Colony of Avalon, Newfoundland & Labrador

1621-1638
Associated names:  Ferryland; Pool Plantation
Location:  East coast of Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, about 80 kms south of St. John’s. (GPS) 47.0228N, -52.879 W

The utopian vision

George Calvert, founder of the Colony of Avalon, had clear aims. He wanted to advance England’s colonization objectives; make money in the Newfoundland fishery; and create a new type of settlement where the first two aims could be pursued by Catholics and Protestants living and working together. A Catholic himself, Calvert wanted to make freedom of religious choice for individuals an underlying principle of his settlement’s governance so that a person’s chosen faith would have no bearing on their civil or employment opportunities.

This was a remarkably bold idea in the 1620s. At the time, England was attempting to purge itself of Catholics, demanding everyone worship in the official state church, the Anglican Church of England. To avoid being sanctioned by the penal laws one needed to swear the oath of supremacy. It said that the crown had the right to declare the official faith of the land and to require inhabitants to show their loyalty by swearing it. Catholics had to weigh the costs and benefits of swearing that oath, the main cost being to surrender individual choice of faith to the state and effectively make religion the handmaid of the state. The benefit, at least in principle, was to have a chance at all the perks of being recognized as a loyal citizen.

Calvert’s settlement in Newfoundland was in its early stages of development when, for reasons unrelated to religion, he decided to move further south to the Chesapeake in the U.S. (later named Maryland). There he acquired more land from the English king where his family continued to develop the original Avalon principle over the next half century or so before being defeated. Of course in hindsight it would take centuries more before the principle of separating the state from religious choice as tried at Avalon and Maryland would become customary or legal in Canada, and even now there remain gaps in practice.

The proponent

The initiator of the vision for southern Newfoundland, George Calvert, was born into a Catholic family in Yorkshire, England (b: 1580; d: 1632). At age 12 he and his father began to attend the Anglican church because a new cycle of religious law enforcement was underway. He studied at Oxford and went on to have a successful career, the latter part at the court of James I. He arrived there in 1603 as James I (also James VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. James would carry on Elizabeth’s campaign to cleanse England of Catholicism. Calvert rose steadily at court to become the king’s principal secretary in 1619.

Calvert’s time at court included a period spent working on colonization and settlement issues in Ireland. There he witnessed the effects of depriving people of their choice of religion. His interest in colonization led him to invest in at least two private colonization companies starting in 1609: the Virginia Company and the British East India Company. Then in 1620 he bought his own piece of land in southern Newfoundland.

By 1623, Calvert’s career at court was becoming less secure because of shifts in court politics. He was also recovering from the unexpected death of his much loved wife the year before. Reasons coalesced for him to change his life course. He developed a plan to exit his court duties over a period of several months, taking care not to jeopardize good relations with his colleagues and the king in the process. On his departure, the king gave him land in Ireland and made him a baron with the title Lord Baltimore. During this time he also decided to return to the Catholic faith, a choice that became public in February 1625. Then, in late March, King James I died, succeeded by his son, Charles I. At this point, Calvert had already turned much of his attention to his properties in Ireland, Yorkshire, and his developing Colony of Avalon. We begin with the context for the Avalon development.

Figure 1.  Sketch of Newfoundland showing Avalon Peninsula in lower right. Note Ferryland, Fermeuse, Renews, then head west past 2 bays to Placentia Bay. Source: Gillian T. Cell, 1969, ii

Land / coast / sea / survival

The coasts of seventeenth century Newfoundland were well-known and vital to the survival of Indigenous peoples and fishers long before Europeans began settling permanently in 1610. As for the interior of the island, relatively few Indigenous peoples knew much about it until settlers mapped it in 1822. For the Beothuk, land was a pathway to coastal resources. Access to coastal waters was essential because it provided protein and other nutrients not obtained in sufficient amounts elsewhere. Over time, coastal exploitation by a combination of European and other Indigenous peoples led the Beothuk to avoid the coasts and try to live inland year round. That confluence of circumstances contributed to their gradual extinction in 1829.

By contrast, for the Mi’kmaq, the sea and coasts formed pathways to land resources. At least since the mid-1500s, groups had periodically travelled from Cape Breton and elsewhere to the southern Avalon Peninsula and several other islands such as Prince Edward Island and St-Pierre and Miquelon for food. This subsistence foraging was practiced over a vast Mi’kmaq traditional territory, with the same group hunting and trapping sometimes in Cape Breton, sometimes in Newfoundland depending on scarcities.

Seasonal fishers from Europe added a third pattern of land/coast/sea use. From spring to autumn, they anchored their ocean-going ships and fished from small boats near the shore. Along with using the sea and coast as common resources, they also used a narrow strip of land where they gathered wood to build temporary fish-processing infrastructure and shelters.

Proprietary settlements like the Colony of Avalon introduced a fourth land/coast/sea usage configuration. From the early seventeenth century, sponsors/financiers sought to combine permanent residency in Newfoundland with the fishing industry to enhance profits. There was no formal government over land or sea to manage all these competing interests, and that was a problem. Proprietary settlements looked poised to invoke privatization to take over “the commons” that the Indigenous peoples and migratory fishers customarily depended upon for survival.

Ownership, Proprietorship

The land on which the Colony of Avalon was built came into Calvert’s hands in two stages. Each provided a different package of rights. His initial 1620 tract was a narrow east-west strip that included the Ferryland harbour where the colony would be built. It was part of a much larger tract owned by William Vaughan who bought it in 1617 from Newfoundland’s first proprietary landowner, the London and Bristol Company, often referred to as The Newfoundland Company. Calvert appears to have acquired his strip in freehold tenure with the same general rights that any ordinary freeholder in England would have. In 1621 Calvert sent a governor who had a military background, Captain Edward Wynne to Ferryland, along with eleven labourers and tradesmen, to start building the Colony of Avalon immediately. They became its first permanent settlers.

Until then, permanent settlement had been largely unsuccessful. Given the conflicting interests over land uses, it was politically and economically difficult to introduce new permanent settlement on the southeast coast. To improve his likelihood of success, Calvert sought more power over his property. In late 1622 he asked King James for a royal patent for all of Newfoundland. After his request was scaled down considerably to avoid interfering with the rights of several other Newfoundland property owners, his charter included the initial strip acquired from Vaughan plus adjacent territory stretching north to just below the St. John’s tract and westward right across the peninsula to Placentia Bay. Please refer to figure 2.

Figure 2.  Sketch of Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland, showing the approximate property boundaries of territory given by England’s king by royal charter to named groups or individuals. The dotted line indicates Calvert’s original strip from Vaughan, and “Baltimore” indicates his 1623 chartered territory. Source: Gillian T. Cell, 82.

Once the charter was signed in April 1623 he had sweeping powers far beyond those applying to his first tract. His rights were now similar to those of the king — to make, implement, and enforce laws in the interests of peaceful and good government. He owned the land forever, and could hand it down to successors or sell it in whole or in part. There were also obligations: to remember his allegiance to the crown, to make laws that were not repugnant to those in England, and to defend the land militarily if required. The tenure was known as free and common socage in capite, which meant freehold but with a knight’s-service clause requiring martial action if the land came under threat. The in capite obligation also implicated Calvert’s tenants.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry had long since worked out its own customary system to bring order to the hundreds of ships converging on Newfoundland’s southeast coast every spring. The captain of the first English fishing ship to arrive in each harbour became the “fishing admiral” for the season. Informal arrangements such as these, later formalized in law as the Western Charters, worked to allocate fishing rooms, deal with rule-breakers, and so on, and keep the fishery more or less free and open.

Competition over coastal usage grew as the fishing industry burgeoned and settlement continued tentatively along the coast. The fragmentary governing arrangements on land and sea became more ineffective with time. The result was that even though Calvert had enormous power on paper, he still needed to negotiate with fishers and fish merchants who held sway over the only industry in the region, and one that was indisputably of national interest to England.

Avalon and Christendom

Calvert chose the name for his new property himself. “Avalon” evokes a couple of English legends. In one, “Avalon” refers to a place of sanctuary located in Somerset, England where Christianity is said to have been first received in its more or less unified, pre-Reformation configuration. In another, Avalon is an island, a refuge, where King Arthur and his knights went to be healed. Perhaps it’s within the bounds of possibility that the name choice indicates Calvert’s desire for an enlightened, peaceful place where Anglicans and Catholics could live harmoniously side-by-side even if their faiths remained unreconciled.

The 1623 charter is notable for how it differs on religious matters from the Newfoundland Company’s 1610 charter. Both were signed by King James I. In 1610, no one suspected of supporting the Church of Rome was to set foot in Newfoundland. All passengers had to swear the oath of supremacy before boarding ship. The charter implicitly links prospective settlers to the state’s desire for conversions of Indigenous peoples. The underlying assumption is that if only Anglicans get to Newfoundland, then all conversions will be to the official faith. By contrast, the 1623 charter does not prohibit Catholics. The text uses “Christians” and “Christianity” rather than Catholics and Protestants; says nothing about the oath of supremacy; and refers disparagingly to the Indigenous population but not as an object of evangelization. Calvert quite likely had a hand in writing the 1623 royal patent — given his role at court, the absence of proscriptions against Catholic settlers, and the name of his new colony and province.

Settlement site

Archaeological evidence pre-dating the settlers’ site at Avalon shows the Beothuk people had been present in the area, even within the precise 4-acre site that became the Colony itself. A dozen small Beothuk hearths from the early 1500s have been found with burnt seal and fish bones, and seeds scattered in and near them. So far the archaeological record does not show the Beothuk were present in the Ferryland area in the early seventeenth century. They may have spoken with their feet, staying away from the southeastern Avalon coast because there was nothing to be gained by being there.

The Colony was next to Ferryland’s inner harbour called The Pool. Protected from the open Atlantic, it provided safe anchorage for small boats. The defensive structures built by Captain Wynne include a deep ditch along the water’s edge, the soil of which was piled behind it to create a rampart topped with palisade posts. Other water-related functions included a large stone storehouse near an early wharf, and a privy with openings that allowed the tide to flush it twice a day. Discoveries elsewhere include: a small forge; a brewhouse and bakery; tenement structures; a salt works; a well. The largest structure was George Calvert’s so-called “mansion house,” built between 1621 and 1625. It had several attached elements including a parlour, large hall, kitchen, buttery, stable, courtyard, and sleeping quarters.

Figure 3.  Archaeological excavation of Calvert’s “mansion house.” Author’s photo on-site 15 June 2016.

A cobblestone street has also been found. Captain Wynne described it in a letter to Calvert as a “prettie streete” linking several of the waterfront structures and activities.

Figure 4.  The street linked several waterfront activities built by Wynne and found by archaeologists. Author’s photo on-site 15 June 2022.

The settlement population fluctuated from the original 12 in 1621 to 32 the following year when 20 craftspeople including women and a few children arrived, followed by a Protestant minister who didn’t stay long. By 1624 the population was reported by a visitor to be about 100. When Captain Wynne left in 1625, Calvert hired a new governor, Sir Arthur Aston, a Catholic. He came with two servants (and possibly a small group of others), but stayed only about a year before going off to fight, and die, for the English in France. In July 1627, George Calvert made his first visit, bringing with him a few family members, two secular priests, and a contingent of colonists, both Protestant and Catholic. Calvert took on the role of manager and tried to put his colony on the path to a prosperous future connected to the fishery. He went back to England around the end of November and returned the following June to take up permanent residence. With him came his second wife, many of his children, two sons-in-law, another secular priest, and 30 to 40 other Catholics. A few others came and went in those years, some of them Protestant, some Catholic.

Evidence regarding how the settlement functioned on a day-to-day basis with Calvert in residence depends heavily on three extant letters from George Calvert to friends and King Charles dated August 1629, some privy council records, and court documents for a case between the Calvert and Kirke families over the Avalon property held after the 1660 Restoration. These documents describe life in the Colony in the late 1620s as very difficult. For instance, just after Calvert returned to the island in 1628, France sent ships to harass fishers off Ferryland. Calvert’s charter obligations required him to defend them against the French, which he did, but at great cost in time, energy, and resources to himself and his tenants.

On other fronts, the 1628-29 winter turned out to be bitterly cold and harsh for those at Avalon. Half of the 100 or so residents fell ill at some point, some had scurvy, and 9 or 10 died. The Calvert house was converted into a hospital to deal with the crisis. Calvert wrote that this very cold corner of the country was not “terra Christianorum.” Then there were the unsatisfactory exchanges Calvert had with the fishers, very likely about taxes at harbours and ports, which his charter gave him authority to introduce. Calvert disliked them and they resented him because of his land-based powers that would constrain their customary free use of coastal land. He reported having continual quarrels with them. Worried they would bad-mouth him back in England, he asked his friends at court to defend his reputation if necessary.

Regarding the religious freedom principle he intended to implement in the Colony: Calvert needed to supply a place large enough so both faith groups could worship without one offending the other. His “mansion house” (and sometime hospital) was the only indoor space large enough. So a priest led Catholic worship in one part of the house while a minister delivered the Protestant service in another. Records show that members of the hierarchy in both Catholic and Protestant institutions were scandalized by this sharing behaviour. There was so much intolerant fuss from the Protestant minister, Erasmus Stourton, that Calvert expelled him. Once back in London, Stourton tried to convince the king and privy council to sanction Calvert for his overt disobedience to English law by seizing his property. His efforts failed.

Change of venue

Calvert grew disillusioned about his Newfoundland colony because of the weather, threats from the French, and squabbles with representatives of the entrenched fishing industry. After only 15 months in permanent residence at Avalon, he decided to try his vision elsewhere. He, his wife, and about 40 or so others left Avalon at the end of August 1629 headed for Virginia. Calvert expected King Charles to give him another royally chartered province, which he did. Calvert had a strong hand in writing that 1632 charter, too, just before he died. This time the charter specified the tenure was free and common socage owing fealty to the king, not military service. He also traded a cold climate for a warmer one, and fish for tobacco. But he took with him the same vision about designing a settlement to promote freedom of religious choice. Thus the saga about advancing England’s colonization ambitions continued, this time with lessons learned at Avalon about separating a settlement’s civil government from its residents’ religious choices.

This discontinuity between Avalon and Maryland fits a pattern found in built utopias whereby a given effort doesn’t work out for any number of possible reasons, but some of its ideas still have traction. Those parts go on to animate a subsequent experiment in another place and time. The utopian idea didn’t die; it just stopped shaping Avalon.


The Colony of Avalon and the surrounding area of Ferryland have been studied extensively by archaeologists, historians, sociologists, and by cross- and multi- disciplinary teams. Here is a selection of sources used for this entry. See Cell (1969) for an overview of the Newfoundland fishery, increasing interest in it by England from the late sixteenth century, and eventual steps toward government; and Cell (1982) for documents related to colonization, including the Avalon charter. See Pope (2004) for the fishing industry and its compatibility or not with settlement in the seventeenth century. For archaeological findings, see Tuck (2013) and Gaulton and Tuck (2003). On the Beothuk, see Pastore (1989); and for Mi’kmaq see Martijn (2003). Regarding George Calvert, his utopian vision, and Protestant/Catholic issues both in England and on land claimed in North America, see Krugler (2004; 1978), Lahey (1977), and Miller et al (2011). For simplicity, George Calvert is the name used throughout this essay, although he also had the titles “Sir” and “Lord Baltimore.”

by Beth Moore Milroy
20.06.22

References

  • Cell, Gillian T., ed. 1982. Newfoundland discovered: English attempts at colonisation, 1610-1630. London: The Hakluyt Society.
  • Cell, Gillian T. 1969. English enterprise in Newfoundland 1577-1660. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Gaulton, Barry and James A. Tuck. 2003. “The archaeology of Ferryland, Newfoundland until 1696.” Avalon Chronicles 8: 187-224.
  • Krugler, John D. 2004. English and Catholic: The Lords Baltimore in the seventeenth century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Krugler, John D. 1978. “‘The face of a Protestant, and the heart of a Papist’: A reexamination of Sir George Calvert’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.” Journal of Church and State 20, 3 (autumn): 507-531.
  • Lahey, Raymond J. 1977. “The role of religion in Lord Baltimore’s colonial enterprise.” Maryland Historical Magazine 72, 4 (winter): 492-511.
  • Martijn, Charles A. 2003. “Early Mikmaq presence in southern Newfoundland: An ethnohistorical perspective, c1500-1763.” Newfoundland Studies 19, 1: 44-102.
  • Miller, Aaron F., John D. Krugler, Barry C. Gaulton, James I. Lyttleton. 2011. “‘Over shoes over boots’: Lord Baltimore’s final days in Ferryland, Newfoundland.” Journal of Early American History 1: 167-182.
  • Pastore, Ralph T. 1989. “Collapse of the Beothuk world.” Acadiensis 19, 1: 52-71.
  • Pope, Peter E. 2004. Fish into wine: The Newfoundland plantation in the seventeenth century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Tuck, James A. 2013. “Ferryland’s first settlers (and a dog story),” in Exploring Atlantic transitions: Archaeologies of transience and permanence in new found lands, Peter E Pope, ed., with Shannon Lewis-Simpson, 270-277. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.