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John Slade was the most important mercantile and developmental force in the early years of Fogo Island. Through his recruitment of labourers in England and Ireland his use of the truck system, and the longevity and stability of the business dynasty he founded at Fogo, he shaped the society at Fogo unlike any other force. The old-timers of Fogo still recall the name “Slade,” there is landmarks and geographical features which bear Slade’s name, and the Church of England in Fogo has a large plaque, inside the building, memorializing Slade’s contributions to the community. Although the route through which Slade entered the Newfoundland trade was typical of his day, he exhibited a taste for innovation early in his career. Fogo Island was the base from which John Slade launched his successful and long lived mercantile dynasty.

Jeremiah Coghlan was the first large-scale merchant to use Fogo as a base. After the “opening” of Fogo in 1729, merchants from southern areas such as Trinity probably skirted the coastline of Notre Dame Bay, establishing residents and exploiting the seal and cod fisheries. The first thirty years of the Fogo fishery, from 1729 until 1760 are in large part undocumented, since the area was exploited in a random fashion. Coghlan was established at Fogo Island by 1764, initially as an entrepreneur and later as an agent for several Bristol merchants. One of the first to recognize the potential value of the Labrador fisheries, Coghlan saw Fogo as a suitably northern location from which to exploit Labrador. He did not depend solely on seals and cod; salmon and furs rounded out his mercantile pursuits. At the peak of his operation, Coghlan had eight to ten ships supplying Newfoundland and carrying the spoils back to England.

When Coghlan went bankrupt in 1782, his trade network and facilities in Fogo were taken over by Thomas Street of Poole. Coghlan’s troubles were also an avenue for the entrance of John Slade into the Fogo trade. Slade began his operations at Fogo in the year of Coghlan’s downfall: 1782.

Benjamin Lester (1724-1802) was another Poole merchant who, although based in Trinity, fished as far north as Fogo. Lester’s heyday was during the 1770’s and 1780’s when he made great profits from both the seal and cod fisheries. He was one of the largest and most successful of the West Country merchants. In the 1760’s Lester’s vessels made between fifty and one hundred voyages per year between Trinity and Fogo Island. Lester possessed stages, stores, wharves and other facilities at Tilting. Fogo Island was an important northern base for Lester’s activities, and his Fogo Island operation was based at Tilting Harbour and not Fogo Harbour, where most large merchants usually congregated. Lester was probably the most wealthy merchant in Poole, where he lived next door to John Slade, the patriarch of the Newfoundland Slades. Lester and Coghlan were the first to bring labourers from both England and Ireland to Fogo.

There were other, smaller merchants at Fogo as well. From the opening of Fogo until the arrival of Slade, and even during the Slade years, there were numerous small-time operators who came and went. Several probably used Fogo as a power or the growing power of Slade. When he opened up shop at Fogo in 1782, Slade had two essential assets: a strong capital base (financial support in Poole, probably from the merchant John Haitor) and established market knowledge and connections.

The Career of John Slade

John Slade (1719-1792) entered the Newfoundland trade during its most important years of growth and change. Eventually he became quite wealthy, “exerting in the process considerable economic influence upon the development of settlement in northeastern Newfoundland and Labrador.

Born in Poole in 1719. John Slade was one of eight children whose father, a mason and man of modest means, died in 1727 leaving eight-year-old John Slade heir to only a small plot of land and a few pounds. John received some basic education, but soon left school, most likely to be apprenticed in shipping and the fisheries, which were the main businesses of the town of Poole. During John Slade’s formative years, Newfoundland became extensively involved in the Newfoundland fisheries. These early experiences helped mould him into a successful merchant.

Slade’s early years in the fisheries were not particularly unusual or adventurous. His early career was typical of that of many merchants who became successful in the Newfoundland trade: beginning as a ship’s captain, he later became a small shipowner. As Newfoundland settlements increased in number, these captains established their own Newfoundland premises, leaving caretakers in the fall to watch their investment. With the right combination of business acumen and luck, a captain could develop his own business, hire his own servants, and establish his own trading networks in Newfoundland. This is how Slade began.

The first ship which Slade acquired was a ninety-ton brig called the “Little John.” Slade’s entrance into the trade as an independent captain was probably aided by his marriage to Martha Haitor whose father, John Haitor, had been successful in the Newfoundland trade in an earlier era. It is probable that Slade’s marriage to Haitor was a business strategy. It is also conceivable that Haitor himself arranged for his daughter to marry a Newfoundland trader so that his little business empire could be maintained,

By the 1740’s, John Slade was the captain of ships which sailed to the Mediterranean, Ireland, and Newfoundland. Slade’s first recorded visit to Newfoundland was in 1748. Between 1751 and 1753 Slade was master of a ship owned by William Kittier of Poole, which sailed between Poole, Cork, Newfoundland, and the Mediterranean. In 1753 Slade acquired a ship and went into business for himself.

Slade began his work in the 1750’s in Notre Dame Bay, an area where only a few other English merchants had attempted to establish posts. John Slade was a pioneer in the sense that he diversified his exploitation quite early to include salmon, furs, seals, and lumber. He did not concentrate solely on cod as did most other West Country merchants in Newfoundland.

Slade’s business steadily grew. By 1759 he was exporting various supplies from Poole and importing cod oil and various types of furs, including seals. By the mid-1760’s he had begun trading in Labrador and had extended his bases there to encompass the cod, seal and salmon fisheries. In the early 1770’s the Labrador operations were expanded to include other types of furs. George Cartwright, the Labrador explorer, merchant and diarist recorded the presence of Slade operations along the Labrador coast in 1773. A decade later in 1784-85 Slade and Company “had stations at Battle and Fox Harbours, employing 16 men and taking 2300 seals.” In 1786, the Slades were also operating at Indian Arm and Dog Bay in Labrador, and in that year they took sixty tierces of salmon, using two boats and four men. Slade’s early and diverse successes in the Labrador fisheries are a testament to his industriousness, luck and the opportunities provided by northern Newfoundland.

By the mid-1770’s, Slade was a typical mid-sized merchant. He had five ships, the large ones plying the Atlantic to the Mediterranean markets and the smaller ones supplying the various outposts along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Slade traded with those areas of Europe most frequented by other Newfoundland merchants. The dry-cured cod produced by Slade and his planters was in demand in the hotter, more humid Mediterranean climates of Portugal, Spain and Italy. Alicante, Oporto, Lisbon, and Cadiz are some of the market destinations frequently mentioned in the Slade papers. They were probably also the ports which Slade had visited during his early days as a captain.

In the case of the Slades, as with most Newfoundland traders, the production centre, Fogo in Slade’s case, was one corner of a three-cornered trade system. Poole, the ownership area, and southern Europe, the market area, completed the triangular structure. Map Three, on the next page, illustrates the movement of goods and labour between each of the three areas. The flow of communications from one point of the triangle to the others was vital to the health of the firm, a point stressed by Rosemary Ommer in her PhD thesis.

By the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Slade had established Twillingate as his base. It was not until 1782 when Jeremiah Coghlan folded up his Fogo operations that Slade opened a second large outpost at Fogo. It is unclear whether Slade moved his operation to Fogo en masse, leaving a token store at Twillingate, or if the process was a protracted one, perhaps taking several years to complete. Slade’s only experience with public office was as a Naval Officer at Twillingate from 1774 to 1776. As Naval Officer, Slade commanded no men, he simply collected certain duties and taxes, assured a certain minimal level of military preparedness, and was a visible representation of the Crown in this remote corner of the British Empire.

Each fall, Slade returned to Poole and spent the winter in his comfortable dwelling on Thames Street, where he was the neighbour of other prominent Newfoundland merchant families including the Lesters and the Purriers. By 1777 Slade gave up this migratory existence and resided year-round at Poole.

Survival in the Newfoundland trade required persistence, shrewdness, intelligence and luck. The long life of Slade dynasty is proof that the Slade firm had ample amounts of all these qualities. The trade was neither easy nor safe. Storms, wars and conflicts with Indians and privateers were constant dangers. Insight can be gained into the nature of the Newfoundland trade as experienced by merchants such as Slade by examining some of the hazards and setbacks they experienced in their quest for wealth. Natural disasters due to the ever-hostile climate were a constant danger. In 1775 Slade lost several vessels and ten fishing boats in a storm. Another storm in 1782 seriously damaged the facilities at Fogo and Twillingate. Wharves and stages were destroyed and at Twillingate 800 quintals of fish were lost. Another hazard was presented by the Beothuck Indians, who moved from the interior of Newfoundland to the coastal areas in the summer. Thomas Frith, a clerk of Slade at Fogo, was attacked by a group of Beothucks while picking berries with two young boys. Frith was killed and beheaded, but the two youngsters escaped. They ran home and apparently arrived at Fogo settlement with arrows sticking out of their backs.

In the late 1770’s Slade’s business declined considerably, mostly due to privateers and man-made disasters as opposed to natural disasters. The American war was a difficult period for all Newfoundland merchants. It was extremely difficult to acquire labourers because most able-bodied men were pressed into military or naval service. Shipping was also curtailed because of danger on the high seas and the loss of merchant ships to wartime service. This spurred settlement, as migratory fishermen decided to stay at Newfoundland rather than risk a journey back to England or Ireland. In 1778 American privateers captured a Slade ship in Labrador. The following spring Slade suffered a double blow when another American ship attacked Twillingate and stole one of his brigs. The Americans then ransacked Slade’s Battle Harbour facility in Labrador and commandeered another of Slade’s ships.

During the war Slade had trouble finding labourers and so was forced to play dirty himself. It was during this period that Slade “stole” men who had already signed on to work with Benjamin Lester. Slade, who lived next door to Lester in Poole, waited outside Lester’s offices and when freshly-signed Lester employee emerged, Slade bettered Lester’s terms and brought the men into his own employ. The Slades also suffered the travails common to any business venture. In a later period, when there was a Slade establishment at Trinity Bay, an agent of Slade named James Lanigan was sentenced to prison and deportation for the embezzlement of a small amout of money.

Slade made the biggest profits of his career after Coghlan’s failure in 1782. The ledgers from the Slade Fogo operation indicate that from 1783 onwards, Slade traded with over one hundred planters annually and employed between fifty and one hundred servants. Map Four, on the next page, shows the distribution of Slade outposts in 1785.

The 1787-88 season was a typically good year for Slade. In that year his company collected 2.200 seal skins, 200 tierces (large barrels) of salmon, 400 bundles of wooden hoops, 32 tons of seal oil, 2,000 gallons of train (cod) oil, 3,000 quintals of fish (in modern terms about 336,000 pounds of 168 tons), 24,000 wooden staves, 15,000 feet of board, 32 sets of oars, 30 pounds of beaver skins, 25 furs (fox, otter, marten) and other small items. By the same year, 1788, Slade had five ocean-going brigs, the “Delight,” the “Love and Unity,” the “Fame” the “Stag,” and the “Hazard.”

The diversity of Slade’s products was obviously the key to his success and it was relatively unique to his trade. Merchants who traded in southern Newfoundland rarely had such diverse businesses; they tended to concentrate on cod fish. What began as a necessity for survival in an area of Newfoundland where the ice stayed longer and the season was shorter, became Slade’s most valuable business strategy. It became the trademark of his business dynasty.

An 1805 invoice from one of Slade’s ships, the “John and Thomas,” exemplifies this particular business strategy. The ship sailed for Poole on October 13 with a crew of six men and a cargo which included 70 casks of train oil, 4 casks of seal oil, 1 barrel of  blubber, 210 seal skins, 3 hogshead (barrels) of berries, 30 bread bags, and 1,476 quintals (165,312 pounds) of dried cod. The ship also had in its hold the furs of 3 silver foxes, 5 patch foxes, 7 yellow foxes, 2 white (arctic) foxes, 30 otters, 9 beavers, 1 “mountain catt” (sic), 6 martens and 6 minks. In freight the ship carried one barrel of furs for G. Rowsell and one cannon barrel for James Rowsell. Finally, there was one passenger, the same James Rowsell. Not all Slade ships departing Newfoundland each fall had such exotic cargoes. Six days after the “John and Thomas” left for Poole, the “Standley” departed Fogo and “Sail’d to St. John’s to join convoy for Libson.” It had a crew of nine men and a simple cargo of 21 barrels of salmon and 3,138 quintals (351,456) pounds of dry cod fish.





Fish Quintals

Salmon (tierces)

Seal Skins

Oil* (gallons)


Board (feet)
































































 *Seal oil and train (cod) oil are combined

** Includes beaver, fox, marten, otter, and “catt”

Source: John Slade Name File, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Table One is ample proof that the Slade operation at Fogo was engaged in a diverse staple extraction regime. Salmon, seal and oil production tended to rise in the first nine years of Slade’s presence at Fogo. Cod production, however, was relatively stable with an increase in volume at the end of the period. Fur production, which was initially quite important, declined in later years, perhaps an indication that fur source areas were being emptied by zealous trappers. Production of board and other wood products was also large. Other wood products not mentioned in this table included boats, barrels, buckets, boughs, barrows, staves, hoops, and oars. The men who supplied Slade were obviously very busy during the winter months, when transportation of wood products across the snow was easiest.

The figures in Table One are drawn from the Slade ledgers for the corresponding years. Along with the wood products which were mentioned in the table, in those years Slade shipped to market berries, blubber, calf-skins, and various sundry items. Anything that could conceivably bring price in the Mediterranean or in Poole was cut down, killed, or caught by Slade’s indentured employees and local planters.

John Slade died in 1792 at the age of 73. His estate at the time of his death was conservatively estimated at ₤70, 000. Since Slade had no living sons, his estate was divided among his four nephews: David, John, Thomas and Robert. A portion was also given to a cousin. His estate included six ships between 60 and 150 tons, as well as numerous smaller boats, equipment, and facilities in Newfoundland at Fogo, Twillingate, Conche, and Wester Head and in Labrador at Battle Harbour, Hawke’s Port, Hawke’s Bay, Lewis Bay, Mathews Cove, Caribou Tickle, and Guy’s Cove. He presumably also left offices, furniture, and facilities at Poole.

The Growth of the Slades

John Slade had a son, also named John, who was slated to succeed him in the fisheries and inherit the Newfoundland business. The son even began to travel with Slade to Newfoundland in the summers, but he died of smallpox in 1773. Following his son’s death, the aging John Slade Sr. brought his four nephews into the business to keep the wealth in the family. When John Sr. ceased travelling to Newfoundland each summer, his nephew John replaced him. John Slade Jr. was the chief representative of the firm from 1777 until 1792. He probably orchestrated the foray into Fogo from Twillingate in 1782. In 1793, after the death of John Slade Sr., John Slade Jr., the nephew, became the principal of the firm, based in Poole. The three other nephews whom John Slade Sr. brought into the firm were all very active by that time as well. Robert Slade took responsibility for the Labrador operations; Thomas Slade commanded ships and acted as an agent; and David Slade was the company’s manager at Twillingate.

In 1804 Robert Slade broke away from the Fogo- Twillingate base and started a business in Trinity using John Jeffrey’s old premises. Robert was relatively successful in Trinity Bay. Thomas also withdrew in 1813 and formed Thomas Slade and Company with his nephew William Cox. They traded mostly in Bonavista.

The Newfoundland fisheries were as profitable for the nephews and other members of the family as they had been for patriarch, John Slade Sr. For example, when Thomas Slade, who did not marry, died in 1816, he left over ₤65,000 to relatives. The Poole historian E.F.J. Mathews reported that the Slades had three adjacent mansions in Poole, all of them sumptuously appointed and lavishly decorated.

By the time the end came for the Slades they had been in the Newfoundland trade for nearly a century. In the 1860’s a banking crisis in Poole caused several fisheries firms to fold. Unable to resist the trend toward centralization in St. John’s, the Slades sold off the last of their interests in their Newfoundland businesses in 1870 or 1871. The Slades sold out; they were not driven out. The remaining few firms which claimed to be descendents of John Slade’s original outfit did not descend into insolvency. Prudent businessmen to the end, they sold out and incurred few losses.