History of Bonavista

The Town of Bonavista has a steep and enriched economic and cultural history dating back to 1497.  Learn more about our past and how it has developed us into who we are today.  Proud, strong, and always hospitable...


Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), a freelance Venetian explorer, was contracted by England’s Henry VII to find new lands, and a sea route to the Orient. Cabot set sail from Bristol, England in his ship the Matthewin 1497. When Cabot first saw land he’s reputed to have said "O Buon Vista" (“Oh, Happy Sight!”) giving rise to the name of the town and nearby Cape Bonavista. Cabot landed with "a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father and those of the King of England". The land was inhabited, as the expedition found a trail leading inland, a site where a fire had been, and "a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil". The harbour was not ideal, eventually requiring the construction of several breakwaters. Despite this Bonavista became one of the most important towns in Newfoundland due to its proximity to the rich fishing and sealing grounds to the north of the peninsula. 

The Spanish, Portuguese, French and English fished off Cape Bonavista during the 16th century, but the Spanish and Portuguese presence soon declined, leaving the French and English as the dominant powers. Tension between the French and English sometimes resulted in military action, including an unsuccessful attempt in 1704 by the French to burn the town. The French Shore, which had Bonavista as its eastern terminus, was established by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Fishing rights in the area continued to be a source of tension between the French and English.

Bonavista was a major commercial centre and the evidence for this is preserved at the Ryan Premises, a National Historic Site maintained by Parks Canada. It is a restored example of a large fish merchant's operation.

Bonavista’s status was further enhanced by the development of the Fisherman's Protective Union in the early 20th century, and the creation of nearby Port Union. During the peak years of 1891-1901, the Bonavista Peninsula's population of about 20,000 was centred in Bonavista. The Bonavista Cold Storage Co. fish plant, now a Fishery Products International operation, became the centre of fishery production after the decline of salt fish markets.
In 1722 the first school in Newfoundland was built in Bonavista by Rev. Henry Jones. {Wikipedia}

Brief History: 

  • Bonavista is where modern North America began. On June 24th, 1497, and Italian explorer sailing under the British flag for King Henry VII, made landfall in the New World. "O Buona Vista," Giovani Caboto was said to exclaim after early two months at sea. Oh happy site! News of the existance of the this New Found Land - and the riches of the Grand Bank fishery - spread throughout Europe after Cabot's return journey across the Atlantic.
  • Caboto was an adventurer, who after failing to muster up funding in his home country, went to the King of England promising him spices from the far east in exchange for money and supplies. Under the negotiated deal, Caboto and his three sons were given permision to set sail from Bristol, the most westerly port in England to "discover and find whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces" lay to the west.
  • Although Caboto found no spice, the fishing grounds were so plentiful that the crew could dip buckets in the water and fill them with cod fish. King Henry VII was pleased enough to reward Caboto the impressive sum of 10 pounds. And so the Bonavista boom began. 
  • English, Spanish, Portuguese and French fishermen fished off Cape Bonavista in the 1500's and though Bonavista offered poor shelter and had less than ideal anchorage, it became one of the most important towns in Newfoundland. 
  • Other communities have laid claim to the site of Cabot's first landfall, but it is Bonavista that is identified as such on John Mason's map (1615-21). Bonavista was also documented by the great cartographer Captain James Cook, who made his headquarters here in 1763. Cook noted Bonavista was  settled before 1660.  
  • In 1696, the French invaded Bonavista in an attept to take the settlement but more than 300 men were able to save it from invasion. Bonavista, like most desirable fishing harbours, experienced the rule of the fishing admirals who often made life difficult for those who wish to settle permantly. 
  • In the last decade of the 19th century, Bonavista was a booming town that serviced the 20,000 people living on the peninsula.  

Today The Town of Bonavista is modern community with a rich history and continues to grow both economically and culturally. We welcome you to come visit our scenic community and experience the exhuberant hospitality of our wondefrful people and their culture.