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Newfoundland and Labrador History

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Newfoundland & Labrador Research Topics
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History[edit | edit source]

About 93 percent of Newfoundland’s residents have British ancestry and about 3 percent have French ancestry.

Because Newfoundland joined the Canadian Union late (1949), its early organization, records, and record keeping differ from other provinces. Newfoundland has no county or district divisions. Most records are found in the provincial capital, St. John’s.

By the time that European contact with Newfoundland began in the early 16th century, the Beothuk were the only indigenous group living permanently on the island. Instead, their trading interactions were sporadic, and they largely attempted to avoid contact in order to preserve their culture. The establishment of English fishing operations on the outer coastline of the island, and their later expansion into bays and inlets, cut off access for the Beothuk to their traditional sources of food. In the 18th century, as the Beothuk were driven further inland by these encroachments, violence between Beothuk and settlers escalated, with each retaliating against the other in their competition for resources. By the early 19th century, violence, starvation, and exposure to tuberculosis had decimated the Beothuk population. They were extinct as a cultural group by 1829.

The oldest confirmed accounts of European contact date from a thousand years ago as described in the Viking Icelandic Sagas. Around the year 1001, the sagas refer to Leif Ericson landing in three places.

Sometime before 1563 Basque fishermen, who had been fishing cod shoals off Newfoundland's coasts since the beginning of the sixteenth century, founded Plaisance (today Placentia), a seasonal haven which French fishermen later also used. In the Newfoundland will, now in an archive in Spain, of the Basque seaman Domingo de Luca dated 1563 de Luca asks “that my body be buried in this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.” This will is the oldest known civil document written in Canada.

Twenty years later in 1583 Newfoundland became England's first possession in North America and one of the earliest permanent English colonies in the New World when Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed it for Queen Elizabeth. Though English fishing boats had visited Newfoundland continuously since Cabot's second voyage in 1498 and seasonal fishing camps had existed for a century prior, the Basque, French, and Portuguese had done likewise. In 1585, however, this changed: Bernard Drake led a devastating raid on the Spanish and Portuguese fisheries from which they never recovered. This provided an opportunity to secure the island and led to the appointment of Proprietary Governors to establish colonial settlements on the island from 1610 to 1728.

From 1763 to 1767 James Cook made a detailed survey of the coasts of Newfoundland and southern Labrador while commander of the HMS Grenville. The following year, 1768, Cook began his first circumnavigation of the world. In 1796 a Franco-Spanish expedition again succeeded in raiding the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, destroying many of the settlements.

In 1854 the British government established Newfoundland's responsible government. The Newfoundland Red Ensign – civil ensign of Newfoundland from 1904 to 1965. Newfoundland remained a colony until acquiring Dominion status in 1907. A dominion constituted a self-governing state of the British Empire or British Commonwealth and the Dominion of Newfoundland was relatively autonomous from British rule.

Since the early 1800s, Newfoundland and Quebec, Lower Canada had been in a border dispute over the Labrador region. In 1927, however, the British government ruled that the area known as modern day Labrador was to be considered part of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

Due to Newfoundland's high debt load, arising from World War I and construction of the Newfoundland Railway, and decreasing revenue, due to the collapse of fish prices, the Newfoundland legislature voted itself out of existence in 1933, in exchange for loan guarantees by the Crown and a promise it would be re-established. On February 16, 1934, the Commission of Government was sworn in, ending 79 years of responsible government. The Commission consisted of seven persons appointed by the British government. For 15 years no elections took place, and no legislature was convened.

When prosperity returned with World War II, agitation began to end the Commission, and reinstate responsible government. But, the British government created the National Convention in 1946, reflecting efforts in self-determination among European nationalities that followed WWII. The Convention, made up of representatives from throughout the country, was formally tasked to advise on the future of Newfoundland.

Three main factions actively campaigned during the leading up to the referendums. Smallwood led the Confederate Association, advocating union with the Canadian Confederation. They campaigned through a newspaper known as The Confederate. After the referendum, a seven-man delegation was picked by the British governor to negotiate Canada's offer on behalf of Newfoundland. After six of the seven-man delegation signed, the British Government passed the British North America Act, 1949 through Parliament. Newfoundland officially joined Canada at midnight, March 31, 1949.

The "Bible" of Newfoundland History is Judge D.W. Prowse's A History of Newfoundland, from the English, Colonial, and Foreign records, London Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896. It is a good place to start your quest and has recently been republished.

Timeline[edit | edit source]

The following important events affected political boundaries, record keeping, and family movements:

  •  986 or 990: Bjarne Herjulvson, a Viking, sighted the coast of Labrador.
  • 1497: Newfoundland rediscovered by John Cabot and claimed for England (Britain's oldest colony) .
  • 1500s: English, French, Basque, and Portuguese fishermen contested the area.
  • 1534: Jacques Cartier visited Newfoundland.
  • 1583: Sir Humphrey Gilbert reclaimed Newfoundland for England.
  • 1610: First Official English settlement in St. John’s.
  • 1627: St. Mary’s settled by Lord Culvert.
  • 1662: The first French colony was established in Placentia Bay.
  • 1692: The French captured and burned St. John’s.
  • 1713: By the Treaty of Utrecht, France gave Newfoundland to Britain.
  • 1713–1783: Treaties recognized British sovereignty but granted French fishermen the right to land and to dry catches along parts of the northern and western coasts. France retained special fishing rights until 1904.
  • 1832: First election held for the local House of Assembly.
  • 1846: St. John’s was destroyed by fire.
  • 1855: Newfoundland became a self-governing colony.
  • 1858: Completion of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
  • 1892: St. John’s was destroyed by a second great fire.
  • 1898:  A railroad was completed across the island.
  • 1901: The first trans-Atlantic wireless message was received on Signal Hill.
  • 1927: The coast of Labrador was awarded to Newfoundland.
  • 1934: A royal commission began governing Newfoundland.
  • 1941: Naval and air bases were leased to the United States.
  • 1948: The Cabot Highway was completed from St. John's to Bonavista.
  • 1949: The Province of Newfoundland was formed on 31 March.
  • 1954: The first iron ore was shipped from Labrador.
  • 1956: The first trans-Atlanttc telephone cable was completed between Newfoundland and Scotland.

Your ancestors’ lives will be more interesting if you learn about the history they may have been part of. For example, in a history you might learn about the events that occurred the year your great-grandparents were married.

Historical Sources[edit | edit source]

For a list of published national, provincial, and local histories, click on FamilySearch Catalog in the window to the left. Select from the list of titles to see descriptions of the records with the film or book call numbers. Use that information to obtain the records at a family history center or at the Family History Library.

Canada Sources[edit | edit source]

These are two of many historical sources:

Morton, Desmond. A Short History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983. (FHL book 971 H2md.)

MacNutt, W. S. The Atlantic Provinces: The Emergence of Colonial Society, 1712–1857. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965. (FHL book 971.5 H2mws.)

Encyclopedias also include excellent articles on the history of Canada. Many books and articles on Canadian history are listed in these annotated bibliographies:

Muise, D. A., ed. A Reader's Guide to Canadian History. I. Beginnings to Confederation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. (FHL book 971 H23r v. 1.)

Granatstein, J. L., and Paul Stevens, eds. A Reader's Guide to Canadian History. II. Confederation to the Present. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. (FHL book 971 H23r v. 2.)

Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Local histories are some of the most valuable sources for family history research. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. You can also find lists of early settlers, soldiers, and civil officials. Even if your ancestor is not listed, information on other relatives may provide important clues for locating your ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search.

Published histories of towns, counties, districts or other municipalities, and provinces often contain accounts of families. Many district, county, and town histories include sections or volumes of biographical information. These may give information on as many as half of the families in the area. A county history is also the best source of information about a county’s origin.

The Family History Library has about 300 district histories from the Prairie Provinces and fewer township and county histories from the rest of Canada. Similar histories are often at major Canadian public and university libraries and archives.

For descriptions of bibliographies for {Province Name} available through Family History Centers or the Family History Library, click on FamilySearch Catalog in the window to the left. Look under BIBLIOGRAPHY or HISTORY - BIBLIOGRAPHY.