Nova Scotia in the American Revolution

Growing up in the United States, one almost gets the impression that the American Revolution, with the exception of Yorktown, began, was fought, and ended in New England; or, really, even just Massachusetts. But this colonial struggle for independence took place on a much grander scale than the original 13 colonies so lovingly memorialized on the modern US flag. The war was a truly global conflict. And, in the 1770s, the now sacrosanct idea of 13 rebelling colonies was far from set in stone – there were even attempts to bring provinces from Canada into the fold. But, in the days of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson’s youth, there existed no distinction between the US and Canada – there was just the British North American colonies. And in this world schema, Virginia and Massachusetts bore no difference in the mind of British subjects to places such as Nova Scotia.

For well over a hundred years, the area of Nova Scotia had been a part of the French Empire, which stretched from Quebec and the Maritimes to Louisiana, the Carribean, and South America. But their defeat at the hands of the British in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War) led to the absolute dismemberment of these once vast, if mostly theoretical, holdings. As part of their treaty with the British, France ceded its control of the Maritime provinces, including the territory they called Acadia. While this was a fine name and all, once the British took control they renamed it to Nova Scotia – they’re hatred for all things French even seeping over into place names.

The anti-French sentiment did not end there. In 1755, the new British government expelled all Acadians unwilling to accept British rule and become Nova Scotians. This meant most of the inhabitants of the colony packed up and shipped out, leaving wonderfully arable farmland up for grabs. While these Acadians were busy making their way down to Louisiana, where they would mix with the slave and indigenous populations to create Cajun culture, New Englanders moved into their abandoned steadings. 

Over the next twenty years, Nova Scotia’s population grew to about 20,000 – three-quarters of whom had come from New England. This meant some 15,000 Nova Scotians retained economic, cultural, and familial ties with their homeland to the south.1 So, when unrest and a general sense of cantankerousness began to take hold of the New England colonies, many Nova Scotians got swept up in the ardor of impending revolution. 

In early 1776, George Washington received a letter from would-be Nova Scotian rebels, based out of a small lumber outpost called Machias. Situated along the St. Croix River, about 43 miles from Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax, this settlement became the first real hot bed of revolutionary fever in Nova Scotia. In the letter, the unknown writer from Machias told Washington, “You may reasonably imagine that it is presumptuous in me to take such liberty in writing to your Excellency; still, its going from one whose principles are actuated from the genuine feelings of liberty, and an indelible anxiety for the happiness of his country… We would greatly rejoice could we be able to join with the other Colonies, but we must have other assistance before we can act publicly.”2

This letter asked, in no uncertain terms, for the Continental Army to invade the colony and get Nova Scotia in the American Revolution. And Washington knew it. He also knew it was an impossible task. Nova Scotia’s settlements were small and far flung, making communication difficult. Additionally, Britain controlled the Atlantic, cutting off any chance Washington would have of transporting news, goods, or men back south. If he went, his army would be trapped. But, Washington let the Machias rebels down nicely. In his own words, “As to the Expedition proposed against Nova Scotia by the Inhabitants of Machias, I cannot but applaud their Spirit and Zeal…”3

The dream of colonial troops invading and liberating Nova Scotia did not die with the failed Machias plot. The men who wanted Nova Scotia in the American Revolution just got bolder with their tactics. They adopted the strategy of, “it’s easy to say no in a letter, let’s make them say no to our faces.” And so three prominent, anit-British Nova Scotians made their way to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Washington’s army was camped in Cambridge when the delegates arrived. Just haven successfully conducted one of the most famous ruses in history to trick the British forces into abandoning Boston, Washington proved too busy to meet with his road weary neighbors from the north. After all, if that massive British fleet wasn’t anchored in Boston Harbor, where would it go next?4 And, his desire for his army to remain untrapped probably persisted, despite the Nova Scotians having made the trip. 

Disappointed but undeterred, the three Nova Scotians made their way to Philadelphia. For a city whose ostentatiously Greek name translates to Brotherly Love, Philadelphians have never had a reputation as warm hearted individuals. I mean, they booed when the Eagles won they Super Bowl! Unfortunately for the Nova Scotian delegates, they got the typical not-so-brotherly treatment upon their arrival. In the middle of drafting the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress rebuffed the emissaries’ attempts at negotiation. 5

Finally giving up on the idea of an American invasion of their home colony, the Nova Scotians returned north. Despite these let downs, and the line of neutrality it forced these would-be rebels to walk at home, they remained in the revolutionaries’ corner – even if only for moral support.6

So why, with all this revolutionary fervor, wasn’t Nova Scotia in the American Revolution? Like any other historical problem, there were many reasons. For one, the men now known as America’s founding fathers continued to rebuff the enthusiastic Nova Scotians for military, communications, and diplomatic reasons.

American privateers were another, far more damning, variable. In an attempt to disrupt trade between Nova Scotia and New England loyalists, these privateers launched their fleet in 1777. By 1782, they had taken 225 vessels either arriving in or leaving from Nova Scotia. A job well done. But, having ravaged the coastline of Nova Scotia and attacked otherwise peaceful towns for five years, these privateers caused Nova Scotians to grow resentful of the Americans and their rebellion.7

Clearly, though, many in Nova Scotia felt the need for some type of change; otherwise, why try to rebel? To the south, their American cousins filled this need by officially obtaining the political freedom they had long felt through the creation of their own state. As John Adams put it: “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was not part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people.”8 Unable to join in on the fun, what were the Nova Scotians to do? Cue Henry Alline. 

An itinerant preacher born in Rhode Island whose family moved to Nova Scotia when he was still a child, Alline, technically, had no formal eduction. This lack of training led to a theology that resembled “a combination of ‘Calvinism, Antinomianism, and Enthusiasm.’”9 Beginning in 1776, Alline roamed from town to town, slowly connecting the disparate, small, and disjointed settlements that dotted the Nova Scotia countryside. As one eye witness recounted in the town of Yarmouth:

…he preached much in the night as well as in the day time. And a considerable number were religiously impressed and became very zealous and fervent. With much zeal and confidence, they asserted that he was sent of God, and that his works were a full proof and evidence of it.10

Alline was a key player in a religious movement now called the “Great Awakening.” By the time the British surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, the Great Awakening had spread across Nova Scotia – giving this province a common cultural identity around which to rally. No longer Yankees, they were now, officially, Nova Scoatians.11

Resources on Nova Scotia in the American Revolution:

  1. “The Great Awakening,” let.rug.nl
  2. John Hanc, “When Nova Scotia Almost Joined the American Revolution,” smithsonanmag.com
  3. George A. Rawlyk, “The American Revolution and Nova Scotia Reconsidered,” dalspace.library.dal.ca
  4. Hanc, “When Nova Scotia Almost Joined the American Revolution,” smithsonanmag.com
  5. Ibid
  6. Rawlyk, “The American Revolution and Nova Scotia Reconsidered,” dalspace.library.dal.ca
  7. Ibid
  8. Jeremy Anderberg, “The Best John Adams Quotes,” artofmanliness.com
  9. Rawlyk, “The American Revolution and Nova Scotia Reconsidered,” dalspace.library.dal.ca
  10. “The Great Awakening,” let.rug.nl
  11. Rawlyk, “The American Revolution and Nova Scotia Reconsidered,” dalspace.library.dal.ca