Newfoundland and Labrador History

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Newfoundland and Labrador


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.

You will need some understanding of the historical events that affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends may help you understand political boundaries. Family relocations and settlement may be documented, Records of these events, such as land and military documents, may mention your family.

This information can help you determine significant cultural, ecclesiastical, and political events in the history of Newfoundland. Changes in geographical boundaries and ownership of land are especially important in determining where to search for the records of your ancestors. 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.


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

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

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

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.