Newfoundland was England’s first overseas colony, but its settlement did not follow the usual patterns: its communities were nomadic, moving around the island with the seasons.

John Lewis, a Methodist missionary in North America, wrote to his superiors in London in December 1817 about the difficulties of serving his flock in the winter months.

They go from 25 to 35 Leagues in to Soletary & unfrequented Bays for the sake of Killing as much Venson and other Game as supplyes their familyes all the winter ... they in general return in the later end of April or the beginning of May so you see they are but the Summer here and then immurged [immersed] in the fishery ...

This lifestyle might lead us to suppose that the young Welshman was depicting a group of aboriginal hunters and fishers. But in fact he was describing a wholly European population of British descent on the island of Newfoundland. Lewis seemed puzzled to find himself in such a situation. So were other missionaries and travellers over the centuries.

What Lewis encountered was a way of life with no real equivalent among other Europeans overseas. Unlike the standard model of European colonial settlement based on sedentary life, stability and planning, the inhabitants of Newfoundland in the 17th century developed a long-term peripatetic way of life resembling that of some aborigines in the region. They were highly mobile throughout the year, as individuals and as family groups. There were few fully sedentary communities. Come autumn, some people left their fishing stations on the coast and vanished into the inland forests or to wooded bays and inlets away from the sea. There they spent the winter and early spring in small camps, pursuing not only the deer mentioned by Lewis (by which he meant the native caribou) but other activities as well: fur trapping, ice fishing and tree felling for fuel and fishing gear. Mobile, even nomadic, and adapting their lifestyle to the change of seasons: this is hardly the behaviour one expects of European colonists.

Hard climes

The atypical lifestyle adopted by settlers in Newfoundland can be explained by two principal factors: the harsh, even inhospitable, physical environment and the historical context.

The island of Newfoundland is roughly triangular in shape and slightly larger than Iceland. The jagged coastline is broken up by many bays and inlets, with numerous islands offshore. The climate is boreal and characterised by strong contrasts in seasonality and resource availability. Summers are short, damp and generally cool with frequent coastal fogs; winters are long, although not intensely cold, with high winds and heavy snowfall. The ecosystem is rather simple, with a limited number of terrestrial faunal and floral species. The largest native animals are caribou, bears and, formerly, wolves. The vegetation is equally restricted, with forests of spruce and fir and large areas of bog land. Soils tend to be thin, stony and poor. For European settlers the principal wealth of the environment was aquatic and migratory: codfish in the seas, salmon in the streams and seals on the ice floes.

The settlement history of the island by Europeans was unorthodox. An occupation by Norse explorers from Greenland at around ad 1000 was shortlived. In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert annexed it for England, its first transatlantic possession, but there was no immediate settlement. Deliberate attempts at colonisation began in 1610, when John Guy of the London and Bristol Company founded the first English settlement at Cuper’s Cove (Cupids) on the east coast. These enterprises were proprietary colonies with royal charters, or joint-stock companies created by investors who hoped to establish profitable plantations based on agriculture, minerals, fish, furs and trade with the aborigines. None of them prospered, however, and it became clear that viable settlement must be based on the cod fishery. The discouraged proprietors eventually gave up and most colonies withered away, although some settlers remained. The English government, after much equivocation, adopted a policy that permanent settlement was unnecessary.

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For the love of cod

A sailing ship at the entrance to St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland, 1798, Edward Pelham Brenton. © akg-images.

Long before this, fishermen from England and other nations had been exploiting the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland. As a cheap and durable source of protein, salted and dried cod was in great demand, especially in southern Europe. The migratory summer fishery, coming mainly from ports in the West Country, was now deemed sufficient to continue the trade in this lucrative staple. In an oft-repeated phrase, Newfoundland was like ‘a great English ship moored near the Banks during the fishing season, for the convenience of the English fishermen’. There were, however, no serious initiatives to forbid settlement outright or remove the men, women and children who stayed on. Limited settlement would be tolerated but not encouraged. There was, accordingly, no perceived need to provide the residents with the customary and costly trappings of an official colony: civil governors, local government, justices, law courts, police, prisons, militias, medical services, churches, clergy, schools and other civic institutions. Nor, of course, were there tithes, taxes or customs duties. In a few larger places important fishermen (‘planters’) and traders did exert some informal authority over the people and Royal Navy convoy ships maintained some order ashore during the fishing season. Otherwise, the settlers were expected to fend for themselves and could, like the native Beothuk Indians, be largely regarded with benign indifference by the home government.

In what was virtually a legal and administrative void, the residents, numbering perhaps a few hundred at first, morphed into a new kind of society. Originally sailors or landsmen from rural or artisan backgrounds in England, they acquired considerable occupational versatility. They became adept at fishing in salt and fresh waters, hunting terrestrial game and seals, trapping furs and exploiting forest resources. Because of poor soils and a short growing season, cultivation, mainly of root crops, was limited to household subsistence. Relatively few livestock were kept. As the population slowly grew, through births and trickles of immigrants from England, Ireland and the Channel Islands, the settlers spread out along the coastal frontier, eventually to found many hundreds of informal, unregulated communities – called outports, rather than villages – near fishing grounds.The deep interior of the island remained unsettled. They also learned that a high degree of spatial mobility, particularly seasonal, was a prerequisite as they adapted to this demanding environment with its mosaic of resources.

The direct historical evidence is sparse but it seems that, in the murky years of the last half of the 17th century, the settlers were improvising a new coping strategy: transhumance. Unlike the pastoral transhumance of Europe and elsewhere, it was based not on animal husbandry but on the exploitation of natural resources. Generally involving family groups, it took a number of forms: shifts from outports to fishing stations on headlands or islands in summer, returning to the outport in autumn; movements from outports to sealing stations on the coasts in winter; and, in later times, migrations by schooners from Newfoundland outports to the coast of Labrador, where they fished in summer and returned home in autumn. The most singular form was the one described in this article: the annual cycle of dispersal and reassembly involving movements of groups between their outport homes and winter encampments in the solitary forests. It was often called winterhousing.

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Winter retreat

Some reasons for this winter migration were environmental, some economic. When the cod fishery ended in early autumn there was little economic activity in the outports during winter months. One option was to exploit the adjacent forests, if there were any, to cut wood, hunt game and trap for fur. On the bleak coast with its gales, ice, snow and frequent frost it was not easy to obtain fuel to heat the draughty wooden houses with their open fireplaces. (One later observer estimated that a household could consume 2,000 trees a year for firewood alone.) Very soon after a harbour was settled, the nearby forest retreated through over-cutting for fuel and buildings and from fires. In those circumstances it soon became more practical to migrate to sheltered places in or near more distant sources of wood.

But there were other compelling reasons for these seasonal movements. One was dietary. Caribou, hares and other game animals, freshwater fish such as trout, salmon and smelts from frozen lakes and streams, and birds such as ducks, geese and ptarmigan contributed to the diet, supplementing provisions brought from the outports. Another involved trade in country products. Furs (beaver, otter, marten, fox, lynx) and caribou hides could be bartered on the coast. Manufactured wooden equipment for the fishery (boats, oars, masts, lumber, casks, etc) could also be traded or used by the settlers themselves. These were useful income sources to supplement the earnings from the fishery and so reduce the unpredictability inherent in a seasonal economy. It nicely illustrates the reciprocity between summer and winter pursuits, coastal and inland lives.

There may have been other, less tangible incentives to migrate. After the tedious back-breaking toil day and night by both men and women during the fishing season, many must have looked forward to life in the more leisurely winter quarters, with its many stimulating activities and less fractious, more egalitarian ambiance. Since the forests were open-access common property, there were no constraints on their use. Untethered to their outports by large domestic animals or agricultural surpluses, with few or no schools, churches, markets or places of entertainment, it was no great sacrifice to slip away unobtrusively into a different kind of life in the wilderness. No authority hindered their goings or dictated their destinations and activities.

The roots of this dual residential pattern can probably be found in the recorded incursions, by at least the 1670s, of crews of male servants, sent by their fishing masters into the forests in winter to cut wood, catch fur and hunt. As familiarity with this area increased, it was natural, even inevitable, that family groups would also venture into it. A report by a French official in 1693, when France had occupied parts of the coast, mentioned that French settlers wintered in the forests. So, no doubt, did the English. When the West Country historian John Oldmixon published his book The British Empire in America in 1708, he unambiguously stated that in winter the English settlers of Newfoundland ‘are forc’d to remove from the Harbours into the Woods during that Season, for the convenience of Firing. There they build themselves Cabbins, and burn up all that part of the Woods where they sit down’. The population at the time fluctuated, but numbered perhaps a few thousand. In subsequent years missionaries and other visitors often referred to the custom, leaving the impression that it had become a familiar and integral element in the settlers’ lives as they gradually diffused along the island’s coasts and ultimately to mainland Labrador and a short strip of coastline in adjacent Québec.

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With dogs and logs

In spite of many gaps in our knowledge, some of which archaeology may eventually fill, general observations can be made about the winterhousing phenomenon. The distances from the coastal homes to the winter residences varied considerably, from one or two miles to, exceptionally, several hundred. The norm was probably from ten to 20. They might travel on foot and sometimes by dog sled or boat. The length of time spent in winter quarters varied from a few months to as many as seven. The number of houses in a camp ranged from one or two to 15 or more, containing from a few families up to several hundred people. The houses, specimens of vernacular architecture called ‘tilts’, were quickly and roughly built and generally in use for only one or two seasons. They were constructed from slender logs placed vertically in the ground and pitched roofs covered with tree bark. Open fires served for heating and cooking. Some took a few domestic animals into the woods: goats, sheep, pigs, poultry, dogs, even cats. Although observers at times stressed the squalor of these ‘hovels’, some tilts were more comfortable than houses in the outports. Similarly, while some visitors mentioned hunger, even starvation, this was by no means always the rule. An Anglican clergyman visiting a camp in 1880 reported that his host apologised because he could offer him nothing better than venison to eat – ‘the greatest luxury I had tasted for a long time’, the appreciative cleric added.

It is not easy to estimate what proportion of the outport inhabitants migrated regularly. Often the entire population of smaller outports moved, while at other times only part of the community did so. When the fishery failed or prices were low more people moved, it seems; thus migration could be a reserve strategy, a cushion for hard times. Whether those who departed spent the winter together, split up in smaller units or formed composite camps from different outports is not always clear; all options were reported. Judging by later accounts there was most likely a good deal of visiting and social interaction between people from different camps. Some pious groups held prayer meetings, for example.

The tradition of winter migration endured for at least three centuries, evolving over time. In its heyday, it was an innovative and expedient strategy, an important component in the settlers’ capacity to survive, increase their numbers and expand geographically. In ecological terms it raised the carrying capacity of the region. One might argue that the peculiar conditions of early Newfoundland required even greater resilience and inventiveness than in most other pioneer societies. Throughout the 19th century the practice was in gradual decline or being abandoned. Newfoundland had begun to swing back towards a ‘normal’ pattern of settlement. The population had grown to about 120,000 by 1850 and had acquired formal political and public institutions, including a government and legislature, comparable with those in other British colonies. Many factors account for the decline, some economic, others social and technological. Mining, commercial forestry, shipbuilding and an expanding seal hunt provided rural employment. Cultivated crops and livestock became more significant in many places. The increasing availability of schools, churches, clergy, magistrates, courts, shops, communications and medical services made the outports more stable and attractive places. Certain outports became sizeable towns. Some winter sites became permanent settlements.

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Cod stock crumbles

Nonetheless, the custom of winter migration persisted well into the 20th century, even after Newfoundland’s political union with Canada in 1949, particularly in the north of the island and Labrador. It was in Labrador that the tenacious tradition ended in the 1990s, when the northern cod stocks crashed and the Canadian government imposed a complete moratorium on the fishery. Families reluctantly left their fishing places on the coast to live year-round in what had, until then, been their winter homes. It was the close of a unique experiment in overseas adaptation. Might it revive, one wonders, if the fishery returns?

Cultural evolution is not always unidirectional and reversions from broad general trends have often occurred in the past. In the Neolithic Middle East some settled farming communities reverted to nomadic foraging when the local climate deteriorated. So did some pre-Columbian farmers in the arid American south-west and Plains Indians after the introduction of the horse. The prehistoric Māori of New Zealand arrived from Polynesia as horticulturalists, but in the colder environment of South Island many switched to hunting and gathering. In Newfoundland we have, for a different set of reasons, an example of a reversion with comparable flexibility and resourcefulness, but within a transplanted European population.

Philip E.L. Smith is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal.

An Unsettled Life

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