The Basque were among the first European fishermen to visit North America. Writers and historians have debated whether the Basques may have reached North America before Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492. Jean-Pierre Proulx in "Basque Whaling in Labrador in the 16th Century", published by the Canadian Parks Service 1993, claims the earliest known archival documents referring to Basques in North American date to the early 16th Century, beginning in 1517, and that there are no oral traditions in the Basque country of a pre-Columbian exploration of the New World. Fifteenth and 16th century Basque seafarers were not explorers or colonists in the traditions of some other European nations. Indeed, rather than publicize their voyages, the Basques desired to keep their discoveries secret in order to protect them from competitors. Others claim that some Basque records show that the Basque had settled in Newfoundland before 1300 and claim that Spainish records show that taxes on whalers in Newfoundland and Labrador were paid in 1372. Documents translated in 1968 by B. Robertson state that in 1514: "the fishermen of the island of Brehat paid tithes (of Newfoundland fish) since sixty years" (since 1454).
It is known that from the 12th to the 15th century that the Basques pursued an intensive whale hunt during winter months in their home waters, the Bay of Biscay. Late in this period the Basque began expanding their activities northward, reaching Iceland by the year 1412 according to one writer. Folk sagas of Greenland and Icland tell of voyages to a new world, long before the voyages of Columbus and Cabot.
Since no extensive archaeological studies were conducted in the Placentia area, it is difficult to determine just when the Basque fishermen came here. By the time permanent settlements were established along Newfoundland's south coast, the migratory ship fishery from Europe was more than a century old. The French Basque, who entered the fishery in 1520's were now dominant. This record shows a copy of a ship's log in 1565 on a voyage to Placentia. Two English captains reported 60 Basque vessels in the harbour of Placencia (a Basque placename) in 1590's. Little is known of the pre-planter phase but by 1600 the Portuguese and the Spanish Basque, prominent early in the century, had largely abandoned the waters.
It is likely the Basque named Placentia for their own Placentia which is a sea level town at the base of Pyrenees mountains. Caesar camped there on his way to Gaul. Both communities are 'level discs within a womb of hills'.
The Basque fishery extended from southern Newfoundland into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Gaspe' and Labrador, and along the shores of Cape Breton and southern Nova Scotia. Bayonne and St. Jean de Luz dominated this vast territory; Ciboure and Cape Breton were secondary ports. Pasajaes in northern Spain had been an important port of departure for the French Basque fleet through the 16th century. Following the collapse of the Spanish fishery in the wake of the Armada, the French Basque redirected their voyages north to Bordeaux and LaRochelle, where they packed up supplies and sometimes crew en route to southern Newfoundland. This explains in part the mixture of Basques, Bordelais and Rochellais across the Atlantic. The Basque fishery, was well established at Placentia. The expanse beaches permitted the fishermen to dry their catches.
The decision by France to start a settlement at Placentia led to numerous disputes over boundaries and access to the beach as the harbour was crowded with its mix of residential, migratory and military fisheries. This frustration was displayed in The Basque Revolt of 1690.
Several tombstones, the earliest dated 1676, indicate that there was a Basque cemetery on the Placentia beach near the present Anglican church.