St. John's is the capital and largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. St. John's was incorporated as a city in 1921, yet is considered by some to be the oldest English-founded city in North America. It is located on the eastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland. With a population of 211,724 as of 2014, the St. John's Metropolitan Area is the second largest Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) in Atlantic Canada after Halifax and the 20th largest metropolitan area in Canada. It is one of the top ten oceanside destinations, according to National Geographic Magazine. Its name has been attributed to the feast day of John the Baptist, when John Cabot was believed to have sailed into the harbour in 1497, and also to a Basque fishing town with the same name.
16th and 17th centuries
Considered to be "North America's Oldest City", St. John's is one of the oldest settlements in North America, with year-round settlement beginning sometime after 1630 and seasonal habitation long before that. It is not, however, the oldest surviving English settlement in North America or Canada, having been preceded by the Cuper's Cove colony at Cupids, founded in 1610, and the Bristol's Hope colony at Harbour Grace, founded in 1618. In fact, although English fishermen had begun setting up seasonal camps in Newfoundland in the 16th Century, they were expressly forbidden by the British government, at the urging of the West Country fishing industry, from establishing permanent settlements along the English controlled coast, hence the town of St. John's was not established as a permanent community until after the 1630s at the earliest. Other permanent English settlements in the Americas that predate St. John's include: St. George's, Bermuda (1612) and Jamestown, Virginia (1607), with the September 1565 date for the founding of St. Augustine, Florida establishing it as the oldest continuously inhabited community of European-ethnicity settlement in North America.
Sebastian Cabot declares in a hand written text in Latin in his original 1545 map, that the St. John's earned its name when he and his father, the Venetian explorer John Cabot became the first Europeans to sail into the harbour, in the morning of June 24, 1494 (against British and French historians stating 1497), the feast day of Saint John the Baptist. However, the exact locations of Cabot's landfalls are disputed. A series of expeditions to St. John's by Portuguese from the Azores took place in the early 16th century, and by 1540 French, Spanish and Portuguese ships crossed the Atlantic annually to fish the waters off the Avalon Peninsula. In the Basque Country, it is a common belief that the name of St. John's was given by Basque fishermen because the bay of St. John's is very similar to the Bay of Pasaia in the Basque Country, where one of the fishing towns is also called St. John (in Spanish, San Juan, and in Basque, Donibane).
On August 5, 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the area as England's first overseas colony under Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I. There was no permanent population, however, and Gilbert was lost at sea during his return voyage, thereby ending any immediate plans for settlement. The Newfoundland National War Memorial is located on the waterfront in St. John's, at the purported site of Gilbert's landing and proclamation.
By 1620, the fishermen of England's West Country controlled most of Newfoundland's east coast. In 1627, William Payne, called St. John's "the principal prime and chief lot in all the whole country". The population grew slowly in the 17th century and St. John's was the largest settlement in Newfoundland when English naval officers began to take censuses around 1675. The population would grow in the summers with the arrival of migratory fishermen. In 1680, fishing ships (mostly from South Devon) set up fishing rooms at St. John's, bringing hundreds of Irish men into the port to operate inshore fishing boats.
The town's first significant defences were likely erected due to commercial interests, following the temporary seizure of St. John's by the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in June 1665. The inhabitants were able to fend off a second Dutch attack in 1673, when this time it was defended by Christopher Martin, an English merchant captain. Martin landed six cannons from his vessel, the Elias Andrews, and constructed an earthen breastwork and battery near chain Rock commanding the Narrows leading into the harbour. With only twenty-three men, the valiant Martin beat off an attack by three Dutch warships. The English government planned to expand these fortifications (Fort William) in around 1689, but actual construction didn't begin until after the French admiral Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville captured and destroyed the town in the Avalon Peninsula Campaign (1696). When 1500 English reinforcements arrived in late 1697 they found nothing but rubble where the town and fortifications had stood.
18th and 19th centuries
The harbour remained fortified through most of the 18th and 19th centuries. The final battle of the Seven Years' War in North America (the French and Indian War) was fought in 1762, in St. John's. Following a surprise capture of the town by the French early in the year, the British responded, and at the Battle of Signal Hill, the French surrendered St. John's to British forces under the command of Colonel William Amherst.
The 18th century saw major changes in Newfoundland: population growth, beginnings of government, establishment of churches, reinforcement of commercial ties with North America and development of the seal, salmon and Grand Banks fisheries. St. John's population grew slowly, and although it was still primarily a fishing station, it was also a garrison, a centre of government and a commercial hub. St. John's served as a naval base during both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
The core of the city was destroyed by fire several times, the most famous of which was the Great Fire of 1892.
20th and 21st centuries
During the Second World War, the harbour supported Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy ships that were engaged in anti-submarine warfare. It was also the site of an American Army Air Force base, Fort Pepperrell, that was established as part of the "Lend-Lease" agreement between the United Kingdom and United States. The base was transferred to Canadian control in 1960 and is now known as CFS St. John's. The Knights of Columbus Hostel fire in December 1942, saw 99 military and civilian lives lost.
St. John's, and the province as a whole, was gravely affected in the 1990s by the collapse of the Northern cod fishery, which had been the driving force of the provincial economy for hundreds of years. After a decade of high unemployment rates and depopulation, the city's proximity to the Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose oil fields has led to an economic boom that has spurred population growth and commercial development. As a result, the St. John's area now accounts for about half of the province's economic output.
As of 2012, St. John's contains 21 National Historic Sites of Canada.
St. John's is serviced by one major airport, and has daily direct service to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Gander, Deer Lake, Wabush, Goose Bay and Halifax; and seasonal service direct to Calgary, Dublin and London.