St. John's, 1500-1815

There is an old and improbable legend that John Cabot (Zuan Caboto) entered St. John's harbor on June 24 (the Feast of St. John the Baptist), 1497. This is almost certainly untrue, but whoever its first European visitors were, St. John's has been a busy harbour since the early 1500s. It appears on maps dating from the early decades of that century, and sources record fishing vessels there from Normandy, Brittany, and Portugal as early as 1527. It is likely, although uncertain, that the name "St. John's" was given to the harbour by Basque or Portuguese fishermen in the early 1500s, as it is labeled "Säo Joäo" (St. John's) on a Portuguese map from 1519. The large, sheltered harbour, proximity to Europe, and rich fishing grounds all made St. John's attractive to European fishermen. Although its status as the "oldest city in North America" is disputed and open to interpretation, St. John's is undoubtedly one of the oldest European settlements in the western hemisphere.

St. John's and the Early Fishery

The fishery was the primary lure for European visitors to Newfoundland. During the 1500s, fishermen from England, Normandy, Brittany, the Basque region, Spain, and Portugal all exploited Newfoundland waters and used St. John's harbour. By the early 1600s, however, Spanish and Portuguese fisheries at Newfoundland had essentially collapsed and the French and the English became the primary players in the fishery, with their main harbours at Placentia and St. John's, respectively. The English fishery truly began to develop in the early 1600s, coinciding with the first attempts by the English at proprietary colonization. The English fishery was successful and profitable, and while the colonization attempts had mixed results, they did encourage some settlement from 1610 onwards. Most English fishing activity (based mostly from West Country ports) was limited to the English shore, roughly the area between Bonavista and Trepassey.

The English West Country
The English West Country
As early as the 16th century, English West Country fishermen visited Newfoundland harbours such as St. John's.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998. Based on research by Wendy Churchill.

Although the fishing industry at Newfoundland remained largely migratory until the late 18th century, St. John's had emerged as an important settlement and port by the mid-1600s. There is evidence of permanent habitation by the mid-1620s, and of improvements to the harbour by 1665, indicating that St. John's had a committed population that was willing to make investments. This permanent population was the largest on the English shore by the 1670s, and St. John's began to develop into a commercial and administrative centre.

The harbour served as a supply depot, provided shelter during storms, and was a secure gathering place for vessels to meet in the fall before traveling back to Europe in convoy, a common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect ships from enemy vessels, privateers, or pirates. While the migratory nature of the fishery kept the permanent population of the town relatively small until the early 19th century, St. John's still developed into the primary supply and administration centre for the English shore, and after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, for the island.

Forts and Garrisons

Frequent conflicts between England and France (as well as Spain and Holland) in the 17th and 18th centuries, in addition to the menace of pirates, meant that Newfoundland was constantly under threat. Royal Navy vessels accompanied the fishing ships to Newfoundland beginning in the 1650s, and the "Newfoundland Squadron" remained an important part of the British military presence. However, St. John's was sacked by Dutch Admiral de Ruyter in 1665, which prompted St. John's residents to petition to fortify the town. The British government eventually agreed, and Fort William was built in the early 1680s. Nevertheless, St. John's was sacked again by the French under Pierre le Moyne D'Iberville in 1696. Fort William was not taken by D'Iberville, but the garrison was unable to protect the town and was forced to surrender. A 1705 siege by the French under Daniel d'Auger de Subercase again failed to capture Fort William but destroyed much of St. John's, and in 1708 another attack by the French led by Joseph de Monbeton de Brouillan de Saint-Ovide overwhelmed and destroyed the fortifications.

The vulnerability of Fort William to fire from Signal Hill was demonstrated when the French captured the fort in 1762, forcing the British to retake it shortly afterwards. Both the French and British utilized the high ground of Signal Hill to bombard Fort William. Fort Townshend was built from 1775-1779 to overcome this limitation and further secure the town from French attacks, as well as from American privateers. In addition to batteries on Signal Hill and in the Narrows, including Fort Amherst, these forts remained in St. John's until the British garrison was withdrawn in 1870. The fortifications successfully deterred at least one attack on St. John's by the French in 1796, but the destruction of nearby communities such as Petty Harbour and Bay Bulls demonstrated the limitations of fixed fortifications in protecting a scattered population.

Map of St. John's, 1784
Map of St. John's, 1784
Map shows Fort Townshend (left) and Fort William (top right).
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library (Coll., Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Although the forts' primary purpose was to defend the town (or at least provide a secure location where residents could shelter in the event of a raid), the military garrison also played an important role in the economic and social life of St. John's. The military forces were stationed there year round, and while their numbers were small (from 150-400 or so) they represented a significant portion of the town's permanent population and contributed to the local economy. The garrison could distribute supplies during hard times and assist in disaster relief. This was sometimes necessary because, despite the appointment of a governor starting in 1729, the town largely lacked formal year-round government or administration that could make decisions and take action in times of need.

Governance and Administration

The migratory nature of the fishery and the small resident population (only 849 people in 1753) helped delay the establishment of permanent, local governing bodies, and representative government was not granted until 1832. This was largely because the British government tended to view Newfoundland primarily as a fishing industry, not a colony. There were, however, systems of governance and administration in place long before then. Seasonal administration was provided first by fishing admirals and naval commanders, and after 1729 by governors who enforced laws and settled disputes with the assistance of local magistrates. However, it ceased to function with the end of each fishing season when the fishing admirals and naval governors returned to England

Old St. John's
St. John's, n.d.
Caption below drawing reads "Narrows, or entrance of the harbour of St. John's, Newfoundland with fish stages."
Drawing by A. Thompson, n.d. In Richard Henry Bonnycastle, Newfoundland in 1842 : a sequel to "The Canadas in 1841 (London: Henry Colburn, 1842) 6. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By the 1720s St. John's began to emerge as the administrative and commercial centre of Newfoundland with a stable resident population. Magistrates existed from at least the winter of 1723-24, when several St. John's residents, concerned about the lack of legal authority during the winter, established a rudimentary local government and ad hoc magistrate system. These magistrates held weekly court sessions, hearing minor criminal and property cases. The legal status of the magistrates was confirmed by Newfoundland's first governor, Captain Henry Osborne. Appointed in 1729, Osborne granted the magistrates or justices of the peace the right to enforce law and order over the winter, a system still in place in 1817 when the first year-round resident governor (Francis Pickmore) was appointed. The system of naval government depended upon the assistance of civil authorities to preside over assizes and quarter sessions, and was a relatively effective system for Newfoundland's population.

Growth and Change

The idea that early settlement was illegal or nonexistent due to the influence of English merchants has been largely discredited. Laws were passed in 1633 and 1670 limiting settlement, but they were difficult to enforce and had little meaning except on paper. On the contrary, merchants required settlement to protect their property from rivals or natives during the winter, when stores left behind were often looted for iron. Furthermore, merchants profited by supplying permanent residents.

The fishery remained largely migratory, however, and the permanent population of St. John's was small and grew slowly throughout the 18th century. Then came a population explosion. Disruptions in trade caused by the American War of Independence (1776-1783), and then the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792-1815) made a migratory fishery dangerous and difficult. Fishermen who were once transitory therefore began to move to Newfoundland permanently, and the resident population of St. John's began to grow rapidly. From a population of just 849 in 1753, the town had over 3000 residents by 1795, and over 10,000 by 1815. Most were immigrants from England and Ireland.

King's Beach, St. John's, ca. 1780
King's Beach, St. John's, ca. 1780
From a population of just 849 in 1753, the town had over 3000 residents by 1795.
Courtesy of the Digital Archives Initiative, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Within a relatively short time, the population of the town had increased tenfold, and the area around the harbour was increasingly busy with wharves, stages, shops, public houses and dwellings as the town's economic importance grew accordingly. St. John's had been a major supply depot since the earliest European presence and the harbour handled much of the island's trade, but this trend intensified during the Napoleonic Wars. By 1811, 78 percent of the colony's shipping trade came through St. John's, up from 43 percent in 1790. The merchant premises that lined the Lower Path (which became Water Street) and the Upper Path (Duckworth Street) became the colony's economic centre.

When the long period of conflict came to an end in 1815, St. John's was a very different town than it had been 100 or even 50 years before. Its permanent resident population had grown considerably, and the harbour was the primary site of economic activity in Newfoundland. Most of this activity was based around the fishery, exporting salt fish to overseas markets and importing the supplies required by the fishermen and residents (foodstuffs, manufactured goods, salt, etc.). The military had an established presence, and the colony was on the verge of having its first full-time resident governor, based in St. John's. While still in its relative infancy as a major town in 1815, over the next century St. John's would continue to grow into the economic, administrative, and social capital of Newfoundland.

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