishing settlements in Newfoundland.

After the French’s defeat in 1713 and the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, the English established claim to most of the Avalon peinsula while the French were confined to the fishing grounds located on the north coast of the island which came to be known as Le Petit Nord. The french names of La Scie, Baie Verte, and Fleur de Lys are reminders of the Frenches presence at the time.

**An old iron forge in La Scie and a strange trees which were imported from France. Sap used to heal blisters that fishermen would experience from working around salt water

But this was not the end to French and English conflicts in Newfoundland. Conflicts would continue until the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris which stripped all French land claims from Newfoundland except for the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

The treaty prohibited the French from settling in Newfoundland but allowed them to continue fishing on the north coast and the Northern Peninsula. This continued until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 when the “French Shore” was changed to occupy the west coast and Northern Peninsula.

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19th Century Growth

Over the next half of a century the migratory fishery slowly diminished as more and more people began settling in Newfoundland.  During this time as well, Newfoundland saw a large growth rate with Irish settlers who settled in many of the previously French occupied settlements.

This expansion caused many problems for the island’s only indigenous people, the Beothuk. More people settled near the coast and lands that had traditionally been used by the Beothuk to survive. The Beothuk were already suffering from new diseases brought over by the European settler and now starvation was starting to occur because they were being forced out of their hunting and fishing lands.

By 1800, fewer and fewer Beothuks survived until in June, 1829 the last known Beothuk, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis in St. John’s. Before she passed away however, Shanawdithit shared extensive knowledge of her peoples culture and way of living and as well as the struggles they went through due to European contact.

Becoming a Self-Governing Body

Up until 1832 Newfoundland did not have any formal legal statute as it was not a legal colony. But with an increasing population and outcry by the Newfoundland people, the British government established a representative government system in 1832. Plagued with problems the representative government was replaced by a responsible government in 1855.

In the 19th century Newfoundland’s economy also changed. Greater population and new technology meant people began to move away from the traditional inshore cod fishery and began participating more frequently in the seal, Labrador, and Grand Banks Fishery. The 19th century also saw more people arriving from Ireland, France, Acadians and the Mik’maq of Cape Breton who had already hunted on the island for generations.

But the population increase also meant there was a demand for more work and the fishery was unsustainable in the number of jobs it could supply. This in part led to the construction of the Newfoundland Railway. Politicians believed having a railway that would cross the province would allow new industries to grow such as mining, forestry, and agriculture and also would lead to more trade with Canada through Nova Scotia.

Newfoundland Railway and New Industry

In August 1881, a narrow-gauge (3'6") railway line began to be constructed in the east end of St. John’s on what is now Empire Avenue. While it had a bumpy start and would become a financial nightmare, the Newfoundland Railway would also be a symbol of pride and nationalism for the people of Newfoundland. Stretching from St. John’s to Port aux Basque when completed the railway would also consist of multiple branch lines connecting the communities of Bonavista, Carbonear, and Placentia and while doing so open up the islands interior to possible development and industrialization.

At the end of the 1800s mining and forestry were gaining in popularity. Small mining operations were occurring in many communities and coves around the island the provinces forestry industry was starting to get underway. The forestry would soon grow into the successful Grand-Falls and Corner Brook Mills and the mining industry would result in the creation of thousands of jobs in places such as Buchans, Baie Verte, and Bell Island.

The end of the 1800s also brought with it destruction when in 1892, most of St. John’s was destroyed in a fire. The fire was not the first with severe fires occurring in 1816, 1817, 1819, and 1846. The result of this is very few buildings begin preserved in the city before this time.

Financial Trouble

In 1907 Newfoundland was granted Dominion status, meaning it would have more freedom from British rule and law. While this brought great pride to the nation it also brought with it great financial debt as a result of the railway and bank crash of 1892. This was exhuberated after the sacrifices Newfoundland made during World War I and the debt it collected along the way.

The effects of the stock market crash in 1929 were felt immediately in Newfoundland. Fish prices crashed and with it the Newfoundland economy fell into disarray. This in combination with Newfoundland’s already crippling railway and war debt forced the Newfoundland Government to make a deal with Britain to suspend self governance and allow Britain to have full control of the Dominion of Newfoundland in exchange for Newfoundlands debt. This made Newfoundland one of the only self governing bodies in history to willingly give up its independence and democracy.

Following this in 1934, the Commission of Government was created consisting of a governor and six officials appointed by the British Government; three from Newfoundland and three from Britain. 

World War II

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 brought great change to Newfoundland and Labrador. Britain was losing the Battle of Atlantic. German U-boats were conquering and destroying many supply ships and military convoys en route to aid them in the war. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill knew that Britain would need warships in order to defeat the Germany in the North Atlantic. Meanwhile, the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, began looking at ways it could defend the United States if Britain were to fall.

As a result, on September 2, 1940 the two countries made a deal known as the "Destroyers for Bases Agreement". In exchange for 50 old "Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson class" destroyers the United States was granted 99 year British land leases on the island of Newfoundland.  Newfoundland’s strategic location in the North Atlantic meant it was a critical refuelling point for aircraft and ships travelling to Europe and a critical location for defending North America.

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This resulted in dozens of United States air force bases, naval stations, radar stations and other essential military bases being constructed immediately after the agreement was signed. The Canadian Government also saw the strategic importance of Newfoundland and Labrador and began constructing air force and army bases in the province as well. This brought with it, an influx of jobs and money into the crippling Newfoundland and Labrador economy. 


After the war, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador had to decide what type of government they wanted to carry them into the second half of the 20th century. To this a referendum was held where citizens could vote for three possibilities: continue the commission of government under British rule, return to responsible government like it was before 1932 or join confederation with Canada.

When the first referendum occurred in June 1948, the people voted for Responsible Government. Only 14% of people voted for the return of the Commission of Government however and in order to pursue a majority out come (51%), a second referendum was held in July with only two options: confederation or responsible government. This time 52% of people voted in favour of confederation and as a result on March 31, 1949 Newfoundland became the tenth province of Canada.

Confederation advocate, Joseph Smallwood became the first Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Smallwood’s government would change Newfoundland and Labrador greatly. One such change was the resettlement program implemented in 1954. Between 1954 and 1974 approximately 27,000 people were relocated, and 250 communities were abandoned.

The Smallwood government was also fixated on industrializing the province and creating a more employable work force. And while some of the initiates started by this government were a huge success (ie. Lafarges were coated with scandals and poor management leading to their failure. 

During the Cold War many of the American and Canadian military bases built during World War II continued operating. Newfoundland’s strategic location meant that once again it was the site of military and spacecraft radar stations used to monitor and patrol the skies over the Atlantic of possible Soviet Union aircraft and missiles. But as technology advanced and tensions between the two nuclear powers eased, so did the military presence in Newfoundland.

A Modern Province

The rest of the 20th century in Newfoundland and Labrador focused around the diversification of its economy and people. Newfoundland and Labrador saw the creation of many new industries during this time as well such as the aquaculture industry in Bay D’espoir, hydro developments in central Newfoundland and in Labrador, new tourism industries with the implementation of provincial and national parks, and many new mining opportunities such as the nickel mine at Voiseys bay and the iron ore mine in Lab City/Wabush.

The most pronounced change to come was in 1979, oil was first discovered off Newfoundland’s shores, causing an economic boom in the province. However not even the oil boom was enough to mitigate the effects of the moratorium placed on northern cod stocks in 1992. While compensation packages were given to those effected, Newfoundland and Labradors long history focused on the sea came to an end almost overnight.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s long history and rich culture makes it unlike anywhere else in the world.

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Cardoulis, J. (1990). A Friendly Invasion: The American Military in Newfoundland, 1940-1990. St. John's, N.L.: Breakwater.

Letto, D. (1998). Chocolate bars and rubber boots: The Smallwood industrialization plan. Paradise, Nfld.: Blue Hill Pub.

Heritage NL.

O'Neill, P. (2003). The Oldest City: The story of St. John's, Newfoundland. St. Philip's, N.L.: Boulder Publications.

Smallwood, J. R., & Pitt, R. D. W. (1981). Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John's, N.L.: Newfoundland Book Publishers.

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