French migrations to Newfoundland and Labrador began in the early 16th century and lasted for approximately 400 years. Most migrants were fishers who visited the colony on a seasonal basis to catch cod in inshore and offshore waters. They predominantly came from port towns in Brittany and Normandy, located on France's northwest coast, where merchants organized annual voyages to engage in the transatlantic fishery. Although most migrants remained overseas on a seasonal basis, smaller numbers also permanently settled in Newfoundland and Labrador, largely at Plaisance (before 1713) and along the island's north and west coasts.
Illustration by Tina Riche, 1997.
In addition to migrants from France, Acadians also arrived on the island in the late-18th and mid-19th centuries. Most emigrated from Cape Breton and settled in western Newfoundland. Unlike the French migratory fishers also active on the island's west coast, Acadian settlers were principally farmers by trade who typically migrated in family groups. Many acquired land in St. George's Bay and the Codroy Valley, where some of the island's richest soils existed.
Before Europeans learned of Newfoundland and Labrador's rich cod stocks in 1497, France and many neighbouring nations relied heavily on the Scandinavian cod fisheries and the North Sea and English Channel herring fisheries. A strong demand for fish existed in France, where a sizeable Roman Catholic population could not eat meat for up to 153 days a year for religious reasons; many people instead turned to fish as an alternative source of protein. Fresh fish, however, was expensive and not always available in large quantities at the marketplace. As a result, saltfish grew in popularity as a cheaper and more readily available foodstuff for meatless days.
From Bénédict Henry Révoil, Pêches dans l'Amerique du Nord (Tours : A. Mame et Fils, 1878) 135.
Newfoundland and Labrador's plentiful cod stocks provided an important supplement to fisheries in European waters. Cured cod not only sold better than the less tasty herring, but preserved well and was easy to handle and transport. France, with its sizeable domestic market for saltfish, was one of the earliest nations to engage in the fishery at Newfoundland and Labrador. The first documented French fishers arrived in 1504 and by the 1520s French ports regularly dispatched between 60 and 90 vessels each year. Involvement in the fishery steadily grew in the coming decades and by the mid-18th century up to 10,000 French fishers migrated to the island annually.
Most came from Brittany and Normandy, where numerous merchants engaged in the fish trade. Norman ports involved with the fishery included Rouen, Dieppe, Honfleur, and Granville, while Breton ports included St. Malo, and St. Brieuc. Merchants recruited fishers from surrounding areas to sail across the Atlantic each year. Migrants were typically single, young, and relatively poor men hoping to better their economic situations by working in the fishery. Most lived within travelling distance of St. Malo and other important ports, often coming from such villages as Cancale, St. Coulomb, Châteauneuf, Pleudihen, Pleuguenec, and Dol.
Watercolour by Charles W. Simpson, 1928. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (Acc. No. 1990-324-8).
Merchants at La Rochelle, a port on France's west coast in the Bay of Biscay, also sent migratory fishers overseas, often recruiting workers from Brittany and nearby villages. Migratory Basque fishers from southwest France also engaged in the fishery and were joined by Basques whalers during the 16th century, who hunted right and bowhead whales in the Strait of Belle Isle. Up to 30 Basques whaling ships annually arrived at Labrador, with each vessel carrying a crew of up to 130 whalers. Depleted whale stocks, however, forced this industry into decline by the early 1600s.
A shift occurred in the pattern of French migration to Newfoundland and Labrador during the early 19th century. Normandy's economy improved after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), when the emergence of better fertilizers and other developments made farming in the region more profitable. This in turn decreased the need for young men to supplement their farming income and fewer joined the migratory fishery. Brittany, however, did not experience a similar increase in prosperity and continued to provide merchants and shipowners with a large and readily available supply of workers for the migratory fishery.
The majority of French migrants lived in Newfoundland and Labrador on a seasonal basis only. Most remained overseas during the spring and summer, and returned to their home ports in the fall. Early migrants engaged in the offshore bank fishery often made two trips across the Atlantic each year – one in January or early February, and a second in April or May; most vessels returned to France by the end of September.
Smaller numbers of francophone migrants also settled permanently at Newfoundland and Labrador between the 16th and 20th centuries. Most came from France, Acadia, and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. Settlers from France were largely migratory fishers who decided to remain on the island permanently instead of returning to France at the end of the fishing season.
Several French colonies existed on the island before 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht forbade permanent French settlement of Newfoundland. The largest was Plaisance (Placentia) on the Avalon Peninsula's southwest coast, which the French settled in the early 1660s. Others included St. Mary's, St. Lawrence, Fortune, Burin, Red Island, Paradise Sound, Gaultois, Grand Bank, Trepassey (which had a mixed French-English population), Hermitage Cove, Mortier Bay, Merasheen, and Harbour Breton.
Even after 1713, small numbers of French migrants settled permanently on the island. Some had official permission to live at French fishing stations during the winter to care for premises and equipment; caretakers migrated from both France and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, located about 20 kilometres off the Burin Peninsula. Fish workers based at St. Pierre also migrated seasonally to Newfoundland during the 19th century to participate in the cod fishery. They were principally active on the island's west coast, at Codroy, Red Island, St. George's Bay and Port-au-Port.
Also present were French migrants who covertly settled on the island after 1713 for a wide range of reasons. Some were deserters from the fishery who found working conditions too demanding, others wanted to avoid the mandatory five-year military service that French citizens faced after about four to five years in the fishery, and a very few may have moved to Newfoundland and Labrador after completing their fishing and military service simply because they enjoyed living there.
Acadian families also arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador during the 18th and 19th centuries, with most migrating from Margaree, Cheticamp, Mabou, and other areas in Cape Breton. England acquired Acadia in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht and evicted French settlers from the colony in the 1750s. Some uprooted Acadians moved to France, while others scattered along North America's east coast. Relatively small numbers sought refuge at Newfoundland and Labrador, where at least two families settled in the Stephenville-St. George's area by 1770.
The largest influx of Acadians arrived on the island between 1820 and 1860. Most came from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the Magdalen Islands and settled at St. George's Bay, which had an Acadian population of approximately 1,200 by 1830. Many migrants were farm workers in search of land; others came to work in the local cod, herring, and lobster fisheries. The Acadian presence at St. George's eventually grew so large that the Roman Catholic Church appointed a French-speaking priest to serve the region by 1850. Acadian settlement stretched from the Port au Port Peninsula into St. George's Bay and into the Codroy Valley by the end of the century. Settlers from France and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were also present in the region, but in smaller numbers.
French seasonal and permanent migration to Newfoundland and Labrador greatly declined after 1904, when the French and English governments agreed to the Anglo-French Entente, or entente cordiale, in which France gave up its territorial and fishing rights at Newfoundland and Labrador in exchange for British territory in Africa. After 1904, France based its North Atlantic fishing operations at St. Pierre and Miquelon instead of the island of Newfoundland. The entente cordiale slowed French migration to Newfoundland and Labrador, but also made it possible for French settlers living covertly on the island to publicly declare their French origins without risking deportation or recruitment into the French navy.
Although settlers still arrive at the province from Quebec, France, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and other French-speaking areas, francophone migrations into Newfoundland and Labrador do not occur on the same scale or with the same regularity that they did during the era of the migratory fishery.