Mount Pearl was initially settled by farmers and it remained a farming community until the middle of the twentieth century. The beginning of Mount Pearl's development occurred during an interesting era of Newfoundland's history, an era where there was a shift from seasonal fishing to long term settlement. In fact, farming and settlement were outlawed in Newfoundland during the 1700s.
With a proclamation by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Newfoundland was formally claimed by England in 1583. Permanent structures were very sparse on the island, and it is estimated that there may have only been forty or fifty structures on the island prior to that time.During the next hundred years, there were various attempts to colonize parts of the island, such as John Guy's colony at Cupids in 1610 and George Calvert's colony at Ferryland in 1623. These first colonies made great efforts to be successful: they built solid stone structures, grew vegetables and oats to support themselves and their domesticated cattle and pigs. But these colonies failed within several years It has been suggested that a combination of issues led to their demise, including their lack of experience farming in the harsh Newfoundland climate, the short growing season and the recurring plundering by England's enemies.
Besides these attempts at colonization, Newfoundland during the 1600s was mostly an outpost for the migratory fisheries. Men from the British Isles (mostly from southwest England) would travel to the island in the spring of each year to fish cod and would return to Britain in the fall. At that time, the merchants approved of small scale settlement because the wintered population could maintain their fishing stages and buildings. However, as the settlers became more prosperous, settlement was discouraged. By 1677, the permanent population of Newfoundland was estimated to be 1884 people.
In 1670, the Western Adventurers convinced the British government to make farming illegal within 6 miles of the Newfoundland shoreline. Farming posed a threat to the merchants because self-sufficiency among the fishermen would make them less reliant on the merchants for food supplies and create competition for the merchants. Other reasons why the authorities outlawed farming include:
In 1676, the Western Adventurers ordered existing planters (settlers, as they were referred to in the seventeenth century) to give up their
properties to the Crown. The planters had much to lose from this declaration, as many had spent their lifetimes creating subsistence gardens
and raising farm animals. A prosperous settler from St. John's named John Downing was elected by fellow planters to petition the King of England
to allow the settlers to remain on their properties. The King agreed with Downing and allowed the planters to stay.
The settler population fluctuated slightly during the end of the seventeenth century and into the beginning of the eighteenth century. The plight of the settlers did not improve much during this time. Planters from all over the island were subjected to raids by enemy states; for example, St. John's was razed to the ground in 1697 by the French military. The lack of law and order led to excessive drinking, rape and murder, especially in St. John's.Britain finally built a garrison at Fort William in St. John's sometime around 1700 to protect the settlement. The first governor was instated in 1729, but as the governor would only stay for two months of the year, the colony's social conditions did not see large improvements.
The permanent population in Newfoundland increased slowly throughout the eighteenth century and then dramatically at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as Table 1 shows. The American Revolution from 1775-1783 caused turmoil in the seas, prompting many migratory fishermen to settle in Newfoundland and focus on the inshore fishery, in spite of settlement being frowned upon by the Governors. After the war, the migratory fishery flourished again for a number of years, but the number of settlers continued to increase. In 1784, Ireland was given the right to fish in Newfoundland waters, which resulted in an influx of Irish settlers during the next few years, particularly on the Avalon Peninsula. The population of women and children began increasing at this time as well. The family unit improved the circumstances of the fishermen considerably, as the women would tend their subsistence farms and could provide labour in the curing of fish while the men worked on the boats. Children could also provided additional labour.
The beginning of the Napoleonic Wars in 1799 had similar consequences to the American Revolution. Britain's war with France increased danger at sea, causing the migratory fishery to recede and the resident fishery to grow. This war, however, would go on for over twenty years. The pattern that developed during this tumultuous period was arguably irreversible. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Newfoundland's settled population had grown to about 40,000. The population was reliant on the fishery for both food and collateral to purchase other necessities like flour, cloth, meat, sugar and produce. Even though there were several larger farms in the St John's area at this time, these farms could not produce enough to feed all of the residents of the town. As a result, most goods were imported.
In 1812-1813, the combination of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States had drastically reduced the amount of goods reaching Newfoundland. This shortage greatly increased the cost of goods from the ships. Governor Keats, who was in power at the time, wrote in a letter:
"The scarcity of provisions which prevailed in the early part of the year 1813, had been well calculated to stimulate the people to make trial of what the land could produce towards their support".
Keats continued to describe that the scarcity of goods drove up prices of goods which made the shortages worse. In St. John's, the government was informed that there were only enough provisions in storage to last for two months, with little prospect of future imports. Eventually, however, imports from Great Britain were received and thus famine in the town was avoided.
This threat of famine may have been the turning point in the authorities' view of farming and settlement in Newfoundland. Govenor Keats recognized that agriculture was invaluable in times of unstable trading and granted small lots of land to those wishing to farm, but he also stated that agriculture should "not interfere with the fisheries." The problems of importing goods to the island continued throughout the next several years.
In 1825, Newfoundland's first land-based governor arrived, Sir Thomas Cochrane. Cochrane promoted agriculture, settlement, and infrastructure, believing that the colony (and the fisheries) would become more profitable through this. He also promoted road building in the St. John's area and in 1831, land grants were recorded and kept in Newfoundland.
It was under Cochrane that the area known as Mount Pearl was formally settled. The governor actively promoted farming in the area and granted land to those who could farm.