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History of O’Donnell’s, St Mary’s Bay




The history of the community of O'Donnells in St Mary's Bay
to which I am proud to say is where my family is from.
This history was done by my second cousins Kaye and John Ryan.

William Ryan

The community of O’Donnell’s, formerly known as Mussell Pond, is situated at the head of Mussell Pond Cove on the eastern side of St. Mary’s Bay on the southeast coast of Newfoundland.  The name Mussell Pond was orginally given to the settlement by a fishing fleet because of the abundance of mussels found in the ponds and cove.  Father Enright, an Irish Roman Catholic priest who became parish priest of that community in 1919, changed the traditional name to O’Donnell’s (after Bishop O’Donel, the first Roman Catholic prelate in Newfoundland).

The community is almost U -shaped with the houses spread around both sides and head of the cove.  The topography of the land is relatively flat.  Today there are about sixty occupied houses and a few others inhabited during the summer and sporadic weekends during the cold season.  Two small commercial establishments or shops exist. The children of school age are all bused to St. Catherine’s, a small community about thirty-km north.

The census of 1918 listed the population of O’Donnell’s as 280, all of whom are Roman Catholic and mainly of Irish descent.

The origins of O’Donnell’s are somewhat shrouded in a mist.  There are oral reports of a family named O’Neil living at Nail’s Cove, a big grassy meadow outside of Mussell Pond Point, prior to the 1800’s.  The presence of a root cellar and approximately one and a half acres of cleared land indicate that the inhabitants stayed there over the winter.  However by the time of the first official numeration in 1836 there was no mention of Nail’s Cove.

Folk memory confirms that an English family by the surname Coombs was the first pioneer family in O’Donnell’s.  Others stated that they had been told of a Ned Coombs lived on a piece of land bordering Mussell Pond, a large pond behind the community.  Thomas Hutchinson’s directory for Newfoundland for 1864-65 lists an Edward Coombs as living at Mussell Pond.  This would be the same man that folk memory recalls.  That is all the information gathered about the Coombs family even though senior citizens in St. Joseph’s, O’Donnell’s and Admiral’s Beach were consulted.  A visit to the Coombs’s home site reveals evidence of a root cellar and the imprint of the potato beds made so long ago.  Incidentally no other family has either settled on this piece of land or used it for cultivating crops.

Since access to the parish records was not granted it was not possible to confirm or deny whether the widow 70+ mentioned in the census of 1874,1884 and 1891 was the widow of this Ned Coombs.  A search of the cemetery at St. Joseph’s revealed no headstone in memory of anyone by the name Coombs.  Folk memory could not help in this regard.

Since the census of 1836 combines Mussell Pond with Admiral’s Beach and Gleason’s Cove the 1845 census was revealing.  This census gave the following information for Mussell Pond.

                        Population                                7

                        Religion                                    7  Roman Catholic

                        Houses                                     2

                        Families                                   2

                        Men                                         2

                        Women                                    3

                        Boys under 10                                   2

Since fold memory recalls only Coombs as being the first inhabitants of Mussell Pond and living on the one piece of land, the two households must be the Coombs – the senior Mr. Coombs and his son, Edward, who is now married and has 2 sons.  The third woman could have been Edward’s sister.  By the next census 12 years later she has left the community, probably to get married.  The population at Mussell Pond continued to grow during the next12 years, not because of any new family settling there but because of the growth in Edward Coombs’s family from a total of 2 to 7.  The elder Mrs. Coombs died during this 12-year interval.  Her husband left his home and moved in with his son.  Eventually the old house was either torn down or converted into a stable.  For 1857 the census information is thus:

                        Population                                10

                        Country of birth                       2 England, 8 Newfoundland

                        Houses                                     1

                        Families                                   1

                        Men                                         2   ( 1 a widower)

                        Women                                    1

                        Female 10-20                           1

                        Male                                        2

                        Female Under 10                      2

                        Male                                        2

Due to the presence of only one extended family the ratio of children to adults is high: 7:3.  Thus census also states that 2 of the inhabitants were born in England – quite possibly father and son.  What became of all the children in the family?  There is no recollection of any of the girls marrying boys from immediate neighbouring communities. Even as far back as 1900 no one recalls meeting or knowing anyone by the name of Coombs in O’Donnell’s.  Today there is no one by that name living in O’Donnell’s or anywhere in St. Mary’s Bay.  Perhaps the Coombs of Portugal Cove South are descendants of this family.

Since the community had such a slow beginning it became necessary to continue the exploration until most of the surnames present today had been accounted for.  To do this it was necessary to probe until the second decade of the twentieth century.  The below census data gives information on the community of O’Donnell’s from 1845 to1911**.  Under children are include all those under 20 years of age.



# Houses

# Families


Child: Adult.




M : F


At school











Not given









2 English

8 Newfoundland









1 English

1 Irish

11 Newfoundland









22 Newfoundland









19 Newfoundland









30 Newfoundland









75 Newfoundland








101 Newfoundland


Mr. Thomas Butland from England was living there.  Mr. Patrick Mahoney from Ireland also there.  The growth of the community in the later half of the 19th century was due to the immigration of families resettling from other communities in the Bay and also the immigration of young men because of marriage to local girls coupled with the ever present factors of natural increase.  The first two factors account for the list of surnames present in O’Donnell’s in the 20th century.  Family tradition and census information do not always coincide.  The 1874 census gives no recording for those who can read and write in O’Donnell’s.  According to the Butland family tradition Mr. Thomas Butland was a clerk with the Grouchy firm in St. John’s before moving to O’Donnell’s.  According to Lovell’s directory for Newfoundland this Mr. Butland is a fisherman residing in Mussell Pond in 1871.  He could read and write.

All people listed as residing in Mussell Pond from the first official numeration down to 1911 were Roman Catholic.  This is verified by oral tradition.  It seems Mr. Thomas Butland, the first Butland in the community was Church of England but he converted when he married Anastasia Lynch, an Irish Roman Catholic from St. John’s.  Since the growth of O’Donnell’s was so slow no attempt was made to erect a chapel or school in the community in the 1800’s.  Prior to the establishment of a priest at St. Joseph’s, Salmonier, the people of O’Donnell’s traveled to St. Mary’s proper – the main center or capital of the Bay – for the services of a priest: - baptism, marriage etc.  The priest visited the community in the case of death of one of the inhabitants.  In 1874 Father St. John became the first parish priest of St. Joseph’s. (A community on the south side of  Salmonier Arm about 10 kilometers north of O’Donnell’s.)  From this date on the people of O’Donnell’s walked to this community for Sunday Mass and other services performed by the priest.  The people of O’Donnell’s were buried in the cemetery at this community.   The formation of a local cemetery took place in the early 1940’s.  Very few of the O’Donnell’s natives buried at St. Joseph’s had headstones so the graveyard research was not all that enlightening.  The parish records are not open to the public so oral tradition was used where possible.  In addition to Sunday Mass another important part of family life in O’Donnell’s was the rosary.  Following the evening meal when the whole family was assembled everyone knelt for this recitation of prayers.

Even though there was no school in O’Donnell’s until the early 1900’s several of the men and women could read and write because they had attended school in another community before moving to O’Donnell’s to either resettle or marry one of the inhabitants.  The first school in O’Donnell’s was held in Stephen Butland’s parlor in the very early 1900’s.  The first teacher was Christy Daley from St. Joseph’s.  There were a total of 10 children attending.  The first school building was built in the first decade of the twentieth century on the same plot of land later converted into the community cemetery.  Many children in the area did not attend school because of a lack of proper clothing and footwear.  The boy left school at an early age (after 9 years of age) to go fishing with their fathers.  Quite a few of the girls continued on to the higher grades, several even became teachers.  However some of the poorer families took their girls out of school and put them into service as maids even at the tender age of 9.  This usually involved their leaving their own community and going many kilometers away.  Quite often these girls married men from these other communities and did not return to O’Donnell’s to live.

Wile the road linking up Salmonier with St. John’s was completed in 1860 the10 km stretch connecting O’Donnell’s to St. Joseph’s, Salmonier was not constructed until 1890.  Water was still the main means of transportation for O’Donnell’s into the twentieth century.  There is recollection of anyone possessing a horse and carriage in the early 1900 but a Mr. McCormack and a Mr. Duggan from Salmonier often provided a passenger service from O’Donnell’s and neighbouring communities to Holyrood, Conception Bay.  From there the passengers took the train to St. John’s.

The first church at O’Donnell’s was built in 1940 on a piece of land donated by Michael Butland, a grandson of the first Butland settler.  It was built with free labour and materials provided by the inhabitants of the community under the guidance of Father Enright. The same Irish priest who had changed the community’s name from Mussell Pond to O’Donnell’s.  This church also functioned as a school building for the community.  It served this two-folded purpose until 1960 when a separate new school was built to accommodate the expanding school population in the community.

A tabulation of the surnames of those who entered O’Donnell’s to live from 1800 to the early 20th century and their country of origin reveals the predominance of Irish in the community.

England                                                           Ireland

Coombs                                                           Mahoney (West Munster)

Butland (Devon)                                                Lynch (Limerick)

Fowler                                                             Hickey (Tipperary)

Tremblett (Devon)                                                Power (Waterford)

Biggs (Devon)                                                Hanlon (West Munster)

Bishop                                                              Comerford (Kilkenny)

                                                                        Ryan (Tipperary)

                                                                        Tobin (Kilkenny)

                                                                        Whelan (Tipperary)

                                                                        Walsh (Waterford)

                                                                        Hearn (Waterford)

                                                                        Daley (Waterford)

                                                                        Nolan  (Waterford)

                                                                        Norris (Kilkenny)

Picco (Channel Islands)

Bonia Newfoundland variant of French surname Bonnier

Below is a tabulation of those who entered (immigrated) O’Donnell’s from 1800 to 1920.  Because discovery by the exact year of entrance was sometimes difficult it is done in decades:

Before 1836


1860 – 70

Mahoney family consisting of:

Patrick & Anne (nee Fowler)

Margaret & Ellen

1870 – 80

Butland family consisting of:

Thomas & Anastasia (nee Lynch)

Elizabeth, Mary, Jim,

Stephen, Joe & Margaret

Hickey family consisting of:


1890 – 1900

Hanlon family consisting of:

John & Anne (nee Biggs)

Patrick, Josie, Michael,

Anslem, Ellen & Theresa

Hanlon family consisting of:

Richard & Johanna (nee Comerford)

Thomas, Paddy & William

Ryan    Peter

Biggs      William

Nolan family consisting of:

Francis & Mary Ann (nee Bonia)

Walsh   John



Mary (nee Power)

Sarah (nee Bonia)

1900 – 1910




Lucy (nee Ryan)

Ryan family consisting of:

Patrick & Catherine (nee Biggs)


Hickey: Amelia

Power: John

Picco:  Philip & Steve

Hearn: Thomas & Ellen (nee Whelan)

Tobin:   John & Mary (nee Bishop)

The four families who resettled at O’Donnell’s from 1869 to 1894 were relatively large.  Some of the sons and daughters were near marriage age so they attracted others to the community. The reason for family resettlement was due mainly to a shortage of family land at the former site but also a pioneer spirit of adventure. A map showing the land site claimed by each new inhabitant follows.  The only family surname not accounted for is Power because Mr. Power married a Butland and they inherited a share of the Butland land. (Map II)

All those who came to O’Donnell’s from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards came from other parts of Newfoundland, mainly from other settlements in St. Mary’s Bay.  To help one visualize these movements the following may help:





P. Mahoney


Little Colinet Island


T. Butland


St. John’s/St. Joseph’s

Desire to

live by sea

M. Hickey


Harbor Main, C. Bay

Married local girl

J. Hanlon


Riverhead, SMB

More land

R. Hanlon


Riverhead, SMB

More land

B. Biggs


Riverhead, SMB

More land



North Harbour, SMB

Married local girl

Peter Ryan


North Harbour, SMB

Married local girl

John Walsh


North Harbour, SMB

Married local girl

Francis Nolan


St. Joseph’s, SMB

More land

Thomas Hearn


Admiral’s Beach, SMB

Was mailman who had only  one hand thus easier if lived there

Jim Ryan


Riverhead, SMB

Married local girl

Philip Picco


St. Joseph’s, Placentia Bay

Married local girl who was sister to his brother’s, Steve, wife

Steve Picco


St. Joseph’s, Placentia Bay

Married local girl, see above

John Tobin


Not given

Not given

As one can see the main reason for movement was because of marriage to local girls and because of the amount of land available in the community all of it previously untouched.  Of course this land was covered with forest providing a ready source of timber for the building of homes.  The cove also provided a fairly good harbour for the fishing boats.  The two sandy beaches which were excellent places for the drying of salt cod were also enticements for the early settlers.

To help you visualize the growth in crops and the different types of animals introduced to O’Donnell’s the following chart gives the census data for 1845 – 1911.


 1 acre cultivated

40 barrels potatoes

1 ton hay

8 head cattle

1 pig


3 acres

20 barrels potatoes


4 head cattle,

 2 milk cows


3 acres

13 barrels potatoes

3 ton hay



8 acres

15 barrels potatoes

2 barrels turnips


1 milch cow

22 sheep

5 swine

(40 lbs. Butter)


4 acres cultivated

6 acres pasture

110 barrels potatoes

7 barrels turnips

500 head cabbage

7 tons hay

1 milch cow

22 horned animals

25 sheep

12 swine

13 goats

23 fowl


47 acres cultivated

3 acres pasture

281 barrels potatoes

10 barrels turnip

4 barrels carrots

10200 h cabbage

35 tons hay

3 horses

20 cows

5 horn animals

43 sheep

24 swine

43 poultry

505 lb. Butter

67 lb. Wool

242 eggs

The cultivation of land was never done on a commercial scale in O’Donnell’s.  Each family cultivated a proportion of the land owned in order to grow those vegetables necessary for their diet and substances.  So much of the land was also used for the growing of hay, the winter food for cattle and other animals.  The only vegetable grown in the first half of the nineteenth century was the potato.  This food provided lots of calories, required little care and grew well in the rocky acid soil in the community.  Abundance of kelp and caplin were available in the community as sources of fertilizer for the garden.  From the very early days up to the 1960’s root cellars were used as a storage place for vegetables during the winter.  While the houses were all built close to the water because of the fishery, the root cellar was further back from the house usually on a slightly higher ground in order to have a dry hole.  It was not until the 1880’s with the resettling of other families that other rot crops were introduced to the community.  From then on turnips, carrots and cabbage were cultivated as well as potato.

Since the keeping of cows, sheep and pigs for dietary purposes (sources of meat and milk) was essential for the livelihood of the community, hay continued to be an important crop from the community’s beginning to the 1960’s.  This hay was cut with a scythe early in September. It was dried in the sun for a couple of days, and then stored in the barn loft for winter food for the animals.  Sometimes shortage of hay during the winter made it necessary for the animals to be fed with the rind of a dogberry tree.

Each fall some of the cows and any pigs owned by the families would be killed as a source of meat for the winter.  The pork was soaked in a solution of salt and water for several days before being hung from the beams in the barn to be preserved during the winter by the cold weather.  Butter was not manufactured in the community until the 1880’s and this was only for local use.  The popularity of sheep over cattle gained in importance also with the settling of new families in the community.  They were not only a source of food but also provided wool that could be spun into yarn for the knitting of clothing.  They also required less care than cows because they could be let roam during the summer months.  By the beginning of the 20th century some of the sheep owned by a family were sold as a source of income.  Folk memory recalls a Mr. Miller from Placentia who came to the community to buy sheep.

Hens were introduced to the community with the immigration of the families (The Hanlons) from Riverhead.   Hens provided the community with eggs for their diet.  They also provided a source of food on occasions.  It was not until the twentieth century that horses were present in O’Donnell’s.  The census of 1911 lists 3 horses for the community.  Folk memory recalls that almost every family owned a horse to help with the gardening and getting the firewood.  They were also a source of travel during the winter when people sat in a sleigh drawn by the horse.  As mentioned early no one in O’Donnell’s owned a carriage.

While farming was of subsistence nature complimenting the products of the sea, the cod fishery was the chief source of the economy of O’Donnell’s from its beginning up to the Second World War.  Since it was the chief source of livelihood what follows is the pertinent information for the fishery as provided in the census material for the years 1845 to 1911.  1836 is left out because Admiral’s Beach was combined with Mussell Pond and Gleason’s Cove and speculation would not do just to either community.


1 boat

2 men fishing

30+ quintals dried cod


None listed

3 men fishing

240 quintals dried cod


1 boat, 1 seine,

 1 fishing room

0 men fishing

Must be mistake

Not mentioned


0 boats as fished from another community

3 men fishing

5 employed in curing

Nor mentioned


5 boats, 4 nets & seines

1 fishing room in use,

5 men fishing using own boat

4 females curing fish

30 quintals of dried cod

17 gal. cod oil


Not mentioned

25 men fishing

12 females curing fish

Not mentioned


2 vessels of 16 ton

10 boats

2 lobster factories

23 men fishing

15 females curing fish

Not mentioned

Since folk memory failed to shed any light on the Coombs family activities a comparison with other families in the surrounding area is necessary.  The tradition at O’Donnell’s from the beginning has been for the men to hire on to boat owners at St. Joseph’s, Salmonier.  It can only be presumed that the Coombs men engaged in fishing did likewise because in 1857 they owned no boat but the 3 men fishing averaged 80 quintals of fish each for the season.

The census for 1869 states that zero men are employed in the fishery yet that year there are 4 men older than 14 in the community.  Folk memory believes that the number 0 to be a mistake. They state the men in St. Mary’s Bay went fishing every year, as it was the only economy for the area.

As mentioned earlier the men from O’Donnell’s had a tradition of hiring out as crewmembers for the bigger fishing boats in St. Joseph’s.  AS one can see from the census data there was always a large number of boats 30 quintals and larger at the community.

18 boats of 30+ quintals     

1869                30 boats of 15-30 quintals

1874                22 boats of 15-30 quintals

78 boats of 15-30 quintals

124 boats of 4-30 quintals

14 vessels of 20-60 tons & 12 vessels of 4-30 quintals

10 vessels of 20-60 tons

Since the average crew size for a boat over 30 quintals was 5, there was always a demand for crewmembers.  Folk memory recalls that the boats and crew went out to Broad Cove, a site near St. Shott’s on the southern tip of the east coast of St. Mary’s Bay, (See Map III) because one could catch fish closer to shore using nets.  They remained there for the months of June and July.  While there they built temporary structures for storing and salting their fish until they returned home.  Upon return to O’Donnell’s the women of the community were involved in the curing of fish.  Even though the men from O’Donnell’s did not always own a fishing boat each household had a flake for the drying of the fish and a storage room for keeping it until it was shipped to St. John’s in the fall of the year to be sold.

While the men were away at Broad Cove fishing the women of O’Donnell’s often “made” the fish for fishermen who did not belong to the community but came to the area to fish.  When the fishermen returned from Broad Cove they continued fishing with Mussell Pond Cove and even beyond Mussell Pond Point (vicinity of Nail’s Cove).  Small boats called “punts” were used for this fishery.   The fishermen made these boats themselves from logs they had sawed into lumber at the Gough sawmill at Salmonier.  Trawls were often used in the fishery baited with caplin or squid, the latter being plentiful in the cove in those days.  Of course hook and line were also used.  Later in the fall when all the fish was “made” the schooner from St. Joseph’s (no one in O’Donnell’s owned one) to take their cured fish to St. John’s.  The merchant firms –Munroes, Bairds and Harveys – would cull their fish on a scale of 1 to 3 and price would vary accordingly

No cash was ever exchanged in the nineteenth century; instead the men received their years supply of food and other necessary items such as clothing and fishing gear.  These items were bought in great bulk – barrels of flour and salt beef, crates of tea, sacks of raisins and rolled oats.  These items would be stored on the schooner and carried to O’Donnell’s.

In the early 1800 the fishermen from Admiral’s Beach sold their fish at St. Mary’s Bay Proper.  The name “Cowan” was mentioned as the agent involved.  It is presumed that the Coombs at O’Donnell’s did likewise.

Cod was the main fish caught and cured by the fishermen at O’Donnell’s except for squid and caplin that were caught for bait.  In the early part of the twentieth century the lobster fishery became popular.  The men would build their own ‘pots’ for catching the lobster.  Mr. Mike Butland had a lobster factory – set up for the canning of the lobster meat.  He would buy the lobsters from the local fishermen.  He also hired several young boys as help in the factory.  The lobsters were boiled, meat removed from the shell, packed in special tins and then the tins were sealed with a soldering gun.   These tins were then packed in crates and sold to the merchant firms in St. John’s. (Jobs, Bairds, Harveys & Monroes)

As the lobster fishery gained in popularity several fishermen set up their own ‘canning room’.

The men from O‘Donnell’s did not participate in the Labrador fishery and the seal fishery.  The Banks fishery did become popular in the second decade of the twentieth century and remained so until the Second World War when several young men left the community to work overseas (Scotland) in the forestry.  Most others sought employment in the construction of the American base at Argentia.  It was not until this period that the community of O’Donnell’s began to prosper.  At the end of the war many men returned to the fishery but from then on the economy of the community was based on other occupations besides the fishery.



Page transcribed by: William Ryan (September 2000)
Page revised: Oct. 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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