Welcome to one of Canada’s oldest settlements, with a history dating back to the 1600s.
A Primer On the History of Freshwater
Freshwater, Newfoundland, Conception Bay North is a small fishing village on the Avalon Peninsula with a history dating to the 1600s, making it one of Canada’s oldest settlements. Lets explore its history.
When They Came
Early Exploration and Permanent Settlement
One of the earliest historical mentions of the area that would be later known as Freshwater appears in a journal kept by Abbe Jean Baudoin who accompanied Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville on an expedition to Newfoundland in 1696 and 1697, mentioning a town referred to as “Fraische Quatre” and recorded it as having 20 soldiers and two non-military citizens and residents.
Permanent settlement of Newfoundland came in fits and starts, as the harsh environment, marauding pirates and various business interests made permanent settlement challenging, despite the general support of the British crown. This backdrop would have long lasting effects on Newfoundland’s economic and social history.
However, this did not stop some of the more brazen early settlers who are believed to have arrived with Summer fishing admirals and then decided to simply not leave, which is, of course, one way to do it.
Regardless of various historical political narratives, we do know that many of the early pioneers came here from the British and Channel Islands. One such settler was Clement Noel (an ancestor of mine) who came here from the Isle of Jersey sometime in the 1700s. He was one of the earliest Methodist followers in the area. Laurence Coughlan, the first Methodist missionary to Newfoundland, often visited him in Freshwater and after Coughlan returned to England they continued to correspond, as evidenced by a letter Clement wrote to Mr. Coughlan in 1774.
Defense Against French Raids
During the French and British wars, Freshwater was to play a pivotal role in maintaining an English presence in Newfoundland. In 1697, 1705 and 1762 the French army attacked many communities along the shores of Conception Bay, plundering and destroying the settlements in their wake. The settlers from Carbonear and the surrounding area moved to the Island of Carbonear.
Legend has it the French never entered the settlement of Freshwater.
As a boy growing up in this quaint historic town, I recall the elder residents referring to the road that runs over Freshwater Hill as the “Battery.” It was here on this strategic headland that overlooks Carbonear Island and the entrance to Carbonear Harbor that the invading army was stopped. We are told that the French were never able to advance into Freshwater as the soldiers and fisher folk of the town who manned the garrison fought them back. The bodies of the soldiers killed in the battles were buried in Freshwater in unmarked graves near the old British fort.
I remember the old cannons in Freshwater. One was located along the coastline between Clowns Cove and Freshwater Cove in Butts’ garden. It has since been moved and put on display at Harbor Rock Hill in Carbonear. The other was stationed on Freshwater Hill where the garrison once stood. It disappeared within the past 50 years, leaving the history to pass into obscurity. All that remains is the fading ghost of a time that was. It was a world whose citizens fought the elements, hardships, disease and the storms of war seeking a better tomorrow. As Clement Noel wrote in 1774, “for it is a rough and thorny road that we are walking in.”
Why They Came
New World Promise. Old World Problems.
Like those of many old Newfoundland communities, the early settlers who came to Freshwater did so to escape oppression and to find a new freedom in a new world. What they found was a new world beset by some very old-world problems.
The migratory and quasi legal nature of the jurisdiction made law and order sometimes hard to come by and diseases, easily treatable today, were an ever-present danger. Then of course there is ever moody Newfoundland weather which at times can help and hinder harvests.
However, with the passage of time and the successive and consistent growth in both the cod fishery and other natural industry they defied the odds and laid the foundation for future generations of prosperity.
A Thriving Community
Migrant Workforce and Population Growth Cod Fishery,
By the latter part of the 1800s and into the 1900s, Freshwater had become a thriving community with a population of about 560 people. It boasted a church, two schools, a postal telegraph office, a railway station and courthouse, several general stores, a photo studio and a number of vessels engaged in the seal hunt.
As the local fishing grounds became crowded, many families went to the Labrador and the French Shore in the summer to fish, returning in the fall. Most had small gardens they planted in the spring and harvested in the autumn. In winter some men worked in the lumber and mining industries or went off to Canada and the United States to seek employment.
In later years many young people left the fishing industry to become tradesmen, carpenters, plumbers and mechanics, while others went on to higher education and became teachers, doctors, clergymen, lawyers and businessmen.
World Wars and Change
As the clouds of war rolled across Europe in 1914 and again in 1939, many young men from Freshwater answered the call and marched off to war, back to the lands of their ancestors to defend the freedom those ancestors had sought and won so long ago. The world was getting smaller, and as we will see that would have an inescapable impact on Freshwater and other outport communities in Newfoundland.
Many of the surnames who fought for freedom and then the security of it in that era have long since faded with the ebbing tide of life. Pike, Dawes, Joyce,….and many others, whisked away by time, leaving only quiet, obscure reminders in an old church record or an inscription on a weather-beaten grave marker that they were here.
Change, Decline and Rebirth
Confederation and Economic Transformation
In 1949, after centuries of existence in various and alternating political incarnations of British colony and later self-rule, Newfoundland joined Canada as its 10th province. It was a moment that would define the next 70 years and accelerate changes that Newfoundland was already experiencing which would begin to transform the nature of its economy and the character of its outport communities. Including Freshwater.
Like many places in Newfoundland that once depended on natural resources to produce a thriving community, global economic change came to Freshwater, as the 20th century came to a close. As a prime example, the watershed event of the 1992 Cod Moratorium accelerated and, in some ways, made permanent the end of the traditional way of life which had sustained families and hamlets for generations.
Gone is the rail station, the post office and many other characteristics that made the fishing village of old what it was, including its population which declined from a high point of around 560 people in the early 1900’s to about 230 today.
However, change also presents opportunity for a community to transmute itself from one form to another. Freshwater is well situated as a sister community to larger surrounding towns such as Carbonear, Victoria and Salmon Cove. Many who live in these communities have relatives and associates who live in Freshwater, which has kept the name alive in the thoughts of many and attracted others to choose to live there or frequent the community happenings.
Today Freshwater is an active community, kept alive by several townsfolk who run a very popular Facebook page, organize the Freshwater Coffee House events where various musical acts perform, as well as holding an open mic night and of course the yearly bonfire night on Clown’s Cove Beach which is a highlight of the year.
The story of this small community is far from over. Even as places change, family names come and go and the drum of time marches on, so long as new memories are made, and new stories become old stories told through time people will remember this place. And they will think of Freshwater and daydream of a place called home.
The early Recorded Surnames of Freshwater
1600 – 1800
This list was compiled from the book “Family Names of the Island of Newfoundland” by E. R. Seary, the Plantation Book and other sources.
These family names may have been there for many years before they were first recorded.