The Welsh in Newfoundland


So what is the basis of reserving a place of honour for the Welsh in the chronicles of the early settlement of Newfoundland?


For a start, Sir William Vaughan of Golden Grove, Carmarthen was, from 1616 to 1637, by far the largest landowner in Newfoundland and one of the most active of early colonists both  directly in the establishment of his settlement, Cambriol, and by selling blocks in 1620 to George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) and to Henry Cary (Viscount Falkland), both friends of Vaughan's at Oxford University.

 

But before that, while they had traded into Newfoundland in the 16th century, the Welsh - especially Sir William - looked with envy across the narrow Bristol Channel at  the wealth being generated by the burgeoning early 17th century Bristol/North Devon Newfoundland trade. Not willing to serve solely as a source of seafarers and fishermen in Bristol's "hinterland", Sir William actively worked to send a long line of Welsh workers and settler families across to Newfoundland.

 

Others also saw the advantages of tapping into Welsh resources. For instance, upon obtaining his grant from Vaughan in 1620, Lord Baltimore selected Welshman Edward Wynne as  his Governor to establish his Colony of Avalon at Ferryland. Wynne in turn hired mostly Welsh stone masons, slaters and other tradesmen to build Baltimore's Mansion House and related marine, farming and commercial structures. Today these form the core of the magnificent "well built" site now under excavation at Ferryland (Colony of Avalon Project) which continues to produce an unending stream of  Early Modern artifacts unsurpassed by those from any other site in North America. 

Welsh names continued to show up frequently in 17th century Newfoundland records both in seasonal roles (transient fishermen, naval officers, chaplains on English warships) and as year round planters and servants in settlements within and outside the limits of Cambriol. Indeed, one of the best descriptions of late 17th century Newfoundland is from 1680 by John Thomas, a Welsh cleric, possibly the eldest son of William Thomas, Bishop of St David's (the Welsh mother cathedral). At the time, Thomas was  chaplain on the Newfoundland Naval Commodore's flagship HMS Assistance and wrote his treatis while stationed in Bay Bulls. His writings show he was decidedly sympathetic to the interests of the local year round planter community which was, in 1680, nearing the height of its 17th century prosperity and development.

Suffice to say that the Welsh were present in Newfoundland in significant numbers throughout the 17th century, and to this day Welsh surnames are prominent in Newfoundland phone books - this would seem a rich, largely unexplored field for genealogical research.     

Sir William Vaughan and his Dream of Cambriol

Sir William Vaughan (1575 to 1641) was the second son of Walter Vaughan of Gelli Aur (Golden Grove) Carmarthen, one of the richest men in western Wales, upon whose death the family's extensive Tywi River valley estates fell to Sir William's older brother John, 1st Earl of Carbery.

Sir William married a Carmarthenshire heiress of a substantial estate and thereafter gained a  reputation for wise estate management and innovative agricultural practices, as well as coal mining investments. He had previously traveled to the continent to study and write, becoming  both highly educated in the law and philosophy and a man with a social conscience who wrote extensively on the ills of Welsh rural society.

With the decline of the Spanish Newfoundland fishery in the aftermath of Sir Francis Drake's defeat of the Armada, the rapidly expanding English Newfoundland fishery constituted in Sir William's view a possible cure for those ills. And soon an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" presented itself.

In 1610, James I made a very large grant in the easterly most part  of Newfoundland to the London and Bristol Company, an investor group that included some of the most prominent figures in England (eg Sir Francis Bacon). That same year they established a colony at Cupids in Conception Bay. The Company's grant covered all of the Avalon peninsula and extended north to Bonavista, a coast rich with cod fisheries. These were the source of great wealth and the basis of a large trade that extended into the Mediterranean and to such vibrant ports as the Medici's Tuscan stronghold of Vivorno.

In 1616, dissension within the Company caused it to sell the southern part of the Avalon peninsula, the vast bulk of their holdings, to Sir William Vaughan, giving him lands with a long coast rich with fish backed by a vast wilderness. In all, his lands - his Cambriol - covered an area nearly half the size of Wales. The mostly thin rocky soil, the bogs and dense woods were unattractive to many. But the moor, like natural grasslands on many seaside headlands, meant good sheep farming; the woods, fuel and building materials; the inland barren, a large source of deer (caribou) meat; the rivers, salmon and trout; and the abundant sea fisheries, a cash export business.

Vaughan wrote with conviction that in Cambriol many Welsh tenants would be far better off through a mixture of fishing and farming, than at home in Wales. He devoted much of his adult life to trying to realize that dream.

In addition to grants to worthies such as Calvert, Cary and Poyntz, starting in 1617, Vaughan brought over Welsh families - men, women and children; it is a sad situation when we presently do not know even the rough numbers involved, let alone their names.

There is also divided opinion as to whether Sir William spent time in Cambriol; some Welsh sources  say he made two trips including one when he had time to write his famous book "The Golden Fleece" on the merits of Cambriol; others contend in the absence of conclusive evidence that he never did visit Newfoundland himself, thus giving rise to just one of the Trust's research objectives.

In any event, Vaughan spent  21 years of his life on his Cambriol project before being unceremoniously thrown off his lands in 1637 by Charles I in favour of a better connected group led by the Duke of Hamilton and Sir David Kirke. History simply records that Vaughan's Cambriol project "failed".  We believe that his deeds and struggle deserve a more careful analysis and we welcome you to join us in this most intriguing quest.

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