With its small but sheltered harbour situation close to productive fishing grounds, Keels was probably the base for an intermittent summer cod fishery from France and Iberia before 1600. According to Captain Cook’s map, it was one of only a handful of harbours beyond Bonavista occupied by the English “on or before” 1660 and it remained close to the northern limits of English settlement in Newfoundland into the next century. The harbour was not large enough to accommodate easily the fishing ships arriving annually from the English West Country; through much of its early history Keels functioned as an outport of Bonavista, the central place in this frontier region. Censuses record it as a “dependency” of Bonavista through the eighteenth century. Little is known, as a consequence, of its specific social and demographic structures or early economy. There were 67 persons there in the summer of 1681 operating eight shallops, the traditional craft of the inshore fishery. The great majority were young male servants either from south Devon, heartland of the migratory cod fishery at that time, or from Poole and its hinterland. Most of these youngsters would go home in the fall and Keels’ overwintering population was composed of two or three planters probably with family and a small band of indentured male servants.
In the eighteenth century the port of Poole entered this fishery in force and maintained its hegemony in the northeast until dislodged by St. John’s around 1830. For a variety of reasons explained elsewhere some migrants recruited by Poole merchants in the homeland elected to remain. Dorset and its borders dominated the regional origins of this immigrant population, as Gordon Handcock has shown, and their descendants dominate places such as Keels to this day. Almost all the names in a petition for an Anglican school at Keels in 1769, for example, had connections with Dorset or its borders with Hampshire and Somerset. Some families were extended, reflecting the longevity of settlement; they included Elliott, Moss, Batt, and the Hobbs – Whom tradition honours as the first settlers in Keels. Close to half a dozen surnames had disappeared by 1805 and there is no memory of them locally, an indication of the transient nature even of family settlement in eighteenth century Newfoundland.
The Catholic Irish arrived later, entering this fishery generally as servants to English planters, mainly as shoreman cutting, salting and drying the fish, managing meadows and tiny gardens. In the winter, they gathered timber inland for vessel constriction and for the wide range of wooden structures that dominated Keels’ material cultural landscape. Gradually they procured properties either in physically less-favoured sites for the prosecution of a fishery, or by purchase or marriage to daughters of English planters. Intermarriage may account for the Fitzgeralds appearing as the lone Irish family in Protestant petition of 1769 and James Aylward (first recorded as a planter at Keels in 1772) who owned an English room in 1805 “established by his wife’s family”. At least ten Irish immigrants acquired rooms in Keels before 1830; almost all came from the hinterland of Waterford. Most married Irish women and more Irish men entered later, but prior English occupancy helped maintain English dominance. The Irish remained a minority (around 40%) through the nineteenth century.
Immigration had virtually ceased by 1836 when the first comprehensive census was taken. There were by then almost 300 persons living in 44 houses with 30 boats exploiting the grounds inshore. The old indentured servant class had virtually disappeared, replaced by family labour. Close to 40% of the population was under 14 and a school had been established, the only public building recorded. The cod fishery continued to dominate the economy. Agriculture was meagre and purely subsistence in nature. Each householder tended on average less than half an acre of ground, mainly for potatoes and only one in every two houses kept livestock. Two decades later Keels had 450 inhabitants, by now all but a few native Newfoundlanders. Partnership based on extended family networks began to characterize social life and work. Twelve of the 77 families shared a house with another family and the community fished from 27 stages crowding the waterfront. Keels was a classic outport, socially egalitarian and occupationally unspecialized. Apart from two resident traders and a lone artisan, all adult males were engaged in the catching and curing of fish, aided in the latter takes by the women and children. People became poorer as the fishery worsened and as a consequence became more self sufficient, exploiting local resources to ward off poverty. The number of acres improved quadrupled in two decades but still have each household no more than an acre on average; land clearing continued through the century. Almost every head of household could build a house, store, stage and boat, the essential equipment for survival. Traces of this versatility are strewn across Keels’ landscape to this day.