Newfoundland and Labrador Ancestors: The Maritime History Archive Part 1

Researching family history in Newfoundland presents unique challenges. Though European colonization of \”The Rock\” goes back farther than even Quebec City, Newfoundland did not become a province of Canada until 1949. For a complete history and overview of the province, you can check out the Canadian Encyclopedia\’s entry on Newfoundland and Labrador here. Because they are a comparatively recent addition to Canada the normal avenues of Canadian research don\’t apply to Newfoundland. You have to be a little more creative in your research.

The province has always had strong ties to Maritime industries. One great resource for searching for your ancestor is the Maritime History Archive. As part of the Memorial University campus in St. John\’s, their mandate is to preserve the maritime history of not only Newfoundland and Labrador, but the north Atlantic as a whole.

This site has a wealth of information. You can spend a lot of time just on the site itself, and only a tiny part of what they have is online. I\’m actually diving this post into two parts, because there\’s so much to look at. Click on the Holdings and Collections tab and prepare to lose yourself in the collections. I don\’t have Newfoundland ancestors but I\’m wishing I did after looking at what they have.

Business Collections

This shows you the fonds from over 60 businesses. There are mercantile companies, shipping companies, as well as ones involved in ship building. Clicking on a company name gives you a description of what\’s available, ownership, copyright, as well as a history of the company. In some cases you can even find biographies of the families involved. Among the individual collections you\’ll find ledgers, payroll, diaries and journals. I also found in some collections wills and correspondence.

William Button Diaries

William Button was the son of Moses Button. M. Button and Sons started out as a general store. Through the years they diversified to include a lobster canning factory, a cod liver oil factory, ownership of wharves, and saw mills. The diaries of William Button include the years 1908, 1911-1913, and 1918-1925. Clicking on a year will give you a transcription of the diary. Though it mostly deals with the running of their businesses, you will find mention of the local community as well. For example, on 15 March 1922 he wrote how Dr. Templeton visited him. The doctor had earlier treated Wesley Goodwin\’s wife and child, who had fallen down some stairs.

Haystack Photographic Collection

Here you can find a history of the community of Haystack. As well, there are over 200 photos showing the people and culture of the area. The photos range from the 1920\’s to the 1960\’s. Photographs of people are captioned with names when known. I saw last names of Gilbert, Allen, and Halfyard, just to name a few.

Job Photograph Collection

The Job Family business empire lasted for 300 years, under various business names. Their photograph collection offers an insight into maritime life through the years. the photos are grouped under the headings of Property, Fishing, Events, Local Scenes, and Recreation. Clicking on the Larger Image link under each picture will give you a description and year.

Keith Matthews Collection

Dr. Keith Matthews amassed an extensive collection on the early surnames of the province. The files involve over 7,000 different surnames from 1500-1850. By clicking on the \”Name Files\” link, you can check if your surname of interest has a file. I looked up the surname of a friend with Newfoundland heritage (GREENING), and found that it is file G217. Using this I can order a PDF scan of the file sent me by email. Cost is .25 per page. They will only send you the complete file, not just certain pages. Among the pages, you will find Dr. Matthews\’ notes on the surnames. Among the sources he collected are religious records and court records.

Among the collection are also three other groups of documents. There\’s a collection of early Newfoundland history from British sources, and one on Newfoundland fisheries. The third deals with his research for his doctoral thesis.


Here you can use the search function to look for manuscripts relating to a specific topic you\’re interested in.

Maps, Plans and Hydrographic Charts

No link here to anything more specific, but it does state that their collection is \”mostly relating to areas around Newfoundland and Labrador\”.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Here they list the over 50 titles in their collection. There are originals and microfilm copies. What\’s interesting about this collection is that the newspapers and broadsheets are not just from Newfoundland and Labrador. You\’ll find them from all over England, from Ireland, and from New York. There\’s even a French language one from Jersey.

Phillip Templeton Ltd. Diary 1914

Here you\’ll find a transcription of the 1914 diary of Phillip Templeton Ltd. What\’s unique about this diary is that it is a company diary, as opposed to a personal one. Entries were made by several staff. Though it mainly relates to company matters, you will also find items about the local area of Catalina. It has mentions of World War I and the S.S. Newfoundland sealing disaster. You\’ll also find mention of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. You can find my own blog post about the sinking here.

Photograph Collections

This section allows you to search for photographs by keyword. I put in \”catalina\” and got 19 photographs of scenery and boats from the area.

Researching Genealogy and Family History

This section gives you a listing of different collections to help with your genealogy research. Clicking on a record set gives you details and access of that particular set. There\’s family histories, and collections on indexes for vital statistics. You can find English and Irish parish records, and census records. There\’s also Captain\’s registers and crew agreements.

Resettlement Photo Collection

From the 1950\’s to 1970\’s, the Provincial government sponsored a resettlement of over 200 isolated communities. The controversial plan affected around 50,000 people. The government would financially help families to relocate to more accessible areas. The kicker was that everyone in a community had to agree before any money would be paid. As you can imagine, this caused some friction. Later, the stipulation was that 90% of the community had to agree. This section gives an overview of the \”Resettlement\”, as it became known as. There are documents (both images and transcriptions) relating to it. You can also look at individual communities affected. Here you\’ll get a history of the community, and photos. People are named, so you might even find a picture of your family in there.

Shipping Records

Here are links to the different collections in their holdings. Among the overview of each collection set, you\’ll also get links to other helpful websites, and how go about ordering records. The record sets are:

  • Crew Lists and Log Books
  • Vessel Registers
  • Shipping Lists
  • Ships Captains
  • Voyages
  • Shipwrecks
  • Atlantic Canada Shipping Project
  • More Than a List of Crew
Student Research Papers

Here they describe their collection of student papers relating to the history, geography, and anthropology of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are thousands of papers, written between 1969 and 1986.
Young Men and the Sea Database Collection 

This section details the information used for the book Young Men and the Sea: Yankee seafarers in the Age of Sail. The three databases are Voyages, Salem Tax Lists, and Salem Tax Valuation Lists.
In Part 2 we\’ll look at what else is available on the website, including virtual exhibits, research services, and publications. 

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