Long settled by indigenous peoples of the Dorset culture, the island was visited by the Icelandic Viking Leif Eriksson in the 11th century, who called the new land "Vinland". The next European visitors to Newfoundland were Portuguese, Basque, Spanish, French and English migratory fishermen. The island was visited by the Genoese navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), working under contract to King Henry VII of England on his expedition from Bristol in 1497. In 1501, Portuguese explorers Gaspar Corte-Real and his brother Miguel Corte-Real charted part of the coast of Newfoundland in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage. (After European settlement, colonists first called the island Terra Nova, from "New Land" in Portuguese and Latin.)
Plaque commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British Empire
On August 5, 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland as England's first overseas colony under Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I of England, thus officially establishing a forerunner to the much later British Empire. Newfoundland is considered Britain's oldest colony. At the time of English settlement, the Beothuk inhabited the island.
L'Anse aux Meadows was a Norse settlement near the northernmost tip of Newfoundland (Cape Norman), which has been dated to be approximately 1,000 years old. The site is considered the only undisputed evidence of Pre-Columbian contact between the Old and New Worlds, if the Norse-Inuit contact on Greenland is not counted. Point Rosee, in southwest Newfoundland, was thought to be a second Norse site until excavations in 2015 and 2016 found no evidence of any Norse presence. The island is a likely location of Vinland, mentioned in the
Viking Chronicles, although this has been disputed.
The indigenous people on the island at the time of European settlement were the Beothuk, who spoke an Amerindian language of the same name. Later immigrants developed a variety of dialects associated with settlement on the island: Newfoundland English, Newfoundland French. In the 19th century, it also had a dialect of Irish known as Newfoundland Irish. Scottish Gaelic was spoken on the island during the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the Codroy Valley area, chiefly by settlers from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The Gaelic names reflected the association with fishing: in Scottish Gaelic, it was called Eilean a' Trosg, or literally, "Island of the Cod". Similarly, the Irish Gaelic name Talamh an Éisc means "Land of the Fish".
The first inhabitants of Newfoundland were the Paleo-Eskimo, who have no known link to other groups in Newfoundland history. Little is known about them beyond archeological evidence of early settlements. Evidence of successive cultures have been found. The Late Paleo-Eskimo, or Dorset culture, settled there about 4,000 years ago. They were descendants of migrations of ancient prehistoric peoples across the High Arctic thousands of years ago, after crossing from Siberia via the Bering land bridge. The Dorset died off or abandoned the island prior to the arrival of the Norse.
After this period, the Beothuk settled Newfoundland, migrating from Labrador on the mainland. There is no evidence that the Beothuk inhabited the island prior to Norse settlement. Scholars believe that the Beothuk are related closely to the Innu of Labrador. The tribe later was declared "extinct" although people of partial Beothuk descent have been documented. The name Beothuk meant "people" in the Beothuk language which is often considered to be a member of the Algonquian language family although the lack of sufficient records means that it is not possible to confidently demonstrate such a connection.
The tribe is now officially said to be extinct, but evidence of its culture is preserved in museum, historical and archaeological records. Shanawdithit, a woman who is often regarded as the last full-blood Beothuk, died in St. John's in 1829 of tuberculosis. However, Santu Toney, who was born around 1835 and died in 1910, was a woman of mixed Mi'kmaq and Beothuk descent which means that some Beothuk must have lived on beyond 1829. Her father was a Beothuk and mother a Mi'kmaq, both from Newfoundland. The Beothuk may have intermingled and assimilated with Innu in Labrador and Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland. Oral histories also suggest potential historical competition and hostility between the Beothuk and Mi'kmaq. The Mi'kmaq, Innu and Inuit all hunted and fished around Newfoundland before the arrival of Europeans but no evidence indicates that they lived on the island for long periods of time and would only travel to Newfoundland temporarily. Inuit have been documented on the Great Northern Peninsula as late as the 18th-Century. Newfoundland was historically the southernmost part of the Inuit's territorial range.
When Europeans arrived from 1497 and later, starting with John Cabot, they established contact with the Beothuk. Estimates of the number of Beothuk on the island at this time vary, ranging from 700 to 5,000.
Later both the English and French settled the island. They were followed by the Mi'kmaq, an Algonquian-speaking indigenous people from eastern Canada and present-day Nova Scotia. As European and Mi'kmaq settlement became year-round and expanded to new areas of the coast, the area available to the Beothuk to harvest the marine resources they relied upon was diminished. By the beginning of the 19th century, few Beothuk remained. Most died due to infectious diseases carried by Europeans, to which they had no immunity, and starvation. Government attempts to engage with the Beothuk and aid them came too late. The Beothuk were exceptionally hostile to foreigners, unlike the Mi'kmaq. The latter readily traded with Europeans and became established in settlements in Newfoundland.
European contact, colonisation and settlement
Newfoundland is the site of the only authenticated Norse settlement in North America. This archeological site was discovered by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, at L'Anse aux Meadows in 1960. The site has been the subject of multi-year archaeological digs in the 1960s and 1970s.
These have revealed that the settlement dated to more than 500 years before John Cabot; it contains the earliest-known European structures in North America. Designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, it is believed to be the Vinland settlement of explorer Leif Eiriksson. (The Icelandic Skálholt Vinland Map of 1570 refers to the area as "Promontorium Winlandiæ" and correctly shows it on a 51°N parallel with Bristol, England). The Norse stayed for a relatively short period of time, believed to be between 999 and 1001 AD.
Before and after the departure of the Norse, the island was inhabited by aboriginal populations.
Discovery by Cabot
About 500 years later, in 1497, the Italian navigator John Cabot (Zuan/Giovanni Cabotto) became the first European since the Norse settlers to set foot on Newfoundland, working under commission of King Henry VII of England. His landing site is unknown but popularly believed to be Cape Bonavista, along the island's East coast. Another site claimed is Cape Bauld, at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. A document found in the Spanish National Archives, written by a Bristol merchant, reports that Cabot's crew landed 1,800 miles or 2,900 kilometres west of Dursey Head, Ireland (latitude 51°35′N), which would put Cabot within sight of Cape Bauld. This document mentions an island that Cabot sailed past to go ashore on the mainland. This description fits with the Cape Bauld theory, as Belle Isle is not far offshore.
Other European explorers
After Cabot, the first European visitors to Newfoundland were Portuguese, Basque, Spanish, French and English migratory fishermen. In 1501, Portuguese explorers Gaspar Corte-Real and his brother Miguel Corte-Real charted part of the coast of Newfoundland in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Late in the 17th century came Irish fishermen, who named the island Talamh an Éisc, meaning "land of the fish", or "the fishing grounds" in Irish Gaelic. This reflected the abundance of fisheries.
In 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert formally claimed Newfoundland as a colony of England, he found numerous English, French and Portuguese vessels at St. John's. There was no permanent population. Gilbert was lost at sea during his return voyage, and plans of settlement were postponed.
In July 1596 the Scottish vessel the "William" left Aberdeen for "new fund land (Newfoundland) and returned in 1600.
On July 5, 1610, John Guy set sail from Bristol, England with 39 other colonists for Cuper's Cove. This, and other early attempts at permanent settlement failed to make a profit for the English investors, but some settlers remained, forming the very earliest modern European population on the island. By 1620, the fishermen of England's West Country dominated the east coast of Newfoundland. French fishermen dominated the island's south coast and Northern Peninsula. The decline of the fisheries, the wasting of the shoreline forests, and an overstocking of liquor by local merchants influenced the Whitehall government in 1675 to decline to set up a colonial governor on the island.
After 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, the French ceded control of south and north shores of the island to the British. They kept only the nearby islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, located in the fish-rich Grand Banks off the south coast. Despite some early settlements by the English, the Crown discouraged permanent, year-round settlement of Newfoundland by migratory fishery workers. Thomas Nash was an Irish Catholic fisherman who permanently settled in Newfoundland. He established the fishing town of Branch. He and his cousin Father Patrick Power of Callan, County Kilkenny, spread Catholicism in Newfoundland. This settlement attracted a major migration of Irish Catholic immigrants to Newfoundland in the early eighteenth century.
By the late 18th century, permanent settlement increased, peaking in the early years of the 19th century.
The French name for the island is Terre-Neuve. The name "Newfoundland"' is one of the oldest European place names in Canada in continuous geographical and cartographical use, dating from a 1502 letter. It was stated in the following 1628 poem:
A Skeltonicall continued ryme, in praise of my New-found-Land
- Although in cloaths, company, buildings faire
- With England, New-found-land cannot compare:
- Did some know what contentment I found there,
- Alwayes enough, most times somewhat to spare,
- With little paines, lesse toyle, and lesser care,
- Exempt from taxings, ill newes, Lawing, feare,
- If cleane, and warme, no matter what you weare,
- Healthy, and wealthy, if men careful are,
- With much-much more, then I will now declare,
- (I say) if some wise men knew what this were
- (I doe beleeue) they'd live no other where.
- From 'The First Booke of Qvodlibets'
- Composed and done at Harbor-Grace in
- Britaniola, anciently called Newfound-Land
- by Governor Robert Hayman – 1628.
A new society
The European immigrants, mostly English, Scots, Irish and French, built a society in the New World unlike the ones they had left. It was also different from those that other immigrants would build on the North American mainland. As a
fish-exporting society, Newfoundland was in contact with many ports and societies around the Atlantic rim. But its geographic location and political distinctiveness isolated it from its closest neighbours, Canada and the United States. Internally, most of its population was spread widely around a rugged coastline in small outport settlements. Many were distant from larger centres of population and isolated for long periods by winter ice or bad weather. These conditions had an effect on the cultures of the immigrants. They generated new ways of thinking and acting. Newfoundland and Labrador developed a wide variety of distinctive customs, beliefs, stories, songs and dialects.
Effects of World Wars
The First World War had a powerful and lasting effect on the society. From a population of about a quarter of a million, 5,482 men went overseas. Nearly 1,500 were killed and 2,300 wounded. On July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel, France, 753 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of a trench. The next morning, only 68 men answered the roll-call. Even now, when the rest of Canada celebrates the founding of the country on July 1, many Newfoundlanders take part in solemn ceremonies of remembrance.
The Second World War also had a lasting effect on Newfoundland. In particular, the United States assigned forces to the military bases at Argentia, Gander, Stephenville, Goose Bay and St. John's.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the youngest province in Canada. Newfoundland was organised as a colony in 1825, was self-governing from 1855–1934, and held dominion status from 1907–1949 (see Dominion of Newfoundland). In June 22nd and July 3rd 1948, the population of the colony voted 52.3% to 47.7% in favour of joining Canada as a province. Opposition was concentrated among residents of the capital St. John's, and on the Avalon Peninsula.
Union with Canada
Newfoundland joined Canada on March 31, 1949. Union with Canada has done little to reduce Newfoundlanders' self-image as a unique group. In 2003, 72% of residents responding identified first as Newfoundlanders, secondarily as Canadians. Separatist sentiment is low, though, less than 12% in the same 2003 study.
The referendum campaign of 1948 was bitterly fought, and interests in both Canada and Britain favoured and supported confederation with Canada. Jack Pickersgill, a western Canadian native and politician, worked with the confederation camp during the campaign. The Catholic Church, whose members were a minority on the island, lobbied for continued independence. Canada offered financial incentives, including a "baby bonus" for each child in a family. The Confederates were led by the charismatic Joseph Smallwood, a former radio broadcaster, who had developed socialist political inclinations while working for a socialist newspaper in New York City. His policies as premier were closer to liberalism than socialism.
Following confederation, Smallwood led Newfoundland for decades as the elected premier. He was said
to have a "cult of personality" among his many supporters. Some residents featured photographs of "Joey" in their living rooms in a place of prominence.