Sir George Calvert and the Colony of Avalon

Sir George Calvert (?1580-1632) had a successful career at the court of King James I, which reached its peak in 1619. That year he was appointed a secretary of state, and became a member of the privy council. Soon after this, though, his position at court crumbled, and early in 1625 he resigned as secretary of state. At the same time he made known his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The king made him baron Baltimore, the name coming from his lands in Ireland.

Interest Overseas

Retirement from court gave Calvert more time to devote to his interest in overseas plantations – in Newfoundland, and later, and more famously, in Maryland. He had already acquired land in Newfoundland, purchased from William Vaughan in 1620. This extended from a point just south of Aquaforte to Caplin Bay (now Calvert). The next year, 1621, his colonists set off for Ferryland under the leadership of Captain Edward Wynne (or Winne). It was to become one of the earliest permanent European settlements in northeastern North America and among the best capitalized, for Calvert was influential and wealthy.

High Quality Ceramic Bowl
High Quality Ceramic Bowl
Made in Estremos, Portugal, and imitating the Roman style, this bowl is a high quality Terra sigillata ceramic. It was found at Ferryland, and because of its value, probably belonged to a member of the upper class. It is an example of the wealth that existed in Ferryland during its early settlement, and indicates possible trading connections to southern Europe.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Once the colony was established, Calvert obtained a larger land grant. In April 1623 James I granted him "the Province of Avalon". Among other things, this gave title to a specific "portion of Land", a "lot" with specific bounds (from just south of Aquaforte to Petty Harbour, with all territory inland). Calvert had dominion over "Ports, Harbours, Creeks and Soyles, Lands, Woods &c." and "Fishing for all sorts of Fish". He recognized that the fishery would be a main support of his plantation and Ferryland remained, after its permanent settlement, a "fishing adventure". The Colony of Avalon was not created, however, so that Calvert could become involved in the fishery; he became involved in the fishery to further the development of his Newfoundland property.

There were about 100 men and women living at Ferryland by 1627, when Calvert – now Lord Baltimore – visited his colony in Newfoundland for the first time. He returned the following year, with his baronial household of 40 family and servants to inhabit the Mansion House that Wynne had built for him. It is quite possible that some of the colonists who arrived with Baltimore came from Ireland, where the family had been living for several years.

By 1629 Calvert had decided that he did not like his Newfoundland province. He blamed this change of heart on the miserable weather he and his wife endured in 1628 -1629. He complained to his friend Sir Francis Cottington that he had suffered much "in this wofull country, where with one intolerable wynter [winter] we were almost undone. It is not to be expressed with my pen what wee have endured." And he told King Charles I "that from the middest [middle] of October, to the middest of May there is a sadd face of wynter upon all this land, both sea and land so frozen for the greatest part of the tyme [time] as they are not penetrable, no plant or vegetable thing appearing out of the earth untill it be about the beginning of May nor fish in the sea besides the ayre [air] so intolerable cold as it is hardly to be endured ... my howse [house] hath beene an hospital all this wynter ...."

Leaving Newfoundland

But the economic climate was probably as much a factor as the "sadd face of winter". It was, surely, no coincidence that when Calvert withdrew from his Newfoundland adventure the fishery was in severe decline, the trade having dropped to about a third of its level in the balmy days of the early 1620s, when the Colony of Avalon had been planned. Also, Calvert was forced to spend much of his time and money organizing a local naval war with the French privateer de la Rade.

At any rate, Lord Baltimore obtained another province in the Chesapeake and departed Newfoundland in 1629, satisfied "to committ this place to fishermen". The 30 or so fisher folk he left behind included men, women and children and they were among the very earliest permanent English settlers of what is now Canada. The community survived and eventually flourished as a permanent settlement, invigorated every summer with the arrival of hundreds of migratory fishermen.

Religion in the Colony of Avalon

The principles upon which Lord Baltimore launched his brief Colony of Avalon have considerable importance, beyond the scale of the settlement itself. When he came to Newfoundland in 1627 he brought with him two Roman Catholic priests, one of whom remained at the Colony of Avalon through 1629. This was the first continuous Roman Catholic ministry in British North America. Despite the severe religious conflicts of the period, Calvert secured the right of Catholics to practice their religion unimpeded in the new colony, and embraced the novel principle of religious tolerance, which he wrote into the Charter of Avalon and the later Charter of Maryland. The Colony of Avalon was thus the first North American jurisdiction to practice religious tolerance (and this despite the fervent intolerance of the colony's Puritan minister, Erasmus Stourton). An ornate baroque cross excavated by archaeologists attests to the importance of religious practice in the colony through the 17th century, even after these men of the cloth had returned to England.

Roman Catholic or Anglican Ornate Iron Cross
Roman Catholic or Anglican Ornate Iron Cross
This cross is made of iron and some yellow metal with traces of gold gilt work. There are areas of the cross that appear to be where gems may have been. It was found in Ferryland in association with George Calvert's settlement. Experts have been unable to positively identify if the cross was used in the Roman Catholic or Anglican church.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.


Early colonists later testified that Calvert built "places of succour and defense for shipps". One of these defended harbours was the Pool at Ferryland, and recent archaeological investigations underwater and along the shore have located remains of a masonry quay-side. By 1630 the Ferryland waterfront probably resembled stone-built English West Country ports like Dartmouth, as much as it did the wooden-built seasonal stations elsewhere on Newfoundland's English Shore. Calvert was prepared to make a large capital investment in infrastructure that would last, and would need little maintenance. His son, Cecil Calvert, claimed that his father had spent over £20,000 on the Colony of Avalon (about $4 million today). This strategy is practical only if the investor retains control over his investment. Lord Baltimore himself feared that he might lose his investments "for other Men to build their Fortunes upon". This actually happened when he abandoned Ferryland. If anyone profited from Calvert's far-sighted investments it was Sir David Kirke, who took over the property in 1637, and his heirs. Calvert had left his Mansion House and the rest of his Ferryland establishment in the hands of agents. In 1638 this was one William Hill, whom David Kirke invited to vacate the premises and retire "to the north side of the harbour".

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