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The early history of St John’s was almost entirely wrapped up in its prominence as a fishing town and commercial trading post. During the early 1600’s, using St. John’s as their port, fishermen from France, Spain, Portugal, and England fished along the western side of the Atlantic. Their catches were taken to shoreside fishing stations, where the fresh fish were quickly split, salted, and spread on large flat racks (flakes) to dry before the long voyage back to Europe. This trade in dried, salted fish (salt fish) was to be the backbone of St. John's economy for the next three centuries.
The first year-round settlement in St. John’s came in the early 1600’s with the Oxford Plantation located near Beck’s Cove.
St. John’s importance as a major fishing location has always made it a target for military strategy. Up until the middle of the 18th century, many naval battles between the French and English were waged with St. John’s as the central battleground.
During the Napoleonic Wars at the end of the 18th century, the demand for salt fish and the rapid growth in the seal fishery (producing oil for lamps and other purposes) created a population boom in St. John’s. Hordes of workers came to the area for the promise of sustainable work for good wages. At the end of the war, the demand for salt fish went down, prices fell, but the contiued growth of the seal fishery encouraged those workers to stay and become permanant residents.
In 1888, St. John's became a town with its own council; it officially became a city in 1921. For the next 40 years it remained a powerhouse in the Newfoundland fishing industry, and it continues to play a central role as a commercial base for the entire province.