Finding Archaeological Evidence of Ferryland-Placentia Conflict

9 Mar

Although separated by more than 90km as the crow flies, or 200km by sea, Ferryland and Placentia have a lot more in common than their Irish heritage. The two settlements were also traditional enemies in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries.  That French-English historical animosity, really more of a European issue that spilled over to Newfoundland, can also be traced archaeologically.

Historical Background

In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century there was probably no greater conflict in Newfoundland than the one between the English and French over control of the fishery.  Both countries had migratory fishing crews in Newfoundland waters since the sixteenth century and each country claimed the fishery as their own.  By the mid-sixteenth-century, France had been sending hundreds of fishing ships each year to Newfoundland.  From St. Jean de Luz in the south, northwards to Rouen in Britany, French migratory crews came to fish cod and return each year with their catches.  Legal documents suggest that for the French, there was no better fish than that which came from Placentia Bay.  By the fourth quarter of the seventeenth century, there were about 300 French ships and 20,000 fishermen coming to Newfoundland waters.   At its peak in the late seventeenth century, the French fishing fleet in Newfoundland outnumbered the English fleet by 2:1.  The English fishery in Newfoundland was a bit slower to develop with the industry not truly establishing itself until the 1570s.  However, within 50 years, English colonists were living year-round in many of the principal harbours on the east and north sides of the Avalon Peninsula, notably Cupids (1610), Renews (1617), Harbour Grace (1618), Ferryland (1621), St. John’s (1625) and Carbonear (1627).  Wary of English control over the land and therefore also the fishery, France too sent colonists to Plaisance (Placentia) in 1662.

Although the early years for Plaisance were fraught with internal conflict and the constant threat from English and Dutch forces, not to mention the perineal shortages of food, the little French colony managed to hold on for just over five decades.  It did so by maintaining contact with sister colonies in New France (Quebec) and even established an illicit, but prosperous trade with New England’s colonies.  This latter trade was particularly valued as a supply of provisions, in particular alcohol which intrepid merchants sold from their “cabanes” (tippling houses) on the Plaisance beaches.  Alcohol and fresh food from New England meant so much to its residents that when the newly French governor, Antoine Parat, arrived in Plaisance in 1685 and tried to expel the New Englanders.  The locals would have none of it, and they protested until the governor changed his mind.  In their thinking, the goods and services provided by the New Englanders were essential to the colony.

Conflicts between England and France in Europe often spilled over to New World colonies, chiefly in Newfoundland, where hundreds of French, English, Basque, Portuguese and Dutch fishing ships were operating every fishing season.  Incidents of piracy were not uncommon, even between ships of the same country.  One particularly notable act of aggression between English ships and the French took place in 1628 when the five Kirke brothers, led by David Kirke sailed from England with a small fleet of ships to harass French interests in New France.  The Kirke’s captured numerous French vessels and laid siege to French settlements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  That action culminated in the summer of 1629 with the surrender of Samuel De Champlain and the capture of his colony at Quebec City, as well as the destruction of numerous French settlements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  David Kirke would go on to be knighted for his actions in Quebec and nine years later (in 1637) became proprietor of the Poole Plantation in Ferryland and governor of Newfoundland.

Following Sir David’s death in the early 1650s his widow, Lady Sarah, and their four sons would continue as the principal planters on the south Avalon in the second half of the seventeenth century.  Such destruction to New France’s colonial holdings was probably not forgotten in Quebec and Versailles, headquarters for their colonial empire. (See below) Being the largest French settlement in Newfoundland, Plaisance was attacked multiple times – first by the Dutch in the 1670s and three times by the English in the 1690s.  The first, and arguably the most successful of the English attacks, was a raid by 45 men from Ferryland who, in the winter of 1690, held the town’s inhabitants in the church for much of the winter before heading back to Ferryland with all they could carry, leaving the colony defenseless and without much in the way of provisions.

In 1691 Jacques-Francois Monbeton De Brouillan arrived in Plaisance as the new governor with instructions to refortify the colony.  One of his first tasks was to build Fort Louis, a sizable defensive works on the Petite Grave (now Jerseyside).  It is thought that De Brouillan lived inside this fort.  Fortunately for the beleaguered colony, when English war ships attempted to destroy Plaisance in 1692 and 1694, they could only bombard the colony but not effect successful landings.  De Brouillan’s defenses likely saved the colony from certain disaster.

In retaliation for the English raids, French military forces, led by the governors of Plaisance and at times assisted by Quebec troops, principal men (from Plaisance and Quebec) and their Native allies attacked the English Shore three times during the fall and winters of 1696/97, 1705/06 and 1709.  Each raid succeeded in destroying the principle English harbours from Renews to Bonavista.

Ferryland was hardest hit by the first of these attacks in September 1696 by the fleet of war ships under the command of the Plaisance Governor De Brouillan.  (Figure 1)  It would take nearly 70 years for the French to avenge De Champlain’s humiliating surrender to David Kirke in 1629, but the French from Plaisance and New France made good on their retaliation when they sacked Ferryland the first time in 1696, literally demolishing the Kirke mansion house and carrying away Kirke’s three surviving sons and much of the family’s treasures.  Two of Kirke’s sons died in Plaisance during the winter of 1696/97, probably within the walls of Fort Louis.  The third son died elsewhere, possibly in St. John’s.  


Figure 1 David Webber’s artist’s impression of French soldiers sacking Ferryland in 1696. (Image courtesy of the Colony of Avalon Foundation)
Figure 1. David Webber’s artist’s impression of French soldiers sacking Ferryland in 1696. (Image courtesy of the Colony of Avalon Foundation)


Governor De Brouillan’s fleet of ships also chased the English fifth-rate frigate the HMS Saphire, into Bay Bulls, where the crew set the ship on fire instead of allowing her to be taken as a prize.  Before the ship exploded and sank, about 40 French sailors managed to climb on board and probably salvaged some valuables before the ship exploded, apparently causing the death of most or all of the boarding party.  In addition to the destruction of English homes and fishing infrastructure, hundreds of planters were killed and their property taken away as war booty.  As each raid was launched from Plaisance, the booty was brought back to Placentia to be shared with the governor, soldiers and principal men who participated in the attacks.

Archaeological Evidence of Conflicts

Aside from the obvious archaeological evidence of the French-English conflicts (destruction-related deposits at Ferryland, and the wreck of the HMS Saphire at Bay Bulls), a number of artifacts can also be identified as conflict-related.   English-made artifacts were not uncommon from the French-related deposits (dating from the seventeenth century up to 1713).  These artifacts, primarily North Devon and Staffordshire coarse earthenwares and tobacco pipes, represent the trade between the New England merchants and Plaisance residents.  Their utilitarian functions and low-cost do not make them candidates for war-booty.  However, one type of clay tobacco pipe seems to have a definite connection to Ferryland and quite possibly also with Bay Bulls.  These “conflict” artifacts were made from clay, glass, slate and gold!

David Kirke’s Personal Seal

Arguably the most poignant conflict-related artifact from Ferryland is the personal seal of Sir David Kirke, a delicate three-piece symbol of the Kirke family.  (Figure 2)  One of the three seals features the Kirke family coat of arms with an “augmentation” at the top of the likeness of a lion with a chain around its neck.  This special augmentation was awarded to David Kirke for his role in capturing Quebec.  This solid gold and enameled seal was recovered from archaeological deposits near what would have been the shoreline of the Pool, and according to Dr. Barry Gaulton, suggests likely that it was dropped by one of the French victors who was bringing his war booty onto a ship.


Figure 2 David Kirke seals
Figure 2. David Kirke’s personal family seal. Note the shackled lion augmentation on the seal at the right of this image. (Image courtesy of Dr. Barry Gaulton)


Ottoman Tobacco Pipe

During the 2007 season, Scott Manning uncovered an Ottoman tobacco pipe just outside a structure believed to be the French Governor’s house.  This clay pipe (Figure 3) is meant to be smoked from a long tube (as opposed to the European tobacco pipes) and can probably best be considered a novelty tobacco pipe. (Figure 4)  Ottoman pipes are rare finds in North America and to our knowledge the only examples found in late-seventeenth-century contexts are from Ferryland, Bay Bulls and Placentia. The Ferryland specimen was from a deposit associated with the French destruction of the colony in 1696 and the one from Bay Bulls was found on the wreck of the HMS Saphire, also in 1696.  The contexts of the Ferryland and Bay Bulls pipes fuses perfectly with the date of the Placentia deposit, I.E. 1690s to 1713.


Figure 3 Placentia Ottoman pipe
Figure 3. Ottoman tobacco pipe from Placentia. (Image courtesy of Dr. Barry Gaulton)
Figure 4 turkish-man-smoking-long-pipe
Figure 4 Turkish man smoking an Ottoman tobacco pipe. (Source:


Wine Glasses and an Amethyst Beaker

A number of exquisite wine glasses and an unusual glass beaker (cup), made in southern Germany, have been recovered from the Fort Louis excavations, mostly in association with the French Governor’s house and all dating from 1691-1713. (Figures 5-8)  It would not be out of character for the governor to have fine wine glasses, but considering that a Plaisance governor led each of the raids on the English Shore (1696/97, 1705/06 & 1709), it is very likely that the finest war booty found its way to the governors’ dining tables.  The white enamel-decorated beaker is an extraordinary find, and would certainly be a prized possession in the governor’s home.  The fragile nature of these glass vessels is the probable reason they found their way into the archaeological record.


Figure 5 wine glass 1
Figure 5. Seventeenth-century wine glass from Placentia.
Figure 6 wine glass 2
Figure 6. Seventeenth-century wine glass from Placentia.
Figure 7.Glass sherds from a German “amethyst” beaker.
Figure 7. Glass sherds from a German “amethyst” beaker.
Figure 8Glass flask decorated in the same fashion as the amethyst beaker in Figure 7. (source:
Figure 8 Glass flask decorated in the same fashion as the amethyst beaker in Figure 7. (source:


Roof Slates

The last artifacts believed to be conflict-related may take a bit of a stretch for the imagination; as these are based more on circumstantial evidence.  Numerous fragments of roofing slates were found in several areas inside Fort Louis.  These were definitely unusual discoveries in that they were not found in quantities that would suggest they were a part of a roof collapse.  Instead, they were more-or-less evenly represented throughout the site and always in French Period deposits.  That they are fragments of roofing slates is obvious from the nail holes punched through several specimens. (Figure 9)


Figure 9.Three roofing slates with punched nail holes.
Figure 9. Three roofing slates with punched nail holes.


What is peculiar by their discoveries is that there is no evidence of slate-covered roofs in Plaisance, in either the historical or archaeological records, indicating that they were not used to cover roofs.  Nor are there natural sources for slate in Placentia.  The only seventeenth-century archaeological site in Newfoundland where roofing slates are evident, both in the historic record and in the ground, is Ferryland.  Captain Edward Wynne asked for slaters (men who make roofing slates) to be sent to Ferryland in the 1620s and there is archaeological evidence of a number of slate-roofed structures on the site.

Therefore, with regards to roof slates in the French contexts at Fort Louis, two questions arise. What are they doing there? And, important to this discussion, how did they get there?   The answers to these questions could well be that these roof slates have a convenient secondary function.   When they were no longer used to cover roofs in Ferryland, they were recycled as communication devices.  The earliest record use of thin sheets of slate as “chaulk boards” or reusable writing tablets dates to the fourteenth century.   A slate tablet also made a perfect educational platform as it can be drawn on with a soapstone “pencil” or similar chaulk-like utensil and simply cleaned with a rag.  Slate is a durable material, but also soft enough to be easily incised with a sharp blade or point.  Remarkably, several of the Placentia slate pieces have been incised with images of ships or ship’s riggings (Figures 10-11) and one piece had the Roman numerals I to XI (1-11) etched along its edges. (Figures 12-15)  There was likely a XII (12) next to the XI, however the slate is chipped in that area.  The clock-like pattern of these numerals suggests it was used as a sundial. (Figure 16)


Figure 10. Slate fragment incised with a ship with gun ports.
Figure 10. Slate fragment incised with a ship with gun ports.
Figure 11. Slate fragment incised with a ship’s riggings, planking and possible gun ports.
Figure 11. Slate fragment incised with a ship’s riggings, planking and possible gun ports.
Figure 12. Slate fragment with Roman numerals incised along three edges.
Figure 12. Slate fragment with Roman numerals incised along three edges.
Figure 13. Detail of Figure 11 with Roman numerals I – V (1 -5)
Figure 13. Detail of Figure 12 with Roman numerals I – V (1 -5)
Figure 14. Detail of Figure 11 with Roman numerals VI to IX (6 – 9)
Figure 14. Detail of Figure 12 with Roman numerals VI to IX (6 – 9)
Figure 15. Detail of Figure 11 with Roman numerals X & XI (10 & 11)
Figure 15. Detail of Figure 12 with Roman numerals X & XI (10 & 11)
Figure 16. Portable sundial.
Figure 16. Portable sundial.


It is entirely conceivable that the roofing slates at Plaisance were imported from France, or somewhere else far from Newfoundland; however, considering the enormous quantities of roof slates at Ferryland, and the historic evidence of three French raids to Ferryland, it is highly likely the slates from Fort Louis were picked up at Ferryland and brought back to Plaisance for use as writing tablets.  In the case of the incised slate pieces, they were used for artistic purposes and in the specimen with the Roman numerals, as a portable sundial for telling time. Positive proof that the Placentia slate roof fragments actually came from Ferryland will have to wait until they can be analysed by X-ray fluorescence or similar techniques to determine if they possess the same chemical signatures as the Ferryland slate.


As is sometimes the case, archaeology can tell stories better than any history book.  The discoveries from excavations at Fort Louis, in Placentia at Ferryland and Bay Bulls, help us visualize history in a way that only animate objects allow us to do.  Being able to see or even touch David Kirke’s personal family seal, the Ottoman tobacco pipes, exquisite wine glasses, the German beaker and etched roofing slates help illustrate the personal side of those conflicts between two warring European countries.  Importantly, these fragments from the past allow us to witness, even if just in a small way, the personal losses experienced by the early colonists in Newfoundland.  These artifacts also provide a bridge connecting the French and English settlements of seventeenth-century Newfoundland.


I would like to thank Catherine Hawkins for the opportunity to contribute to the Colony of Avalon Foundation website.  Many thanks also to Edwina Mills for editing this blog article and to Barry Gaulton for his editing suggestions, historic details and for providing the images of the Kirke seal and the Ottoman pipe. Thanks also to the Colony of Avalon Foundation for David Webber’s image of the French Raid on Ferryland.

Further Reading

Allan F. Williams, 1987 “Father Baudion’s War: D’Iberville’s Campaigns in Acadia and Newfoundland 1696, 1697”.

Matthew Simmonds, 2002 “The Historical Context and History of the HMS Saphire.” M.A. Thesis, University of Bristol.

Peter Davies, 2005  “Writing Slates and Schooling” In: Australian Historical Archaeology 23, 2005. Available online.

H.P. Biggar, 1901 “The Early Trading Companies of New France: A contribution to the History of Commerce and Discovery in North America”. University of Toronto Library (reprinted in 1972).


By Steve Mills