KERRIVAN, PETER. In its full-blown literary form, the legend of Peter Kerrivan is as follows:
Some time around 1750 there arrived on the high barrens of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, just inland from the village of Ferryland, an Irish deserter from the Royal Navy named Peter Kerrivan, with a small band of men fleeing from the harsh life of the nearby fishing settlements. They lived as hunters on the barren land, dwelling in rude “tilts” near the coastal eminence known locally as the Butter Pot; and they were soon joined by large numbers of young men from the settlements, mostly Irish “youngsters” under bond to serve the English merchants and planters who conducted the fisheries operations. They called themselves the Society of the Masterless Men, and their fame spread until it became a dangerous and intolerable scandal to the ruling merchants and officials. The Royal Navy was ordered to proceed against the outlaws.
There were, however, delays, and the Masterless Men, led by the now expert woodsman Kerrivan, the Robin Hood of the Butter Pot, constructed cunning blind trails throughout the wilderness so that when, at last, a detachment of marines advanced over the hills, their quarry slipped quietly away. Thrice the authorities launched expeditions to rout, capture, or kill the outlaws and burn their hide-out; and thrice the nimble Masterless Men eluded them, though on one occasion four new members of the society were taken and summarily hanged from the yardarm of the nearest British frigate. So, for more than half a century (or a hundred years, in a variant literary version) the society lived outside the law, subsisting on the wild berries and caribou herds like Indians, and occasionally trading surreptitiously with friendly local fishermen of the coast, until a more settled time made it possible for them, one by one, to make their way back to the coast, marry, and live out their lives in peace. Kerrivan himself, however, never did return, but lived to a ripe old age as the patriarch of the Butter Pot, though many descendants bore his name (or its variant forms Kerwin and Caravan) among the small fishing settlements of the Southern Shore and in Trepassey and St Mary’s bays.
The legend thus recounted has all the marks of “a folktale caught on the winds of tradition,” though surprisingly it seems to have been transmitted by only a single family of the region to which it relates. But for the kernel of an historical basis there is support both in the general social and economic conditions of the settlements of the Southern Shore and elsewhere in the later 18th century, and in several documents concerning events in Ferryland which the legend itself wildly embroiders.
The evidence is as follows. First there is an undated petition to His Excellency John Elliot, Esq., Rear-Admiral of the Red, Governor of Newfoundland, from Robert Carter, J.P., Thomas Pyne, John Baker, Henry Sweetland and others, magistrates, merchants, and traders, representing “the inconvenience in carrying on the fishery, especially in the Harbour of Ferryland, occasioned by the riotous and unlawful assembly of people during the past winter of 1788,” and requesting the construction of a jail at Ferryland and the provision of military protection during the coming winter. The governor sent a letter dated 8 Oct. 1789 to Captain Edward Pellew requesting his views on the petition and particularly information on the conditions prevailing in the Ferryland area as observed during his summer patrol. On the same date Pellew replied to Elliot affirming that, indeed, “much danger is to be apprehended” and recommending that a ship of war be stationed at Ferryland for the winter. On 9 October the governor replied to the petitioners, authorizing the building of a jail, the costs to be borne from the moneys collected as fines levied on the rioters; plans for the jail were to be approved by a committee of the Protestant inhabitants of Ferryland. On 20 October the Ferryland magistrates offered a remittance of sentence to all rioters who would give themselves up to be “sent home” to Ireland; a penalty of £50 was announced for all convicted of aiding or harbouring the rioters. A notation dated 25 October records that four men gave themselves up. On 24 March 1791, the Ferryland Surrogate Court, with Edward Pellew, Robert Carter, and Henry Sweetland presiding, convicted 137 men with Irish names of riotous and unlawful assembly in the winter of 1788, and they were penalized with fines of between £2 and £20, transportation home, or the lash. Included in the list is a Thomas Kervan, sentenced to be fined £7, given 39 lashes, and transported home. It is not clear whether all those convicted were actually present in court for the document bears the notation “sentence to be executed if they return,” and opposite several names are the words “run away.” On 23 June 1791 a meeting was convened at Ferryland to approve the plans for a jail and the appointment of a jailer.
The documentary evidence outlined above reflects the stresses in Newfoundland which accompanied the transition from a migratory fishery and seasonal fishermen to an immigrant shore-based enterprise and the struggle of an increasingly settled population for colonial status. By the late 18th century the traditional West Country-Newfoundland fishery, prosecuted by thousands of “youngsters” shipped over for two summers and a winter, was in decline; Irish immigration, particularly, was replacing the old pattern of seasonal migration of surplus labour [see John Slade], and during the winters idleness, cold, and hunger often led to turbulence. The contemporary records are full of a sense of official anxiety; naval administrators and a rudimentary civil authority, ruling the island during a period of almost continuous foreign war, reacted sharply to perceived threats to order and this reaction is reflected in the speedy response to the Ferryland affair of 1788–91, though it is to be noted that fines, the lash, and deportation home are mild sentences for the age.
As for the still current and vigorous legend of Peter Kerrivan and the Masterless Men it is interesting as a persistent reflection of the popular version of 18th-century Newfoundland history, which traditionally casts tyrannous West Country merchants, fishing admirals, and British naval governors as the villains in a popular struggle for representative institutions and government, successfully accomplished in the opening decades of the 19th century.