Three 18th Century Newfoundland Towns:

Trepassey, Trinity and St. John's

Newfoundland's status as a fishery, as opposed to a colony, hampered the development of any veritable towns on the island until the 18th century. At that time, economic, social and administrative changes would finally allow towns to evolve in Newfoundland. Trepassey, Trinity and St. John's are three towns that emerged in the wake of these changes.

The Colonization of Trepassey

French and English fishermen and planters occupied Trepassey throughout much of the 17th century because of its proximity to important fishing grounds. However, both would abandon when the Anglo-French wars began in the 1690s. By 1708, there were no inhabitants living there.

Trepassey, ca. 1770
Trepassey, ca. 1770
A plan of the harbour of Trepassey with Mutton and Biscay Bays. Surveyed by James Cook in 1767 and published in 1770.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

The French would never return. South Devonshire fishermen, not North Devonshire fishermen as before, came to Trepassey when the bank fishery began to replace the migratory ship fishery. The former was primarily controlled by firms based in Topsham, Exeter, and brought a new class to Trepassey: the "merchant-planters". Although the merchant-planters were not permanent settlers at Trepassey, they did exercise a great deal of authority over judicial and administrative matters. Aside from the odd "interloper" or "principal inhabitant" (clergymen, main planters, professionals, tradesmen), their power was unchallenged.

The population at Trepassey would normally expand in the summer with the arrival of bankers from England and Ireland, and shrink once more in the winter. But by the 1770s, permanent residents profiting from the recent growth in the bank fishery began to outnumber the temporary residents. Despite the mix of Irish and English settlers, most of the division in Trepassey society at this time stemmed from class differences. The merchant-planters and principal inhabitants were the most socially important class, followed by the planters, boat-keepers, migratory fishermen and servants.

The South Devonshire firms' association with Trepassey would come to an end in the late 18th century. The fishery had been unable to dispose of the record catch of 1788 and had been weakened by a period of unrest beginning in 1793. At the same time, the risk of trans-Atlantic crossings had greatened. The movement of goods and men came to a stop, and St. John's replaced Topsham as the overseer of business in Trepassey.

Eventually, the lack of economic diversity forced many English inhabitants to leave. A new wave of Irish Catholics arrived and the remaining English residents were religiously assimilated within a couple of generations.

The Colonization of Trinity

Further north, English fishermen had been visiting Trinity since the 16th century, but even as late as the 1740s its importance was certainly no greater than that of ports like Bonavista or Old Perlican. The population expanded in the summer to over two hundred but would fall to less than a dozen in the fall. Trinity was home to some early planters, but the duration of their settlement did not extend beyond one generation.

Trinity, ca. 1840
Trinity, ca. 1840
A view of the north-west arm.
From P. Tocque, Wandering Thoughts (London, 1846).

However, by the end of the 17th century, an increasing number of merchants were leaving their gear, and even fish, behind in Trinity Bay for the winter. Trinity's easily defendable harbour encouraged some, including the White family, to relocate. The presence of this merchant family may have stimulated settlement at Trinity, as the Whites' involvement in the migratory and salmon fisheries, the seal hunt, the supply trade, shipping and shipbuilding required extensive manpower. Poole supplied much of this manpower, although after 1720 a significant number of Irish servants were living at Trinity. So substantial was the population that by the 1720s local magistrates were appointed and by 1730 a church had been built.

It must be remembered, however, that the settlement was still a largely seasonal one; among those who did not return to England in the fall, many retreated to the interior to hunt, trap and cut wood. However, toward the end of the first half of the 18th century Trinity developed into the main trading and distribution centre for the northeast coast of Newfoundland. This is due largely to the success of Joseph White's company, which in turn drew many other firms to the Trinity area in the 1740s.

The population grew and Trinity even profited from the bank fishery's growth of the 1760s and 1770s, despite being further removed from the banks than Trepassey. Unlike this last, Trinity was able to rely on other economic activities to see it through the difficult times in the fishery at the end of the 18th century. When the local boat fishery failed in 1767, the more prominent merchants bought out, and even hired on, those who had gone bankrupt. When the bank and migratory fisheries were threatened by the wars after 1775, these same merchants were able to sustain the loss by reverting back to the inshore fishery and by concentrating on shipbuilding or general trade.

Trinity's social structure was similar to that of Trepassey: social class was more important than the Anglo-Irish split. The main differences, then, lie in the way each community dealt with the blows to the bank and migratory fisheries and the glut of 1788. As firms reduced their involvement in the fishery or withdrew altogether, Trepassey went into an economic rut. In Trinity on the other hand, independent traders and merchants emerged and saved the community by taking over the place of the great merchants. Trinity remained the economic heart of the region, and, as a result, would not come to rely on St. John's, as Trepassey had done, for quite some time.

The Colonization of St. John's

Before the 18th century St. John's was really no different from other communities on the island in terms of its number of inhabitants. St. John's harbour had been a meeting place for ships of various nationalities since the 16th century. Those seeking information on the fishery therefore considered it the ideal place. Sack ships appreciated its location and easy landfall.

St. John's, NL, about 1750
St. John's, NL, about 1750
Picture is toward the southwest. In the foreground are fishers spreading cod on a fish flake.
Unknown artist. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Col - 137, 3.01.008), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Yet, some criticized the harbour for being too sheltered. An unfavourable wind could prevent a ship from getting through the harbour's narrow entrance for days. Furthermore, the surrounding land was poorly suited for hunting or farming. Like Trepassey and Trinity, St. John's' future was determined by the events of the end of the 18th century.

St. John's became the centre of the bank fishery that had developed early in the 18th century. Ships heading for the banks first unloaded passengers eager for employment in the bye boat fishery at St. John's. Servants looking for a ride back to England, on the other hand, had to pass through St. John's to find a boat. Still, the resident population was quite low, as the prosperity of the migratory and bye bank fisheries pushed the local fishery into obscurity. Wars, too, played a role: settlement was precarious as long as the threat of attack remained.

In the end, however, the collapse of the inshore fishery actually led to increased settlement at St. John's. Some fishermen became tradesmen or dock hands while others opened shops, taverns and warehouses. When the English fishery expanded west of Placentia Bay and north of Bonavista, St. John's increasingly became a trade centre, as well as a meeting place for merchants. By the 1770s, St. John's was distributing food and supplies to other settlements.

Placentia, ca. 1780
Placentia, ca. 1780
View looking southwest toward Placentia.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Drawing by J.S.Meres. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2521).

This new trend continued as the town developed into an administrative centre. When naval officers, who had used the port for years as a base for their operations, began to perform the duties of governor, there was no need to relocate. Customs offices and courts came soon after. Fortifications were improved and garrisons were reinforced after 1770; the security attracted to St. John's many businessmen, as well as tradesmen and artisans, such as tailors, bakers and barbers, who had nothing to do with the fishery.

St. John's, like Trepassey, relied considerably on the migratory fishery; but, like Trinity, the town was able to prosper in the face of adversity. Competition between businessmen in St. John's attracted planters from other communities looking for lower prices. Female domestics were brought over by civil and military leaders. These women were soon working, marrying and settling in St. John's. The cultivation of land, the keeping of animals and the construction of homes, some elegant and luxurious, soon ensued.

The population climbed steadily in the latter half of the 18th century, and thousands of Irish immigrants arrived early in the 19th, either moving on to other centres or remaining in St. John's. Before long, the town had newspapers, health care facilities and libraries. It was becoming clear that St. John's would one day be capital of Newfoundland.

Royal Gazette, 1828
Royal Gazette, 1828
An early St. John's newspaper.
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL.

Version française