The peninsula of Nova Scotia was a continual source of conflict between France and Britain from the establishment of its first settlement by France at Port Royal (1605) until France was driven completely from North America in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) had forced France from Acadia, but the region was ill defined, and the British only substantively occupied the peninsula of Nova Scotia. The French were allowed to retain the almost uninhabited Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), where they constructed the fortress of Louisbourg. In 1749, British settlers established Halifax, which became the capital. Fleeing European persecution, French, German, and Swiss Protestants immigrated to Nova Scotia in the early 1750s. In 1755, British colonial troops began to drive out Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to the British Crown.
Following the Seven Years’ War, Britain hoped to spur settlement in the Maritime Provinces—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Isle St. John (Prince Edward Island)— Newfoundland, and Quebec, both to offset the predominant French population and to weaken the more independent colonies to the south. By issuing the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, Britain believed that settlers would flock northward. Nova Scotia’s population did grow, to 13,500 by 1767, but few of the immigrants came from the thirteen colonies. With its rugged terrain and proximity to the sea, the province became the favored destination for destitute Scottish Highlanders, who began arriving in 1773. By the early 19th century, eastern Nova Scotia had taken on a distinctly Scottish character (see Scottish immigration).
The most dramatic demographic change came with the resettling of some 35,000 United Empire Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution in 1783 (see American Revolution and immigration). Almost all were Americanborn civilians of the lower and middle classes, and most had lived in New York and Pennsylvania. In return for their loyalty, they were evacuated at government expense to Nova Scotia and given land and provisions. Fearing friction between these newcomers and native Nova Scotians, the British government hoped to resettle them along the sparsely populated St. John River valley of New Brunswick, but about 19,000 remained and founded on the rocky southeastern coast Shelburne, making it almost instantly the largest city in British North America. Within three years, however, the town was deserted. Most of the Loyalists were eventually resettled on the eastern end of the peninsula and in the valleys behind Annapolis Royal. Loyalist settlements at Sydney and Baddeck on Cape Breton led to Cape Breton’s brief existence as a separate colony (1784–1820). Among the Loyalists were 3,000 free blacks, many of whom had been granted freedom under a British policy encouraging slaves to abandon their masters during the war. Most were settled around Shelburne and Birchtown. Encountering prejudice and difficult farming conditions, almost 1,200 decided to emigrate, leaving Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792.
With Canadian weaknesses exposed during the War of 1812 (1812–15), the British government once again encouraged immigration, prompting a steady stream of Scottish immigrants between 1815 and 1850. Large numbers of Irish also immigrated after the potato blight of 1845. In 1848, Nova Scotia became the first completely self-governing colony in the British Empire. The economy remained strong into the 1860s, based on the shipbuilding and timber industries, but began to decline with the advent of steamships. In 1867, Nova Scotia became a charter province of the newly confederated Canada, along with New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec.