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History of Province
Your Newfoundland and Labrador hosts are well versed in the province’s aboriginal lore. The province’s European history may go back to St. Brendan (believed to have lived from A.D. 489-577). His legend describes how he left Ireland near the end of his life to plant the seeds of Christianity in a far western isle. This legend which tells of ice castles (icebergs) may have been known by the European explorers, including Columbus and Cabot, who followed Brendan westward nine centuries later. Brendan himself apparently believed he was going to rediscover lands already visited by his predecessors including the early saint Mernoc. Nobody knows the actual fate of St. Brendan; but near L’Anse aux Meadows a lichen-covered stone with a mysterious type of writing has been found. The etching on this stone resembles an ancient Irish or Celtic style of writing that died out in the fifth or sixth century. The stone’s covering of slow growing lichens proves that the etchings are hundreds of years old. Our Wildland Tour leaders suspect that the markings are aboriginal (abut 1000 years old) but some academic articles have suggested this “Ogham Stone” may have been chiseled by St. Brendan the Navigator, the first Irish Saint. The sagas or oral stories of the Norse are far more reliable and tell of Bjarni Herjulfsson, a Viking who was blown off course while traveling between Iceland and Greenland in 986. His reports of a wooded coastline were an irresistible lure to the timber-poor Norse. Leif Erikson, also called “Leif the Lucky,” following Bjarni’s route, became the first Viking to land in “Vinland.” Here he built sod houses and established the only known Norse settlement in the New World around the year 1000. The sagas describe how Leif the Lucky and later Norse settlers traded and sometimes fought with people they called “skraelings.” The sagas say at least one child, Snorri Karlsefni, was born in Vinland before the settlement was abandoned. Although there are no other records of settlement, it is known that the Greenland Norse continued to visit Vinland occasionally as late as 1347. A century later, European fishermen were travelling to Iceland and other sites with Norse inhabitants. Norse settlements in Europe were another point of frequent contact. Some historians believe the continued connection between the Norse and other Europeans helped inspire the voyages of Columbus and Cabot.
Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland was the first historically documented trip of the age to North America and has long interested historians. In 1997, Newfoundland and Bristol, England celebrated the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s voyage. In May of 1497, John Cabot (really Giovanni Caboto, an Italian citizen) and his crew of 18 to 20 men, under commission from King Henry VII, set sail from Bristol aboard The Matthew to discover a western route to the Far East. Unbeknownst to the explorers of the day, North America was in the way, so instead Cabot discovered Newfoundland, with its bountiful supply of codfish. It took The Matthew 35 days to cross the North Atlantic, after which Cabot and his men spent 30 days circumnavigating the Island of Newfoundland.
The story of Cabot, his landing at Bonavista, and his exploration of the “New-Founde-Lande” threw fuel on the flame of exploration lit by Columbus. In 1500 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real sailed into St. John’s Harbour on St. John’s Day, possibly giving the future city and the sheltered harbour its name. By this time all Europe’s major powers had started their plans for exploring and exploiting the New World. Corte-Real himself, like many of the early sailors who followed him, explored the coast before returning to Europe with Beothuk (native Newfoundland Indian) slaves.
Less than a century after Corte-Real and Cabot, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the Island of Newfoundland in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, reaffirming British ownership. On King’s Beach, St. John’s Harbour, in 1583, he established Britain’s first colonial government overseas. The British Empire was born.
Several cities including St. John’s, Newfoundland, lay claim to the title of “oldest city in North America.” While some cities may boast historic documents slightly older than those of St. John’s, there is no doubt that the most easterly harbour in North America, located closest to the richest fishing grounds in the known world, was used many years before any other North American site. This closeness to Europe, the economic importance of fish, and the rich fishing grounds inspired fishing families to visit and settle the New-Founde-Lande years before other North American communities were formed. Settlement in Newfoundland was originally outlawed; but rather than risk dangerous trans-Atlantic crossings, the first families preferred to build illegal homes in the New World.
Life was difficult in the early days of settlement — disease and malnutrition were constant enemies of the first St. John’s people. For over a century, the fishery was almost the only economic activity. But the politics of the emerging European powers played the most dramatic role in the city’s development. In 1665 the Dutch plundered St. John’s, and a second attempt in 1673 was beaten back by English merchants. Later that same year, the merchants fought off a squadron of marauding pirates.
Next came a series of bitter battles between the English and French for control of St. John’s and the rest of the island. In 1696 and again in 1708 the French captured St. John’s and burned it to the ground. After this second defeat, the English rebuilt the town with stronger fortifications, and garrisons of soldiers were permanently stationed within its walls. During these days, St. John’s was not the sort of spot one would visit for a family vacation. Brothels and taverns built for the entertainment of soldiers and sailors were perhaps the two most common types of buildings.
St. John’s was captured by the French for the last time in 1762, but it was quickly retaken by British troops sailing from Halifax. After this victory, several strong forts were built and manned by garrisons of British troops who stayed in the city until 1871. Most of the old forts are gone, but the flavour of that time can still be savoured at the Quidi Vidi Battery that guards Quidi Vidi Village and the Queen’s Battery on Signal Hill.
Signal Hill, with Cabot Tower as its crown, is probably the city’s most famous landmark. Like the city itself, the hill’s history is rich with battles between nations, ruthless pirates, and trailblazing pioneers. On Signal Hill the last North American battle in the Seven Years’ War was fought. This same hill served as a landmark for Lord Nelson and Captain Bligh as they made their marks on history. In 1583, within a cannon-shot of Signal Hill, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England — making us the first jewel in the British Empire’s crown. As early as 1704, flag signals flown from the hill informed St. John’s citizens of approaching ships, both friendly and hostile. If the hill could speak it would tell of receiving the first transoceanic wireless message and witnessing the first crossings of the Atlantic by airplane, including Alcock and Brown’s historic first nonstop flight from North America to Europe, which left Lester’s Field in St. John’s on June 14, 1919. And it would tell countless tales of the fishermen and fishing nations that have continued through the centuries to seek the protection of the hill and its harbour from the frequent fury of the North Atlantic. Today, as in ages past, the hill regularly provides a view of the vessels belonging to the many fishing nations of the world.
St. John’s is also home to the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a national historic site and arguably the best example of gothic architecture in North America. The congregation of the Cathedral goes back to 1699 and our Wildland Tours holiday groups are always impressed by the small museum, the large mass grave site (up to 8000 souls lost at sea and to the plagues of the early years), and the resident ghost which we always manage to find. The Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist, begun in 1841, is also a national historic site. It sits on the highest ridge in the city, dominating the view from the harbour, while lights in its towers guide ships through the narrow harbour entrance.
During 1620 The Mayflower landed at Renews on the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula, where it picked up water and supplies from local fishing families before sailing on to Plymouth Rock. When these “founding fathers of America” arrived at their more southerly landfall, they were met by Squantum, an English-speaking American Indian who had been taught English in Newfoundland. The story of Squantum is an interesting one. It is believed he was captured by European sailors and sold into slavery in Spain. After escaping captivity he found passage in a ship returning to the New World and made his way to John Guy’s colony in Cuppers Cove in 1616 where the Governor’s wife taught him English. It was the teachings and kindness Squantum experienced in Newfoundland that helped inspire him to aid the ill-prepared settlers of The Mayflower.
The French entered the competition for the rich marine resources of Newfoundland when they established their most easterly North American colony at Placentia in 1662 during the reign of Louis XIV. This first outpost of New France was designed to counter English expansion in Newfoundland and to serve as a base where sailors could be trained and fishing fleets protected. From Plaisance, or Placentia, the French protected the approach to the New World and established a presence in Newfoundland that continues today with French ownership of St. Pierre and Miquelon, two islands a short ferry trip from Fortune near the entrance to Placentia Bay. Cape Spear, just eleven kilometers south of St. John’s, is another site of some significance. This rocky promontory, which juts out into the North Atlantic, is the most easterly portion of North America.
Cape Spear is a National Historic Park featuring one of Newfoundland’s oldest lighthouses restored to its 1840 design. The lighthouse was built in the 1830s to assist vessels as they made their way along the rugged coast of Newfoundland to St. John’s. Following the death of the first lighthouse keeper in 1845, the government of Newfoundland appointed St. John’s pilot James Cantwell as the second keeper. It is said that a Dutch prince, impressed by the seamanship Cantwell displayed while guiding the prince’s ship into St. John’s Harbour, used his influence to secure the position for Cantwell. Members of the Cantwell family have tended the light since that time, and the present light was looked after by a descendant of James Cantwell until 1996 when technology replaced lighthouse keepers around Newfoundland and Labrador.
By 1504 French fishermen were using Ferryland Harbour as a base for their summer fishery. This place was already known to the Portuguese who had named the harbour Forilon. In these early days the French and the Basques discovered Placentia and used its sheltered harbour and stone beach for drying cod. In 1611 pirate Peter Easton terrorized fishermen from his headquarters in Ferryland. The community of Ferryland was established early in the 1600s by Lord Baltimore, who went on to found the American city that bears his name. Lord Baltimore’s successor, Sir David Kirke, proved himself a staunch British Loyalist during the struggle between King and Parliament. During this dispute, he offered King Charles I a refuge in Ferryland and prepared a fleet of heavily armed warships so that together with Prince Rupert of the Rhine they could invade England and re-establish the monarchy. The beheading of Charles ended these plans, but as a precaution Oliver Cromwell sent the British Navy to take Kirke’s fleet and remove every gun from Ferryland. Kirke died in 1655 and is buried at an unknown site near Ferryland. The magnificent brick home built by Baltimore and enlarged into a castle complete with towers by Kirke was destroyed by the Dutch in 1673 without ever housing the King for whom Kirke’s renovations had been made. The ruins were later used as a stone quarry by local fishermen, and even today pieces of the original brick can sometimes be found on Ferryland’s cobble beach. Today a museum celebrates the community’s history as does the annual festival in honour of Baltimore’s early colony. New archaeological excavations are shedding additional insight into early North American history.
Mistaken Point has a fossil bed over 620 million years old that includes some of the rarest marine fossils known. These fossils and this landform reminded the early paleontologists more of northern Africa than North America. In the 1980s scientists came to recognize that eastern Newfoundland actually was once part of the African continent. When the plates of Africa and North America collided, there was an upwelling of mineral-rich rock from deep in the earth. Eastern Newfoundland is the only portion of ancient Africa in the New World, and the Mistaken Point Fossil Reserve is now considered one of the most important fossil sites in the world. The fossils found in Mistaken Point and in a matching bed along the North African coast serve as important evidence for the theory of Continental drift. For scientists, these protected rocks continue to remind us of our planet’s ancient biological and geological history.
Argentia Harbour is notable as the site where Roosevelt and Churchill drafted the terms of the Atlantic Charter. Today it is a major summertime access point as many travellers take a ferry between Nova Scotia and Argentia.
The scenic community of Carbonear is home to a great legend, for it is said the famous pirate Gilbert Pike in the age of Elizabeth I captured an Irish princess, Sheila Na Geira. This beautiful princess eventually persuaded her captor to settle down in Carbonear. Today some citizens of the region proudly claim a heritage of royalty and privateering, but most descendants of this couple remember the story of the pirate and his princess as a love story.
In 1866 the “Great Eastern” landed the first successful Atlantic cable at Heart’s Content. Today the cable station remains in near working order as a “high tech” museum showing off the best commercial technology of an earlier century.
The community of Trinity was home to the first court of justice in North America, established in 1615 by Sir Richard Whitbourne. Trinity was also the site of North America’s first small pox vaccination. Today Trinity boasts a colourful pageant during the summer months and is popular with lovers of culture from around the world.
The Gander River has a special place in Newfoundland mythology. In a land where most people and goods originally travelled by sea, the Gander River became a rare inland highway used to move goods between the interior and the coast. The river spawned a special breed of man with its own unique vessel - the Gander River boat. These men plied the waters and came to memorize the hundreds of chutes, boulders, and rapids that turned each river journey into an adventure. Today there are outfitters who can arrange adventures on the Gander River. And there are still Gander River men, with their Gander River boats plying their way through the challenging waters of this world-class river system.
Fogo, on Fogo Island, is held to be one of the four corners of the earth by members of the present-day Flat Earth Society. It is also home to a spectacular natural amphitheatre, which every year is the site of the Brimstone Head folk festival.
Twillingate, called the capital of the north, is the site of fabulous iceberg watching situated as it is in the heart of notorious “Iceberg Alley.” Here you can watch whales frolic among the icebergs and enjoy some of the world’s tastiest seafoods. Many Arctic expeditions had their starts in Twillingate, and in Brigus, a scenic community in Conception Bay.
The west coast of Newfoundland is known for timber, delightful salmon rivers, and its ruggedly beautiful mountains. It is believed by many that in June of 1534, Jacques Cartier was the first European since the Vikings to have explored this coast of the Island of Newfoundland, although this claim was disputed by Sebastian Cabot. Labrador, the mainland portion of the Province of Newfoundland, was described by Cartier as “the land God gave to Cain” because of its barren coastal areas. It is home to two distinct groups of native people, the Innu and the Inuit. During the late 1500s, Basque whalers plied their trade off the south coast of Labrador. The Basques may have been the first Europeans since the Vikings to discover North America, but the tale of those first fishermen and explorers has been lost in time. What is certain is that during the early 1500s the Basques were the first people to send large fleets to the New World. Following their own centuries-long tradition of harvesting the sea, they travelled north exploiting the rich fishing grounds and looking for other opportunities. After dramatically reducing east Atlantic whale populations, they travelled across the Atlantic to what is now Red Bay; and by 1550 they had established a major whaling enterprise that took in much of the Labrador and Gulf of St. Lawrence coast. At its peak over 1000 men worked on the Red Bay site harvesting bowhead, right, and perhaps other whale species in order to supply oil to the lamps of an increasingly prosperous Europe.
Red Bay was the site of the largest 16th-century industrial complex in North America. Today it has been declared a National Historic Site, and archaeologists continue to study artifacts from several shipwrecks from the period 1550-1600. Red Bay is viewed as the first World Whaling Capital. An interpretation centre at the site features the story of Red Bay, information on the whale species that were either reduced or made extinct because of the whaling effort there, and artifacts left behind by the Basques whalers over four centuries ago.
Labrador is also home to major mining enterprises at Labrador City where iron ore is mined for the North American automobile industry and Voisey’s Bay where one of the world’s largest nickel deposits has been discovered.
Further north are the Torngat Mountains, which rival the Rockies as they rise 5000 feet up from the icy Labrador Sea in a tangle of rock, mineral, and glacier. The Torngats include Mount d’Iberville, Canada’s highest peak east of the Rockies and south of the Arctic Circle. This 5419-foot peak was named for the French officer who twice burned all of Newfoundland’s major towns to the ground.
Labrador in winter features great snowmobiling and skiing. One of its most famous events is the Labrador 400 International Sled Dog Race, the longest and most challenging sled dog race in eastern North America. This 400-mile race, together with a shorter 100-mile race, starts the second Sunday in March and follows a spectacular overland route between Labrador City, Churchill Falls, and Wabush.
Cape Bonavista may be the first portion of North America sighted by non-Viking European eyes. Four miles south of Cape Bonavista lies the historic old town of Bonavista. This busy fishing community is one of the province’s largest towns. It once rivalled St. John’s and Boston for the title of fishing capital of North America. In 1704 the town was one of the few English communities to repel the French invasion force. In 1722 Canada’s first Church of England school was built in this community. As if to protest this religious influence, it is said the devil himself one time came to the nearby community of Keels, leaving behind his mysterious footprints.
The community of Indian Bay draws its name from the Beothuk Indians, who used to travel the area’s beaches harvesting from the area’s rich abundance of seafood. The red coloured Indian artifacts and fishing equipment reported by Cabot were likely from the Beothuk who were known to cover themselves with red ochre and to frequent the coastline.
Oldest British colony, independent country, youngest Canadian province - Newfoundland and Labrador rightfully takes its place in the centre of North American history.