In 1785, Shelburne was a booming Loyalist town of around 10,000 people. By 1816, the population had decreased to only 374 and much of the town was a deserted ruin. It is the purpose of this paper to briefly examine the reasons behind Shelburne's sudden decline.
Traditionaly historians have presented several main reasons for the failure of the Loyalist "experiment" at Shelburne: inadequate planning and the difficulties of the provincial government in meeting the needs of the immigrants, a lack of strong leadership and consequent political in-fighting, a largely urban population unsuited to a frontier environment, and the inability of the limited resource base to support such a large number of people. To these main causes may be added social problems such as a high crime rate and inter-ethnic conflict. We shall examine each of the factors in turn in an attempt to explain Shelburne's decline.
Shelburne had its origin among the Loyalists of New York city when, in the spring of 1782, a group of 120 heads of families met to organize a settlement in the "land of hope", Nova Scotia. They were drawn from all walks of life and several states. The called themselves the Port Roseway Associates after the area in which they hoped to settle. The government of Nova Scotia promised them free land and other requirements for establishing a settlement. Therefore, on April 27, 1783, 1,512 persons embarked for the journey to Port Roseway and a new life.
The initial Loyalist vision for Shelburne was of a port to replace Boston as the hub in the carrying trade between Britain and the West Indies. The city would be supported by an agricultural hinterland and be connected by a network of roads with the other centers in the province. Unfortunately for the Loyalists, the lack of suitable farmland and the fact that the harbour was at least partially frozen over in winter seemed to escape the notice of the members of the Association first sent to examine the suitability of the site.
Poor planning was certainly not confined to the Loyalist side; however. Because of poor communication or simple negligence, no attempt had been made to clear or even survey any of the land in advance of the arrival of the first group of Loyalists. Consequently, there were both delays and irregularities in granting land. Substantial grants had been made to land speculators, settlers who were not actually Loyalists, and members of the government and other prominent Nova Scotians who wanted them "just in case Shelburne became the capital of the province" but who had no intention of settling there. All this occurred "while others were still waiting for confirmation even of meager acres of farm land.
There was also debate over who among the Loyalists should receive grants of land. The Port Roseway Associates argued that they alone were entitled to lots of land but they were no longer the only group, nor even the majority, in the settlement. In the Autumn of 1783, approximately 5,000 new settlers arrived and were forced to spend the winter aboard the transports they arrived on, owing to the scarcity of available, surveyed land in the town. The authorities were completely unprepared to deal with this vast influx of new immigrants.
By the Spring of 1784, most of the town lost had been surveyed and granted but little progress had been made on the farm lots in the outlying areas. Until such time as this was done, the settlers were not able to begin farming and remained dependent upon government's monthly distribution of rations.
Despite these problems, some of the Loyalists retained their idealist expectations and dreams for Shelburne. As one of them described the town to "a friend in New York":
The prospects of happiness for a set of Loyal people are so many... The situation is abundantly provided by nature with one of the finest harbours on the continent of America, and the soil is by far the most preferable of any in the Province...
Another major problem was the overall lack of leadership in the settlement. The Associates had been organised into sixteen companies before leaving New York but the captains had little more than nominal leadership and were "unfitted for anything approaching permanent control of the situation".
There was also conflict between the British authorities, in the person of Benjamin Marston, first assistant and later chief surveyor, and the Associates. He complained that their "cursed, republican, town-meeting spirit has been the ruin of us already". No decision could be made as to the allocation of land or even of the site of the town without much debate and discussion.
Much jealously and political conflict developed between the early (pre-Revolutionary War) settlers and the Loyalists as well as among the Loyalists themselves. This is particularly evident in the Provincial Assembly election of 1784 when the community split into two factions -- the Blues and the Greens. These divisions can be explained by the fact that the Loyalists were of all social strata from "the losers of vast estates to penniless city dwellers" and that they had little in common other than Loyalty to the British Crown.
Even more important than the lack of leadership was the fact that most of the settlers were not prepared for life on a frontier environment. Benjamin Marston described the settlers as:
A collection of characters very unfit for the business they have undertaken. Barbers, Tailors, Shoemakers, and all kinds of mechanics bred and used to live in great towns, they are injured to habits very unfit for undertakings which require hardiness, resolution, industry, and patience.
The settlers had little or no experience in farming and this, combined with the difficulties in obtaining a land grant and generally poor agricultural conditions, left most people dependent on the rations provided by the British government -- the "King's Bounty".
Shelburne simply had "too many merchants, traders, and service people, and too little [agricultural] hinterland supplying the markets and produce to support... the trading center ". The agrarian population base was too small to support such a large class of specialists.
Related to this issue of an overly-specialised population is the matter of the limited resource base. The soil was rocky and no rich so that "it required great labour to make it produce crops". There was also a shortage of livestock in the settlement which was intensified by the proclamation of 1786 which prohibited trade with the United States -- the source of most of the cattle imported, the lack of provincial roads making any other source impractical.
The fishery was also less successful than was expected due to a number of factors. There were no boats available of sufficient size to allow the fishermen to venture to the open sea. Consequently, they were confined to the inshore area where the fishing was poorer. The location of the town was also a factor as it was at least ten miles to the mouth of the harbour and even further to the fishing grounds.
There was also competition from the New England fishermen and difficulties with "the authorities at Halifax who levied heavy duties on all vessels entering and leaving Shelburne harbour -- even on small boats bringing farm produce to the settlement".
While not generally cited as significant causes leading to the decline of Shelburne, it is our contention that social problems are as equally important as the other reasons cited above.
Chief among these was the high crime rate. This is due to a number of factors. The later groups of non-Association immigrants included:
Many civilians and followers of a somewhat undesirable type, prone to grumbling and mischief, and to accept as much as possible for a minimum of labour in return.
This problem was exasperated by the ready availability of alcohol in the community. The numbers of taverns and "Dram Shops" in Shelburne was truly astounding. By April 1787, the problem was so bad that the Grand Inquest recommended that "no Licenses for the sale of liquor in the future be granted". Rum was readily available at three to four shillings per gallon "and was accountable for much of the crime... in evidence during the early years of the settlement".
The fact that Shelburne did not receive its own Sessions court until March 30, 1784 made it virtually impossible to maintain order (the nearest court was a Liverpool, 50 miles distant and accessible only by water). Once established, the Court of Sessions was "kept busy dealing with the cases of crime -- of varying degree and quality -- which soon became manifest in the new town".
Another significant problem in the community was racial violence. In July, 1784, a group of disbanded soldiers in the town attacked the Black settlers, forcing them to flee to the outlying, and predominantly Black, settlement of Birchtown. The rioters then went after Benjamin Marston who was forced to flee to Halifax.
Various reasons have been advanced to explain the cause of this riot including frustration over the lack of available land and the fact that the Blacks were willing to work for a cheaper wage than the soldiers. The result is the same, however, increasing tension and internal strife in the town and a further loss of population when many of the Black Loyalists emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792.
Therefore the decline of Shelburne can be attributed to a number of factors both external and internal. Externally, there was a poor geographic location unsuited to either agriculture or fisheries. The lack of an ice-free harbour made Shelburne unsuitable as a naval base or as a major trading port -- functions already performed by the more established town of Halifax.
Internal factors included a population that was both too large for the resource base and unprepared for the harsh realities of frontier life. A lack of leadership and internal political and racial conflict drew resources from more productive activities.
Shelburne provides a good example of the Great Expectations followed by disappointments that characterised much of the Loyalist settlement in Nova Scotia. Its decline was not due to any one, single factor but rather to a number of causes. As eloquently expressed by one author:
Built in the wilderness upon the twin foundations of hope and loyalty, the fourth largest city in North America could not hope to live up to the dreams of its founders amidst its isolation, its local conflicts and frustrations, its faltering economic bases and its domination by the well-established rival, Halifax.
Last Modified: November 11, 2004