Exceedingly well situated for a fishery: Gamaliel Smethurst’s 1762 account of St. John’s Island

The Island of St. John in 1758. Until Holland’s survey this was the best guess as to the shape of the colony.

Prince Edward Island was, compared with its Atlantic neighbours, never much of a fishing power. In the first part of the 18th century  the French attempted a fishery with a distinct lack of success. After the colony passed from French to English hands it was is a sort of limbo while the crown decided how to manage their new territory and most of the interest was in the land not the sea surrounding it.  As in the following century, it was the Americans who took advantage of the location with New Englanders flocking to Island waters for their annual harvest of fish.

The earliest published notice of the value of the Island waters was by one Gamaliel Smethust of Bristol Rhode Island who had attempted a fishing business here even before the metes and bounds of the colony were established by Samuel Holland in 1764-1765. Smethurst was a sea captain who had traded between New England and Quebec soon after the British capture of the city and also had established a fishery for a short period in the period 1760-1762.

Unfortunately his comments on the colony are very brief and dealt almost exclusively with the potential for a fishery Although he states that the island was an ideal spot from which to access the fishing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Banks of Newfoundland the reality was otherwise and the Islands only fishery was with its adjacent waters

As I was the first who attempted a fishery in the Bay of Chaleurs , so I was the first Briton who attempted a fishery on the island of St. John in the Gulph of St. Lawrence – I had raised two storehouses at St. Peter’s, and had employed most of the people on the island in the fishery; I had likewise brought a crew from Marblehead in New-England, to cause an emulation. A year or two after, a London company set up a fishery here, upon such a plan as I knew would be the destruction of any fishery nigh them, and not turn out to their own emolument. The commanding officer, Capt. Ralph Hill, had given me a grant of some land, which I looked on only as temporary; yet I thought it might be a recommendation. Accordingly I sent the grant, with a memorial, the year after, to the Lords of Trade and Plantations; but unfortunately the vessel I sent it by (Captain Seguin) foundered: and then the division of land was made, I was not considered. This Island is exceedingly well situated for a fishery, being clear of fogs. You may conveniently send vessels either to the bay of Chaleurs, to the streights of Belleisle, to the isles of Magdelines, to the coast of Newfoundland, or to the banks either of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland; not to mention the banks on the north side the island, which I would advise be used as a family fishery, a peche sedintaire. Every farmer there, who lived in the small harbours, might keep what is called a whale boat, and in the months of June, July, August, September and October, go out as opportunity served, and return at night; for you go but a little way out to the banks; not to make an entire business of it, but only when the men could be spared from their husbandry. One of these boats might make at an under computation in this kind of fishery, at the fall of the year, be supposed to have an hundred and fifty quintals of fish to sell, besides twenty quintals kept for family use; these, with the oil, would supply them with rum, sugar, melasses, cyder, salt, and other necessaries, for their families; by which means they might gain the whole produce of the land – As the harbours on the north side the island are mostly barred, which, when the wind is northerly, makes a frightful dangerous entrance, I would advise the schooner, or larger cod-fishery, to be fixed in a good harbour, where the resort is the greatest; for two or three days sailing is nothing in this sort of fishery, compared with the other advantages: besides it gives time for the fish to take salt, therefore I should pitch upon Port-le-joy, or Charlotte town.

The sort of vessels most proper on this account, are schooners, about sixty tons; these may go to the banks of Nova-Scotia or Newfoundland, or anywhere in the Gulph – might carry the fish to Europe or the West Indies,  One of these schooners, with six men and two boys, might be expected to make a fare, on an average, in a month; so they would have five fares in a season, making allowance of their coming to discharge –Twelve hundred quintals is a summer’s work for vessels of this size, and they might leave off the latter end of October – I would prefer the breast flakes to cure the fish upon, such as they have at Marblehead, in preference to the stages used in Newfoundland.

Process for the Drying and Curing of fish ca. 1850.

There might be likewise a whale fishery established here – Vessels might get to the streights of Belleisle, or the mouth of the river St. Lawrence, in good season, before they could arrive from New England – As for the salmon fishery, though there are some rivers here, and on the continent opposite, which abound with them; yet I think not sufficient to make an article of commerce. The same with herrings and mackerel – Upon the coast, there are quantities enough for fresh consumption, and for bait; but not as objects of trade. The great objection to the salmon fishery is, the vast quantity of old wood at the bottoms of the rivers, which choak them up that you cannot draw your nets. The seal and sea-cow fisheries must fail as the inhabitants increase; for these creatures endeavour to get to unfrequented places.

Atlantic Cod. Image: Maine Department of Natural Resources

In spite of Smethursts’s advocacy for the Island as the site of a fishery it did not really develop and most settlers became farmers although some combined the activities as Smethutrst ‘s suggested.  His account is of value as one of the earliest informed assessments of the Island’s potential for fishing. He was wrong about the mackerel and herring fishery and in the 19th century the resource was the chief draw for American fishermen who made annual visits to the colony’s waters, often with hundreds of vessels at a time.

Smethurst’s work, A providential escape after a shipwreck, in coming from the Island of St. John in said gulph; with an account of the fisheries round that Island (from which this excerpt is taken) was published in London in 1774. 23 p.



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