19th Century Migration

Newfoundland and Labrador experienced high rates of immigration during the first half of the 19th century and high rates of emigration during the latter decades of the century. The movement of people into and out of the country was frequently in response to shifting economic conditions and employment opportunities. While the country's fishery flourished during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), for example, large numbers of immigrants arrived to participate in the saltfish trade; as the fishery fell into decline during the 1880s, steady streams of emigrants left Newfoundland and Labrador for economically prosperous areas in North America and elsewhere.

Lithograph of St. John's, NL, 1892
Lithograph of St. John's, NL, 1892
By end of the century, the country had a population of approximately 220,000 people.
Artist unknown. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (R9266-1657), Ottawa, Ontario.

Internal migration was another common form of human mobility in 19th-century Newfoundland and Labrador, as individuals and families moved from one part of the country to another in search of employment and other opportunities. These moves occurred on both a seasonal and a permanent basis – some migrants regularly moved to one part of the country for part of the year before returning home, while others permanently moved to new communities. Whatever reasons lay behind the moves, 19th -century migrations played an important role in shaping Newfoundland and Labrador's settlement patterns and in expanding its permanent population.


Newfoundland and Labrador had a population of about 19,000 at the start of the 19th century, with the largest concentrations occurring in Conception Bay and St. John's on the Avalon Peninsula. By end of the century, the country had a population of approximately 220,000 people living in more than 1,000 settlements scattered across the island and Labrador. While climbing birth rates contributed much to the growing population, immigration was another important factor, particularly in the early decades of the 1800s.

Most of the early immigrants were from southwest England or southeast Ireland. Both regions maintained regular trade routes with Newfoundland and Labrador as a result of the centuries-old migratory fishery, which made it easier for people to move across the Atlantic. Small numbers of immigrants also arrived from elsewhere in the British Isles, including Scotland, the Channel Islands, and areas outside of southeast Ireland and southwest England. Immigration rates peaked during the early decades of the 19th century, when the country experienced much economic prosperity. By the end of the 19th century, immigration had slowed, but continued to be significant in that new peoples from places such as China, Lebanon, and Eastern Europe, had begun to arrive.

The Napoleonic Wars gave the colony an almost total monopoly of the international saltfish trade, which in turn generated much employment for local residents. At the same time, poor harvests, the failure of local industries, and overpopulation created many social and economic hardships for people living in England and Ireland. Many chose to migrate to Newfoundland and Labrador, where a booming economy and low population made the colony capable of absorbing new immigrants.

Settlement patterns in Newfoundland and Labrador were greatly influenced by the country's trade, with most immigrants settling in or near mercantile centres at St. John's, Ferryland, Trinity Bay, Conception Bay, Notre Dame Bay, Bonavista Bay, St. Lawrence, Harbour Breton, Bonne Bay, Forteau, and Battle Harbour. While English settlements were dispersed across Newfoundland and Labrador, most Irish immigrants remained on the Avalon Peninsula, with smaller numbers moving to other regions within the colony.

Bonne Bay, before 1892
Bonne Bay, before 1892
Photograph showing Bonne Bay and an unnamed community. Image is from the French journal Le Monde Illustré, dated April 4, 1891.
Courtesy of Kurt Korneski.

Scottish immigrants also arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador during the 19th century. Lowland Scots migrated to the colony early in the 1800s to take advantage of the booming fish trade. Scottish merchants established premises on the Avalon Peninsula, largely at St. John's and in Conception Bay, to become involved in the provisions and fishery supply trades. Prominent Scottish firms included Baine Johnston and Company, John Munn and Company, and Walter Grieve and Company. Scottish artisans, tradesmen, and labourers also arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador to obtain employment in the country's various commercial centres.

Later in the century, Highland Scots living at Cape Breton immigrated to Newfoundland's west coast in search of land. Peak migrations occurred between 1840 and 1860, when many Scots feared Nova Scotia's confederation with Canada (which occurred in 1867) would result in increased fees for landholders. This was compounded by problems with land tenure arising from absentee landlordism and by a shrinking availability of good farm land in Cape Breton. Some Acadians also left Cape Breton during the 19th century to settle at St. George's Bay on Newfoundland's west coast and prosecute the cod and herring fisheries there; most migrated between 1820 and 1860.

Baine Johnston & Co., St. John's, n.d.
Baine Johnston & Co., St. John's, n.d.
Prominent Scottish firms included Baine Johnston & Company, John Munn & Company, and Walter Grieve & Company.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 03.04.011), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Chinese, Lebanese, Jewish, and immigrants of other ethnicities also arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador during the 19th century, but in significantly smaller numbers than those from the British Isles. Most arrived as a result of poor economic and social conditions in their home countries, or to take advantage of employment and other opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Many settled in larger centres on the Avalon Peninsula and on Bell Island where they often established private businesses or obtained work in the mining industry and fishery.


Although Newfoundland and Labrador people moved to other countries for a wide range of reasons throughout the 1800s, emigration occurred on the largest scale during the last two decades of the century when the cod fishery fell into severe decline and caused widespread economic hardship. While some people left their homes permanently, others worked in foreign countries on a seasonal or temporary basis before returning home. Most emigrants moved to Canada or the United States, although smaller numbers also settled in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Higher wages and more varied social services attracted many Newfoundland and Labrador people to America's growing metropolitan areas. Emigrants frequently settled in the New England states, with the largest concentrations occurring at Boston and other Massachusetts cities. Between 1885 and 1905, the number of Newfoundland and Labrador people living in Massachusetts jumped from 2,851 to 10,583. Some Boston stores began offering a variety of Newfoundland and Labrador staples by the turn of the century, including hard bread, salt pork, and corned beef. Most emigrants to New England were semiskilled and service workers who found employment as fishers, teamsters, factory workers, shoemakers, servants, and waiters. Other emigrants also found work on America's west coast and in Alaska, where they engaged in the seal and whale hunts, as well as in the halibut and other fisheries.

Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, ca. 1930
Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, ca. 1930
Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia was a popular destination for Newfoundland and Labrador emigrants looking for work in the town's coal mines and steel plant during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Photographer: Andrew Merrilees. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (e003719186), Ottawa, Ontario.

Canada was another popular destination for emigrants from Newfoundland and Labrador, largely because of its close proximity, tolerant immigration policy, availability of jobs, and lack of any language or major cultural barriers. The number of Newfoundland and Labrador people living in Canada jumped from 4,596 in 1881 to 12,432 in 1901. Approximately half of all emigrants lived in Nova Scotia, where it was easy to find work in the province's steel plants and coal mines and to make frequent trips home.

Internal Migration

Internal migration was another strategy many Newfoundland and Labrador families adopted to compensate for poor earnings from the fishery and other problems associated with living near the coast. Seasonal migration was a common feature of Newfoundland and Labrador society and allowed people to harvest fish and other coastal resources in the spring and summer before moving inland to cut wood, hunt caribou, and engage in other activities during the winter. Another form of seasonal migration took place in the summer months, as fishers left their island communities to harvest cod off the Labrador coast.

Some individuals and families also made permanent moves within the country, often to escape overcrowding in larger centres or to take advantage of employment opportunities. As mines opened at Bell Island, Tilt Cove, and elsewhere on the island in the late-1800s, many people moved to these areas to find work. The forest industry also attracted migrants to Botwoodville, Norris Arm, Glenwood, Millertown, Terra Nova, Benton, and various other locations to work at mills and wood-cutting operations. As St. John's and other centres on the Avalon Peninsula grew in size during the 19th century, many people also moved west to live in rural areas where there was less competition for space and resources.

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