Halifax was founded in 1749 as Nova Scotia’s capital, but within a year desertion and disease had drastically thinned the initial population of the predominantly English community. The early townspeople however, included some steady, industrious Germans and Swiss whose dependability impressed the local officials. They persuaded the home government in London to recruit replacement settlers like them, from various German states and principalities along the Rhine River in western Europe.
The British promised these new immigrants free land, a year’s supply of food, tools and implements necessary to till the soil, and some building materials. If they could not pay their passage, they were still welcome to come, but after their arrival would be required to labour on public works such as forts and roads until they redeemed their debt.
As a result, some 2,700 new settlers arrived in Halifax between 1750-52, coming mostly from the Palatinate, Württemberg, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Switzerland and Montbéliard – a small principality near the French border with Switzerland. The new arrivals spoke German, except those from Switzerland and Montbéliard, who spoke French. Since religion and political allegiance were often linked in those days, the immigrants were almost all Protestants, and during their early years in Nova Scotia were known collectively as ‘the Foreign Protestants’ to distinguish them from the Acadian French.
In 1753, about half of them were taken from Halifax by boat to settle a new planned community called Lunenburg, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. There was a period of adjustment as land was cleared, homes were built, crops were planted, and the settlers learned to fish as well as farm, but within a generation they were self-sufficient.
To this day, the descendants of these early Foreign Protestants form the predominant cultural group in Lunenburg County. They may identify themselves now as being ‘German’ or ‘Dutch’, but names such as Zwicker and Langille, Oxner and Moser are numerous, and are regarded as solid old Nova Scotia surnames.
Before long, some of the Lunenburg settlers pulled up stakes and moved elsewhere in the province. In the late 1700s, for example, some went east to St. Margaret’s Bay, where the name ‘French Village’ reminds us that its first settlers included Montbéliard families with names like Boutilier and Dauphinee.
Others from Montbéliard, including the Mattatall, Bigney, Tattrie and Mingo families, went overland to the Northumberland Strait where they settled in Tatamagouche and River John, and where they later called themselves ‘Swiss’.
In the early 1800s, various German-speaking families from Halifax and Lunenburg migrated along the province’s Eastern Shore, following the fisheries. We find Himmelmans and Romkeys at Eastern Passage, Nieforths at Three Fathom Harbour, Bayers at Petpeswick, Hartlings at Port Dufferin, and Rudolphs at Marie Joseph and Liscomb.
The Foreign Protestants of the 1750s were not the only German-speaking immigrants to Nova Scotia in the early days. At the end of the American Revolution, several dozen Hessian soldiers recruited as auxiliary troops for service in North America remained behind to settle and establish families in the province, mostly near Annapolis. Names such as Baker, Stephens, Lintlop, Vieth and Aulenbach form part of this group. Some of the American Loyalists (‘Tories’) coming to Nova Scotia as political refugees after 1783 were also of German origin.
Other German-speaking immigrants were occasionally added to the population over the years, some as veterans of various wars in the 18th and early 19th centuries, others drawn here by a gold rush in the 1860s. One prominent arrival in search of gold was Francis Ellershausen who gave his name to Ellershouse in Hants County, where he built homes for 32 immigrant German families.
The best place to experience the legacy of the Foreign Protestants in Nova Scotia today is the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Lunenburg. The old town displays massive and sometimes elaborate wooden houses, many with an architectural overhang – the characteristic ‘Lunenburg bump’ – above the main entrance. Sauerkraut, often with caraway seeds, and ‘home’ or Lunenburg pudding (sausage) are tasty reminders of a German menu that crossed the ocean to Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
Occasionally you may also hear older Lunenburgers still use a German word or phrase in conversation – linguistic reminders that many families there still spoke German at home, into the early decades of the last century.