Founder of the first English colony in Canada, and the second oldest in North America. Pioneering merchant who became Mayor of Bristol, England. Adversary of the infamous pirate, Peter Easton. John Guy’s list of achievements read like the plot for some grand adventure tale, and an unlikely one at that for a boy born of humble beginnings in his beloved Bristol in 1567.
The son of a tradesman, Guy played a prominent role in the London and Bristol Company, as well as Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers. It was through his ties with the latter that Guy helped lobby for approval from King James I to establish a colony in Newfoundland, the first of its kind in the vast, sprawling wilderness of what is today Canada.
In 1608 Guy set sail west across the unforgiving Atlantic on a scouting mission. When he returned, Guy relayed stories of this rugged, untouched land and asserted that his location of choice for settlement was the unassuming coastal pocket of Cuper’s Cove (modern Day Cupids).
In 1610, Guy led a party of thirty-nine men, plus grain and livestock, back to Newfoundland and was instantly installed as governor. Their main aim was "to secure and make safe the trade of fishing" and for the next three years, Guy’s unerring leadership saw the settlement grow and flourish. Guy would leave once again for England in 1611 to return a year later with more livestock and female settlers in tow.
Save for pesky pirate, Peter Easton, Guy’s attempts to establish a second colony at Renews may have been more successful. Easton was a constant cause of concern for Guy and his settlers, forcing the governor to focus his efforts on fortifying the Cuper’s Cove settlement in order to resist the pirate’s plundering threat. Indeed, it is reported that the colonists were forced to pay Easton protection in the form of valuable livestock.
Nonetheless, Guy continued to forge ahead, building a ship and a small shallop and embarking on an expedition in 1612 to Trinity Bay, attempting to make contact and establish a fur trade with the indigenous Beothuks. On November 6, Guy’s party did just that, sharing a meal and exchanging gifts with the island’s native people somewhere in Bull Arm, Trinity Bay. (Recently, William Gilbert, chief archeologist with the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corp. successfully identified a copper plate engraving from the 17th century as a depiction of this historic meeting. Read more about that here.)
Despite all his successes on the island, Guy returned to England in 1613, as far as we know never to return to Newfoundland, amid quarrels over property promised to him by the company and increasingly challenging weather conditions. However, in his role as a Member of Parliament back in England, Guy championed the cause of English settlement in Newfoundland a large piece of this adventurer’s heart forever left amid the craggy rocks of this place.
John Guy died in 1628 and was buried at St. Stephen’s Church, Bristol.
Pictured is Clarence Barnes, who is our official ‘John Guy’ as photographed by Dennis Minty.