The First Settlers On The French Shore
by Rev. Canon J. T. Richards, O.B.E, to The Newfoundland Historical Society
(The Newfoundland Quarterly, Sept. and Dec. 1953)
The march of the peoples of the world westward from the cradle of the human race was irresistible. For a while it was held up by the Atlantic Ocean… Although there are indications that Newfoundland was visited by daring adventurers – Basques and Jerseymen – as early as 1450, its real and undoubted discovery is attributed to John Cabot in 1497. West Country merchantmen found in its waters, alive with fish, a source of great profit, and naturally wished to reserve the Newfound Isle as a fishing post only…
The French, too, were strong competitors for ownership… Those rights became recognized to such an extent, that the coast line from Cape Bonavista to Point Rich, was known as the French Shore. Afterwards the limits were changed and the French Shore included all the coast from Cape John to Cape Ray,- nearly half of Newfoundland… There was a tendency, however, to favour the French fishermen to the detriment of the struggling English settlers, and we can safely say that, except for the Red Indians and the few Esquimaux who crossed the Strait of Belle Isle, not a single settler was to be found on that long dreary coast from Cape John to Cape Ray for about two hundred and forty years after Cabot’s discovery…
The First Settlers
The history of a country is the history of its people. So we ask, who were the first English settlers on the French Shore? I am convinced that one named Robert Bartlett was the very first, and that Anchor Point in St. Barbe’s Bay, was the first place permanently settled. Thomas Genge, born at Anchor Point in 1827, died in 1914, gave me the story. As Bartlett was his father’s great-uncle, if we allow only twenty-five years for each of the three generations, we can be safe in assuming that he settled at Anchor Point, St. Barbe’s Bay, not later than 1850. As a matter of fact he placed the date at 1740. Here is Thomas Genge’s story.
Robert Bartlett, on board a fishing schooner on the north side of White Bay, went ashore with a companion to get wood. They rambled a distance from the shore and were captured by a company of Red Indians, who compelled them to carry their loads all day. At night they formed a ring around a camp-fire with Bartlett and his companion in the ring, and fell into a deep sleep. The two prisoners, who were not tied, crept out of the ring and escaped. They travelled as fast as they could until the sun arose, and, hearing the Indians in pursuit, they hid in the thick underwood all day. When night came they went on again.
After a few days they came to the salt water in what proved to be St. Barbe’s Bay, and saw the spars of a schooner over the low land to the north west. On travelling out around the shore, they came to an ideal little harbour about one hundred yards deep and twenty yards wide, sheltered from the wind and sea by a long low point extending a half mile to the westward.
Here, snugly moored, was an American fishing vessel, the crew of which were making their fish. In the fall Bartlett’s companion sailed away in this ship, but Bartlett, himself, having obtained provisions from the American vessel, decided to stay all alone. By his companion, he sent a letter to a nephew of his in England… Next year the nephew, Robert Genge, arrived, and there they were, a pair of Englishmen, first settlers on that historic portion of Newfoundland known as the French Shore. How long they lived there alone is unknown, but it must have been several years… Bartlett, and his nephew, hunted along the shore as far west as St. John’s Bay, where Bartlett’s Harbour is named after him…
Bartlett sent to Yeovil in Somerset for another nephew, Abram Genge. He was young and enterprising and soon saw possibilities of the coast. Gradually English youngsters coming out to Labrador were attracted to the long low strand across the Strait, and employed by Abram Genge, who was now the leader of the little band…
Robert Bartlett, an old man with plenty of means, returned to England where he died. Robert Genge was a great furrier, and stayed on as head man on Anchor Point room, until he died of old age. Bartlett never married, nor did his nephews. In fact there was no woman on the coast for anyone to marry. At this point there appeared on the scene one family, by name, Watts, having two sons and two daughters. The father seems to have been employed by Abram Genge in a section of the coast near Boat Harbour, four miles west of Cape Norman, and gave his name to a river in the vicinity now called Watt’s River. About this time William Buckle with his son William came to Anchor Point, and Abram Genge sent them to St. Margaret’s Bay. The following winter the father died, and the son William went back to Labrador where Slade and Co. asked him if he would go on to Belle Isle to see if there were any furs there…
Buckle had not forgotten St. Margaret’s Bay where his father had died, and went back to Anchor Point to see his old friends and his employer Abram Genge. Here too, he met one of the two beautiful daughters of the Watts family,- the only marriageable girls on the coast, and married her. They were the ancestors of all the Buckles on the coast of Labrador…
About the time that Buckle married one of the Watts sisters, a Scotchman lieutenant on board the British warship patrolling the coast happened to land at Anchor Point, and saw the other sister… Embracing every opportunity of seeing her, he became so enamoured that he resolved upon the dangerous step of deserting his ship and settling on the coast. For many years, Duncan was a hunted man, and when the time came around for the warship to come back, he had to exercise the utmost vigilance to escape…
The marriage of Alexander Duncan and Mary Watts about 1795 or 1800 resulted in the birth of three sons and no less than fourteen children, who grew into beautiful girls. This seems to have been ordered by providence, for by now, more and more English and Scottish youngsters were trickling into the coast, and these girls, half Scotch and half English, became their wives.
Abram Genge, now an old man, sent to Yeovil, England, for a brother’s son, and William Genge came and settled at Anchor Point. A sister’s son, Absalom Robbins, also came out. He was a great favourite with the settlers, and was called Rabby. He never married. William Genge met a daughter of William Buckle, whose family came to Buckle’s Point in St. Margaret’s Bay every winter. They were married and became the ancestors of all the Genges in the Strait of Belle Isle. When Bishop Feild made his first episcopal voyage to Labrador in 1848, he visited Anchor Point, and was loud in his praise of Mrs. Genge…
She was the mother of Thomas Genge, who gave me the history of the first settlers on the French Shore. On this visit Bishop Feild consecrated at Anchor Point the first cemetery to be used in northern Newfoundland.
The first settler in St. John’s Bay was a giant of a Highland Scotchman named William Griffis. He was always called Big William. In the employ of the North West Company, he fell out with another big Scotchman. A challenge was given and nothing could induce those two men of kindred blood, away from home in the wilds of Labrador, to shake hands and forget their quarrel…
It was found that the knockout blow had been fatal, and Big William, really a kind-hearted man, was stricken with grief over what he had done. That night he disappeared, and was never seen in those parts afterwards. He made his way south, crossed the Strait of Belle Isle, and visited Anchor Point. From there he went to the bottom of St. John ‘s Bay and settled at Castor River, where he lived alone for many years…
Big William was succeeded in Castor River by an Englishman, Jesse Humber, two of whose sons, William and Andrew, were living there when I first visited it in 1905. The other son, called after the father, Jesse, went up the coast, and there are descendants of his at Boone Bay today.
William Dredge and George Coombs
William Dredge and George Coombs were the first settlers at Black-duck Cove on the west side of St. Barbe’s Bay. They married two sisters, daughters of Lieutenant Alexander Duncan, who deserted from his ship to marry Mary Watts. He had adopted his mother’s surname “Gould” on his desertion, so that all his descendants were called Gould.
All the Dredges at Black-duck Cove are descendants of William Dredge, and are of a very kindly disposition. George Coombs moved a little further west to St. Manuel’s Bay, where he was joined by a nephew from England, whose descendants were among the first settlers of Shoal Cove West, New Ferolle.
The first settler on Current Island was William Toop, followed shortly after by James Williams and his brother William. Then, John Gibbons, a sturdy Englishman, most sterling and capable qualities. As an illustration of their mettle, the eldest son, John, went to Hamilton, Ontario, about 1900. He could neither read nor write, but secured work as a common hand in the Hamilton Steel Works. In about ten years after entering the mill he had attained the highest post, and became the manager with a secretary to do his writing. He retained this position until his death. (To be continued)
The First Settlers On The French Shore – Part 2
The first settler on Forrester’s Point was Bill Williams, a desperate character, one of the brothers mentioned above. He married a full-blooded Esquimaux, and many are the stories told of the vicissitudes of this union. On one occasion Bill decided to get rid of his wife Hannah. He took her out in a boat, and was putting her overboard to drown her, when another boat came to the rescue. The occupants of the other boat, before intervening to save Hannah, called out, “What are you doing with your wife, Bill?” “Be gobs, Jack, I’m goin’ to get rid of her, boy. She’s got me druv crazy.” “But who’s goin’ to cook for you, and mend your socks, and wash your clothes?” “Be gobs, Jack, I did not think of that!” said Bill, and forthwith pulled her into the boat again.
Both the old Williams had died before I went to the Straits in 1903. Old Hannah still survived, and was regarded by the next generation with a certain amount of awe. Uncanny powers of witchcraft were attributed to her, and the younger folk dared not incur her displeasure…
James Chambers was a splendid type of Scotsman. He married Jane Buckle, daughter of old William Buckle, and settled in Bear Cove, three miles west of Flower’s Cove. In summer he moved out to Seal Island, which was also called French Island, because it had been a favourite resort of the French fishermen. What is now called Flower’s Cove, was first called French Island Harbour…
George Gaulton, first settler in Savage Cove, married one of Duncan’s daughters. White and Coles, English youngsters, each married one of the same sisters, and were the first permanent settlers of Sandy Cove. Thomas Mitchelmore’s first wife was a Duncan. She died young, and he married a daughter of the first settler of French Island Harbour – Whalen – by whom he had five sons. He was the first settler of Green Island Cove. Philip Coates, first settler of Eddy’s Cove East, married Sarah Duncan – Aunt Sally Coates – and had many children and grandchildren. Joseph Woodward, English youngster, married a Whalen, and was the first permanent settler of Boat Harbour, six miles west of Cape Norman.
James Dempster came out from England as clerk on Bird’s room, Labrador. He came of a well-to-do family, and was engaged to an English girl who left him to marry another. He… came to Labrador in a Jersey vessel.., married an Esquimaux widow and had one son named John. He died comparatively young and was buried in Doury’s Cove near Hawke’s Harbour.
John Dempster came across the Strait of Belle Isle, and was the first settler at Flower’s Cove, one mile east of French Island Harbour, which became the port of call for the mail boat. Flower’s Cove now includes both harbours.
Other English settlers were George Caines, first settler at Shoal Cove East; Charles Godfrey, who settled at Bear Cove, and was the maternal grandfather of the merchant brothers Angus, Charles and Isaac Genge; John Pittman, first settler at Seal Cove, and great grandfather of the Pittmans now living at Blue Cove, Darby’s Tickle. Blue Cove was originally called “Blue Guts Cove,” but when Dr. W. W. Blackall first visited it, he advised that “Guts” be omitted from the name, and it has been called “Blue Cove” ever since.
After the Englishmen, a few settlers from the south of Newfoundland came along. The first of these was from Brigus, named Henry Whalen in the year 1850. He was the first settler in French Island Harbour – now Flower’s Cove.
Henry Whalen was a brother of the great seal killer, Captain William Whalen, who never missed the seals. Skipper Henry was a great codfish man, but could make no hand of seal fishing. On the sealing voyages he noticed the land on the Newfoundland side of the Strait of Belle Isle, and heard that its waters abounded in cod. So he made up his mind to leave Brigus and take his family in his vessel, and make a new home near the fishing grounds. He persuaded John Carnell of Catalina to follow him in his schooner…
Elizabeth Whalen, a little girl of twelve, accompanied her father and could read. Her father could neither read nor write. Before she died in 1928, at the age of ninety, she related to me as follows:
“…We crossed Pistolet Bay to Cape Norman… until we came to Savage Cove, and I was reading the Pilot Book. So I said to father ‘There is an island off Savage Cove’… After we anchored and went ashore, father said, ‘This seems like a fine harbour. I think we will settle here.’ Shortly after this old George Gaulton came around the harbour where we were. He was the first and only settler in Savage Cove at that time, and lived in the extreme south west corner. Father said to him, ‘I think we will settle down here, Mr. Gaulton.’ The old man got very angry, and said ‘No you won’t settle here. There is no room, no room.’ Savage Cove is a good mile around, and he was not in the real harbour at all. Then father walked to Flower’s Cove, and went on a mile further to French Island Harbour. When he got back, he said, ‘We will go to French Island Harbour.’ Although Mr. Gaulton would not give consent for us to settle in Savage Cove, he was very glad to avail of the services of a mid-wife – Mrs. Noseworthy – who formed one of my party. That night a twin of boys was born to Mrs. Gaulton.”
They were still living when I was there in 1904, and were called Billy and Dickey Gaulton. Neither of them ever married…
Betty Whalen’s narrative continued:
“We left Savage Cove, followed by Carnell, and entered French Island Harbour. We were in first, and father and Richard Percy and my small brother John, landed right where Whalen’s wharf is now. There was a skeleton of a whale there, and they stuck up a rib to mark their place.
“Carnell followed and stuck up another rib where his wharf is now. My mother could not come in the spring as she was about to be confined. During the summer Sarah was born. She was the youngest child of our family, and when she grew up married Matthew Coles. In the fall father went back to Brigus for mother and the baby. The Carnells left Flower’s Cove again and went further west. After a few years wandering about, they returned and settled down…”
Canon Richards lived in Flower’s Cove from 1904 to 1945. I chose only the parts of his speech that spoke of specific people. He talked at greater length about the geography and economy of the area.
You can read about Canon Richards in a 2013 article “Author pieces together life of clergyman” about Irving Letto’s book Sealskin Boots and a Printing Press (Amazon link below).