Newfoundland is known for its fisheries, unique culture, and endearing people, and Bonne Bay is no exception. But how did the settlement of the bay we know today begin? Just as many other places in the world, Newfoundland’s west coast is deeply rooted in both English and French tradition. European explorers visited and charted the west coasts starting as early as the 16th century with John Cabot, and then later by the famous Captain James Cook who studied Bonne Bay itself.

As more was learned about the new world and interests in claiming territory grew, England and France fought drawn out wars for control over Eastern North America. Eventually in 1713 England won sovereignty over Newfoundland, but France—through treaties—retained rights to fish on the north coast of the island, which became known as “The French Shore”. Only 80 years after this agreement, the French Shore was moved to the west coast due to Newfoundlanders increasing desire to control the northern fisheries.

The French Shore Treaty restricted the settlement of anyone on the coast, be they French or English. However, in the late 18th century France was preoccupied with revolution, and the Napoleonic wars, which resulted in little monitoring of the west coast of Newfoundland. It was around this time that fishermen, mainly from southwestern England, began to set up permanent dwellings around Bonne Bay, relying on the seasonal resources to survive year-round in the harsh climate. Seeing a lucrative business opportunity, Joseph Bird set up a trading post in Woody Point, bartering supplies for fish and furs, which made the winter months—and life in general—easier for the inhabitants of Bonne Bay.

As more people slowly settled in Bonne Bay, the fisheries expanded, and industries such as logging sprang up. There was an increased demand for herring, which was a common bait fish in 1870s Newfoundland, as a resulting of increased cod trawling in the Newfoundland fishery. At the time there was an abundance of herring in the Bonne Bay area, resulting in the rapid growth of the local towns. The local herring stocks quickly declined, however, and a decade later many of the inhabitants moved to a new way of life. Nova Scotian fishermen moving to the area had brought the art of making lobster traps and canning the meat for shipping with them. This created another boom in the local fisheries, bringing in and employing even more people.

At the turn of the 20th century the spotlight was once again on the French Shore. With declining fish stocks, political tension in Europe, and increasing populations on the west coast—where no one was permitted to permanently settle—all led to a new agreement between France and Britain. France gave up fishing rights on the west coast in return for territories in Africa, but retained the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Newfoundlanders were now free to make western Newfoundland their home with no worries of breaking a treaty. Eventually the fisheries failed due to a long period of over-exploitation. In 1920 the Lomond lumber mill opened up in Bonne Bay, providing winter jobs that paid in cash; a first of its kind in the area. As the years went on Bonne Bay became more and more connected with the rest of Newfoundland and the world. Now Bonne Bay is part of a UNESCO world heritage site that is visited by tourists from all over the world.

While settling in Bonne Bay was not easy for the early inhabitants, and it took a long while for the towns that are still here to develop into full communities, hard conditions and dwindling resources did little to deter more settlers, from whom descend the generous and humble modern community known as Bonne Bay.

Produced with assistance from the Bonne Bay Marine Station and the Ocean Learning Partnership.

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Alistair Ozon

Alistair is an Environmental and Earth Science student at Dalhousie University, and originally from Dartmouth Nova Scotia. This summer he is working with the Bonne Bay Marine Station, Ocean Learning Partnership, and Parks Canada.