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Gros Morne National Park of Canada

The Human History of Gros Morne

Fishing on the Lomond River
© Parks Canada

For almost five thousand years, people have lived along the northern coast of Newfoundland. Cultures have come and gone, but their lifestyle was always focused on the sea; their lives depended on its bounty.

Earlier Cultures

Maritime Archaic Indians who crossed over from Labrador first settled this land some 5000 years ago. The earliest evidence for their fully maritime lifestyle comes from L’Anse Amour in southern Labrador, which is also the site of the oldest known burial mound in the Americas. The major Maritime Archaic site discovered so far in Newfoundland is at Port au Choix, 160 kilometres north of Gros Morne National Park. To learn more about the Maritime Archaic Indians visit the Port au Choix National Historic Site.

Cooler times brought an arctic folk, the Palaeo-Eskimos, to these shores. These people specialized in hunting marine mammals and intensely used whatever resources were abundant. Seals were their most important food, and when seals were scarce starvation came. For 1600 years they hunted these shores, then left no further trace.

The term “Recent Indian Cultures” encompasses all Aboriginal occupation of Newfoundland since the end of the Palaeo-Eskimo period. Unfortunately this occupation is not well represented in the archaeological record of the park, and the people who left the remains are unidentified. There are traces of Aboriginal occupation within Gros Morne National Park at Cow Head and Broom Point about a thousand years ago, but so far nothing more recent has been found.

The reconstructions of three Norse buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
© Parks Canada

Arrival of the Europeans

A thousand years ago, Norsemen exploring west from Greenland built the oldest known European dwellings in the Americas, just a few days’ sail north of Gros Morne National Park. The remains of their camp, discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad are now a part of the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.

Underwater archaeology at Red Bay
© Parks Canada

During the 16th century, in the wake of explorers John Cabot and Jacques Cartier, Basque fishermen and whalers crossed the North Atlantic to ply their trades in Newfoundland and Labrador each summer. Find out more about the Basques fisherman and whalers at the Red Bay National Historic Site.

Jacques Cartier, sailing for the King of France, charted the waters around the Island in 1534 and landed at St. Pauls Inlet on June 16th. This voyage gives us the oldest description and map of the park area. Two hundred years later, the British Admiralty commissioned James Cook to survey the north, south, and west coasts of the colony. He named many of the places around Bonne Bay.

The French Shore

Britain and France fought for decades over ownership of eastern North America. Britain gained sovereignty over Newfoundland in 1713, but France retained the lucrative rights to catch and cure fish on the Island’s northeast coast. By 1783 the boundaries of the French Shore had to be redrawn. Newfoundland’s expanding population wanted control of the fishery of the northeast coast. In exchange, France gained fishing rights along the west coast. By treaty, neither French nor British subjects were allowed to erect permanent buildings along the west coast. In the late 18th century, while the French were away at war, transient fishermen began to encroach on the French fishing area. They caught and cured salmon and codfish, then returned to St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula to sell their summer’s catch. Eventually, some built rough cabins and began to over-winter, facing conditions very similar to those experienced by the earlier cultures.

Fishermen Samuel Hann, Carl Martin and Robert Hann Junior, Trout River
© Parks Canada

Settlers had to use resources as they came into season. Fishing was the main occupation. Meat and firewood came from the woods, and berries supplemented garden produce. Winter was a time for trapping, and in March men went out on the sea-ice to hunt seals for meat, oil, and skins. With only infrequent visits by merchant vessels and official ships, isolation was a way of life.

Woody Point with Norris Point in the background, early 20th century
© Parks Canada

By 1809, Bonne Bay had a trading station set up by Joseph Bird, a merchant from Dorset in England. He provided supplies in exchange for fish and furs, making year-round habitation easier.

By the 1870s, trawl fishing for codfish created a great demand for herring as bait. Herring were abundant, and wintered in the deep waters of Bonne Bay. This lucrative fishery drew a flood of year-round settlers. Merchants prospered and tradesmen became established. Teachers, doctors, and itinerant clergymen arrived. A steamship now served the coast, a courthouse was built at Woody Point, and telegraph and postal service became available.

In the late 1870s, herring stocks declined. Fishermen from Nova Scotia initiated the trapping and canning of lobster for the Boston market. Lobster was so important by the end of the century that 76 canneries employed 1400 people year-round, and every available inlet was occupied. So hot was the competition that it led to hostility between French and Newfoundland fishermen.

Loggers at Lomond. Bucksaws in photos were brought in around 1927–1928
© Parks Canada

Things were getting out of hand on the “uninhabited” French Shore. Settlement increased while stocks of cod, salmon, herring, and lobster dwindled. In Europe, war loomed. The time had come for France and Britain to settle territorial and tariff differences. In 1904 France exchanged her Newfoundland fishing rights for warmer territory in Africa, although she retained the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland’s south coast. The west coast was free to enter the 20th century. Today there is a plaque commemorating the French Shore Treaty at Point Riche, Newfoundland.

A New Beginning

The ocean’s bounty is not endless—the over-exploited fishery failed. People turned to the woods. In the 1920s, the St. Lawrence Timber, Pulp, and Steamship Company set up in a place called Lomond, named by the mill manager, George Simpson from Scotland. Logging brought cash to a society based on barter. Fishermen took to the woods for the winter working out of lumber camps.

Sunday picnic with family and friends at the cabin, Broom Point
© Parks Canada

During the Second World War, Canada recognized Newfoundland’s strategic importance, and was worried by American ambitions in the colony. After two referendums, Newfoundland and Labrador agreed to Confederation in 1949. Canada’s social programs and the development of new industries completed the switch to a cash economy. Roads linked communities, and new schools were built. Electricity and television brought a very different way of life.

The national importance of the Bonne Bay area was recognized in 1973. By agreement with the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Canada established Gros Morne National Park to protect and present an outstanding example of Newfoundland’s western highlands. In 1987, the United Nations declared Gros Morne National Park a World Heritage Site for its exceptional geological features and natural beauty.

Broom Point

Broom Point in Gros Morne National Park juts raggedly into the Gulf of St. Lawrence like a worn version of its namesake. The marine mammals, birds, and fish of the cold Gulf waters have attracted people to this site for more than 2300 years.

On an early summer’s day in 1990, friends and family gathered at Broom Point to mark an important event, the restoration of the Mudge family cabin and fish store. When Nellie Mudge cut the red ribbon, it marked a special moment in the working friendship that had grown between this remarkable family and Parks Canada.

Three Mudge brothers and their families fished from the site from 1941 until 1975, when they sold the property to the national park. With the family’s generosity, the buildings have been restored.

Mudge family cabin and fish store, Broom Point
© Parks Canada

The site consists of a cabin and a fish store restored to the way they were when the family lived and worked there. Boats built by the Mudges are exhibited in the fish store alongside nets, traps, and other home-made gear. The cabin is filled with many original artifacts including handiwork and furniture the family donated for the restoration. In a small cove just south of the point, there is a cemetery where some of the earlier residents of Broom Point are buried.

Interpretation at Broom Point today focuses on the Mudge family fishing operation as it was during the 1960s. Interpreters from the local area tell the story of the site. Talking to them provides the opportunity to learn about the fishery of the past, the present and to discuss the fishery of the future.

Check the hours of operation for information on interpretation times for the Broom Point premises.

Remains of the SS Ethie
© Parks Canada

SS Ethie Shipwreck

The SS Ethie coastal steamship ran aground in a fierce storm on 11 December 1919 at Martin’s Point, a few kilometres north of Sally’s Cove. Luckily all of the 92 passengers and crew were saved, including a baby sent ashore in a mailbag. The sea has eroded most of the SS Ethie, however a few pieces of the hull, the boilers, and engines are still visible from shore.