7 Ways in Which Newfoundland & Labrador Was First

For a province known for its wooden boats, quirky ways, and its slower pace of life, Newfoundland and Labrador has been ahead of the rest of the world in a lot of respects. Throughout its history (and even prehistory), the province has been a trend-setter and taste-maker. Because of our 30 minute time zone, we get a lot of firsts: the first sunrise in North America, the first New Year’s party every year, and we even get to see blockbuster movies before everyone else (if only 30 minutes earlier). But these are not the only ways we are ahead of the game. Newfoundland and Labrador has had a front-row seat to history, watching the world change – and then watching the rest of the world catch up!

565 Million Years Ago: The Beginning of Complex Life

When we say “complex life”, we don’t mean office buildings, subways, city blocks, and a modern pace to day-to-day life that can boggle the mind. No, we mean life itself. Throughout the province, you’ll find significant fossil sites, notably at Mistaken Point and Fortune Head, that feature the earliest known Ediacaran fossils on earth. While the earth looked much different 565 million years ago, the sea beds that would eventually become the Rock hosted some of biology’s earliest experiments in doing something bigger. You can learn all about these remarkably important fossils at the Edge of Avalon Interpretative Centre and the Fortune Head Interpretation Centre. 

One of the thousands of fossils at the Mistaken Point fossil site.
The Fortune Head fossil site.

1000: The Vikings

While the Vikings’ tenure in Newfoundland and Labrador was short lived, much shorter than their settlements in Greenland, L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site on the Northern Peninsula is the earliest confirmed pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. What does that mean? Europeans were in Newfoundland before anywhere else in North America, by some few hundreds of years, and we have the archaeological site to prove it! The L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site is so significant that it is one of the province’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site.
L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site 

1497: Bonavista!

John Cabot (also known as Giovanni Caboto), the Venetian explorer who sailed the Matthew, was the first Renaissance European to visit North America in 1497. While some may debate where he actually ended up, in Newfoundland and Labrador, such debate is spurious. He found the island of Newfoundland, of course, at Bonavista. The town is named after Cabot’s exclamation upon seeing the area, “O! Buon Vista!” – a tale that may be apocryphal, but no less interesting. The town figured prominently in the 500th anniversary of the sailing, and to this day, a replica of Cabot’s ship can be found in the community.

The cliffs at Cape Bonavista, site of John Cabot's discovery of North America.

August 5, 1583: The First Overseas Colony

During the reign of Elizabeth I, explorers sailed the world over, beginning what we would eventually know as the British Empire. The first overseas colony was in Newfoundland, claimed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on August 5, 1583. It would take a little longer for permanent settlement (see below), but what was known as St. John’s (even as far back as 1544 in a map drafted by John Cabot’s son), was the site of the formal ceremony that claimed the island for England. The reputed site of Gilbert’s declaration is now known as the National War Memorial, where in 1924 (when Newfoundland was an independent country) the current memorial was unveiled. Gilbert’s declaration, in conjunction with the later permanent settlement in 1620, makes St. John’s the oldest English-founded city in North America. Interestingly enough, it’s not the oldest settlement in Newfoundland. 

The National War Memorial, the reputed site where Sir Humphrey Gilbert declare Newfoundland as a British Colony.

1610: The First English Settlement in Canada

Cupids, established in 1610, is the oldest continuously inhabited English settlement in Canada. John Guy established the first-year round settlement at the heart of what was then known as Cuper’s Cove. While the small village always knew its significant role in history (they celebrated the 300th anniversary in 1910 with some vigor), the original site of John Guy’s settlement was lost until 1995, when archaeologist Bill Gilbert discovered it through clues in the historical record. Bill is still digging at the site 20 years later, now a Provincial Historic Site, and still uncovering new finds each season. In 2010, the community celebrated the 400th anniversary of the town in a year-long celebration, and opened the beautiful Cupids Legacy Centre, a museum only a few dozen yards from the archaeological site.

Interestingly enough, while Cupids is the oldest year-round English settlement in Canada, this is a fairly new distinction. As Newfoundland joined Canada only in 1949, for most of its history, Cupids was just the oldest English settlement in Newfoundland. One could say, with some justification, it is one of the newest “oldest” designations in the world!

Ongoing archaeological investigations at the Cupids Cove Plantation Site. 

July, 1866: Making the world smaller

The small town of Heart’s Content, other than being as picturesque and quaint as its name suggests, has another claim to fame. It was the western terminus of the first successful transatlantic cable, connecting to Valentia Island, Ireland. (A previous attempt in Bull Arm failed shortly after it went into use). For the first time in history, the New World and the Old World could communicate in a matter of seconds, significantly reducing the communication time from weeks by ocean voyage. Indeed, the cable station, now a Provincial Historic Site, was where the world became much smaller and the modern communication age was launched.

Heart's Content Cable Station Provincial Historic Site.

December 12, 1901: Over the ocean and through the sky

But you can certainly get a cellular signal on Signal Hill in St. John’s, and with good reason. Other than being the most prominent landmark in the province’s biggest city of St. John’s, it has a wealth of history, filled with events too numerous to list here. For our purposes, one event in particular changed the world forever. Here, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, received the first transatlantic wireless signal from antenna flown by kite near Cabot Tower. For this reason (and much, much more) Signal Hill is a National Historic Site, and an exhibit about Marconi can be found at the Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl.

Signal Hill National Historic Site.

Whether setting the course of life for next billion years, beginning the most influential empire in history, or launching the modern communications area, Newfoundland and Labrador was there first. And this may explain our famous slower pace of life – getting there so early has given us time to relax!

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