NL GenWeb, frequently asked questions


Some of the above information was supplied by Matt Mullaly and posted to the Internet in August 1999 by Stephen Baker.
In the Newfoundland context the term planter has several meanings, but was used most often to refer to the owner of fishing premises (a 'plantation) or a vessel.

In the early 1600s a resident fisherman (as opposed to an English migratory fisherman) was considered a planter. William Vaughan used the word in this sense in his Golden Fleece; "And likewise the planters themselves may fish for Cod there a moneth before our English men can arrive thither" (1626). By the late 1700s and early 1800s a system of credit supply had become established in the Island fishery which gave rise to the more commonly understood meaning of planter - the owner of a fishing vessel. Yet the concept of planter was somewhat ambiguous, as reflected in the term planter-fisherman.

The planter system in practice is illustrated by an account given by Philip Henry Gosse qv, a clerk with Slade, Elson and Company in 1828. In 1828 there were approximately 70 planters in Carbonear out of a total population of roughly 2500, and a third of these dealt with Slade, Elson and Company. In preparation for the March seal hunt, the planters received equipment and supplies on credit from the merchants. The planter then hired a crew from fishermen registered with the firm. At the end of the season the proceeds of the hunt were divided into shares. The merchant and planter each received a third of the proceeds, and the remainder was divided among the crew.

Throughout the 1800s planters comprised a more or less distinct social class in Newfoundland, between the often wealthy English merchants and ordinary fishermen. Some people in this "middle class" were quite prosperous, many becoming involved in the political affairs of the Island. But others were less fortunate. Planters were neither importers nor exporters and so had no control over the prices of supplies or catches. Like ordinary fishermen, they were dependent on the vagaries of weather, ice, bait supply and market conditions, and were often in debt to the merchants. Functioning between merchants and ordinary fishermen, the planter played an important role into the twentieth century when the credit system began to decline.

In Labrador, the term planter could take on slightly different meanings. A planter could be any Newfoundland fisherman who came to Labrador for the summer fishery, operating from a "station" or "room" (premises) on the coast. As the resident population of Labrador grew, a planter could be a settler of European or mixed European and Inuit descent who was engaged in the fishery or in trapping.

Another Source indicates:

The meaning of the word "plantation" was different in the 1600s and 1700s than it is today in America. The change in meaning is, actually, quite a reasonable one, but creates confusion if not understood. Modern Americans are familiar with the "Southern Plantations" of later years, large landholdings or estates with their beautiful mansions, cotton fields, wealthy owners, and slave laborers. There have also been, during the same later times, smaller properties, Northern and Southern, which have been called, somewhat wistfully, "plantations". The original English-American meaning was, however, rather different.

From the beginning of English expansion into the New World, the English thought of the process as "planting" people in uncivilized wilderness. The people involved were either "adventurers" or "planters".

"Adventurers" were those who risked ("adventured") their finances on the potential of gaining wealth from the new lands. Most adventurers stayed in England, however. A relatively few actually did risk their lives by going to the new places. Those few who left England generally held political positions (Governors and such) or patents (rights granted by the King) for large portions of the land or both.

"Planters" were the others. Again, the changed meaning of the word is a source of confusion. In those days, a "planter" was one who was "planted", not specifically a person who grew something. Weavers, cobblers, watchmakers, and so on, were equally "planters", because they were "planted". (Those who arrived in the first groups of people in Virginia and survived until the time of the Virginia Musters of 1624 and 1625 were honored with the name of "ancient planters" by the later arrivals.)

Groups of people, regardless of where they were, were called "plantations". The people in the Jamestown region, regardless of exactly where they lived (and there were soon numerous "towns", even "cities"), were the "Virginia plantations". There were, similarly, the "New England plantations", consisting of the "Plymouth plantation", the "New Jersey plantations", and so on. The word referred to the people in a place, not the land. Only later, as deeds recorded more and more "plantations" of families and individuals, did the word begin to refer to the land they owned.