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Early Nolans in Newfoundland
Reference: “Early Nolan Presence in Newfoundland”, by Roger Nowlan; Nolan Clan Newsletter, Spring 2004
From time immemorial, the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia regularly crossed over to Newfoundland each summer to fish along the South Shore of Newfoundland. Already starting in the early 1500’s, French Basque ports and ports in Normandy, Brittany and along the English Channel sent ships to the Newfoundland fishery. By the late 1500’s, settlers from the British Isles, most of them from the southwest part of England, came to Newfoundland to work in the fishing industry.
Planters were employers who hired servants, commonly referred to as “youngsters”, to work in the fishery for two summers and a winter. The servants when their time expired normally returned to their homes in Europe. In the early days of the English fishing trade, very few Irish countrymen were involved. Not until around 1675, possibly due to political conditions, did servants of Irish origin become more numerous.
By the late 1500’s, settlers from the British Isles, most of them from the southwest part of England, came to Newfoundland to work in the fishing industry. Planters were employers who hired servants, commonly referred to as “youngsters”, to work in the fishery for two summers and a winter. The servants when their time expired normally returned to their homes in Europe. In the early days of the English fishing trade, very few Irish countrymen were involved. Not until around 1675, possibly due to political conditions, did
servants of Irish origin become more numerous.
Every spring, fishing vessels bound for the rich fishing grounds of Newfoundland would call into ports along the Irish coast to gather provisions and to recruit servants. New Ross, Youghal, and Cork were all sources of supply but Waterford dominated as the principal centre of Irish trade with the new world.
According to John Mannion, a well-known historian from Newfoundland, over 80% of all Irish emigrants to Newfoundland came from within a thirty mile radius of this city, primarily from towns and parishes along land routes and rivers leading to the city, that is from places in southwest Wexford, south Carlow, south Kilkenny, southeast Tipperary and east Waterford. Most were young men from small farms, eager to improve their lot.
The first Nolan recorded in Newfoundland was a Thomas Noland residing in Petty Harbour on the South Shore of the Avalon Peninsula in 1681.
Not until 1713, at the Treaty of Utrecht, did the English gain control over the Newfoundland fishery, except for fishing around the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which remained and still remains under French control. An example of an early Newfoundland-based fishing firm is that of Saunders and
Sweetman. First established in 1772 in Placentia by a William Saunders, this firm grew quickly such that by 1786 it had holdings at Placentia and Point Verde on the east side of Placentia Bay, at Mortier and Paradise on the west side of Placentia Bay on the Burin Peninsula, and at Point Roche. One significant distinguishing feature of the Saunders and Sweetman firm was its preference for Irish servants as workers considering that “one Irish youngster [was] worth a dozen [English youngsters]”.
Before 1784 when Catholic religious practices began to be tolerated in Newfoundland, Irish servants visited nearby French fishing communities on the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia to receive the sacraments, or to seek refuge. There are many recorded incidents of Irish couples going to Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in the 1740s and 1750s to have their children baptized or their marriages regularized. There is also the case of eight Irish Catholics from a stranded
Newfoundland schooner asking in 1750 to be allowed to stay in Louisbourg with their families so as to be free to practice their religion.
One Irish “servant” who possibly sought religious freedom on Cape Breton was a Thomas Nolen who in 1752 was working as an inshore fisherman with the Préjean family at La Briquerie, near present-day St. Peter’s, known to be one of the earliest places of Irish settlement on Cape Breton Island.
By the late 1700s, seasonal migration to Newfoundland had peaked at 60 to 80 ships carrying from 3000 to 5000 persons per year. Also, more people were taking up permanent residence on the island. The English had also enhanced their military presence in the area as a result of the American Revolutionary
war (1776-1783). The major military garrisons were at St. John’s and Placentia.
Recorded Nolan presence in this time period includes:
- a Patrick Knowlan, labourer, living in St. John’s in 1776
- a James Nowlan and Son living in St. John’s Upper Division, and
a Michael Nowlan living in St. John’s Lower Division in 1780
- a Nowland man dying before 1804 in the Harbour Main area when his widow Elizabeth married Thomas Hicks in St. Paul’s Anglican church in Harbour Grace; as a matter of interest, it should be noted that in the 1700s and early 1800s all sacraments administered in the area, even Catholic ones, were performed under the auspices of the Anglican church.
From a political standpoint, it is interesting to note that the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was most intense in County Wexford in Ireland where most Irish inhabitants in Newfoundland had relatives, did have its repercussions in Newfoundland itself. During the winter and spring of 1799-1800, the Irish
population grew increasingly weary and discontented, probably at the news of the failed Rebellion back in Ireland and the ensuing hangings. Also, at the time, most of the men in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment were of Irish descent or natives of Ireland. It is therefore not surprising that, at the time, a
sympathy movement against English domination did emerge in Newfoundland. Many of the soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment and a large number of the Irish settled on the South Shore swore a “united oath” (ref: United Irishmen) to rise up against the English masters and merchants in Newfoundland. But, on the appointed night, April 24, 1800, at the appointed location, the Powder Shed behind Fort Townsend, less than 20 men showed up. Those who did show up quickly dispersed into the surrounding woods but most were caught within a fortnight.
Having been forewarned of the plot, the English commanders had taken steps to limit the possibility of Irish soldiers deserting on the appointed night and sending a key rallying signal from Signal Hill to points along the South Shore. The extent of planned desertions from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was
never fully revealed but, according to some estimates at the time, upwards of 50 soldiers could have been involved. As regards, the Irish population, several hundred inhabitants are believed to have been involved. Following a general court martial of 12 soldiers, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was replaced by the 66th Regiment which retained only two companies of handpicked men from the old regiment. The fate of the remaining soldiers in the old Regiment is unknown. As for the Irish inhabitants suspected of involvement, it has been suggested that several of them fled to other parts of Atlantic Canada or to the
By 1815, the migratory fishery had been mostly replaced by a resident fishery and, by 1836, more than half of the Newfoundland population was of Irish descent, mostly settled along the South Shore of the Avalon Peninsula, including the St. John’s area. There were also clusters of Irish settlers along the north and south shores of Conception Bay in places such as Carbonear, Brigus, Harbour Grace and Harbour Main. This settlement pattern, already established by the 1830’s, remains to this day. Over time, many Irish did migrate westward from the Avalon Peninsula, to communities in St. Mary’s Bay, in Placentia Bay, on the Burin Peninsula and even on the adjacent French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Church records and vital statistics for Newfoundland’s early settlement period are very scarce. Nonetheless, relying on available substitute records, it has been possible to sketch a somewhat general picture of early Nolan settlement in Newfoundland.
In the pre-colonial period, like most other Irish in Newfoundland, Nolans were to be found mainly along the South Shore, especially in the St. John’s area. However, starting in the late 1700s, Nolan men were beginning to take up residence farther afield and starting families. Based upon a study of available
records, the following picture of early Nolan/Nowlan settlement emerges.
- Along the South Shore of the Avalon Peninsula, Nolan/Nowlan men appear to have settled and started families by the mid to late 1700s, at places such as Quidi Vidi, Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, Mobile and Renews. A case in point is that of a Patrick Nowlan who, in 1794, was working as a shoreman in Quidi Vidi for McGlashen & Company. At the time, he was also married and had a son and a daughter. Despite this early presence, as the Newfoundland fishery changed from a migratory to a resident fishery in the early 1800s, it is believed that most Nolan/Nowlan families on the South Shore opted to move to other more hospitable parts of Newfoundland such as the Conception Bay, St. Mary’s Bay and Placentia Bay areas.
- In Conception Bay, located northwest of St. John’s, and points northward, Nolan/Nowlan descendence seems to stem from a John Nowlan who had a fishing “room” (station) in the Harbour Main area in 1799. This Nolan/Nowlan presence in the area seems to have been further supplemented by the arrival around 1827 of a Jeremiah Nowlan and a Patrick Nowlan. Jeremiah who hailed from Fethard, county Wexford, worked in the fishing industry and, as the industry waned in the mid-to-late 1800s, some of his children moved on to the United States. Patrick became a prominent merchant, ship owner and politician in Brigus and may have been responsible for the naming of Nowlan’s Harbour, a summer fishing community on the Labrador coast frequented by Conception Bay fishermen in the late 1800s. Generally speaking, Nolan/Nowlan presence seems to have then spread northwards from the Conception Bay area into more northerly fishing communities such as: Trouty and Port Union in Trinity Bay; Sweet Bay, Duntura and King’s Cove in Bonavista Bay; Fogo Island; Fortune Harbour in Notre Dame Bay; and, of course, Nowlan’s Harbour on the Labrador coast.
- In St Mary’s Bay, southwest of St. John’s, Nolan/Nowlan settlement seems to have started in the 1830’s around St. Mary’s and later spread to other areas bordering the bay such as Mount Carmel,
Salmonier, Colinet, Mall Bay and Point La Haye. It is believed that the original Nolan/Nowlan settlers in this area came from other parts of Newfoundland, most likely from the South Shore and/or from the Harbour Main area of Conception Bay.
- In Placentia Bay, Nolan/Nowlan settlement seems to have started on the Burin Peninsula also around 1830. A prominent Nolan in the area at the time was a Father Pelagius Nowlan (1784-1871), a native of Kilrush, county Wexford, who, in 1831, was appointed “Apostle of the Micmacs” and resided at Little Placentia. Father Nowlan ministered for many years to the Catholics of Placentia Bay, dying in 1871 in Little Placentia after more than 50 years of service as a priest. By the 1850s, the Placentia-Dunville area seems to have become the focal point of Nolan/Nowlan settlement in the bay and, by the late 1890s, Nolan/Nowlan fishing families were to be found in Long Harbour, Fox Harbour, Cuslett and St. Bride’s. By this time, we also find that, due to the waning fishing industry, Nolan men were relocating to other major fishing centres along the Atlantic seaboard such as Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Thus far, only a few distinct Newfoundland Nolan/Nowlan family branches,
with genealogies going back to the early 1800s, have been identified.
Thus far, only a few distinct Newfoundland Nolan/Nowlan family branches,
with genealogies going back to the early 1800s, have been identified. (see https://nolanfamilies.org/knowledge-base/families-in-newfoundland-labrador/ )
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