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Articles Blog

St. Johns, Canada

Karyn Planett

“Although in cloathes, 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, less 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 carefull are,

With much – much more, then I will now declare,

(I say) if some wise men knew what this were,

(I do believe) they’d live no other where.”

            Robert Hayman, ‘A skeltonicall continued rhyme in praise of my New-found-land,’ in Quodlibets, 1628.

That ringing endorsement aside, many do wish to live in Newfoundland and no other where. It seems to be a collection of fishing type houses clinging to the craggy cliffs or scattered up the surrounding slopes facing the island’s 6,000 miles of coastline. St. John’s heralds as the province’s first city and others might pale by comparison.           

And Newfoundlanders are the outdoorsy type. They chatter over thick hot coffee of the types of fishing tackle they’ve just purchased, their last hike into the island’s interior, or the whales they’ve spotted running off the coast. Some may even share a tale or two with visitors about John Cabot’s historic journey here in 1497. But others might just be recapping the local hockey highlights.           

Their ancestors were probably born in the English West Country, Scotland, or Ireland. With them came the brogue, the vernacular, and the lilt of their mother tongues. Visitors might want to pick up a copy of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English if you can’t quite catch what that fellah is saying. For more contemporary reading, pick up a copy of Annie Proulx’ Shipping News.           

Newfoundlanders are proud of their heritage, quick to share their lore, and rigidly independent. They only joined the Confederation less than 50 years ago! Until then, Newfoundland was an independent country.           

For the record, historians record that the Maritime Archaic Indians, the Vikings and the Basque all built small settlements in the region. 

St. John’s Story

Well, John Cabot really opened the floodgates for Europeans who followed for the fishing and the commercial opportunities in the area. In addition to the Italians were the French, Basque, Portuguese, Spanish, and of course the English. Some say the town’s name, though up for debate, can be attributed to Gaspar Corte-Real, a Portuguese explorer. He stepped ashore here in 1500. Evidence points to early Portuguese maps from 1519 where this area was identified as Rio de San Johem, the Portuguese translation for St. John’s River.           

Everything comes at a cost and there was conflict and scuffling associated with the wealth from the fishing industry. In 1555, French troops were overpowered by Basque fighters who wrested control of St. John’s away from them.            

Next came the British who were sailing about this part of the world dropping settlers ashore and establishing control over fishing and other enterprises. The Oxford family was the earliest known settlers to put down their stakes just west of Beck’s Cove. That was in the opening years of the 1600s. Then the Dutch, utilizing the brilliance of naval strategist Admiral De Ruyter, grabbed control from the British in 1665. 

All around, the fishing industry grew. More and more permanent buildings rose up to accommodate this commerce. Water Street was born. Locals claim this is, therefore, the earliest commercial street in all of North America.           

Prosperity reigned for the next two centuries. Even so, the population didn’t really explode as one might expect. And the French and British spent tremendous effort and energy battling each other for supremacy over St. John’s. The guns finally fell silent in 1762 with the British planting their flag for the final time, giving the French the boot.           

As luck would have it for some, the Napoleonic Wars erupted in 1791. This meant the demand for salted fish skyrocketed and St. John’s found even greater importance. Prices soared and immigrants flocked in for their share of the fish pie. In fact, the population multiplied to some 10,000 by war’s end in 1815. The bottom then fell out of the fish market and everything looked bleak in St. John’s till war raged again across Europe in 1914.           

Fast forward to the present, St. John’s is still Newfoundland’s economic hub and the official provincial capital as well. It’s found on the Avalon Peninsula and is home to more than 100,000 people. Officials claim St. John’s is North America’s “most easterly city” and they’re darned proud of it. Sadly, many of its historic structures have been destroyed by fire. In 1892, the city experienced what they called the “great fire.” One hundred years later, another conflagration swept through the town taking remnants of history with it.           

Climb atop Signal Hill to take in the view all around. Below is The Battery, looking like something from a movie set. Many buildings resemble those of the 17th century. Then a stroll past historic structures like Commissariat House (1821), Government House (1831), and the Colonial Building (1832) will complete the picture. Just ask one of the locals if you get lost. They’re quite friendly and eager to share their heritage with you. You’ll see.