NL GenWeb

Labrador Region ~ Straits District

Introduction to the Labrador Straits

The information was transcribed by ELLEN TORNG, 2001. While I have endeavored to be as correct as humanly possible, there may be typographical errors.

Introduction to the Labrador Straits

Labrador, to most people, is a vast, empty land somewhere over there. Roughly triangular in shape, it encompasses five unique districts; The Straits, The South Coast, The North Coast, The Lake Melville area, and the West. With more than 293,000 square kilometers within its boundaries and comprising 3% of Canada’s total land mass - Labrador is indeed vast and can easily boast being one of the world’s wild places.

Its coastline, rated among the wildest and most magnificent landscapes in North America, is rugged and remote. A mere 1125 km, this stretch of shoreline embraces hundreds of small coves, open bays, scenic inlets and quiet uninhabited islands which stretches for more than 8000 km (Parsons 1970).

In the mist of this spacious and jagged coastline with its intriguing beauty, lies the oldest ‘European’ settled area of Labrador. Though sparsely populated and secluded, this region, commonly called ‘The Straits’, is far from empty. Archival maps of family trees, worn gravestones, family bibles, old journals and ship logs reveal that it was permanent home to European fishermen as early as the 1700's.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed through what is now the Strait of Belle Isle. His rediscovery of the abundant Cod Stocks helped lead several European countries to the area in the 1500 and 1600s. It was these European fishermen and artisans who established the first permanent settlements in the Labrador Straits. Fishermen flocked to the area from the Channel Islands, Jersey, England, and France, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Newfoundland with only the clothes on their back. Poor and often uneducated, they were more than willing to labor for the richest that lay in the rough waters of the Belle Isle Strait.

At the time of those first permanent residents, fishermen coming to this area were usually crewmembers on the British merchant ships and fishing barges. Before being allowed to settle permanently, they were required to serve their masters a minimum of three years. Working hard and seeing little for their effort, they soon grew tired of the treatment they received at the hands of their bosses. Tempted by the opportunities, which the land offered them, they often jumped ship in mid season and hid between the cliffs and inlets until the last officials returned to England. The landscape with its huge cliffs and rough waters hid them well from those sent to bring them back. "Liveyeres" was the name given to those early permanent settlers, a name explained through local folklore. Often, poor fishermen, discouraged with their lot in life, saw rather quickly the advantages of being a year round resident. Such disgruntle crewmembers often jumped ship before serving their full indenture with their masters. The Crown occasionally sent officers to retrieve the deserters but, without the aid of photographs, identifying the fugitives was often impossible.

It is said that one fisherman was confronted by such an officer at his shack the summer following his escape. "I’m the King’s representative and on the king’s behalf I’m seeking Mr. So-and so who jumped ship last year. Does he live yer?" he demanded in the old English. "No, Sire," the fugitive answered, "the man you are seeking does not live yer. " It is said that this is how "liveyeres" came to describe European fugitive fishermen who settled the Labrador Straits.

The communities of the Straits are now connected by paved road. Six of the communities carry French names, which are perhaps reminders of the concessions granted to Augustin Legardeur, Seigneur de Courtemanche, by the governor of New France to settle the area when it was under France’s control. However, the present day ‘Liveyeres’ are not descendants of the French. Customs, dialects and family names such as Buckle, O’Brien, Ryland, Bolger, McDonald and Belbin, which are common to this area, indicate where the ancestors of the present day population originated. Familiar too are the varying dialects, which distinguish which community a particular resident comes.

In the mid 1970s, research on various families and cemeteries within the ares of the Great Northern Penninsula and the Labrador Straits was compiled by Patricia Thornton to fulfil her Ph. D. requirements in the area of Cultural Geography. A portion of her collected data is now stored in the Labrador Straits area of NFGenWeb. While Thornton's material was not collected for the purpose of genealogy, it nevertheless is a valuable source and has been my foundation in retracing the bulk of the material found in my family tree. Using Thornton's material as a guideline, I retraced my ancestors through various parishes on the island of Newfoundland, in Labrador, Nova Scotia, New York and Boston.

Where-ever our ancestors settled in the Labrador Straits, we can be almost assured that they came directly to Labrador via Quebec or Newfoundland. Few came directly to Labrador from the European countries during the early to mid 1800s. Those first settlers usually came by way of Bay Bulls, Bell Island, Brigus, Carbonear, Hant’s Harbour, New Chelsee, New Perlican, Portugal Cove, and Spainard’s Bay, Newfoundland. In "Just One Interloper After Another: An Unabridged, Unofficial, Unauthorized History of the Labrador Straits", Whalen states

Between 1850 and 1880, the economy of the Straits shifted from being based on winter resources to the summer fishery. This may have been a cause and a consequence of the influx of transient east coast Newfoundland fishermen which peaked between 1860 and 1875, and which was paralleled by an influx of resident Newfoundland cod fishermen".
Two things make genealogical research in the Labrador Straits difficult. First and foremost is that the paper records (Births, Baptism, Marriage and Deaths) for the Labrador Straits are few. In the early 1940s, a fire destroyed the RC church in West St Modeste which housed the Pinware RC records. Other records which, do exist are scattered from Labrador to Newfoundland and beyond to Quebec.

Prior to 1840, the religious needs of this population were met by the occasional visiting clergy coming out from the Island of Newfoundland, or in the case of the RC, through Quebec. Settlers and summer fishermen living in the Labrador Straits depended on the traveling clergy, to perform such services as Marriages and Baptism. The traveling clergy often brought back the records to whatever parish they were going to and registered them there. For example, many Labrador Straits marriage records for the early to mid 1800s are registered at Blanc Sablon, Natashquan and St. Paul’s River. Other denominational records for the area can be found in different areas of Newfoundland such as Carbonear, Bay Bulls, Birchy Cove (Curling), Flowers Cove, Harbour Grace, Portugal Cove and St. John’s.

The second obstacle in conducting genealogical research in the Labrador Straits, is the reluctance of the RC parishes in the area to allow public access. Public access is often denied and records are searched only if one can provide a date, and complete name. Also, many of the records housed there are not recorded at the Provincial archives in Montreal. The lack of written material can be compensated for somewhat, by visiting the local cemeteries. Some of the earliest European headstones in Labrador are in this area, and despite harsh weather conditions, the original stones are still standing and in very good reading condition.

I strongly recommend that anyone conducting genealogical research in Labrador, give a strong consideration to the Thornton records. Ms. Thorton's records were taken, in part, from original parish records across Newfoundland and Labrador, and through oral interviews with Liveyers of the Labrador Straits during the early 1970s. Unfortunately her original notes were lost, but one can still trace back through the notes that still exist if written verification is what you are seeking. Ms. Thornton has given me permission to place some of her genealogical material on the NFGenWeb site. Hopefully, this database will be a completed within the next six months.

For others interested in the Labrador Straits, and in Patricia Thorntons material, I suggest you read her latest paper titled, "The Transition from Migratory to the Resident Fishery in the Strait of Belle Isle" Acadiensis (1990) 92-120.     Ellen Torng 2001.

© 2001 Ellen Torng & NL GenWeb
Straits District