The Butlers - Newfoundland's Oldest Family?

Ed Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on September 5, 2012
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: edwardmroberts@gmail.com