When we speak of 'history' we frequently refer to the last five centuries, when Europeans explored and later settled the New World. But for thousands of years previous to that time aboriginal peoples made the south coast of Labrador home. The oldest known site of prehistoric occupation is located near today's town of Pinware and dates to about 9,000 years ago.

In contrast, the modern communities of Labrador Coastal Drive were founded only about 200 years ago. That represents just 2% of the total time that people have lived in our region.
A people known today as Palaeo-Indians established campsites along our coast 9,000 years ago, hunting sea mammals along the coast and fishing for salmon in the rivers.

An adaptive lifestyle called the Maritime Archaic tradition developed as these people learned to exploit the rich maritime resources. About 7,500 years ago a Maritime Archaic adolescent died and was buried with reverence and ceremony near the present-day community of L'Anse Amour. The L'Anse Amour Burial is the oldest known funeral monument in North America.

Thousands of years after their initial arrival to southern Labrador, the Maritime Archaic people spread to northern Labrador and crossed the Strait of Belle Isle to the Island of Newfoundland. Yet by about 3,000 years ago they had disappeared from all of Labrador and Newfoundland.

Subsequently, the coastline of Labrador was settled by other Native people, known only sketchily to archaeologists as "Intermediate" and "Recent" Indians. These people were possibly the ancestors of present-day Innu people of Labrador.

Another, very different, aboriginal culture also arrived after the Maritime Archaic people. The Early Palaeo-Eskimo tradition spread across the eastern Canadian Arctic and southwards along the Labrador coast. Later, a second group of Palaeo-Eskimo people known as the Dorset also occupied these areas. Within the last 1,000 years the Thule culture, the ancestors of the modern-day Inuit, arrived in Labrador.

Labrador Coastal Drive has an exceedingly rich archaeological heritage -- demonstrating the important role it played in the initial settlement of what is now eastern Canada.
The Basques
Breton and Basque fishermen discovered the rich maritime resources of the Labrador coast early in the 16th century.

By the 1540s the Basques had established numerous whaling stations along the south coast of Labrador and the Lower North Shore of Quebec. Red Bay was one of the largest and busiest. As many as 1,000 men made Red Bay their seasonal home, hunting right and bowhead whales and refining their valuable oil for European markets
More than 15 years of archaeological research has uncovered the remains of some 20 whaling stations in Red Bay. Underwater explorations in the harbour have led to the discovery of three Basque galleons and several small boats, the best preserved examples of 16th century vessels in the New World. Discover an incredible story of exploitation, profit and hardship as you explore Labrador's 16th century at the Red Bay National Historic Site.
New France
Prior to the 1763 Treaty of Paris southern Labrador was an extension of New France, under the ownership of the French King.

The King granted concessions to select members of society which gave them exclusive rights to fish and trade. In 1702 a vast concession, including all of southeastern Labrador, was granted to Augustin le Gardeur de Courtemanche for a period of ten years.

It was not until 1713, when a much smaller concession in southern Labrador was awarded to Pierre Constantin, that the first French post was built here. At Red Bay and Riviére des Francois (Pinware River) Constantin built establishments for a seal fishery. The post at Grand St. Modet (today's community of West St. Modeste) produced oil - rendered from the fat of seals - and salted seal pelts for shipment to Quebec City.
A token, possibly of Jersey origin, found by a local resident at Forteau (photo by D. Robbins, July 2001) (larger version)
English & Jersey
France's right to fish along the Labrador coast ended in 1763. The following decades saw the arrival of new mercantile interests in the Labrador Coast.

English and Jersey merchants established cod fishing stations all along the coast.

Unlike the Jersey merchants, who concentrated exclusively on the summer cod fishery, the English firms were interested also in other resources, including seals and salmon. The Devon-based firm of Noble and Pinson established a sealing post at West St. Modeste and a salmon post at Pinware as early as 1774. John Slade and company of Poole, England established at Battle Harbour in the early 1700s. In 1775 Captain George Cartwright established a fish and fur trading business at Cartwright.

Most of the men engaged by these merchant firms left Labrador at the end of the summer fishing season. A few remained behind to care for premises or to engage in the winter seal fishery. These "winter men" were the first year-round white residents of the Southern Labrador.
In the 1700's Europeans, mainly British and French, began settling in Labrador. They came as fur traders and fishermen, carpenters and tinsmiths and blended their ways with those of the Inuit of Labrador. Winters were spent at heads of bays where there was timber for firewood and construction as well as easy access to the interior for trapping and hunting. Summer places, in carefully chosen harbours or on islands, provided easy access to the sea for cod and salmon fishing and seal hunting. More recently, these populations have moved to the larger communities along the Labrador coast, where medical, educational, social and administrative services are available.
Permanent Settlers
For centuries British law forbade settlement on the coast of Labrador, as it was felt that a resident population would compete with British merchants in the fishery.

This changed in the mid-19th century and settlers from England, Jersey and Newfoundland joined the "winter men" (see preceding) in Labrador.

Most of the first British settlers arriving after 1830 were artisans, not fishermen, possibly put out of work by industrialisation in Britain. Single women, whose average age was 18 years, came from Newfoundland to marry the new settlers. Eventually the British fishery was replaced by a fishing industry controlled by merchants from the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. The permanent settlers were still dependent upon the merchants for supplies exchanged for their winter catches.

After 1850 there was a larger influx of single men and women and families from Newfoundland's east coast. Many of them were fishermen who had sailed to Labrador each year as crews for Newfoundland merchants; they gradually began to operate independently. During this period, the economy of the Labrador Coast shifted from the winter resources to a stationer, or shore-based, summer fishery. Although merchants and stationers continued to exploit the fishery from outside the region, the permanent residents gradually developed their own identity. The summer fishery was augmented by winter and spring activities such as fur-trapping and sealing.
The Grenfell Mission
Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell spent over 40 years of his life serving the residents of northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador.

In 1887 Dr. Grenfell joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen as a medical missionary. In 1892 he came to Labrador with two doctors and two nurses and, the following year, established the first hospital of the mission in the New World at Battle Harbour, on the southeastern Labrador coast. A nursing station was established in Forteau in 1907.

As Dr. Grenfell spent much of his time away from Labrador, his main value to the mission was his ability as a fund raiser. In a full page advertisement which appeared May 25, 1914 in the Christian Endeavour World Grenfell summarized what financial contributions could do:

  • $1000 will operate a nursing station for one year
  • $600 will pay a nurse's salary
  • $500 will pay for a social worker or teacher
  • $250 will cover travelling expenses for one worker
  • $150 will maintain a child for a year
  • $50 will provide an orphanage with three week's milk
  • $25 will clothe a child for one year
  • $5 will maintain an orphan for two weeks

Grenfell was also instrumental in the development of a craft industry in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Hundreds of individuals produced clothing, hooked mats, beadwork, grass baskets, carvings and other items which the Mission purchased for cash or credit slips redeemable for medical services or used clothing. The crafts were resold in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. The Mission called this cottage industry its "Industrial Department".

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