Plaisance: A French fishing colony in Newfoundland

By Valerie Casbourn

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds records related to the French colonial period in early Canada, and some of these records are available online. Included are records about the French cod fishery in the Atlantic region and the French colony of Plaisance in Newfoundland (1662–1713).

During the 17th century, the cod fishery in Newfoundland became increasingly important to the European fishing industry. France was one of several European countries competing for a share of this fishery, and in 1662, the French established a garrison town at Plaisance, on the western side of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The French wanted to secure their merchant fishing fleet’s access to the fishery and their share of the European market for cod.

The site of Plaisance was chosen for its proximity to rich fishing grounds, its sheltered and relatively ice-free harbour, and its strategic location. Eventually, the colony of Plaisance grew to have a small permanent population, with military fortifications, and served as a base for the French Atlantic cod fishery.

A hand-drawn and coloured illustration that shows the shore with people on a wooden stage working on curing and drying cod in Newfoundland.

A view of a stage and also of the manner of fishing for, curing and drying cod at New Found Land […] (c003686) A digitized copy of the map L’Amerique, divisee selon l’etendue de ses Principales Parties, et dont les Points Principaux sont placez sur les Observations de Messieurs de L’Academie Royale des Sciences. Dressee Par N. de Fer, Geographe de Monseigneur le Dauphin can be seen at the Osher Map Library website.

The French and English established colonies along the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, which encroached on the Indigenous territory of the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq. The French had little recorded interaction with the Beothuk, who withdrew from the coast and its resources to avoid contact with the European fishermen and colonists. Before the arrival of the colonies the Mi’kmaq navigated the waters between Cape Breton and Newfoundland by canoe. They established friendly relations with the French, becoming important trading partners and military allies.

The colony of Plaisance encountered many difficulties, particularly during its first few decades. Its population was small and poorly supplied, and its early governors were ineffective. However, in the 1690s, the colony became stronger, and the French administration highly valued the Atlantic fishery.

The economy of Plaisance was largely based on the cod fishery. The colony’s small permanent population with its “habitants-pêcheurs” was bolstered each year with the arrival of a large seasonal workforce on the merchant fleet from French ports. All worked intensely to catch and preserve cod during the summer months. The residents of Plaisance relied on the merchant fleet to bring extra labourers, food and manufactured goods, and to ship their dried catch back to Europe to be sold.

During this period, there was ongoing conflict between the French and the English, as well as between the Mi’kmaq and the English. In the 1690s and early 1700s, both the French and the Mi’kmaq conducted raids, sometimes jointly, on English settlements on the Avalon Peninsula. The War of the Spanish Succession culminated in the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, in which France ceded its claim to Newfoundland to England. The English took over the settlement of Plaisance, changing its name to Placentia. Most of the French colonists moved south to the colony of Ile Royale (now Cape Breton). There they established themselves in the new French settlement of Louisbourg and continued their work in the French cod fishery. The French also retained the right to fish off the coasts of Newfoundland and to process their catch along stretches of the shoreline, known as the French Shore.

Nautical chart, on vellum in coloured ink, of the coastline of Newfoundland, Acadia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Nautical chart of the coastline of Newfoundland, Acadia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Produced after 1713, the chart shows both Plaisance and Louisbourg (e011182107)

Records at Library and Archives Canada

LAC holds records related to the colony of Plaisance, among other topics, in the Fonds des Colonies (MG1). This fonds includes copies and transcriptions of selected records related to the French colonial period in early Canada. The records are in French, and the original documents are held at the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. The Fonds des Colonies consists of records including correspondence, reports, journals, instructions, records of fortifications and commerce, civil registers, and notary documents.

Many records in the Fonds des Colonies have been digitized and are available directly on the LAC website. Use LAC’s Collection Search to search for records about the colony of Plaisance. Try keyword searches, such as “MG1 Plaisance” or “MG1 pêche” (without quotation marks), and use the drop-down menu to search “Archives.” Including “MG1” will limit your search results to records in the Fonds des Colonies; you can search more broadly by not including it. Because the original records are in French, try using French keywords such as “pêche” (fishing), “Terre-Neuve” (Newfoundland), or “morue” (cod).

Related resources


Valerie Casbourn is an archivist based in Halifax with Regional Services at Library and Archives Canada.

New additions to Newfoundland and Labrador album now on Flickr

A black-and-white photograph of four men in kayaks with a rocky outcropping in the background.

Four men kayaking, Turnavik, Labrador (MIKAN 3377220)

Land was sighted in June 1497 after just over a month of travel, and John Cabot is credited with the second discovery of North America, and Newfoundland which celebrates the event as Discovery Day.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Newfoundland and the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme

Among the most infamous battles of the First World War and the most emblematic of its horrific slaughter, the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916.

A black-and-white photograph of a pastoral landscape.

General view of the battlefield looking towards Contalmaison (Battle of the Somme). July, 1916 (MIKAN 3520937)

The attack was launched along a 30-kilometre front in northern France. Initially planned by the Allies as a French-British assault, it was intended to divert German forces from their ongoing siege at Verdun. The expectation was that an eight-day preliminary artillery bombardment would destroy the German wire and the forward German lines, allowing advancing forces to simply walk in and take possession of the territory. The artillery, however, failed to destroy either of these targets and at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, when the bombardment lifted, German infantry emerged from their bunkers to aim their machine guns at the gaps in the otherwise intact wire. An estimated 60,000 British and Allied troops, including close to 800 Newfoundlanders, were killed or wounded on that one day alone. The Battle of the Somme lasted until November 18, 1916. Only 12 kilometres of ground were gained, with 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German casualties.

A black-and-white photograph of a devastated forest, only a few tree trunks are left standing

Scene in Maple Copse (Battle of the Somme). July, 1916 (MIKAN 3520908)

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Looking for your Newfoundland Ancestors Who Served in the First World War?

Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire when the First World War broke out. At the time, there was no formal military presence in Newfoundland, but the Government of Newfoundland went on a recruiting drive to provide a force for British service. Many Newfoundlanders also joined the war effort by joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in Canada.

After Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949, the personnel records for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Newfoundland Forestry Corps were transferred to the Government of Canada as these individuals became eligible for veterans’ benefits. Later, the files were microfilmed by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and FamilySearch. The originals remain in LAC’s holdings.

Searching for Newfoundland service files

If you aren’t sure in which service your ancestor served or where he joined, you will need to look at both the CEF records using the Canadian soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918 database for people from Newfoundland who enlisted in other parts of Canada and the general Archives Search for people who enlisted in Newfoundland regiments. For the latter group, enter the surname of the person, “Newfoundland” and RG38 in the keyword search. The results page will identify which microfilm reel you will need to order to consult the service record.

Meanwhile, the microfilms can be consulted onsite at LAC, through the Family History Centre or in the Newfoundland Provincial Archives at The Rooms in St. John’s. The latter has digitized some of the service files and these can be found in the Newfoundland Regiment and the Great War database.

LAC is presently digitizing all of the remaining 640,000 service files of the men and women who served in the First World War with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The digitized service records will be made available on the website as they become available, but access restrictions may be in effect at times. Learn more about the digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Service Files by consulting the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Patrolling the French Shore with Louis Koenig

Newfoundland in the summer, completely inaccessible because of its winged garrison. Library and Archives Canada. (Source)

Did you know that thanks to the collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) it is possible to patrol the French Shore of the island of Newfoundland with Lieutenant Louis Koenig and discover this particular area where the French had cod fishing rights for almost 200 years, because of two treaties signed between France and England? Accompany Koenig and the crew of the French frigate La Clorinde during a campaign that brought them to Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 1885.

Recognized by the French Navy for his artistic talents, Koenig created the 145 drawings and watercolours, the hand-drawn maps and the logbook, which are found in the Louis Koenig fonds and Louis Koenig Collection. The illustrations, most of which were done on site, show the landscapes and military installations he observed, as well as daily activities on board La Clorinde. The maps give three views of the French Shore and include notes by the artist.The logbook, also written by Koenig, documents the voyage, the places visited and gives his candid impressions of his experiences; devoting particular attention to the mosquitoes, which were apparently delighted to welcome the French sailors! The collection also includes a small sketchbook containing an illustrated, much more personal, account of the voyage, full of humour and whimsy presented by Koenig as a gift to La Clorinde’s commander, Félix-Auguste Le Clerc. Koenig also wrote an article Le « French Shore » (souvenirs de campagne à Terre-Neuve) (The “French Shore”, Memoirs of a Newfoundland Campaign), embellished with his maps and illustrations and published in 1890 in the periodical Tour du monde.

To order published documents that are unavailable online, use our online Request for Retrieval of Documents, or call 613-996-5115, or toll-free 1-866-578-7777, to consult them in person at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.

Enjoy the discoveries and view the Flickr set of images from Koenig’s albums!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!