The Butlers - Newfoundland's Oldest Family?

Ed Roberts
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Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

While there may well have been English families living year-round in Newfoundland before John Guy established the first official colony at Cupids in 1610, there is little record of their names or where they lived. A well-known legend, supported by some documentary evidence, relates that John Guy encountered Abe Daw (an early spelling of the name we now know as "Dawe") when he sailed into Conception Bay.

The story is that Daw, who said that he had fished in the bay for 15 years, since 1595, suggested that Guy established his colony at Cupids. But we do not know if Daw was a permanent resident, or whether he came to Newfoundland each spring and returned to England each fall, as did thousands of his countrymen.

A companion legend puts both Sheila Nageira and the Pike family among the first to have come here to live: regrettably, the available evidence does not support this.

Nicholas Guy, almost certainly John Guy's kinsman, as well as the father of the first child born in Cupids, in 1613, subsequently moved to Carbonear, although it is not certain that he lived there for the rest of his life. He may well have been the ancestor of the Guy families in Carbonear. And other families, such as the Perceys (a name with many variants), have lived in the area between Brigus and Port de Grave for centuries.

Scholarly study

The name of the Butlers must now be added to the list. A recent scholarly study has revealed substantial documentary evidence that their ancestors may have been among the very first to settle here, and their family name may be one of the oldest on the island.

Dr. Alan Williams, who taught at Memorial University for several years, had a commanding reputation as an authority of the history of the early settlement of Newfoundland. His studies culminated in a manuscript which he finished shortly before his death in October 2003.

Gordon Hancock and Chesley Sanger, well-known geographers who also taught at Memorial, published an edited version of the manuscript two years ago. (John Guy of Bristol and Newfoundland, published by Flanker Press, 2010). The book is both a biography of John Guy and the history of the Cupers Cove colony. Guy, hitherto a largely-unknown figure in Newfoundland's history, emerges as a substantial personage in his own right, as well as being both the founder and first governor of his colony.

Williams concluded his book with a discussion of the "location, occupation and fate" of Guy's colony. He provides convincing evidence that the settlement survived the collapse of the official colony in the 1620s, and he cites approvingly William Gilbert's conclusion that "Cupids was continuously occupied throughout the 17th century," although many of the buildings Guy built were destroyed by a fire in the 1660s. (Dr. Gilbert continues to conduct archeological investigations at Cupids, as he has for many years).

Living at Cupits Cove

In 2009, meanwhile, Susan Snelgrove, an Ontario family genealogical researcher, found the will of James Hill, which he signed in March 1674. Hill, he reasoned, may possibly have been "the same (or a descendent of) Master Hill who was ... at Cupids for more than half-a-century."

He added that this conclusion was bolstered by the fact that Hill, in his 1674 will, described himself as "an inhabitant of Cupits Cove" and bequeathed "all my Goods within and about the said house in Cupits Cove" to "Thomas Butler, now of Porta Grave."

James Hill's will then, is very strong, even compelling, evidence that a man named Thomas Butler lived at Port de Grave in 1674. Sir John Berry's census - the first ever taken in Newfoundland - records that by the third quarter of the 17th century, English settlers lived year-round in some 30 communities between Bonavista and Trepassey, as well as in St. John's.

He confirms that Thomas Butler was indeed living in Port de Grave during the summer of 1675. Another census taken the same year lists his name, too. Berry's record describes Butler as being a wealthy man by the standards of the era. He owned two fishing rooms and five fishing boats, as well as cattle and sheep.

But there's more to the story. Thomas Butler may well have been born in Newfoundland, as well as having lived here. A man named Samuel Butler lived at Cupers Cove with Guy in 1612. It is intriguing to speculate that Thomas may have been Samuel's son or grandson. But whether or not he was, the recently discovered documentary records establish clearly that the roots of the Butler family in Port de Grave and the surrounding communities, including today's Butlerville, go back nearly 350 years.

An enterprising genealogist may someday be able to establish that they are among the two or three oldest families in Newfoundland, if indeed they are not the oldest.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the following:

Organizations: Perceys, Flanker Press

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Port de Grave, Carbonear Conception Bay England Brigus Bristol Ontario Bonavista Trepassey St. John's Butlerville

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Recent comments

  • James Butler
    May 30, 2016 - 20:21

    Unfortunately this article does not indicate whether these are Irish or English Butlers, considerable distinction. Nor does it acknowledge tha in describing Butler as one of the oldest family names, this only refers to those of European ancestry and fails to recognize the far longer presence of Indigenous people. Reading this one might be forgiven for thinking Th island was devoid of people before the arrival of Settlers.

  • wayne moore
    April 13, 2016 - 00:20

    Hi Ed Fascinating story , I am doing family research, my mother is a Butler 98 and still going strong, her father was John Thomas of Clarkes Beach and her grandfather was William Henry born 1839 of Porte De Grave married a Emma Batten,and I am trying to get beyond this if you might have relevant info, I suspect Williams father to be Henry William married a Catherine Dawe

    November 23, 2013 - 14:39

    Dear Mr. Roberts, Very interesting article. You also mentioned that the Percey family was in Brigus area for several centuries. My wife's grandfather was James Payne, son of Moses, born in Brigus in 1884, but his mother and his paternal grandmother were both Perceys. I have done considerable research and reconstruction of these early families of Brigus (including Antles, Spooners, Normans and Roberts) and was wondering if you would be kind enough to consider a few questions. If so, I will correspond separately with them. If not, thank you for posting the article. I have been to Brigus 3 times and to the Archives several times, but the early records have gaps and I am looking for supporting evidence either to bolster or to disprove my analyses and would welcome any leads or shared information. I also am happy to share. Best regards, Andrew P. Langlois Councillor, New England Historic Genealogical Society

    • Ed Spooner
      October 20, 2015 - 17:26

      Dear Andrew, I would be exceptionally interested in the early history of the Spooners in Brigus, especially any information that you might have available on where they came from in England. I'm from a Spooner branch from Blandford and Sherborne in Dorset. All the very best - Ed.

  • Fred from Brigus
    September 09, 2012 - 07:47

    Don 11 love your perspective on the history of Cupids/Cupers Cove/ John Guys Plantation . More people should be delving into its past and not accepting the writings of well known scholars as fact. As a young boy living in Clarkes Beach one day I went with my dad on a trip to Springfield (on foot of course ). We took the back route up the CNR tracks through the Broads across the trestle and eventually cut across a back path to Bob Morgans house. On the way we came across what appeared to be remnants of an old stone foundation and rock that was only a couple or so feet high. My dad explained to me that this was once the site of John Guys plantation now long overgrown with brush and trees. That memory is still entrenched in my mind. My dad was a history buff and related my stories of the area. Years later I quired him about that day and he explained to me that John Guy Plantation was located along the rivers edge at the head of South River /Springfield. This area was destroyed in the 60"s when Lundrigans turned it into a gravel pit. He also told me that South River was the only river in NL that had a man made channel dug in it. Quite interesting and he told me that during the 1930s in a huge hurricane that up at head of the gut near Mackinsons that 2 old ships had surfaced up from the mud. Apparently this had been the site of a ship building operation long ago. None of the old folks living in the area had never known of a ship building operation in this area. The site if this area for John Guys Plantation would make perfect sense as if you look on the map you will see that Guy would only have to sail around the headland at Cupids into Clarkes Beach and on high tide sail up South River . The area was level fertile land and on the rivers edge. Very easily accessible . I would love for someone to pick up on this and research it as it goes against what we have been led to believe as the real location of John Guys Plantation. My dad was born in 1913 so he passed on the info from his grangfather.

  • Don II
    September 05, 2012 - 11:10

    The Hon. Edward Roberts continues to promote the propaganda and erroneous conclusions regarding the history of Cupids which have caused people to presume that John Guy landed at Cupids in 1610. Historical facts are ignored in favor of legend, myth, misinterpretation and unsupported belief. Historic documents and maps exist which show that Cupids Cove and Cupers Cove were two separate and distinct locations in the 1600's! Mr. Roberts offers no proof that John Guy landed at Cupids in 1610. Available historic documents show that there were people living and working in Newfoundland prior to the arrival of John Guy in 1610. The Royal Charter Grant issued by King James I to the London & Bristol Company of which John Guy was a share holder contained a clause which forbade the London & Bristol Company from interfering with persons resident in Newfoundland or those from other nations who inhabited or fished in Newfoundland. The Royal Charter cautioned John Guy and his Company not to interfere with the rights of persons to continue to inhabit the land and pursue the fishery without hindrance. The clause in part states : "...that there be saved and reserved unto all manner of persons of what nation soever and also to our loving subjects....all liberties, powers, easements and all other benefits as well as concerning their fishing as well all other circumstances and incidents thereunto in as ample a manner as they have heretofore used and enjoyed the same without impediment, disturbance or opposition...." The King of England recognized that persons both English and Foreign had occupied lands and fishing rooms in Newfoundland before John Guy arrived and cautioned John Guy and his Company not to interfere with the rights of these people. A letter which John Guy wrote to Sir Percival Willoughby on October 6, 1610 stated that Cupers Cove was a branch of Salmon Cove. Historic maps of Conception Bay in the 1600's show that Cupids Cove and Salmon Cove were not a branch of each other and not located near each other. The maps do not show a Salmon Cove located near Cupids in the 1600's.The Salmon Cove to which John Guy referred in 1610 is shown on these 17th and 18th century maps as being situated near where Avondale is now located. The boundaries of the Colony of Avalon outlined in the Royal Charter Grant of the Colony of Avalon in 1623 show that the Colony of Avalon is bounded by Salmon Cove which was located between Colliers Bay and Holyrood. The historic documents and maps show that Cupers Cove and Salmon Cove to which John Guy referred in 1610, were located between Colliers Bay and Holyrood and not near Cupids Cove. The Colony of Avalon documents reveal that there was a place referred to as "Our Northern Plantation" which was situated within the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon. The boundaries of the Colony of Avalon included the Salmon Cove which was situated near where Avondale is located now. The only documented Plantation which was situated to the North of Ferryland and which could also have been located within the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon in 1623 must have been the Cupers Cove Plantation. The historic documents and maps show that the Cupers Cove Plantation was absorbed into the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon. The historical documents and maps show that Cupids Cove is not Cupers Cove. Well documented historical evidence shows that Cupers Cove was located near the Salmon Cove which formed a boundary of the Colony of Avalon. In the 1600's, neither Salmon Cove nor the boundaries of the Colony of Avalon were located near Cupids. It appears that myth and legend is presented as proof while well documented historical fact is ignored. Closed minds and vested interests ignore the existence of historical documents and maps which clearly show that Cupids is not Cupers Cove. Whether Thomas Butler or James Hill lived in Cupids or Cupits, while interesting, is not in any way evidence that Cupids is Cupers Cove. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador designated the site in Cupids as the Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site. Interestingly, there is no mention in the entire historical record of Newfoundland of any place called the Cupids Cove Plantation. Inexplicably, the Provincial Historic Site in Cupids commemorates a place which is never mentioned in the historical record of Newfoundland! If the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador had conclusive proof that the authentic site of the Cupers Cove Plantation has been discovered in Cupids it would have designated the site in Cupids as the the Cupers Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site.