Newfoundland and Labrador's cod fishery was the major pull factor attracting French settlers to the colony from the 16th through 19th centuries. Each year, thousands of workers from coastal France sailed across the Atlantic to participate in the migratory cod fishery and, to a lesser degree, in whale hunts in the Strait of Belle Isle. The French were among the earliest Europeans to migrate to Newfoundland and Labrador, with the first documented fishing trip taking place in 1504. Many French workers remained overseas on a seasonal or temporary basis only, although some also settled on the island permanently.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 186.
While the fishery attracted French migrants to Newfoundland and Labrador, military developments unfolding in Europe largely determined where they settled. Until 1713, the French were able to use any part of the colony they wished and established several communities on the island, the most prominent of which was Plaisance (Placentia) on the south coast. However, a series of wars and agreements between France and Britain from the early 1700s until 1904 limited the nature and location of French settlement. The earliest restrictions came with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which stipulated that French fishers at Newfoundland could only work on the stretch of coastline linking Cape Bonavista with Point Riche. Subsequent wars and treaties in the coming decades further altered French involvement in the fishery and settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Abundant cod stocks in Newfoundland and Labrador waters attracted the interest of several European nations soon after John Cabot's 1497 voyage. For the next 400 years, international fishing fleets crossed the Atlantic annually to engage in the lucrative migratory fishery. France was one of the earliest nations to prosecute the fishery, with its first documented vessel arriving in 1504.
It quickly became profitable for French merchants and fish workers to take part in the migratory fishery because a large market for cod and other fish already existed in France. The country's sizeable Roman Catholic population observed up to 153 meatless days a year and often chose fish as an alternative source of protein. Many families preferred salt cod over other types of seafood because it was more affordable than fresh fish, yet tastier than pickled herring and other preserved fish available locally. The French government also favoured the fishery as a means of training potential recruits for its navy.
As a result, French involvement in the fishery steadily increased during the 16th and 17th centuries and growing numbers of migrants travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador. Most remained on the island on a seasonal or temporary basis only, arriving in the spring and staying for one or two fishing seasons before returning home in the fall. Migrants were generally single and relatively poor young men hoping to better their economic situations by joining the migratory fishery for a year or more.
The vast majority of French migrants settled on the island of Newfoundland, although smaller numbers of Basques fishers and whalers from southwest France also used portions of southern Labrador. Most French fishers, however, came from Brittany or Normandy in northwest France and concentrated their efforts in two areas of Newfoundland: the “Petit Nord” on the island's north coast, linking Bonavista with the tip of the Northern Peninsula, and the “Côte du Chapeau Rouge,” which extended west from Cape Race along the island's south coast. The English, meanwhile, were active on Newfoundland's east coast between Cape Bonavista and Cape Race.
In addition to French seasonal and temporary settlers were those who chose to live permanently at Newfoundland and Labrador. Most arrived during the 17th century and settled along Newfoundland's north and south coasts, in such places as St. Mary's, St. Lawrence, Fortune, Burin, Paradise Sound, Gaultois, Grand Bank, Trepassey (which had a mixed population of French and English), Hermitage Cove, Mortier Bay, Merasheen, and Harbour Breton.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 184.
The largest and most prosperous French settlement was Plaisance on the Avalon Peninsula's southwest coast. France established a garrison and colony there in the early 1660s to provide shelter and protection for the country's fishers while at Newfoundland. The location appealed to government officials for a variety of reasons: Plaisance had a sheltered and relatively ice-free harbour, as well as large beaches on which workers could dry fish; further, its close proximity to the English Shore made the colony an ideal base for French military operations. By 1685, Plaisance's population numbered 153 permanent residents, which included men, women and children, and 435 seasonal fishers. Its resident population gradually increased in the coming years, and in 1710 reached a peak of 248 settlers – 62 men, 54 women, and 97 children.
Warfare in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries dramatically altered the nature of French settlement at Newfoundland and Labrador. The first of these was the War of the Spanish Succesion (1702-13), in which England and its European allies successfully forced France to withdraw from the Spanish Netherlands and the Spanish possessions it had seized in Italy.
The Treaty of Utrecht ended the war of the Spanish Succession and stipulated, among other things, that France surrender some of its North American claims to Great Britain. The treaty granted sovereignty over Newfoundland to England and forbade France from establishing permanent settlements on the island. However, it also permitted the French to fish in season on Newfoundland's north coast between Cape Bonavista and Point Riche, an area that became known as the French or Treaty Shore.
As a result of the treaty, France abandoned Plaisance and its other colonies on the island. French settlers could remain in Newfoundland if they swore an oath of allegiance to the English Crown, but most did not and instead moved to the French-controlled Île Royale (Cape Breton) or elsewhere. French migrants continued arriving at the Treaty Shore each spring, but the overwhelming majority settled on a seasonal basis only and returned home in the fall. After 1713, Île Royale became a centre for a French fishery on Newfoundland's southwest coast. Each year, French fishers left Île Royale and crossed the Cabot strait to Cape Ray and nearby areas to fish, hunt, and trap furs. Although French and British authorities opposed this activity, which was in violation of the Treaty of Utrecht, business from French and Anglo-American traders allowed the settlement at Cape Ray to survive.
The 1783 Treaty of Versailles between France and England again altered the French presence at Newfoundland by shifting the Treaty Shore west, to the stretch of coastline linking Cape St. John with Cape Ray. France could maintain seasonal fishing stations on the Northern Peninsula and along the island's west coast, but was still not allowed to establish permanent colonies on the island.
Nonetheless, some French migrants did settle permanently at Newfoundland and Labrador after the Treaties of Utrecht and Versailles. Some had official permission to settle on the island, including families of winter caretakers from France or St. Pierre who guarded French fishing stations after migratory fishers returned home in the fall. Others settled covertly on the island. These included deserters from the fishery who found working conditions too demanding, and those wishing to avoid the mandatory five-year military service that French citizens faced after about four to five years in the fishery. Although settlers dispersed along the Treaty Shore, the largest concentrations of French migrants after 1763 settled on the Port-au-Port Peninsula.
Joining settlers from France and St. Pierre were Acadian families who migrated from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the Magdalen Islands to Newfoundland's west coast in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most arrived between 1820 and 1860, although smaller numbers also migrated in the late 18th century, after England evicted Acadians from Cape Breton in the 1750s. Newfoundland's west coast appealed to Acadians for a variety of reasons: land was plentiful, a small francophone presence already existed in the area, there were few governmental, military, or police authorities who would interfere with daily routines, and the region boasted rich agricultural soils as well as cod, salmon, herring, and lobster fisheries. Most migrants settled in the St. George's Bay area, which had a population of approximately 1,200 Acadians by 1830.
French use of Newfoundland again changed in 1904, when France entirely abandoned its rights to the Treaty Shore as part of the Anglo-French Entente, or entente cordiale. Under this agreement with England, France surrendered its territorial and fishing rights at Newfoundland 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.
French seasonal and permanent settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador greatly declined after 1904, although the entente cordiale did make it possible for French residents living covertly on the island to publicly declare their French origins without risking deportation or recruitment into the French Navy. Today, some descendents of the 18th- and 19th-century French and Acadian settlers are still living in the Port-au-Port Peninsula, which in 2001 had a francophone population of approximately 1,000. Other French-speakers are concentrated at St. John's and in western Labrador, with many having ties to Quebec, Europe, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and elsewhere.