Around the year 1000, Leif Eiriksson, son of Eric the Red, sailed southwest from what is today Greenland to what was recorded in the Viking Sages as "Vinland", a low, forested coastline with white sand beaches. Several historians in the mid 1900s thought that the "Vin" in Vinland had nothing to do with grapes but instead was used in the old Norse sense of "grass" or grazing lands, and suggested searching for Viking ruins around L'Anse-aux-Meadows at the Northern tip of Newfoundland. In 1961, archaeologists found the remains of seven very old buildings, which was confirmed by carbon dating in 1964, and is now a UNESCIO World Heritage Site.
Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (anglicized to "John Cabot") arrived in St John's harbour on June 14, 1497 seeking New World opportunities for British merchants. He described the waters as "full of fish" and by 1502, the Portuguese began a fishing industry, to exploit the Grand Banks. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert take possession of Newfoundland for England's Elizabeth. In 1623, Sir George Calvert began a colony on the Avalon peninsula, centred around what is now Ferryland. He then left for Maryland, one of the American colonies, where he founded the city of Baltimore. By 1650 the population between Cape Race and Cape Bonavista was about 2,000.
In 1662 Placentia was founded by the French. In 1695 and again in 1705 St John's was attacked and taken by the French. In 1713, the British were back in control of Newfoundland and by 1763, following defeat at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, France ceded all lands in North America to the British. France was allowed to keep the two islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, off the south coast of Newfoundland, and retained fishing rights around the island of Newfoundland.
The fishery grew to be the key to Newfoundland's prosperity. From 1550 to 1610, the Basques of Spain also hunted whales in the Labrador area, using shore stations to process blubber into oil, before returning to Spain. By 1763 some English fishermen began the seal fishery during the winter, which grew to include 50 schooners by 1807 (and employed 400 schooners by 1850). Newfoundland grew from 1650 onwards because of trade with New Englanders, who came to Newfoundland to trade their sugar, molasses, salt meats, flour, woolens and rum for salt codfish and fish oil. This stopped abruptly in 1662, when Britain's the Navigation Acts forbade trade between the colonies with each other (which soon after also caused the American colonies to revolt).
In 1811, Fort Amherst Light House was built at the entrance of St. John's Harbour, showing the growing British efforts to secure the Colony of Newfoundland. Following the establishment of the first courts in 1793, and a Supreme Court in 1824, Britain established a local parliament in 1833. In 1850, the Colonial Building, today called The House of Assembly, was opened. In 1888, Newfoundland switched its currency from shillings & pence to dollars & cents.
The Colony was beginning to modernize. In 1866, the Atlantic telegraph cable laid by the steamship Great Eastern was successfully landed at Heart's Content. In 1881, the first sod for railway construction turned, with St John's railway depot where the Newfoundland Hotel now stands, and the first train (and mail) ran in 1898, all the way to Port-aux-Basques. In 1886, the streets of St. John's were first lighted by electricity. In 1895, the Wabana Iron Mine (on Bell Island in Conception Bay, 12 miles from St. John's) opened, shipping a million tons per year to Europe and America. In 1908 the first newsprint mill was established.
In the 1890s the Colony suffered several major setbacks. The Dominion of Canada overruled them on an 1890 reciprocal trade treaty with the United States. A bank failed leaving Newfoundland without a currency, St John's suffered a major fire. Canada invited Newfoundland to join Confederation, but would not absorb the Colony's debt, so the offer was rejected.
More history of St. John's