SKEFFINGTON, GEORGE, owner of a large salmon fishery in Newfoundland; fl. 1700–29.
Born probably in Bristol of Quaker parents, Skeffington was established as a small trader in Bonavista by about 1700. There he practised the trades of ship-chandler and cooper. During the winter months he sold rum and wine on credit, and was reimbursed with interest at the end of the fishing season. Soon he recognized that there was a potentially lucrative trade in freshwater fish. Although the rivers of Newfoundland were rich in salmon, few attempts had been made to develop inland fishing. Leaving a capable factor to manage the chandlery business during his absence, Skeffington, with the help of a few adventurous hired hands, was soon netting large catches of salmon. He was able to sell his fish to the merchant ships touching at Bonavista, and for a time thrived without opposition. In the winter of 1704–5, however, a French expedition, led by Auger de Subercase, attacked the English settlements in Newfoundland. Skeffington, as one of the town’s leading men, was in charge of the Bonavista settlement when news arrived of the approach of a French force under Testard de Montigny. Perhaps in order to save his property, perhaps because of his Quaker principles, Skeffington promptly surrendered the town and agreed to pay a ransom. When the French withdrew they took Skeffington with them, and he remained for some months at Placentia (Plaisance) before an exchange of prisoners procured his release.
On his return to Bonavista, he continued to explore the lakes and rivers north of the town, taking care not to overfish any particular water. In September 1718 Skeffington proposed to set up a joint fishery with William Keen*, a merchant of St John’s. Skeffington was to organize the actual fishing, while Keen would provide the salt and necessary equipment. The enterprise was not particularly successful, however, partly because interlopers encroached on the area claimed by the partners; Keen lost £120 in the deal.
Fishing in the interior of Newfoundland was difficult and dangerous. The men had to construct dams, clear the rivers, and build houses for curing the salmon; provisions were scarce and the weather was harsh. The Beothuks frequently wandered across the fishing areas looking for ochre. In 1721 they killed some of Skeffington’s men; they also broke his dams, took away his nets, and made off with his provisions and gear. During 1724 they were again troublesome, and Skeffington petitioned the government for two boats with six soldiers apiece, with which he proposed to keep the country free from Indians. He was granted a guard and no doubt contributed to the destruction of the Beothuks.
Despite the manifold problems, Skeffington’s fishery was extensive. In 1720 he had successfully petitioned the crown for salmon fishing rights for 21 years in a large area around Bonavista. During this year it was estimated that he employed 30 men, and sent abroad 530 “tierces” of salmon, valued at 30s. a tierce, together with fur and seal oil to a value of £6,000. By 14 Oct. 1729 Skeffington had disposed of his fishery and, as he figures no more in the Newfoundland records, he presumably retired to England.
PRO, C.O. 194/6, 194/7, 195/7. PRO, CSP, Col., 1720–21, 1722–23, 1724–25, 1728–29. Prowse, History of Nfld. Michael Godfrey, “Newfoundland salmon pioneer,” Fish Trades Gazette (London), 4359 (7 Jan. 1967).