Digby: The Historical Development of Town and County
This page contains a brief look at significant historical events in Digby Town and Digby County’s development.
This is not an exhaustive list and will be added to as research continues.
Note: THE ATALANTA, pictured above, was captained by Rear Admiral Robert Digby. This ship led the flotilla of United Empire Loyalists to Conway in 1783/84.
When the European settlers arrived, they were landing on territory which had been home to the Mi’Kmaq and other First Nations groups for over 4000 years. In Digby County, native settlements could be found throughout the area, travelling even to and from the Eastern Seaboard to seaside encampments in Digby County. The French at Port Royal identified the natives as “Indians” and the tribe was known as the Souriquois. When the British gained control of Acadia, the group became known as the Micmac, which is derived from their word “Nigumakh” or “Nikmaq” and means “my people”. The correct term is “Mi’Kmaq”. In early years, a Mi’Kmaq encampment could be found in Freeport, high on the bluff overlooking the St. Mary’s entrance to Grand Passage on what is locally known as Roney’s Point, where a shell midden has been identified. Clay fragments from one yard have dated back 2500 years. In later years, descendants of early native peoples fished for porpoises off Flour Cove on Long Island as well as in Digby Gut. Mi’Kmaq people were a nomadic people, fishing, hunting and trapping animals, growing crops in the spring and summer and who used the bounty of the land and sea to sustain them and produce wonderful craft and decorative items.
More closely aligned to the French than the English, conflicts occurred in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s between the English and the Native people. In “Geography & History of the County of Digby”, by author Isaiah W. Wilson, records an attack on a Mi’Kmaq encampment at the north side of the Racquette near Digby by British troops from Annapolis in 1759. A bounty of 25 pounds was offered for a male prisoner, L20 for a female prisoner or a scalp and L10 for any child prisoner. Consumption and other diseases, as well as mistreatment, helped to produce a large decline in their population and eventually they were confined to reserve area. Today the reserve in Bear River is reclaiming their past through the construction of their First Nations Cultural Centre and depiction of traditional ways of life.
The French began their settlement of what is now Annapolis County prior to 1600. With initial settlements at Port Royal and Fort Anne, descendants of the original families began to spread throughout the land known as “Acadie” and by 1750, 10,000 people of French descent populated the province.
The 17th Century:
- One of the first known Black men was Matthew deCosta, who was at Annapolis.
The 18th Century:
- What is now Nova Scotia and part of New Brunswick was ceded to the British.
- The English government felt that the Acadian population would side with the French government in a war. The expulsion of all people with French heritage began in Grand-Pré. In Wilson’s words “Tradition relates that some of these people living at Port Royal, during this time escaped, escaped to the woods when Winslow’s Transports sailed up the Annapolis River, successfully eluding their pursuers; and passed a roving unsettled life for some years, while the Micmacs aided them as far as possible…. These French exiles, while roaming through the forests, reached the south-east shore of St. Mary’s Bay.”
- It has been recorded that the earliest immigrant of British parentage was Joseph Potter who settled in Smith’s Cove.
- Some groups of displaced Acadians began to return to Nova Scotia from Louisiana and from France to settle in their previous homeland within Clare, Argyle and other sections of Nova Scotia.
- The first formal settlement in Clare was started by Joseph Dugas at the area known as Doucett’s Point.
- A tract of land was granted to Alexander McNutt, James Clarke, Michael Clarke, Anthony Henderson, William Mitchell and Sebastian Zouberbuhler. This grant was conditional on 50 families settling in the area, being given 500 acres each. This land comprised the present townships of Digby and Weymouth and was named “Conway” in honour of General Sir Henry Seymour Conway. Note: A biographical sketch of Sir Conway can be found in Isaiah Wilson’s publication, Geography and History of Digby County.
- A group of English settlers migrated to the area, but soon moved on.
- The first settlement of the Clare area was started by Joseph Dugas at the area known as Doucett’s Point.
- David Welch, a fisherman from New England came to Brier Island and settled there with his family and others.
- Gulliver’s Cove is settled.
1783 – 84
- The Weymouth and Sissiboo areas are settled.
- The 1780’s saw a huge wave of settlers arrive from the United States with the expelled United Empire Loyalists. This group doubled the population of Nova Scotia. Approximately 1500 United Empire Loyalists arrived in Conway. Admiral Digby actively participated in the development of the new town, and the citizens showed their gratitude by asking the King to officially change the town’s name to Digby. These loyalists, predominately of British descent, went on to settle Digby County, in particular: Weymouth, Sissiboo, Digby Neck and the Islands. A pocket of soldiers of English and Germanic heritage settled Clements Township, which included Bear River, Clementsport, Clementsvale, and surrounding areas. Other Loyalists walked from Shelburne to settle in this area, and trading boats sailing from Ireland, Scotland and England brought other settlers to the Digby County area.
(NOTE: To us, Loyalists are hailed as heroes, while some United States relatives sometimes never spoke their traitorous names again.)
- Although we think of Loyalists as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, numerous Loyalists were of African descent who looked upon serving on the British side during the War of Independence as a chance to receive their liberty. Approximately four thousand Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia, along with thousands of slaves who came with their masters. Black Loyalists settled in the Annapolis and Digby Counties. Sixty nine free Blacks were recorded as living in Conway. Alfreda Withrow, author of “Nova Scotia’s Ethnic Roots” states that Black Loyalists never received deeds to their farms in Digby as the government sometimes did not follow through on their land grant promises.
- The communities of Brier Island, Freeport and Central Grove were founded.
- Digby’s first sermon is preached.
- Digby County continued to grow as the newcomers arrived and settled in. Primary industries were fishing, logging, ship building, international trade and farming.
- Tiverton and Rossway were founded
- Digby celebrated its first recorded marriage
- Reverend Roger Viets became the first missionary in Digby for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
- Conway renamed “Digby” in Honour of Rear Admiral Robert Digby.
- Mount Pleasant, Broad Cove/Culloden and Bayview were settled
- Sandy Cove was settled
- The first public school was built in the Town of Digby
- Small schools, which were often held within a resident’s home, sprang up within the individual communities.
- The Trinity Church was finished being built and was dedicated. Reverend Viets was its first rector.
- Cannons were brought to Digby, along with other “military protection.” This act was meant to guarantee the safety of Digby’s citizens. During the American Revolution, pirates were a threat to the safety of the area.
The 19th Century:
- Digby Town’s first election lasted 6 days and was held in the summer.
- Nearly all the structures in a four-mile stretch from Little Brook toward Church Point was lost to fire.
- Later the same year, a fire broke out in Beaver River. It destroyed everything in its six-mile by one half-mile path.
- An Act of the Provincial Parliament was passed which divided Annapolis County into two counties: Digby and Annapolis. Prior to this, there were only five counties in the province.
- The laying of train tracks between Digby and Yarmouth was started.
- Digby Municipal Council held their first meeting January 13th.
- Telephone service became available in the late 1800’s.
- Digby received its first fire engine: the “Digby,” which was later renamed “Victor”.
- The Town of Digby was incorporated.
- The City of Montacello, a steamer, was making daily runs between Digby, Annapolis and Saint John.
- The Cleopatra was making two weekly runs between Digby, Annapolis and Boston.
- The Digby Electric Light Company began operation in Digby, generating commercial and domestic electricity.
- The section of rails between Digby and Annapolis was officially opened. The “Missing Link,” as it was known, completed the tracks across the Province.
- The Digby Academy was built.
- The Town’s waterworks system began operation.
- In December, a huge fire destroyed most of Digby’s downtown business district. The train station narrowly escaped the blaze.
The 20th Century:
- The Digby Board of Trade was organized on April 23.
- The first crossing of the CPS Princess Helene from Saint John to Digby. This ship was built specifically for the Digby to Saint John crossings.
- The last train pulled out of the Digby Station.
- The railway tracks were pulled up in Digby County.
- The Digby Railway Station was demolished.
Resources used for this project:
History of Digby County and its Early Settlers, Allan Massie Hill
Scrap Book Digby Town and Municipality, R. B. Powell
Second Scrap Book, R. Baden Powell
Diamond Anniversary Booklet 1890 – 1950
Historic Digby, Images of Our Past, Mike Parker
Geography and History: County of Digby, Isaiah W. Wilson
Island’s Historical Society Archives, Freeport, Digby County
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