King William's War in Newfoundland 1696-1697

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In 1662, Placentia was established as the French capital in Newfoundland. St. John's had become the unofficial English capital. In 1689, war broke out between England and France. This war lasted until 1697 and was called the Nine Years War. In England it was known as King William's War. After the war broke out the English staged a series of attacks on Placentia, one in 1690, 1692, and in 1693. This made the French worry about their hold on their fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Around the same time, they were becoming more worried about the safety of their colonies in Canada and Acadia. They knew that whoever controlled Newfoundland could control passage through the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Gulf was the main route to their colonies, which is why controlling it was so important. The French were also worried about the strength of the English economy, which was making a lot of money from the fishery. If they could weaken the fishery, they could weaken England.

The Journal of Abbé Baudoin

French Musketeer. (©Public Domain.)
French Musketeer. (©Public Domain.)

Most of what we know about the campaign of 1696-1697 comes from a journal. It was written by Abbé Jean Baudoin, who was a French priest. He was sent to Newfoundland as a chaplain for the French troops. Before he became a priest he had been a musketeer and one of the King's bodyguards. This may be why he was so interested in the military, and why he wrote so much about the campaign.

In 1696, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville was sent to Newfoundland with an army of about 120 Canadians and three Abenaki. The Abenaki are members of a Native American tribe from what is now Nova Scotia. Pierre had already led many successful campaigns against English settlements and trading posts in New England. His orders were to destroy every English settlement on the Peninsula.

A Bad Start

Placentia.  (©Parks Canada. Used with permission.)
Placentia. (©Parks Canada. Used with permission.)

The campaign got off to a bad start. Jacques-François de Monbeton de Brouillan, the Governor of Placentia, was supposed to work with Pierre in the campaign. Instead, he decided to start his attacks before Pierre arrived in Placentia. This would have given him the credit for any successes. He also could have kept the goods taken from the settlements for himself. He took about a dozen fighters from the fort in Placentia and 100 sailors who had been sent from France to help Pierre and attacked St. John's. Jacques-François failed to capture St. John's but went on to attack and burn both Bay Bulls and Ferryland.

When Pierre arrived in Placentia, he was very angry with Jacques-François. The two of them argued over what to do next. Pierre wanted to take canoes to Carbonear and attack it. Afterwards, he wanted to cross Conception Bay, and attack St. John's by land. Jacques-François wanted to go to St. John's first and to attack by sea. He also wanted to take command of the troops Pierre had brought with him. The Canadians in the army swore they would not go along with this and would run away into the woods if Jacques-François was given command. Eventually Pierre and Jacques-François managed to make a deal. They would first head to St. John's, attacking Renews, Aquaforte, Bay Bulls, and Petty Harbour on the way. They would attack St. John's over land. Jacques-François would be in command until after St. John's had been taken, and then he would go back to Placentia. Pierre would then be in command to attack the rest of the English settlements.

The Army Sets Out

Winter Storm. (Prepared for Baccalieu: Crossroads for Cultures by Baccalieu Consulting, ©2005.)
Winter Storm. (Prepared for Baccalieu: Crossroads for Cultures by Baccalieu Consulting, ©2005.)

The army set out from Placentia on November 1st, 1696. They attacked from land and sea as Pierre's men marched overland and Jacques-François sailed to Renews. Renews, Aquaforte, Bay Bulls, Petty Harbour and St.John's were destroyed and pillaged, and hundreds of English settlers and fishermen were taken prisoner. On the French side, five men were wounded and only one was killed. Smaller detachments were sent to attack and pillage Torbay, Quidi Vidi, and Portugal Cove. Then, St. John's was burned and Jacques-François returned to Placentia. The prisoners were put on ships that had been captured in the fighting. Many were sent to England and France, but some died as prisoners in Placentia.

On January 14th, 1697, Pierre and his men set out for Portugal Cove on foot. From there, they traveled south around Conception Bay. They destroyed every settlement they found along the way. By the time they arrived at Harbour Main, the troops were exhausted. The Canadians and Abenaki had a lot of experience with winter campaigns, but it was still difficult for them to travel on foot. The troops had snowshoes, but they kept tearing on the ice and the rocks. Their prisoners had no snowshoes at all, and the cannons and other heavy equipment kept sinking into the snow. As well, the Newfoundland forest was very dense and the army had trouble moving through it. At Harbour Main, they decided to take some shallops from the settlement and travel the rest of the way to Carbonear by sea.

Carbonear Island

Carbonear Island. (Photo by Jimmy Harris, ©2005)
Carbonear Island. (Photo by Jimmy Harris, ©2005)

On the way, they attacked Port de Grave. They took all the weapons the settlers had and left for Carbonear. The people in Brigus had heard of the French army by now. They asked if they could surrender. The French ordered them to meet them at Carbonear. They had to give up all of their weapons and promise not to help any other towns resist the French. In the meantime, the people of Carbonear spotted the French as they approached and had time to prepare. They decided they did not want to surrender. By the time the army arrived, most of the settlers had moved to Carbonear Island. So had the people of Harbour Grace, Mosquito, and a few other small harbours, as well as some refugees from St. John's. Carbonear Island has high cliffs and is much easier to defend than the town of Carbonear. Carbonear Island and Bonavista were the only places that Pierre did not conquer.

Other towns were also warned about Pierre's army before it arrived. AbbĂ© Baudoin wrote, “This coast of Conception Bay is much better established and more populated than the one from Renews to St. John's, but we find nothing in these houses, [the people] having hidden everything in the woods and islands of this bay before the snows, so that we cannot discover their tracks.” The army took or burned what it could find, and moved on.

The army went to Harbour Grace, Salmon Cove, Bay de Verde, Old Perlican, Hant's Harbour, Scilly Cove, New Perlican and Heart's Content. All of the settlers that could escape had run to Carbonear Island or hidden in the woods. Every town was looted and burned except for Old Perlican and Bay de Verde. Pierre returned to Carbonear on February 11th. He was frustrated because he still could not capture Carbonear Island and while he was gone the English settlers had captured some of his men. On February 14th, he sent half of his men to burn Port de Grave, Brigus and the surrounding settlements. The English settlers were still camped out on the island. After a few days, Pierre gave up. He burned the town of Carbonear on February 28th, stationed a detachment at Bull Arm to keep an eye on the English in Trinity and Conception Bays, and left. He went to Placentia to get news from France.


Louis XIV of France. (Painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud. © Public Domain.)
Louis XIV of France. (Painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud. © Public Domain.)

Pierre divided up the army and stationed soldiers around the Peninsula to keep it in French hands. During this time the French attacked Trinity and burned Old Perlican and Bay de Verde. Regular trips were also made overland from Heart's Content to Carbonear to harass the people on Carbonear Island. Then, he made plans to attack Bonavista, which was the last English settlement in Newfoundland. Pierre waited in Placentia for about 50 days. He wanted more men to be sent from France before he attacked Bonavista. But instead of more men, he received a message from the French king, Louis XIV. He was ordered to return to Hudson's Bay, where he had fought before. The English had taken some important French trading posts. He had to take them back.

While he was in Newfoundland he had killed 200 settlers, taken 700 prisoners, burned or given to French sailors 371 shallops, and seized 193 000 dried codfish. The English fishery had been devastated. He did not want to leave. He believed that if he had been able to stay, all of Newfoundland would have come under French control. This would have left Acadia and Canada better protected, and would have badly damaged the English economy. But his plans were not to be. The English settlers returned to their towns and rebuilt their homes. A few years later, in 1713, the French lost their territory in Newfoundland for good.