Welcome to one of Canada’s oldest settlements, with a history dating back to the 1600s.
A Primer On the History of Freshwater
Welcome to one of Canada’s oldest settlements, with a history dating back to the 1600s. Freshwater is a small fishing village on the rockbound coast of Newfoundland, located along the craggy shoreline of Conception Bay in two shallow coves where lofty headlands meet the sky.
Early History & Conflict
A journal kept by Abbe Jean Baudoin, who accompanied Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville on an expedition to Newfoundland in 1696 and 1697, mentions the town he calls Fraische Quatre and recorded it as having 20 soldiers and two non-military citizens and residents.
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 Harbour 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 Harbour Rock Hill in Carbonear. The other was stationed on Freshwater Hill where the garrison once stood. It disappeared within the past 30 years, leaving the history of this small town 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
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 lawless society where drunkenness and disorder reigned. They lost family members to ravaging disease and fought relentless storms to harvest the fruits of the sea. With sweated brow and bended back they cleared an untamed land to feed their animals and grow their crops. Through it all they prevailed to become a proud and God-fearing people who left their mark on generations to come.
The first settlers of this picturesque village is believed to have came here with the fishing admirals during the summer fishing season and never returned in the autumn as required by English Law at that time in history. No one knows for certain. We do know that many of the early pioneers came here from the British Isles and the 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.
A Thriving Community
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.
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.
In the changing winds of time you can hear the whispering roll call of the old family names of the past and present: Parsons, Moores, Davis, Pike, Butt, Penney, Whidler, Noel, Pottle, Sweet, Dolby, Cahill, Hammond, Joyce.
Many of the names have long since left with the ebbing tide of life, leaving as the only reminder they were here an entry in an old church record or an inscription on a weather-beaten grave marker in the old church cemetery by the winding brook that flows onward to the sea from whence they came.
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.