Historical Background of the Origins of Truro
Pre-history to the nineteenth century
by Ashley Sutherland, Archivist, Colchester Historeum
Truro, known as “the Hub” of Nova Scotia, is located along the Salmon River in Colchester County, to the east of the head of Cobequid Bay. Its central location has earned Truro its nickname: “the Hub.”
The Mi’kmaq are the Indigenous people who have inhabited the Truro area, known as We’kwampekitk, since time immemorial. One archaeological site, not far from Truro, dates the Indigenous peoples of this area to at least 11,000 years ago. Traditionally, Mi’kmaw people travelled throughout the province via the waterways. The Cobequid Bay and the Salmon River were instrumental for both transportation and subsistence in the Truro area. In fact, the name “Cobequid” is a derivative of Mi’kmaw name We’kopekitk meaning “the end of the flow.”Salmon River, known as Plamui-sipu or Punamu’kwatik to the Mi’kmaq, translates as “At the tomcod place” and, quite literally, “Salmon River.” Since the Mi’kmaq were traditionally a marine/riverine-based culture, many camped along the shores of the Salmon River. In fact, it is important to note that Mi’kmaw people occupied every major waterway in the province. The basis of early Mi’kmaw society was rooted in geographical features: the landscape influenced how they lived.
The French Acadians were the first non-indigenous Settlers of Nova Scotia, which was known to the French as Acadie. Actively engaged in fur trade with Indigenous peoples throughout the region, French fur traders were present in the Truro area as early as 1675, followed by French Roman Catholic Missionaries approximately ten years later. It was not until 1697, however, that the first Acadian families began to settle in the Cobequid region. By 1703, census records show that there were approximately 87 Acadians in the Cobequid region.
During the 1700s, Cobequid was primarily populated by Mi’kmaq and Acadians, and many intercultural interactions occurred throughout the region. Indeed, without the knowledge and generosity that the Mi’kmaw people shared with the Acadians, Settler life would have been far more difficult. The Mi’kmaq taught Acadians about native species of flora and fauna, fishing locations and seasons, and how to survive harsh winters in the region. Indeed, some historians, such as John Mack Faragner, have argued that “the history of colonization is usually written as the process of Native assimilation to European culture. It may be more accurate to think of the men who remained at l’Acadie as assimilated to the customs of the Mi’kmaq.” Many intermarriages were carried out according to Mi’kmaw customs between Mi’kmaq and Acadians. Likewise, the Mi’kmaq embraced Christian practices and incorporated elements of Christianity into their own customs. This, to the Mi’kmaq, was seen as a pledge of alliance and friendship. While not all Acadians and Mi’kmaq established friendship ties, they did have mutual interests, and benefited from one another, both relying on resources produced by the other.
The Cobequid Bay provided fertile land and accessibility via the waterways. Many traditional Mi’kmaw canoe and portage routes were used by the Acadians and, gradually, nearby trails were developed. The Acadians of Cobequid grew crops and engaged in trade with Mi’kmaq, New England merchants, and other Acadian and French occupants in the region. Although there were multiple communities situated along the Cobequid Bay, the communities at Truro were known as Ville Bois Brulee and Ville Conte (Lower Truro). Additionally, a community known as Ville Aucoin was located at present-day Bible Hill. A cart path crossed the Salmon River, where the Park Street bridge is now located, connecting the two villages. The communities were noted for having mills, farms, apple orchards, and a mass house. One Acadian homestead was located where the bandstand sits in present-day Victoria Park. A grist mill powered by the tides and a burial ground were situated in Lower Truro.
In 1710, following the Siege of Port Royal, a British Governor was appointed for the region of Acadie and it became known as the colony of Nova Scotia. French and British treaty negotiations continued until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed.
As part of the negotiations, the Treaty stipulated that Acadia was no longer in possession of the French and it was renamed as the British Colony of Nova Scotia. France began to establish its presence on Isle Royale (Cape Breton) and build the fortress of Louisbourg, where it attempted to relocate Acadians to its new “French territory.”Acadians, however, did not wish to move from their homesteads, and continued to occupy Nova Scotia, including the Cobequid area. This caused continued tension with the British as they feared a French/Acadian uprising.
Given that the area around Cobequid and the Bay of Fundy provided an abundance of resources, this land was likewise desirable to the British. Very little British military action occurred in Cobequid; however, when British Military authorities developed a strategy to forcibly remove Acadians from Nova Scotia and grant the land to New England Settlers, Cobequid played a key role. By 1748, there were approximately 150 Acadian families living in the Cobequid area, according to a report written by Charles Morris. Acadian community growth continued until the Expulsion of the Acadians began in 1755. Because of Cobequid’s geographic location and its primary transportation route for trading goods, the displacement of Acadians in Cobequid (and Tatamagouche) took place prior to the removal of larger Acadian communities throughout the province, such as that of Grand Pré. In fact, Charles Morris wrote a report in 1755 “concerning the removal of the French Inhabitants” in which he notes Cobequid as a primary passage by which Acadians could escape and that it would be necessary to block this route during the Expulsion. In August 1755, Captain Abijah Willard travelled through Cobequid to Tatamagouche and rounded up deputies and men. Upon his return to Cobequid, he did the same, although at this point, word of the displacement had spread and many families fled before they could be taken captive. In September 1755, it was reported by Captain Lewis that the inhabitants of Cobequid had entirely deserted the region and that he had begun to burn buildings in the communities on September 23, 1755. On October 13, ten ships departed from Chignecto with Acadians, most of whom were sent to South Carolina and Georgia. It is thought that amongst the Acadians on those ships were the ones that had been taken captive from Tatamagouche and Cobequid. It was theorized, however, that the Acadians who had escaped went into hiding in the Cobequid Mountains and Tatamagouche areas. A report from 1756 noted approximately 225 Acadians and their cattle were hiding at Tatamagouche and awaiting transportation across the Northumberland Strait to Île St. Jean (Prince Edward Island).
Following the Expulsion of the Acadians in September of 1755, farms in the Truro/Cobequid area remained vacant for several years. During this period (1756-1763), colonial conflict occurred globally. This included French and British conflict in North America and likewise affected Indigenous peoples. This is known as the Seven Years War. One of the pivotal moments during the Seven Years War in present-day Atlantic Canada was the Siege of Louisbourg by the British in 1758. This ended French occupation in the region. Following the Siege of Louisbourg, British Governor Lawrence began to offer large parcels of land and free transportation for those who were willing to settle in Nova Scotia under British rule.
Convincing Settlers to move to Nova Scotia, however, proved a challenging task. Governor Lawrence enlisted Captain Alexander McNutt (a Captain of the Massachusetts Provincial Militia) to assist with recruitment. McNutt began his search for Settlers in New England, and came up with a list of 600 families who were willing to move from New Hampshire and Massachusetts to Nova Scotia. In addition, he sailed to the British Isles in 1760 to recruit Irish Protestants. These Settlers, who came from New England and Ireland, 1761-1780, are known as “Planters.” Three townships were formed in the region: Truro, Londonderry, and Onslow. These became known as the “Cobequid Townships.” Many who settled in Cobequid were of Scots-Irish descent (known as the Ulster Scots) and some came directly by way of Ireland. In 1761, about 60 families arrived and began their new lives in Truro Township, which stretched along the south side of the Bay and bordered Shubenacadie River and Salmon River. There were two primary groups of Planters who settled in Truro Township—a group of people accompanying Andrew Gammel from the Boston area, and another group accompanying John Mackeen from New Hampshire.
The Township of Truro reached as far as the Shubenacadie River, which was a primary transportation route for Mi’kmaq travelling from Halifax Harbour to the Cobequid Bay. From there, they could travel to the northern region of the province and present-day New Brunswick (sometimes even in one day!). One route that served as a connector from Cobequid Bay to the North Shore of the province was Salmon River. Indeed, it could be said that Truro being the “hub” of the province existed far earlier than European settlement ever did.
Since riverine and coastal locations that Mi’kmaq occupied were situated on the most valuable plots of land in the province, European settlement and the introduction of Imperialistic policies gradually pushed Mi’kmaq from their traditional sites of occupation. The most critical shift when this occurred was between the 1760s and 1820s, when the area saw an influx of Planter and Loyalist immigration. At this time, many of the settlements began expanding and encroaching on traditional Mi’kmaw lands. As the population of Settlers grew access to resources, such as traditional fishing locations, diminished. In addition, resources had likewise been depleted as a result of activities such as the clearing of land and the fur trade. Mi’kmaq were also impacted by diseases that they were not immune to, which were brought to the region by Settlers.
The Township of Truro included a large area of land, some of which is considered separate from what has become the town of Truro today. Two villages were erected within the Township: Derry Village and Down Village. Planters from Boston settled in Down Village and those from New Hampshire took Derry Village. The entire township consisted of approximately 100,000 acres. Plot division was based largely on the ruins of the old Acadian villages—charred remains of houses, damaged dykes, roads, cleared land, and resilient crops still remained. In Down Village, grantees were allotted house lots, farm lots, wood lots, and marsh lots. Individuals who owned mills or had large families were given additional land. Lots were reserved for a church, school, and “common” area (present-day Victoria Square).
Life was not easy during the 1760s for the Planters in Cobequid, nor was it easy for the Mi’kmaq. The summer of 1762 was a season of extreme drought. New Settlers struggled to grow crops and were faced with the additional challenge of insects destroying what little crops remained. The Mi’kmaq also suffered. One documented case shows that a group of Mi’kmaq herded an ox into the woods from a Planter’s farm and killed it to distribute food to their people, as they too were starving due to the drought. When discovered by the Planters, the Mi’kmaq insisted they would return the favour with beaver for the Planters once the drought passed. This was a rational trade in the eyes of the Mi’kmaq, because to them, animals and land could not be owned by humans—these resources were meant to be shared, especially in times of need. While there are very few reports of physical altercations between first generation Planters and Mi’kmaq, tensions increased between them as time went on and future generations of the Settlers felt a stronger ownership over the land.
Around 1768, construction of the first Meeting House began beside the burial ground (present-day Robie Street Cemetery). The Meeting House was the largest and most notable building in Truro Township. The wooden structure was two storeys and stood on a large plot of land, nearly one mile from any other building. Town meetings were initially held at the Meeting House; However, it was relocated and reconstructed in 1854 when a new Presbyterian Church was built on Lorne Street. In 1913, the Presbyterian Church was destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Today, the reconstructed building still exists and is now known as the First United Church. The second church to be built (1821-25) in Truro was the Church of England. It too was rebuilt (1873-87) and stands today.
Many of the Planters in the Cobequid Townships were not as politically aligned with the British Empire as one might assume. Indeed, a common misconception is that the Planters who settled in Truro and Cobequid were Loyalists. Loyalists are a group of people who were exiled, both voluntarily and involuntarily, and remained loyal to the British Crown, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Given that the American Revolutionary War did not begin until after Planters had settled in the region, these Settlers should not be defined as Loyalists. On the contrary, Nova Scotia authorities believed the Cobequid Planters were American Sympathizers despite the fact that many were not willing to return to America during the Revolutionary War. Documentation reveals that a Liberty Pole was erected in one of the Cobequid townships, which was considered an act of treason by the British. Cobequid was also a region to which many American escapees and rebels fled after being imprisoned in Halifax. Despite this, many Planters from Cobequid remained neutral during the American Revolutionary War—much like the Acadians of Cobequid had done prior to the Expulsion. In fact, sixty-three men from Truro signed an anti-militia petition during the American Revolutionary War, refusing to fight on behalf of the British if the circumstance were to arise. They argued that if the men of Cobequid were to leave the region to fight, the land in the region would become vulnerable. The Cobequid Planters remained, first and foremost, loyal to their families and the land they had settled.
Amongst Planter Settlers, there were enslaved people of African descent who came to Truro and the other Cobequid Townships. The lack of documentation regarding slaves in Truro Township suggests that very few initially came to Truro. Indeed, many of the Settlers who came to Truro were working class people from Ireland. Despite this, there are documented cases of individuals having slaves or servants in the Truro area during the nineteenth century.
During the nineteenth century, the region experienced an industrial boom and the population of Truro Township jumped from 694 in 1766 to 4952 in 1817. Initially, there were very few roads—transportation was primarily by water. The traditional Mi’kmaq route used to get to Halifax via the Shubenacadie River was likewise utilized by Planters. Ferries were more common than bridges. There were very few stores or office buildings. Ships would bring goods from New England to be traded and, rather than stores, shipyards were the epicentres of business. The Board Landing Bridge (near present-day Tidal Bore Interpretive Centre) was Truro’s primary shipyard. Shipbuilding continued throughout the nineteenth century, reaching its peak around the time of Confederation.
As roads were established, travel by horseback and stagecoach became more common. This created a demand for hotels and inns in the Truro area. Roads were maintained by the general public: community members were assigned sections of roads that they were responsible for keeping clear. One of the first roads to be developed was present-day Robie Street, which connected Onslow Township and Truro Township. Schools, courts, and churches were likewise established during the early nineteenth century.
The mid-to-late nineteenth century brought prosperity to Truro. Two major milestones during the 1850s were the creation of the Normal School (1855) and the development of the railway (rail service between Halifax and Truro began in 1858). Not only did the construction of railways increase the population of Truro with railway workers, but the expansion of the railways increased traffic through Truro in general. The development of the railway created a shift in Truro’s downtown core from “The Common” on Elm Street (where the present-day tourist bureau is) to The Esplanade, where the railway station became the focal point. During the 1860s and 1870s, a railway was built from Truro to Folly Mountain, eventually connecting to New Brunswick. Railway construction continued into the early twentieth century.
In addition to railway development, many factories and industries popped up in Truro that produced furniture, hats and clothing, boots and shoes, condensed milk, cheese, and much more. Community members no longer hand-made their own goods but rather had the luxury of being able to purchase manufactured goods. Despite the fact that these industries were booming, the development of natural resources that provided wealth and income for the Settlers occurred at the expense of the Mi’kmaw people. In the 1800s, a section of the shoreline of the Salmon River that was frequented by the Mi’kmaq was purchased by the School of Agriculture, displacing the Mi’kmaq from their traditional campsite. In exchange, they were alotted land on King Street near the railroad crossing. This became known as Christmas Crossing in honour of Benjamin Christmas, the community’s leader. In Mi’kmaw cultural worldviews, ownership cannot be claimed on land because the landscape is considered a living, animate being with a spirit. This reflects the perspective that humans are not dominant beings in nature but are, rather, considered equal to all life forms. Therefore, European notions of land ownership contradicted Mi’kmaq concepts of the landscape. The British used this to their advantage during the distribution of land to Settlers. Rather than granting Mi’kmaq plots of land, they issued licenses of occupation which meant that the Mi’kmaq did not hold land titles. Mi’kmaq did not protest this injustice at the time because they did not believe in land ownership.
African Nova Scotians were likewise issued licenses of occupation. Many African Nova Scotians are descended from enslaved people who were offered their freedom in return for their loyalty to the British during the American Revolutionary War. In 1783, when the British evacuated New York and the Carolinas, a group known as the Black Loyalists joined them. Upon their arrival in Nova Scotia (British territory) in 1784, many were given their freedom (others were not given the option of freedom but instead remained with their Loyalist masters). Looking to establish new lives, many freed families settled in Guysborough County—primarily in the town of Guysborough, and later, in Tracadie. Despite this, they continued to experience economic hardship—work was tough to find. The African Nova Scotian communities in Truro are composed primarily of descendants of these Black Loyalists who relocated to this area in search of employment with the construction of the Intercolonial Railway (first phase completed in 1858). Labourers were needed for this massive project. With the railway also came a building boom. It too required vast numbers of skilled and unskilled labourers, and African people were there to fit the bill. Other African Nova Scotians, in lesser numbers, came to Truro from Halifax. By 1871, census records show that there were twenty-seven families of African descent in Truro. Initially, African Nova Scotians found housing in the center of town but as their numbers increased, so did anti-black racism and, they were segregated into three distinct African Nova Scotian communities: The Hill (Foundry Hill, Young Street), The Marsh, (Ford Street), and Smith’s Island (West Prince Street). Many of the African Nova Scotians who moved to Truro to seek employment on the railroad settled in the areas that became known as The Island and The Marsh, but as these communities grew, they acquired land and houses in the vicinity of The Hill [Young, Brunswick, Douglas, Doyle, Slack, and Wimburn (Exhibition) Streets]. Some community members are also descendants of Black Refugees, who fled America to escape slavery following the American Revolutionary War. Determined not to relive the horrors of their past, both refugees and freed Loyalists spoke little of their suffering to their future generations.
As Truro expanded during the nineteenth century, the Mi’kmaw community also grew and Mi’kmaq faced the challenge of being restricted to a very small area of land. Traditionally accustomed to moving throughout the land, the Mi’kmaw saw a major shift in their society with the creation of the Reserve System in the 1820s. It furthermore displaced Mi’kmaq from traditional sites of occupation, enabling Settlers to claim these ideal locations as their own “private land,” which were often abundant in resources and high in economic value. This likewise affected the growth of the community in Truro as Mi’kmaq faced increased pressure to relocate to Reserves. Unfortunately, the creation of Reserves in Nova Scotia meant that Mi’kmaw people lost access to many of their resources. In addition, due to racial discrimination, wage labour was difficult for Mi’kmaq to find. The Mi’kmaq at Christmas Crossing petitioned for more land and resources to sustain their growing community and the Federal Government eventually agreed to exchange the land at Christmas Crossing for land on Halifax Road, which is the present-day Millbrook First Nation Reserve. The initial plot of land consisted of thirty-five acres and an additional 120 acres were purchased between 1904 and 1910. In an attempt to counter the increased costs of welfare and eliminate financial assistance to the Mi’kmaq, a Centralization Policy was developed (beginning in 1916) by the Government. The initiative was to relocate as many Mi’kmaq as possible to a couple of central Reserves, Millbrook being one of them. Fortunately, as the population of the community continued to grow, additional land was added to the Millbrook Reserve. This was not the case for other Reserves that were victims of Centralization. It is often suggested that Millbrook’s ability to increase in size is attributed to having proactive Chiefs who fought very hard for the best interests of their community.
Given Millbrook’s ideal location alongside the railway, (and later, the Trans Canada Highway), some community members had access to transportation and were able to seek jobs in the form of labour. Others were able to set up truckhouses to sell products that they made—including but not limited to baskets, hockey sticks, plant stands, furniture, and butter churns. Many Settlers purchased these goods for their households. Although the community of Millbrook stands alone, it also contributes to the larger community of Truro.
Today, Millbrook has become a major economic force in the Truro area. The community of Millbrook First Nation continues to grow and thrive with nearly 1,800 band members. Due to colonial attitudes during early European settlement, they endured unjust hardships including disease, the loss of land and resources, little access to education or employment, biased and manipulative government policy, attempts at cultural genocide (such as the residential school system), and, quite simply, racial discrimination in general. Despite all of the challenges faced, the Mi’kmaw community continues to grow and celebrate its culture. Indeed, with its ideal location, now along the Trans Canada Highway, the community has become a central development site in the Truro area, adding new housing and bringing more businesses to Millbrook and Truro. Today, Millbrook First Nation owns over 1000 acres, including land in Colchester and Halifax Counties.
The people of Truro today are primarily descendants of Truro’s past—Mi’kmaw, Acadian, Planter, and African Nova Scotian. These communities have all faced their own challenges and hardships. Not only did the Mi’kmaw community face racial discrimination, but so did the African Nova Scotian and Acadian community. Acadians, displaced and exiled from the region in the eighteenth century, settled in other areas of North America. However, some families, feeling a strong connection to L’Acadie, returned to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Roman Catholics were discriminated against during the nineteenth century due to the fact that French-Acadians were affiliated with the Roman Catholic religion and Nova Scotia had become a British Colony. In fact, Roman Catholics faced restrictions when it came to land ownership, voting restrictions, etc. In 1851, the first Catholic services were held in the Truro area since the Acadian Expulsion. By 1901, there were over 45,000 people of French origin in Nova Scotia. Today, Acadian descendants continue to live in the Truro area. Acadian culture is celebrated in Nova Scotia and the Cobequid region is acknowledged for the role it played in the Expulsion and re-settlement by the British. Plaques can be found throughout Colchester County commemorating the various Acadian villages in the region and there have been efforts in recent years to ensure that the story of the Acadians is included in historical narratives.
The Planters, who are often cited as the “Founders” of Truro, faced many barriers that they were tasked with overcoming in the process of establishing a community. Many of the Grantees chose to uproot their lives and move to Nova Scotia due to their dire financial situations. This meant, however, that they had very little to re-establish themselves. After months of travel and about two weeks on a ship, the first group of Planters arrived at the end of May. But it took time to get established. Following their arrival, they immediately began making simple shelters. They had four foot ceilings and holes for windows and doors. Bark was used to construct the roof. In some cases, shelters did not even have windows as they were not easy to make and had to be imported. The only source of daylight would have been a door. Arriving with very few furnishings, families typically only had a table and a couple chairs. And while the task of constructing a liveable shelter was a challenge, establishing crops was all the more difficult.
In the early years of settlement, the Planters survived as hunter-gatherers. People in the Truro Township were loaned 600 bushels of “Indian Corn” by the government to assist with establishing a crop base. However, during the first summer, Eastern North America experienced an extreme drought. Supplies from New England became scarce. Grain crops did not survive, leaving the Planters with no bread for the winter. Despite receiving some assistance form the government, there was still not enough to provide for all of the settlers. The drought persisted the following year, too. Although Truro was comprised of fertile land that was easy to develop for agriculture, seeds would not germinate in the drought. Not only did this provide a lack of food for livestock, but fish and wildlife dwindled due to the drought. Food shortages forced families to take out loans, causing irreparable debt. Some families had no choice but to move to other Townships.
The winter following the drought brought high volumes of snow, and in the spring, heavy rains arrived, destroying roads, bridges, and even buildings. The Planters were resilient, however, and somehow managed to survive. By 1763, Chief Surveyor Charles Morris visited the townships and noted Truro as being “a very industrious set of people.” To think of the obstacles the first Settlers would have had to overcome in their effort to establish a community is overwhelming. Nonetheless, the Planter Settlers remained determined and managed to successfully establish the Truro Township
Historical narratives of Truro, however, often glaze over both the successes and injustices felt by the African Nova Scotian community in the region. Over the years, The Hill continued to grow to include people from Bermuda, the Caribbean, the United States, and other areas in the Maritimes. Although all three African Nova Scotian communities are distinct, they have familial connections and have always offered hospitality to others in times of need. The communities in Truro are noted for their strength and resilience. Being allotted isolated, poor land, the community members also had to contend with Environmental Racism: environmental injustices that have been inflicted upon communities due to their race. Truro waste facilities were created in the backyard of their communities on both the Hill and the Island. Flooding had likewise been a major issue, causing many community members to vacate their homes and move to rented accommodations. Nonetheless, their communities thrived and they participated in both the economic and cultural landscape of Truro.
Not only did the African Nova Scotian communities endure economic hardship, but they were also subject to racial discrimination over the years. Slavery, although not nearly as common in the Cobequid Townships as elsewhere, did exist during the eighteenth century. Although there are only a handful of documented cases, colonial attitudes were prevalent amongst the people of Truro. Segregation was common. Indeed, one report in the Truro Daily News in August of 1932 documents a cross-burning by the infamous Ku Klux Klan on Foundry Hill. It notes that the organization held a meeting in Truro and between 200 and 300 people attended.
These unfair and unfortunate circumstances did not prevent the African Nova Scotian community from prevailing. Known for its close bond and community support, religion has played a strong role in the community. The community established Zion Baptist Church in 1896 after leaving the First Baptist Church where they had been relegated to seats in the balcony. Many notable people have emerged from the Truro Black community. This includes Stan “Chook” Maxwell, an international hockey player, Jeremiah Jones, a WWI war hero, soldiers who fought in the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War. Many individuals are also noted for their “firsts,” such as Edward Howard Borden, the first Black graduate of Acadia University, Martha Jones, the first Black graduate of the Provincial Normal College, and Portia White, the first Black Canadian opera singer to earn international recognition. Today, African Nova Scotians in Truro have assumed major roles and positions in the town and afar, including town councillors, school principals, educators, business entrepreneurs, prominent sports figures, lawyers, politicians, and many more.
Truro continues to grow and welcome new members with diverse cultural backgrounds into its community today. However, the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, Planters, and African Nova Scotians faced the challenge of building the foundation of present-day Truro and area. Working as a community, they established an agricultural industry, churches, schools, fire departments, police departments, post offices, businesses, and much more. Their stories, all distinct and complex, contribute to one cohesive narrative of the history of early settlement in the Cobequid region.