Although the Vikings may have visited the shores near Yarmouth around 1000 AD, the first positive evidence of a European presence in the area was Champlain’s arrival in 1604 when he names Cape Forchu and explored the harbour. It is probable that some settlement was made in the surrounding countryside by the Micmacs and Acadians but 1761 is generally regarded as the date of the founding of the town.
It was in 1761 and the following few years that the Yarmouth area was settled by New Englanders from Massachusetts. They were enticed here by the offer of free land grants by a government which wished to populate the Nova Scotian mainland with people who would be loyal to the Crown. Essentially, they were to fill up the lands left vacant by the expelled Acadians.
With the exception of one family which set up a mill at Cape Forchu Falls (now Milton), the early settlers made their homestead at Chebogue. As the population grew through the migration of more New Englanders, many being relatives and friends of the first settlers, settlement moved steadily northward, through Kelly’s Cove, Sand Beach to Church Hill and Yarmouth.
Whereas the New England settlers in the Annapolis Valley turned to the soil to make a living, the rocky nature of the Yarmouth area forced local people to look elsewhere for a livelihood. The sea filled the gap - and more. It provided fish as well as a highway to transport the fish to markets. The forest at the settlers’ backs provided other trade goods in the form of lumber as well as the materials with which to build their vessels.
Being from Massachusetts, it was only natural that the early inhabitants should trade with Boston for the manufactured goods they required. Gradually, this trade grew to include the West Indies, Saint John and Halifax. Typical cargoes were wood or salt fish to the West Indies, sugar, rum, molasses or salt fish from the West Indies to Boston or Saint John then home with manufactured goods.
As the skills of shipbuilding, navigation and business increased, so did the size of Yarmouth’s fleet, and, as the fleet grew, so did the number of ports the ships and their Yarmouth masters visited. Yarmouth became known throughout the shipping world. Indeed, in 1879, when Yarmouth reached its peak as a ship-owning port, the town was the second largest port of registry in Canada in terms of tonnage (Saint John was the leader). This was at a time when Canada was the fourth leading maritime nation in the world (behind Great Britain, the United States, and Norway).
The 1870’s and 80’s were times of great prosperity and growth for Yarmouth. Ambitious public buildings, such as churches and schools, were built while industries and businesses bloomed. Cultural life and recreation were not forgotten. There were literary societies, musical and theatrical groups and sports organizations. The wealth accumulated by Yarmouth’s ship-owning businessmen and seafarers is still in evidence today in the form of large elaborate houses and buildings both in the residential areas of town and along the main streets.
The shipping industry gave rise, directly and indirectly, to a number of businesses and industries, some of which are still in operation. Included here were shipyards, boatshops, blockmaking shops and all the other segment industries of shipbuilding, chandlers and suppliers, repair facilities, shipsmiths and foundries. The foundries, which were initially established to provide cast iron fittings for ships, launched out into the production of many items including stoves and kitchen ranges. One foundry, the Burrill-Johnson Iron Co., even produced complicated marine engines, sometimes the complete vessel, and later on, shells for wartime use.
As the sailing vessel bowed out to steamers, Yarmouth businessmen reinvested their money. A major industry was established in the Yarmouth Duck and Cotton Co. Dominion Textiles, the descendant of that company, became a mainstay of Yarmouth’s industry for many years.
Although greatly overshadowed by the glories of the square-riggers, Yarmouth’s fishing vessels and the fishing industry itself have always formed the backbone to Yarmouth’s prosperity. Today, the industry is still of great importance.
Another of today’s major industries, the tourist industry, began with the creation of several steamship lines which operated vessels between Yarmouth and Boston. Freight, including blueberries and fish, was carried along with passengers. With the development of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, a fast service between Halifax and Boston or New York, was established. Yarmouth acted as the changeover location and became known as the "Gateway to Nova Scotia." To cope with the increased travelling public, the Grand Hotel was established; so too were the two vacation hotels of Markland and Bayview across the harbour.
Yarmouth contributed to the war efforts in both the Great War and World War II by supplying manpower and, during the latter, an active coastal command air base as well as training bases for army, air force and fleet air army. Today’s community has benefited from the many "wartime lads" who stayed in or returned to Yarmouth to make it their home.
Many post-war changes have taken place including a new ferry terminal, new public wharves and modernized fish processing plants. As well, there has been a remarkable growth in institutions serving the town and environs, notably a large regional hospital, new public schools, a public library, two museums, an arts centre, and federal and provincial offices, all of which have had an impact on the economic activity and physical appearance of the town and on the lifestyles of Yarmouthians.
The seal of Yarmouth, developed for the town’s incorporation in 1891, can sum up this capsule history. It depicts a full-rigged sailing vessel passing the Yarmouth light. Above this is the motto "Progress."
With credit to Eric Ruff