Newfoundland comprises the island of Newfoundland and the nearby coast of the mainland region of Labrador. The rocky terrain and cold and stormy weather inhibited traditional settlement, but the rich fisheries of the North Atlantic provided a livelihood for hardy fishermen from the earliest European contact. Vikings established settlements along the northern coast of Newfoundland around the year 1000 but left the region soon after. English fishermen may have reached the island in the 1480s, and John Cabot brought news of the fisheries back after his voyage of 1497. From that time forward, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish fishermen plied the rich waters but established no permanent settlements. Although Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the land for England in 1583, the reality was that each country operated from temporary working camps and that the master of the first ship to arrive during a fishing season in each harbor was designated the fishing admiral and assumed ultimate authority along the local coasts. Attempts by English proprietors to establish colonial settlements failed at Cupids on Conception Bay (1610) and Ferryland (1621, 1637–51).
France established the first heavily fortified colony at Placentia in 1662 and developed a string of trapping posts along the coast of Labrador during the first half of the 18th century. Newfoundland became a battleground during the War of the League of Augsburg (1689–98), the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–14), and the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). By provision of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Britain gained the entire island of Newfoundland, though France retained use of the northern and western shore (French Shore) for drying fish. By the Treaty of Paris (1763), France gave up all claims to mainland North America but was given the small islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the southern coast of Newfoundland and retained its fishing privileges on the French Shore, which were not relinquished until 1904.
Britain never regarded Newfoundland as a settlement colony, favoring the rights of fishing interests. This policy is reflected in the appointment of naval officers as royal governors. Although most of the frontier regions of the island were settled by the 1840s, explorers of the Hudson’s Bay Company were at that time just beginning to regularly probe the interior of Labrador. The majority of immigrants were from Ireland and the west of England. Largely barren, Labrador was administered by Newfoundland (1763–74, 1809–25) and Quebec (1774–1809) before it was divided between the two provinces in 1825. The present boundary between Quebec and Labrador was finally established in 1927. Despite a population of only some 20,000, in 1832, the British government acceded to demands for a strong local government, allowing a representative general assembly. In 1855, Newfoundland was granted responsible government, with the cabinet answerable to the assembly rather than to the governor. Newfoundland became the 10th province of the Dominion of Canada in 1949. The discovery of copper in the 1850s and iron in the 1890s led to the development of a significant mining industry in Labrador, though fishing remained Newfoundland’s principal economic resource.