Exploration and Settlement

The region of Newfoundland and Labrador was the first stretch of North America's Atlantic coastline to be explored by Europeans, but it was one of the last to be settled in force and formally colonized. The Norse arrived from Greenland about 1000 A.D. and established settlements here during the following century. There is legendary evidence that other Europeans chanced upon the island during the Middle Ages. John Cabot certainly reconnoitered the area and claimed it for the Tudor monarchs of England in 1497, and West European fishermen began to visit the Grand Banks during the summer months on a regular basis shortly thereafter.

Portugese Ship
Portuguese Ship
An ocean-going vessel, likely similar to other Portuguese ships which visited the Grand Banks during the 16th century.
Photo taken from W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America (Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, ©1971) 24. Detail from the Livro das Armadas, a set of drawings made after 1566, housed in the Academia das Ciências, Lisbon. Courtesy of the Academia das Ciências, Lisbon.

It was not, however, until the second half of the 18th century that a considerable population came to live permanently in Newfoundland and to expand by natural growth; and it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the formal institutions of church and state were securely planted. This odd contrast between the early importance of the region to these European maritime empires and the late date at which it was effectively occupied is one of the defining features of the province's history.

There were numerous different settlements established on the Newfoundland coast, chiefly by the English and French, during the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of them, such as Cupids and Ferryland, were formally planned; others were composed of over-wintering fishermen and developed on their own.

Baltimore Coat of Arms, Ferryland
Baltimore Coat of Arms, Ferryland
This coat of arms belonged to Sir George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, who established a colony at Ferryland in 1621. Calvert himself came over in 1627 but abandoned his possesion after only two years because of the harsh winter climate. Later he founded another settlement in Maryland.
Photo courtesy of John de Visser. Taken from Harold Horwood and John de Visser, Historic Newfoundland (Toronto: Oxford University Press, ©1986).

In no case, however, did governments lend much support, and the combination of thin soil and naval raiding prevented these settlements from growing at the same pace as European colonies on the mainland. Only after 1760, did a combination of circumstances rooted in the disruption of European fisheries as a result of the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars make Newfoundland seem like an attractive place to settle permanently. Migrants from England's West Country and from southeast Ireland moved here during those years, and created the basic population mix that persists in Newfoundland and Labrador to the present day.

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