Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bonavista Bay - Flat Island walkabout

There are hundreds of isolated communities in Newfoundland that were settled hundreds of years ago that were resettled in recent times.  Visiting the sites of these resettled communities on kayak trips is a great draw for me because being there really gives a feeling of what it must have been like to survive, and yes, survive is an apt word.  The people who lived there no doubt saw it as making a living.  Seeing it with the backdrop of modern amenities it seems more like survival.

Flat Island where we were camped was settled in the 1820s.  "... it was settled first by families from Greenspond (Jonas Hallett, an immigrant from Somerset, England and his wife Sarah; a Dyer family, and James Cheater) and Kings Cove (the Samson or Sanson families of Thomas and Jane, Joseph Sr. and Elizabeth, Joseph Jr. and Mary Conoly, James and Susannah Butt).  [From:]

Subsequent credit to the above site will be referred to as Heritage Nfld.

The last people of Flat Islands to leave left in 1957 under the Government of Newfoundland resettlement program.  There's not much left to evidence the existence of a community that once peaked at 502 in 1901.  All that's left are a few rotting boards and sticks and scattered bricks.

The population in 1836 shows 26 growing to 108 in 1845.

"The populating process, however, was greatly influenced by an influx of settlers from Conception Bay particularly from the Port de Grave area." [Heritage Nfld]

There were no supermarkets then.  People survived by fishing and growing their own vegetables.  In the spring men went to the ice to hunt seals for meat which must have been a nice change form fish and potatoes.

Flat Islands were pretty much "out the bay" as far as one can get.  As fishermen had to row their dories out to the fishing grounds, the islands were well placed.

" Nourished by the local inshore fishery, the seal fishery and activities such as woodcutting and ship building, but most especially the Labrador fishery, the Flat Islands population increased to 891 persons by 1901."  [Heritage Nfld]

The population quoted appears to differ from census data which shows 502.

I was surprised as I scanned around the island how much land was available for agriculture compared to other resettled communities where I've been.

The vegetables that were grown had to do for the entire year until the following year's crop could be harvested.  The harvest was stored in cellars that kept produce from freezing in winter.

On Saturday we toured the other side of the island having seen the white tombstones from our kayak tour around the Flat Islands.  There were three graveyards, the first one not far from the community.  There didn't seem to be much earth where the graveyards were situated and, it appeared to me, that as the useable ground was exhausted in the first location they moved a little down the shore to establish a second.

This old tombstone caught my attention.  It marked the resting place of William, son of James and Hannah Philpott, who died in 1856 at the age of 1 year and nine months.

"By 1857 Flat Islands had a population of 210 and nine of the sixteen surnames represented in the community originated in Conception Bay. Parish records suggest that the Kelligrew and Ralph (Roff) families began the influx from Conception Bay and were followed by Butts, Crockers, Morgans, Pettens/Pettons, Philpott, Pikes and Powers/Poors." [Heritage Nfld]

Isolated as they were on Flat Island people had to tend to their own medical emergencies.

From the site of the second we could see a third further still.  We walked on to investigate the third.

Monkshood (Aconitum) were growing everywhere in the yard.

Some of the tombstones in the third were more elaborate than those of the first two while all had burial dates were into the 19th century.  Carvings on the stones indicated they originated from the capital St. John's.  They must have cost a pretty penny suggesting the people were prospering.

The people may have been prospering but after 190 the population census shows a steady decline from 502 to 370 in 1911 to 339 in 1945.  " In the mid 1950s the Flat Islands community began to disperse. In 1957 the remaining families took part in a government resettlement scheme and the islands were left without year round occupants." [Heritge Nfld]

There are a few cabins on Flat Island so some of the descendants have not forgotten their heritage.  But, I suspect most who settled on the Eastport Peninsula have.  Sadly, those people and their way of life have faded into history.


  1. Hi there , I enjoyed your site very much . I was born on Flat Island B.Bay and moved away in 1957 at the age of seventeen , your pictures look very familiar . Thanks for posting them !

    1. Awesome John! Glad you visited and enjoyed the pix. We very much enjoyed our visit there.