Canada's First English Settlement

"Thomas Willoughby, thou art a ne'er-do-well! Get thee to Cupers Cove and reform thyself." Young Willoughby, 19, may not have heard exactly those words, but he was sent to Cupers Cove, Newfoundland in 1612 to 'reform himself.

"Thomas Willoughby, thou art a ne'er-do-well! Get thee to Cupers Cove and reform thyself." Young Willoughby, 19, may not have heard exactly those words, but he was sent to Cupers Cove, Newfoundland in 1612 to 'reform himself.' Cupers Cove, now Cupids, was established by John Guy in 1610 under a royal charter from James I. It was England's first attempt at organized colonization in Canada and the second plantation in North America. Jamestown, Virginia was the first in 1607.

In the 17th century England underwrote plantation, or settlement, of colonists, expecting to profit from their endeavors. Bristol and London merchants established the Newfoundland Company in 1610 "to secure and make safe the trade of fishing" in Newfoundland. Guy, a Bristol Alderman and merchant, was directed "to show how the Plantations in the Newfoundland might be established and secured from the cold vapors, and foggy mists which in the Spring are supposed to molest that Country."

Guy and 39 colonists, men and women, sailed from Bristol with livestock, grain and supplies. Among this first group were Thomas Percy, who "died of remorse" after a killing and William Stone, who "died of laziness." The charter granted the colonists the whole island of Newfoundland. Their instructions were to fortify the settlement, farm, cut spars and planks, collect ore samples and most importantly, fish.

John Guy (courtesy Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives).

The first winter was mild and, with only four deaths, the colonists met their mandate. Guy reported in a letter in May 1611 that the weather was as hospitable as anywhere in Europe, there being "no winter to speak of before the midst of January" and "once being past a mile or two into the Land, the weather is far hotter" than England's.

The colony seemed successful and the investors were happy. The colonists built a fort, sawmill, gristmill, boats and cleared land for gardening. Guy built a mansion he called Sea-Forest House. In 1612 he brought more settlers, including Willoughby, whom the manifest notes was the "black sheep son of Sir Percival." This second group included 16 women. The settlement hoped to become self-replicating; on March 27, 1613 Nicholas Guy's wife delivered a son, probably the first English child born in Newfoundland.

Guy explored beyond Trinity Bay to establish friendly relations with the Beothuks, the native population. They met in October 1612, but because winter was imminent the native group returned to the interior. They planned to meet the next year, but the meeting never occurred. It is possible the cancelled trip ended any chance for establishing good relations between Europeans and Beothuks. Guy's successor did not undertake to renew the relationship.

After 1612, life in the colony changed. The winter of 1613 was difficult; many colonists developed scurvy and eight died. The soil and climate were less fruitful than expected. The settlers were able to grow vegetables but not grain and were unable to harvest enough hay to sustain their livestock through winter. Guy argued with the Company about property he expected personally and the wages owed to his men. The settlement was frequently raided by the pirate Peter Easton. The colonists had to pay him "protection money" in the form of livestock.

John Guy was an ambitious fellow and, seeing the colony faltering, returned to Bristol in 1615, where he later became mayor. When profits were not forthcoming, the Newfoundland Company began selling tracts of land to other promoters. The Company replaced Guy with John Mason, who could deal with pirates but did not tend to the fishery, weakening the colony's economy. The settlement failed and Mason went to New England in 1621, where he founded the colony of New Hampshire.

Informal settlement continued on a small scale, but all the charter colonies failed. There were insufficient resources to maintain colonists and generate a profit for the Company's shareholders. The fishery could generate such a profit, but only if operated as a migratory activity based in England.

Despite the plantations' failures, the endeavor was successful for England because it established the Empire in a new territory. Cuper's Cove is historically significant as the first English settlement in Canada and also as the forerunner of later settlements.

In 1995 archeologists unearthed evidence of John Guy's settlement in a potato patch in Cupids, located, after consulting Guy's journal, by measuring 240 paces from Cupids Pond to an area near a stream. Today John Guy and the first colony are memorialized in the little community on the rugged coast that first harbored them.