The 'West River of Pictou' is an area defined by the watershed of the West River in Pictou County. The valley of the West River was part of Mi'kma'ki, the home of the Mi'kmaw Nation, and a place where the Mi'kmaq, a nomadic people, made camps from time to time. Wakumutkook (spelled Waqm-tkuk* in the Smith-Francis orthography), which translates to 'Clear Water' in English, was the Mi'kmaw name for West River (Patterson, 1877: 32).
With the start of settlement in the eighteenth century, there was initially only limited infrastructure. It was not until the 1830s that the market centre, Durham, developed its own name, and not until mid-century that other villages and small communities started to form themselves with identities separate from the larger West River area.
The Durham community, a small rural village on the West River some 10 km upstream from Pictou Town, was once one of the intellectual cross-roads of Nova Scotia, and the primary market centre within the West River region. The community only obtained the name 'Durham' sometime after 1838. The Rev. John Peter MacPhie indicates that "Durham did not receive its present name until the time of the late Lord Durham in Canada. The name was the suggestion of the late William Graham, merchant, and was confirmed at a public meeting held for the purpose. The late Miss Margaret Cameron of Durham distinctly remembered the meeting, and that it was on Mr. Graham's motion that the name Durham was chosen" (MacPhie, 1914: 21).
Early settlement was promoted by the 'Philadelphia Company' with "the families of half a dozen intending settlers" (1914: 1) arriving on the ship 'Betsey' in 1767 (Beer, 1967: 22-24). Additional immigrants arrived with the ship 'Hector' in 1773, including Alexander Cameron, Hugh Fraser, George McConnell, Angus MacKenzie, William MacLellan, and Alexander McLeod (Patterson, 1887: 450-456). A firm establishment, however, was made in 1776 with a wave of emigrants from the Dumfries & Galloway region of Scotland, most notably Anthony MacLellan who donated the land for the Durham cemetery (MacPhie, 1914: 18). Many of these early settlers were Secessionist Presbyterians, evangelicals dissenting from the established Church of Scotland (Kirk). "To Durham was early moved the first Presbyterian Church, located originally at Loch Broom" (MacPhie, 1914: 21-22). By the end of the nineteenth century, Durham was
home to an important Post office, an inn with an enviable reputation for hospitality, several general stores, a shoe shop, tinsmith and blacksmith shops, a Grammar School and two presbyterian churches, one on either side of the West River ... Co1lege Road runs down the east side of the river past more of the farming land for which the West River valley has long been renowned. Col1ege Road is the only reminder that for a space of ten years Durham was the home of the West River Seminary and Theological Hall. (MacKenzie, 1992; cf. 1998)
It is only when we pull on the thread which MacKenzie has given us about the Seminary and Theological Hall that we can understand Durham's historical place. It is a thread that leads to the establishment of Dalhousie University in Halifax, and a central role for the Scottish Presbyterians in the intellectual life of the province.
One of the early leaders in the community was James Drummond MacGregor, who founded the Presbyterian Church in Pictou County, establishing the West River Congregation in Durham during the period 1786 to 1801 (Buggey, 2015). MacGregor was naturally influenced by his Scottish education, and Alan Wilson has recently argued that MacGregor was the "Father of the Scottish Enlightenment in Nova Scotia", a poet and preacher who "established the Pictou Academy, campaigned against slavery [see, particularly, Letter to a Clergyman], promoted scientific education, industry, agriculture, the Gaelic language, and Scottish culture" (Wilson, 2015).
As the settlers increased, they were desirous of having an ordained minister among them. The nearest pastor was at Truro, forty miles away, where they sometimes took their children to be baptized by the Rev. Daniel Cock, or Rev. Smith. So, after serious consideration and discussion, a long document was prepared, dated November 8, 1784, and signed by the following: Robert Patterson, John Patterson, Robert Marshall, William Smith, and Donald MacKay. This document was dispatched to Scotland, and studied and debated by the General Associate Synod of Scotland, also known as Anti-burger. James MacGregor, still in university, was, after consideration and following his graduation, ordained and dispatched for service in Pictou County. (Graham, 1998)
The Rev. George Patterson has noted that a second minister, the Rev. Duncan Ross, joined James MacGregor in 1795, and the two ministered to the whole of Pictou county for the next six years. At that time,
it was agreed to divide the congregation into three, the East River, with Merigomish, under the charge of Dr. McGregor; the West River, with Middle River and Rogers Hill, under Mr. Ross; and the Harbour and Fishers Grant to form a third, to be supplied by the ministers of the other congregations, till they should obtain one of their own. This arrangement continued till the arrival of Dr. McCulloch. (1877: 171)
Patterson didn't record the death of the Rev. Duncan Ross, nor did he write about Duncan's son, the Rev. James Ross (1811-1886), but Patterson's own son, Judge George Patterson, filled this gap by writing an article, "The Second Principal of Dalhousie College", published in his Studies in Nova Scotia History. James studied at the Pictou Academy under Dr. Thomas MacCulloch (famous for his anti-papist tracts by then) and received his teaching licence. James went on to teach school at the Grammar School in Sackville, N.B., and it was from there that he responded to a call from Durham Presbyterian Church following the death of his father, and became ordained in 1835. At that time, the congregation numbered about 175 families, and Allan Dunlop (1982) notes that James was "paid £150 a year in cash and produce" and operated, in addition, a large farm of his own. From this modest beginning, Ross initiated a move which established a seminary and Theological Hall in Durham.
With the Reverend William McCulloch, son of Thomas McCulloch, Ross laid the strategy which led to the founding of a [Dissenting] Presbyterian theological seminary at West River for the training of a local ministry. On 22 July 1846, two years before the seminary was officially opened, Ross was elected professor of biblical literature, and in July 1848 he accepted the additional post of professor of philosophy. The seminary, under the auspices of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia and housed in the ill-ventilated Temperance Hall above the schoolhouse in West River, received its first 12 students on 9 Nov. 1848. (Dunlop, 1982)
From these beginnings, there flows a development trajectory of some consequence to the province. With the founding of the Seminary and Theological Hall in Durham, the Rev. James Ross was able to establish Durham as the intellectual centre of Presbyterianism in Pictou county ("the ecclesiastical and educational centre" MacPhie, 1914: 20). In order to see how this became significant for Dalhousie University and Scottish Enlightenment culture in Nova Scotia, it is necessary to understand Dalhousie's position (for a discussion of the first founding of Dalhousie and the role of Thomas MacCulloch, see Buggey and Davies, 2015; and McCulloch, 1920). Dalhousie had initially been founded in 1838 and was able to continue until 1845, but was then dormant for almost twenty years. It was dormant for a reason: the Roman Catholics had St. Francis Xavier College in Antigonish and Saint Mary's College in Halifax, the Anglicans had King's College in Windsor, the Methodists had Mount Allison College in Sackville (N.B.), and the Baptists had Acadia College in Wolfville. The only market possible for Dalhousie was the Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian stronghold was Pictou county.
Ross taught at the seminary until 1858 at a salary of £175 per year, part of which was paid by a bequest from his mother-in-law’s estate. To lighten his burden, Ross’s congregation in West River was halved in 1848, and he dissolved his pastoral connections in 1851. The inadequate quarters of the seminary led to a fierce battle over the choice of a new location until 1856 when Truro was selected as the site. This controversy and a bitter rupture within his former congregation contributed to a breakdown of Ross’s health in 1857, but when the seminary opened in its incomplete building in Truro on 1 Sept. 1858 he was able to resume teaching. (Dunlop, 1982)
With the union of the Dissenting Presbyterians in Nova Scotia in 1860, the stage was set for greater institutionalization. The newly formed Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces amalgamated their Seminaries in Halifax, and in concert with the Church of Scotland in Nova Scotia (the Kirk), "a resolution was come to by the Union Colleges to attempt its [Dalhousie's] rehabilitation" (Rattray, 1880: 838). The Rev. George Munro Grant - a graduate of the West River Seminary under Ross - played a key role: "Grant whose congregation included William Young, the chairman of the board of governors of Dalhousie since 1848, made good use of his old connections at the West River seminary in helping along the negotiations which resulted in a new university act in 1863. The two churches endowed chairs and the Rev. James Ross transferred his classes from his seminary, now based at Truro, to Dalhousie and became its president" (Mack, 2015).
Durham, in short, was the intellectual base from which James Ross and the Presbyterians established Dalhousie University as the centre for Scottish Enlightenment culture during the rest of the nineteenth century.
And so it goes. We are extending this history with a geo-genealogy of the residents of the village, beginning with the 1881 census. This work is being led by the Durham Heritage Society. If you would like a notification when this geo-genealogy becomes available for viewing, drop us a note with your request.
- Beer, Henry R. (1967). The Pictou Plantation: 1767. Corner Brook, NL.
- Buggey, Susan. (2015). "MacGregor, James Drummond." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 6. University of Toronto/Université Laval.
- Buggey, Susan and Gwendolyn Davies. (2015). "McCulloch, Thomas." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 7. University of Toronto/Université Laval.
- Dunlop, Allan C. (1982). "Ross, James (1811-86)." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 11. University of Toronto/Université Laval.
- Graham, Stanley J. (1998). Ministers of the Durham Presbyterian Church: West River, Pictou County, Nova Scotia, 1801-1998. Working Paper, Grey Box Collection, Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library.
- Mack, D. B. (2015). "Grant, George Monro." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 13. University of Toronto/Université Laval.
- MacKenzie, Sheldon. (1992). The West River Seminary, 1848-1858. Canadian Society of Presbyterian History Papers: Vol. 1992, 1-20.
- MacKenzie, Sheldon. (1998). Gathered by the River : The Story of the West River Seminary and Theological Hall, 1848-1858. Winnipeg: Hignell Book Printing.
- MacPhie, Rev. John Peter. (1914). Pictonians at Home and Abroad: Sketches of Professional Men and Women of Pictou County - Its History and Institutions. Boston: Pinkham Press.
- McCulloch, William. (1920). Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D.: Pictou," Isabella W. McCulloch and Jean W. McCulloch (eds.). Truro, N.S.
- Patterson, Judge George. (1940). Studies in Nova Scotia History. Halifax: The Imperial Publishing Co.
- Patterson, Rev. George. (1877). A History of the County of Pictou. Montreal: Dawson Brothers (Pictou: James McLean & Co.).
- Rattray, W. J. (1880). The Scot in British North America, Vol. III. Toronto: MacLear and Company.
- Wilson, Alan. (2015). Highland Shepherd: James MacGregor, Father of the Scottish Enlightenment in Nova Scotia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.