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European Contact: 985-1600, First Commercial Ventures
stiff felt, Whale oil, indigenous nations, Grand Banks, Basques
Whale oil, cod, and furs brought a steadier, less publicized stream of European sailors to Canada. From the early 1500s until after 1600, Basques, people from southern France and northern Spain, came each year to Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to hunt whales. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese fishers came to catch cod on the shallow, bountiful Grand Banks off the Atlantic coast, often drying the catch on the shores. The fishing industry led to several attempts to start colonies in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Few endured, although the fishing season regularly brought a throng of fishers to some harbors. In 1583 English adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived at busy St. Johnís Harbour in Newfoundland and found it crowded with boats.
Although Spanish and Portuguese boats shared the harbor with the English, Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England. In the 1600s, after the Spanish and Portuguese quit fishing in the Grand Banks, permanent English communities grew up around Newfoundlandís Avalon peninsula, and French communities grew up on the islandís south coast. About the same time, whalers and fishers began to develop a trade in furs with indigenous nations they met along the coasts. Europeís hatters discovered that beaver hair, when shaved and matted into a stiff felt, was the finest hat-making material available. The Canadian fur trade, destined to be the backbone of the economy for some 200 years, was born.
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