By Cliff McCarthy, 2015
Last Updated 28 January 2018
Saint Pierre and Miquelon are islands off the coast of Newfoundland that represent France’s last territorial holdings in North America. They are a self-governing territory of France, situated only 16 miles from the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada. Together, they had a population of 6,080 at the January 2011 census.
Saint Pierre is French for Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. Miquelon is thought to be a Basque form of Mikel or Michael.
There was no permanent settlement of aboriginal people on either island when Europeans first arrived. The first European discovery of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon was on 21 October 1520, by the Portuguese João Álvares Fagundes, who called them the “Islands of the 11,000 Virgins”, as the day marked the feast day of St. Ursula and her virgin companions. Jacques Cartier claimed the islands for France in 1536. Though already frequented by Micmac native people and Basque and Breton fishermen, the islands were not permanently settled until the end of the 17th century: four permanent inhabitants were counted in 1670, and 22 in 1691. British warships soon began to harass the French, pillaging their camps and ships. By the early 1700s, the islands were again uninhabited, and were ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713. Then, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which put an end to the French and Indian War, France ceded all its North American possessions, but Saint Pierre and Miquelon were returned to France. France also maintained fishing rights on the coasts of Newfoundland. After the long interlude of British occupation from 1714 to 1763, the islands witnessed a significant rise in business and population.
Britain invaded and razed the colony in 1778, during the American Revolution, sending the entire population of 2,000 back to France. By the 1780s, about 1,000 or 1,500 people lived on the islands, their numbers doubling during the fishing season. In 1793, during the French Revolution, the British again landed in Saint-Pierre and expelled the French population, and tried to install British settlers. The British colony was in turn sacked by French troops in 1796. The Treaty of Amiens of 1802 returned the islands to France, but Britain reoccupied them when hostilities recommenced the next year.
The 1814 Treaty of Paris gave them back to France, though Britain occupied them yet again during the Hundred Days War. Before France reclaimed and resettled the islands in 1816, Saint Pierre and Miquelon were uninhabited and all structures and buildings had been destroyed or fallen into disrepair. The settlers were mostly Basques, Bretons and Normans, who were joined by various other elements, particularly from the nearby island of Newfoundland. By the mid-nineteenth century, the fishing industry had brought a certain prosperity to the little territory.
The only time a guillotine was ever used in North America was in Saint Pierre in the late 19th century. Joseph Néel was convicted of killing Mr. Coupard on Île aux Chiens on 30 December 1888, and sentenced to be executed by guillotine on 24 August 1889. The guillotine had to be shipped from Martinique and it did not arrive in working order. It was very difficult to get anyone to perform the execution; finally a recent immigrant was coaxed into doing the job. This event was the inspiration for the heavily fictionalized film The Widow of Saint-Pierre (La Veuve de Saint-Pierre) released in 2000. The guillotine is now in a museum in Saint Pierre.
Suggestion: View the movie, The Widow of Saint-Pierre (or, in French, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre) which depicts the island in 1849-1850, when our ancestors were there. Strangely, the events upon which the fictionalized film were based actually occurred in 1889-1890. For more information about the movie, click here.
Smuggling had always been an important economic activity in the islands, but it became especially prominent in the 1920s with the institution of prohibition in the United States. Because Canada had an agreement to not export liquor to the U.S., Saint Pierre and Miquelon provided the perfect arrangement — Canada exported to the French islands, which in turn found a lucrative market nearby in the U.S. In 1931, the archipelago was reported to have imported 1,815,271 U.S. gallons of whisky from Canada in 12 months, most of it to be smuggled into the United States. The end of prohibition in 1933 plunged the islands into economic depression.
After the fall of France during World War II, most of the war veterans and sailors in the colony supported the Free French of General Charles de Gaulle, but the administrator of the colony, Gilbert de Bournat, sided with the Vichy government. De Gaulle decided to seize the archipelago, over the opposition of Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, resulting in the successful Free French coup de main on Christmas Day 1941, angering the U.S. State Department. In a quick referendum the next day, the population endorsed the takeover.
After the approval of the 1958 French constitutional referendum, the islands were given the options of becoming fully integrated with France, becoming a self-governing state within the French Community, or preserving the status of overseas territory; it decided to remain a territory.
A new international airport opened on Saint Pierre in 1999, which was intended to ease transportation difficulties to the islands and reduce their isolation. However, Saint Pierre and Miquelon remain among the hardest places to travel to in North America.
For a great newspaper article describing modern-day St. Pierre, click here.
To see a Vimeo video depicting St. Pierre & Miquelon, click here.