Uncovering the Lost Colony of Avalon in Newfoundland
After spending 3 hours hiking coastal trails near Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Bob and I hastily changed out of wet gear and drove south for lunch in Petty Harbour. From there, it was a short jaunt to Ferryland and the location of the Lost Colony of Avalon.
The Colony of Avalon was founded by Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in 1621 and is the oldest continuously occupied European village in British North America. He later renamed the community Avalon after a town by the same name in Somerset, England.
The Beothuk, an aboriginal people living on the island of Newfoundland at that time, along with migratory fishermen from western Europe and European settlers all left their marks on this maritime community.
What attracted the first European settlers to Ferryland is the unique layout of the small harbour.
Just offshore, numerous rocky islands jut from the sea and belie the reefs below,
with only one safe approach to the harbour through a narrow channel.
The channel leads to a hidden stretch of water tucked away behind a small arm of land. No matter that the safe haven is relatively tiny when it comes to harbours, it provides much needed protection from Atlantic storms. This inner harbour was referred to as “The Pool”, and it is around this small body of water that the Colony of Avalon grew into a burgeoning fishing settlement.
Many uncovered buildings remain at Avalon, yet archaeologists have been carrying out professional digs here since 1991. The locations and layout of many original structures have been discovered, as well as a section of cobblestone road and over two million 17th-century artifacts.
Bob and I left dry skies in St. John’s and found drizzle and strong winds at Ferryland. That did not deter us from joining a guided tour of the ongoing archaeological dig at Avalon. We found the community charming and were intrigued to learn the history behind Sir Calvert purchasing this tract of land in 1620 from William Vaughan.
Sir George Calvert hailed from England where he worked in the court of King James I. He had long been interested in New World settlement, and after retirement, was determined to establish a colony there in order to take advantage of the rich cod fishery.
Sir Calvert appointed Captain Edward Wynne as the Governor of the Colony of Avalon, and Wynne and 12 settlers soon departed from England to settle Calvert’s tract of land. Wynne oversaw the construction of a house, “the Mansion”, followed by other permanent structures. He is the one who laid the groundwork in preparation for Sir Calvert arriving in 1627.
The settlers grew in number to about 100 by the middle of the 17th century, and by then the village included a brewery, bakehouse, henhouse, saltworks, forge and defensive palisade. Sir Calvert was influential and wealthy so his overseas interest was well financed.
Sir Calvert arrived in 1627 for a visit and brought with him another goodly number of settlers, most of the Roman Catholic faith. He was so impressed with the locale that Calvert returned with his whole family and staff the following year to live there permanently.
It was fascinating to look upon the foundations of the original buildings and imagine the hardships that those first settlers had to endure. In fact, the first winter that Sir Calvert and his family experienced in Newfoundland was so harsh that he decided to leave the colony, buy land further south in Virginia, and establish a settlement there.
We had a lovely guide by the name of Aundrea to explain the diggings to us. She, a native of the area, had a lovely lilting accent and an enthusiasm for the history that was unfolding before her – discoveries that her own grandfather had predicted when she was a little girl. Being of English and Irish descent, she was certain her ancestry would reveal ties to Lord Baltimore, but alas, that was not the case.
Archaeological finds have been made near The Pool for centuries. In fact, the volume of 17th-century ceramics and other artifacts found here confirms that Calvert’s Colony of Avalon did grow up around the inner harbour, it is very well preserved, and that the site is deeper, richer and more complex than anyone imagined.
The history of Avalon spans more than 500 years, and it is considered to be the best preserved English Colonial site in North America. Another fascinating fact that came to light is the harmony with which Roman Catholics and Protestants lived together in this colony.
Catholics escaping penal laws set in place in England found the Colony of Avalon a welcoming religious refuge. Sir Calvert, himself, had converted to Roman Catholicism even going so far as to bring 2 Catholic priests with him to Avalon in 1627. The principle of religious tolerance was written into the Charter of Avalon. An ornate cross excavated on site attests to the importance of religion in the Colony.
Only 35% of Sir Calvert’s original 4-acre site has been uncovered to date, and discoveries extend to those found in the harbour. The importance of The Pool as a port and safe haven for ships was established with the discovery of stone infrastructure at the wharves. That the harbour was defended was evident in the cannonballs unearthed.
Substantial shaker boxes, also called table screens, like these are used to sift the earth for artifacts. Grape seeds dating to 1500 AD were found in Beothuk hearths. The only explanation is that they were imported via raisins or wine that had been traded by Europeans.
The prosperity of the settlement is seen in ceramics uncovered onsite such as this vessel made in Portugal. Likely owned by a prosperous settler in the community, it supports the theory of trading connections with southern Europe.
Sir Calvert made his decision to leave Avalon only partly owing to the harsh climate. Already, Sir Calvert had sunk £20,000 into the infrastructure, and the cod fishery was in a slump. Hostilities arose from transient fishermen, and raids by French privateers and warships were costly.
Already looking south towards Virginia, Sir Calvert committed the Colony of Avalon to the fishermen. 30 or so fisher folks became the first permanent settlers in what is now Canada.
Ferryland continued to be an important commercial and fishing station.
The community grew and flourished as a permanent settlement, augmented each summer by hundreds of migratory fishermen.
After Sir Calvert left his Pool Plantation, the “Mansion House” eventually became the seat of David Kirke’s government of Newfoundland from 1637 to 1650.
Rain pelted us driven by incessant cold winds before the tour drew to a close. Everyone was chilled to the bone, so it was with pleasure that we entered the recreated 17th-century kitchen to warm up. Further questions were answered and a few laughs shared before everyone ventured over to the Visitor Centre for a look at displays and artifacts. It was a great way to spend the afternoon!