Placentia is a town on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador, consisting of the amalgamated communities of Jerseyside, Townside, Freshwater, Dunville and Argentia. Common family names include Caul, Power, O'Keefe, Collins, O'Reilly, Murphy, Williams, Gambin, Barry and Careen.
In the 2006 census, Placentia's population was reported as 3,898, down significantly from the 2001 figure of 4,426 This population decline has been ongoing since the early 1990s; in the 1996 census, Placentia was, proportionately, the 2nd fastest shrinking town in Canada , dropping from 5,515 to 5,013 between 1991 and 1996.
It is unclear when Placentia was first settled by Europeans, but Basque fishermen were fishing in the area as early as the beginning of the 16th century, using Placentia as a seasonal centre of operations. Placentia's large, rocky beach meant that fish could be salted and dried on the beachrocks rather than on a constructed wooden fishing stage, saving both time and effort.
In 1655, the French, who controlled more than half of the island of Newfoundland, and most of Atlantic Canada, made Placentia (or 'Plaisance,' as they called it) their capital. The French colony at Placentia was a successful one, and several raids against the English were launched from here.
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht forced the French to abandon their Placentia Bay settlements, and Placentia became a British possession. For a time in the 1700s, it still rivaled St. John's in size and importance, as evidenced by the future King William IV's summering at Placentia in 1786 and using it as his base of operations when acting as surrogate judge in Newfoundland The town was described by the then-Prince as "a more decent settlement than any we have yet seen in Newfoundland" and was reported as having a population between 1500 and 2000 people Considering that the population of Newfoundland was reported as 8,000 11 years earlier, in 1775, Placentia's relative size and importance becomes apparent.
By the 19th century, it was more fully eclipsed by St. John's and Harbour Grace, Placentia continued to be an important town, regional centre to the southern Avalon peninsula and the eastern Burin peninsula.
From the mid-1700s through to the 1830s, numerous Irish immigrants from Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Cork settled in Placentia, so that the population of the modern town is largely of a mixture of West Country English and South-eastern Irish background. In the 1700s there were also a large number of settlers from the Channel Islands, from which Jerseyside, a prominent section of the town, derives its name.
In 1940, via an agreement between the British and American governments (Newfoundland not joining Canada until 1949), a large American military base was constructed at nearby Argentia (which is now within the town of Placentia's boundaries). For a time, this was the largest American military base outside of the United States, and it played an integral role in World War II, earning the nickname "the Gibraltar of the Atlantic."
This huge development revolutionized the Placentia area both economically and culturally. Essentially, the American base introduced a wide-spread cash-based economy. Suddenly, people who had fished all of their lives (engaging in a type of barter system called the truck system) had access to good-paying jobs on the American base. American technology enriched the living standards of Placentia residents, while the local culture was influenced strongly by the American presence. Similarly, it prompted a huge population boom, growing from 1,900 people in 1935 to well over 8,000 in the 1960s (note: these figures account for the current boundaries of Placentia, which at the time consisted of 4 separate towns: Placentia, Dunville, Jerseyside, and Freshwater).
The American base at Argentia was scaled back in the 1970s, and closed totally in 1994. This, along with the cod moratorium introduced by the Canadian government a few years' earlier, left the town of Placentia without an economic base for some time, although recently developments by Inco are beginning to stabilize the town's rocky economic situation.
Placentia is also home to a campus of the College of the North Atlantic. It has a unique lift-bridge that spans the tumultuous tides of 'the gut' (the narrow opening to the harbour). There are many archaeological sites (some partially re-constructed), several excellent examples of late-19th century Newfoundland architecture, two museums (O'Reilly House and Castle Hill), and one of the two Marine Atlantic ferry links from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia (via Argentia). It is 130 kilometres from the capital city, St. John's, and is within easy distance of the scenic Cape Shore (including the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve), the Irish Loop and St. Mary's Bay, Conception Bay, and the inner reaches of Placentia Bay.
Several natives of the Placentia area have gone on to distinguish themselves in the world at large. These include commentator and journalist Rex Murphy (born in Carbonear but raised in the area), poet and playwright Agnes Walsh, lyric poet and influential Confederate Greg Power, Newfoundland's first professional bodybuilder Frank McGrath, and professional wrestler Alastair Ralphs (Total Nonstop Action Wrestling).