Caplin Bay - Emergence of a Sustained Fishing Industry
In the first half of the eighteenth century, very little was recorded of settlement in Caplin Bay, although it is likely that there were ongoing migratory fishery operations carried out there in that timeframe. However, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, various surnames related to sustained sedentary fishing started to surface there. One such early Caplin Bay settler was Thomas Nash, purportedly from Co. Kilkenny, Ireland. While we know for certain that Thomas lived at Caplin Bay, there are several versions of folklore told of his arrival, the extent of his property and family, and the reason for his eventual departure from Caplin Bay. One version of local folklore relates that Thomas first arrived at Caplin Bay about 1765. After staying there for the traditional indenture period of two summers and an interim winter, when Thomas' time came to be sent back to Ireland, he decided to hide out and overwinter there. The lore goes on to tell that while Thomas was hiding there over that winter, he and other family members built a boat. Although they were discovered the following spring, instead of being punished, Thomas and his family were allowed to stay. He was later rewarded for his initiative and eventually received a grant for all of the shoreline in Caplin Bay, headland to headland.
However, folklore aside, in-depth research of old Colonial records show that in September 1773, Thomas Nash and Roger McGraugh had petitioned the Crown for a fishery grant. Their petition was successful and the property allotted Thomas and Roger was recorded as extending from the Quay (abutting the Tree Plantation located at the southeast end of The Beach) along the south shoreline, for about 2/3 of a kilometre, to Deep Cove. This fishery grant was authorized by the Governor on the 25th of September, 1773 and survives to this day in the Colonial Secretary's Letterbook. Later documents indicate that after the Nash family left Caplin Bay in the early 1890s, this property came into the hands of the wealthy Holdsworth family of Devon, England. Over the next half-century, the Holdsworths leased portions of this property, mainly to the fishing enterprises operated by the Sweetland and Morry families. However, other portions of the original Nash/McGraugh plantation were reallocated by the Crown to other individuals. While the Sweetland enterprise went bankrupt and the family left Caplin Bay in 1836, the Morry family continued to lease the Holdsworth property until eventually in 1855, they bought their former lease holdings. It appears this piece of property only had a shoreline exposure of less than 1/3 of a kilometre. The vendor in this deed was given as Arthur W. O. Holdsworth, Esq’r. of Dartmouth, Devon, who was also the same vendor of property at Ferryland that John Henry Morry had purchased in 1844.
Based on entries in the Ferryland Court records, it appears that most of the Nash family likely left Caplin Bay in the early 1790s. According to family folklore, the reason the Nashs left Caplin Bay was to pursue the more lucrative salmon fishery in St. Mary's Bay, where they eventually founded the settlement of Branch. While this reason may have been one of the factors for their departure, another event that occurred in the late 1780s may have been another contributing factor. In the book "Gentleman-Bishops and Faction Fighters" (Edited by Cyril J. Byrne) Thomas Nash is mentioned as a cousin of the rebellious priest, Father Patrick Power of Kilkenny. In 1788, Father Power was accused by his superior, Father (later Bishop) James Louis O' Donel, of inciting a religious riot at Ferryland. This religious riot was not sectarian but was fought between factions of Roman Catholics from the rival Irish provinces of Munster and Leinster. Power's insistence that Father O'Donel, who was from Munster, would not allow any cleric from the province of Leinster officiate in Newfoundland, allegedly led to the confrontation. In a 1789 letter from Father Thomas Ewer, the "official" priest at Ferryland, he informs O'Donel that Father Power was "to winter in the house of his cousin Thomas Nash, an old planter in this place". The letter goes on to say that Father Power had run up great debt with merchants and others in the area. This dispute went back and forth for a couple of more years, with Father Power even physically threatening Father Ewer at Mass. Father Power was excommunicated at least twice, and all those who continued to support him were also threatened with excommunication by Father O'Donel. Finally, in 1791, Father Power relented and went back to Ireland, leaving his debts to be paid by the Roman Catholic Church. This whole affair likely brought Roman Catholic Church sanctions upon the Nash family, who may have also been excommunicated or, at the very least, were deprived of the sacraments because they supported Father Power.
Another 1773 grant that was recorded in the Ferryland Surrogate Court records was for a piece of property at Caplin Bay described as being “from the Quay to the Pond and 300 yards behind the same". The petitioner was Francis Tree, a New Englander, who likely used Caplin Bay as his Newfoundland port during the fishing season, but returned to Boston each year in late autumn. In 1775, he was permitted to erect fishing premises on this piece of land to pursue an expanded fishery at Caplin Bay. However, a few years later in the midst of the American Revolution, Francis and his family left Boston and moved to Ferryland. It appears that Francis Tree, Sr. died about 1790, but his sons Francis Jr. and Philip never carried on the fishery at Caplin Bay. The will of Philip Tree, probated in 1858, describes his leased holdings there as “a certain dwelling house and premises with all the land attached thereto, being about seven acres, ..... lately occupied by John Power, also all that property ....... leased to Thomas Ryan and also all that property leased to Michael Hearn”.
In 1784, the court records show that Matthew Morry, from Dartmouth, Devon petitioned for a piece of land “to build a Fishing Room at the Head of Capling Bay”. The petition indicated he had cleared an area on the southwest side of the (Gut) Pond, claiming that it did not belong to any inhabitants. Matthew was supported in his petition by Robert Carter, J.P. of Ferryland who vouched that the land in question had not been occupied during his presence at Ferryland (42 years), or within the recollection of any of the “ancient Inhabitants” of the area. This fishery property was granted to Matthew Morry in September of 1784. Court records also show that in 1786, Matthew further improved this property by hiring a carpenter, John Brazell, to build a "shoremans house" on the property. In 1790 Matthew Morry petitioned for another piece of land at the head of Caplin Bay, this time on the northeast side of the (Gut) Pond. He indicated that he needed the extra land to accommodate his growing fishing enterprise in that area. Again Matthew Morry’s request was granted, with the standard caveat that he could occupy the land “so long as you shall employ the said space for the advantage of the Fishery”.
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