Over the last 250 years, three distinct groups of people have come north from the United States to settle in Nova Scotia – New England Planters in the 1760s, Loyalists after 1783, and Chesapeake Bay Refugees following the War of 1812.
The Planters were attracted by what Nova Scotia had to offer – the pull factor. The Loyalists came to escape the consequences of the American Revolution – the push factor. The story of the Chesapeake Bay Refugees is part of Nova Scotia’s African heritage and is told elsewhere on this website.
From the earliest days of European settlement in North America, New Englanders were well acquainted with the colony to their north. Vessels from Massachusetts to Maine regularly fished along the Nova Scotia coastline and reciprocal trade was an everyday activity, even before 1713 when Nova Scotia was a French colony, Acadia, and trading with the enemy was illegal.
Nova Scotia was a prize in all the great wars between Great Britain and France for possession of North America, and in every military campaign most of the land forces accompanying the regular British troops were provincial soldiers from the Thirteen Colonies. When the first Halifax settlers drifted away in the 1750s, they were quickly replaced by enterprising New Englanders such as the Tufts, Salter and Cleveland families. And when the British deported the Acadian French from Nova Scotia after 1755, they were assisted again by New England soldiers.
The need for replacement settlers to occupy vacant Acadian farmlands dovetailed neatly with the reverse situation in New England, where the population was expanding and land was running out. In response to an invitation offering township grants and representative government, several thousand New Englanders packed up and sailed north. They already knew the countryside well.
In the years after 1759, fishing townships arose at Chester, Liverpool, Barrington and Yarmouth. Farming townships were established at Granville, Horton (Wolfville), Cornwallis (Kentville), Falmouth, Newport and Onslow. A mixture of people from northern Ireland and New Hampshire settled Londonderry and Truro townships.
Families with names such as Bishop and Eaton, Parker and Newcomb arrived in Kings County, while Crowells and Nickersons, Dexters and Freemans settled along the South Shore. Vaughans and Webbers were founding families in Chester. We know these people collectively as the ‘New England Planters’ because that is where they came from, and because the word ‘planter’ is an old English term for ‘settler’.
Almost all these families can trace their ancestry further back in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to the 1600s. Some, such as the Hopkins and Kemptons, go right back to the Mayflower. Many a family in our western counties has been in North America for nearly four centuries.
The last Planters had scarcely arrived in the 1770s before rebellion broke out in the Thirteen Colonies to the south. Nova Scotia did not join the Revolution, largely because of distance and divided public opinion. Instead it became a refuge for American ‘Tories’ or ‘Loyalists’, forced to leave their homes because of their allegiance to Great Britain.
In 1776 the British evacuated Boston, bringing with them to Halifax nearly a thousand civilians, including the DeBlois, Etter, Foster and Greenwood families. The revolution dragged on until 1783, by which time the British held only New York City. With them behind the lines were tens of thousands of ‘loyal’ colonists and their families who had fled from the central colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware. All of them were uprooted, homeless and unwelcome in the new republic.
The British offered refuge overseas and in their remaining colonies. Most Loyalists chose Nova Scotia and were convoyed north in several huge fleets during 1783 and 1784. They settled in new communities at Port Roseway (Shelburne), Digby and the Saint John River (then part of Nova Scotia). Lesser numbers founded Aylesford, Parrsboro and Antigonish in mainland Nova Scotia, and Sydney and Baddeck in Cape Breton.
So many Loyalists came to Shelburne that it was briefly the fourth largest community in North America, with a population estimated at 17,000. Isolation and the lack of accessible resources, however, quickly caused many to move elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Settling the Loyalists took years. Some eventually went to Prince Edward Island and Ontario, others quietly returned to the United States.
The route of the southern Loyalists was different. Many of them were disbanded soldiers. Some from the Carolinas settled at Country Harbour and Ship Harbour on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, and at Rawdon in Hants County. Others from East Florida were brought to Guysborough. Still others, both soldiers and civilians, settled at Port Mouton and Argyle on the South Shore, and at Wallace in Cumberland County.
The list of Loyalist family names in Nova Scotia is lengthy, but common ones include Church, Morehouse, Rushton, Bond, Bruce, Grovestine, Moody, Ruggles, Van Buskirk, Mitchell, Blakeley, Pace, White, Carter and Purdy.
Driving through south-western Nova Scotia today, from Rawdon and Windsor around to Chester, reveals a checkerboard of alternating New England Planter and Loyalist communities. Most of them feature outstanding examples of domestic architecture straight out of New England. The passage of time and a good deal of intermarriage have blurred the distinctions, but people in these communities still retain a lively sense of which stream of American history brought them to Nova Scotia.