First settled by the French in the early 17th century, the islands represent
the sole remaining vestige of France's once vast North American possessions.
The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia wrote, "Known to the earliest
Breton and Basque fishermen, this group already bore its present name when
Jacques Cartier identified it in 1535, The first settlement dates from
1604. In 1689 Bishop St-Vallier visited it from Placentia, blessed a chapel,
and left a priest in charge. The Recollects sent to Placentia (1691) attended
this mission. The islands were successively ceded to England (Treaty of
Utrecht, 1712), restored to France (Treaty of Paris, 1763), thrice captured
by the English (1778, 1793, and 1808), and thrice retroceded to France
(Treaties of Versailles, 1783, of Amiens, 1802, and of Ghent, 1814). Many
Acadians fled thither after the dispersion of Grand Pré (1755) and
the fall of Louisbourg (1757)."
"The first missionaries who came after the Treaty of Paris were the
Jesuits Bonnecamp and Ardilliers, with dubious jurisdiction from the Bishop
of La Rochelle (1765). The islands now separated from the jurisdiction
of Quebec were erected by Propaganda into a prefecture Apostolic, and formed
the first mission confided by Rome to the Seminary of the Holy Ghost. MM.
Girard, prefect, and de Manach, who sailed the same year, were driven by
a storm to Martinique. They were replaced (1766) by MM. Becquet and Paradis,
likewise of the Holy Ghost Seminary, or Spiritains, as well as several
of the following. In 1775 the prefect, M. Paradis, with his companion and
300 families were expelled by the English. M. de Longueville succeeded
him in 1788. In 1792 M. Allain, vice-prefect, and his companion, M. Le
Jamtel, were forced by the French Revolution to leave for the Magdalen
Islands, with a number of Acadians who, remaining faithful to the King
of France, refused to take the oath of the Constitution. The former inhabitants
returning in 1816, M. Ollivier, who accompanied them, applied for jurisdiction
to the Bishop of Quebec. He was appointed vice-prefect in 1820. His successors,
with the same title, were MM. Charlot (1841), Le Helloco (1854), Le Tournoux
(1864), Tiberi (1893); the two last named belonged to the newly-restored
Congregation of the Holy Ghost."
The islands were used during American Prohibition as a base for smuggling
liquor into the United States by many gangsters including Al Capone and
After Germany invaded most of Europe during World War II, the islands
were controlled by Vichy France. On Christmas Day 1941, Free French forces
led by Rear-Admiral Émile Muselier liberated the islands on behalf
of Charles de Gaulle. Saint-Pierre and Miquelon became the focus of a serious
rift between Free French forces and the United States Department of State,
which was courting Vichy France and sent ships to take the islands back.
The islands became a full département d'outre mer of France in
1976. This status was modified in 1985 and the islands became a territory
with special status.
The inhabitants have traditionally earned their livelihood by fishing
and by servicing fishing fleets operating off the coast of Newfoundland.
The economy has been declining, however, because of disputes with Canada
over fishing quotas and a steady decline in the number of ships stopping
at Saint Pierre. In 1992, an arbitration panel awarded the islands an exclusive
economic zone of 12,348 sq km to settle a longstanding territorial dispute
with Canada, although it represents only 25% of what France had sought.
The islands are heavily subsidized by France to the great betterment of
living standards. The government hopes an expansion of tourism will boost
economic prospects. Recent test drilling for oil may pave the way for development
of the energy sector.