European Fisherman & British Loyalists
The Vikings would not be the last fishermen to ply this coast. Next, historians believe, came occasional Portuguese fishermen in the 15th century, who landed in the lovely Trinity region of Newfoundland. Some also believe the explorer John Cabot -- who was actually an Italian, despite his since-Anglicized name -- made landfall at Cape North in 1497, at the site of present-day Cabot Landing Provincial Park; the province still celebrates an annual Discovery Day each June. So let's hope Cabot did touch land there.
The French made the first significant attempts at establishing a new colony, though they were driven out time and again by the locals. Antigonish, Nova Scotia, for instance, would be a French town today -- except the first settlers were chased off by angry Mi'kmaq. (When they came back to the same spot a full century later, Irish Loyalists chased the Frenchmen off again and laid out the first permanent community. Perhaps it simply wasn't mean to be.)
Largely thanks to the aggressively, shall we say, protectionist actions of its native peoples, the region's first permanent settlement didn't come until 1605, when a group including famed seaman Samuel de Champlain arrived in the Annapolis Valley at Port Royal -- right across the river from present-day Annapolis Royal. Champlain called the lovely Annapolis Basin "one of the finest harbors that I have seen on all these coasts," and the strategic importance of that well-protected harbor was later proven during struggles for control of the region, when a series of forts was constructed on the low hills overlooking the water.
Unaware of the Revolutionary troubles brewing to the south, the eastern provinces were settling organically. Farmers and fishermen slowly began filtering in from Europe and the colonies to the south. The Louisbourg fortress was built. The mid-1750s saw an explosion of settlement along the South Shore, including the towns of Chester (by Brits), Mahone Bay (by Anglican devotees), and Lunenburg (by German, Swiss, and French fisherfolk and boatbuilders, who laid it out in a grid with Germanic-Swiss precision, despite its hilly terrain). And, of course, there was Halifax, whose well-shaped natural harbor attracted Europeans in 1749 when Colonel Edward Cornwallis established a military outpost here.
But the separate peace here would not last long. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which recognized the American right of separation from Mother England, was like a bombshell. This single piece of paper would have profound effects on the subsequent composition and history of the Maritimes.
For those in America whose sympathies (or livelihoods) lay with the British, it created an untenable situation: They were men without a country. But England still held eastern Canada. The solution was obvious.
A huge wave of fearful British Loyalist settlers and their families began fleeing New England and New York City by horse and foot, washing up at little harbors like Shelburne, Nova Scotia (which became a wooden boat-building stronghold -- bigger, for a time, than both Montréal and Halifax). French settlers also ran for the eastern provinces. The Rustico region on the northern shore of PEI became one of the first in Canada to be permanently populated by the so-called Acadians following the treaty's signing.
Would England be able to handle the strain of these new immigrants? How would it govern them? Would they eventually have ideas of their own independence? It was all up in the air, and things felt tenuous.
An Industrial Age
Tensions grew with the Maritimes' sudden spike in population, but somehow the British retained their hold on Canada for nearly another century, though that too would eventually crumble. The eastern provinces' place in Canadian history was forever cemented in 1864 when Charlottetown hosted the conference that would eventually lead to the creation of Canada as a separate nation -- an event that is still remembered and celebrated on PEI today. The deeper significance was clear, too: this was no longer some backwoods fishing hole. The Maritime Provinces could be an engine of capitalism and growth for the new nation.
And so it was. The second half of the 19th century was a time of incredible growth and excitement for the Maritimes. No longer were they isolated fishing posts; now railroads, steamships, and the machination of certain production processes brought the fish to New York and Boston faster and fresher than ever. Boats could be built or fixed here, then sent anywhere in the world.
Demographics swung wildly as a consequence. Sydney, an ashamedly working-class town, became north Nova Scotia's industrial hub for decades, a legitimate rival to Halifax. The province of Newfoundland even experienced a sudden, happy rush of fame thanks to its good fortune of being more proximate to Europe than any other point of land in North America. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was laid here, a key airfield was established at Gander, and historic flights regularly set out from or completed their oceanic crossings here.
Yet this northern heyday would be sadly short-lived, lasting only three generations or so. As the highway and the jet airplane took over as means of transportation on the continent, the mill towns and factories and airstrips began to wane.
And then the Great Depression hit.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.