Settlement of Shelburne

2 Museum complexShelburne Harbour has the third-best natural harbour in the world. The native Mik'maq traversed the Roseway River and used the surrounding lands for summer encampments long before our shores were visited by Spanish, Portuguese and French fishermen.

In the spring of 1783, 5,000 settlers arrived on the shores of Shelburne Harbour from New York and the middle colonies of America. Assurance of living under the British flag, and promises of free land, tools, and provisions lured many to the British Colonies at that time. Four hundred families associated to form a town at Port Roseway, which Governor Parr renamed Shelburne later that year. This group became known as the Port Roseway Associates. In the fall of 1783, the second wave of settlers arrived in Shelburne. By 1784, the population of this new community is estimated to have been at least 10,000; the fourth largest in North America, much larger than either Halifax or Montreal.

In 1787, the government distribution of provisions was terminated. Within a few years, houses were put up for sale, and settlers left for England, New Brunswick, Upper Canada, and the United States. In the 1820s, the population of Shelburne had dwindled to about 300.

Although much smaller today than when it started, Shelburne remains the capital of the county which bears its name. It was incorporated as a town on April 4, 1907. The population in 2011 was 1686. Many descendants of the original Loyalists still live in the area today.

Historic Shelburne

The new town of Shelburne quickly became a fishing and shipbuilding centre. Fishing is still a primary industry today. Some other industries are lumbering, fish processing, and the manufacture of barrels, institutional furniture, granite monuments, and marine supplies.

The Black Loyalists, who settled at the same time, were allotted land on the northwest arm of Shelburne Harbour. They founded the largest free Black settlement in North America, called Birchtown, in honour of General Birch.

The area was also settled by Scottish and Irish Immigrants. In June of 1818, Welsh settlers arrived from Carmarthen and Cardigan in Wales and founded the first Welsh settlement in Canada. They settled on the west side of the Roseway River, in a community they called New Cambria. The name was later changed to Welshtown.

From the earliest times, Shelburne has been a centre for the building of ships. The first vessel launched at Shelburne was the 181 ton, Roseway, built for MacLean and Bogle in 1786. Commissary Island, now a peninsula, was the area from which supplies of flour, pork, and salt were dispensed to the Loyalists by the Commissary General, Mr. Brinley. Later, this area became the shipyard of Joseph McGill. The Cox family also built their own ships and carried on extensive world trade. The former MacKay shipyard was located in Shelburne at Black's Brook. Donald McKay, famous in the United States for the clippers which he built in Boston, began his shipbuilding career in Shelburne. He was born at Jordan Falls in 1810 and left the area at the age of 16 to apprentice in New York.

Many of Shelburne's buildings date back to Loyalist times. The Shelburne County Museum is a restored home built in 1787 by David Nairn, a cooper from Scotland. The present-day Christ Church (Anglican) is on the site of the original building of the same name which was designed by Loyalist Isaac Hildreth and consecrated by Bishop Charles Inglis in 1790. The original structure was destroyed by fire in 1971. Tottie's Store is thought to have been built by John Tottie about the year 1800.

Visitors can see dories being built using construction methods of the late 19th century at the J C Williams Dory Shop. This was officially opened in 1983 by Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Ross-Thomson House and store is an authentically stocked 18th-century store and chandlery. By June of 1785, brothers George and Robert Ross, natives of Aberdeen, Scotland, conducted their business from here. The Ross brothers traded Shelburne's pine planks, codfish, ship's knees, spars, and pickled herring for salt from Turks Island, tobacco from the Carolinas and Virginia, flour from New England, rum, molasses, and sugar from the West Indies. dry goods and china from England, and wine from Madiera. Robert Thomson, the Ross brothers' clerk and accountant was from Aberdeen as well. The store was closed in the 1880s with the death of Robert Ross Thomson, son of the elder Robert Thomson. In 1931, Professor KGT Webster of Harvard University, a native of Yarmouth, purchased the house to save it from demolition.


In 1992, Dock Street was the location for the filming of Mary Silliman's War, based on a true story depicting Fairfield Connecticut during the American Revolution. In 1994, Dock Street and the area was the location of a major film, "A" The Scarlet Letter, based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel depicting Puritan New England in the mid-1600s.