The central settlement of this district was formally named Heatherton by an Act of the Nova Scotia Legislature in 1879, but it had been established many years before. A Roman Catholic church had been built in 1842, and a few years later, in 1867, a new church was started, perhaps because they needed something larger. Heatherton was established as a separate parish in 1875. "By 1898, the village contained three stores, one hotel, two sawmills, a cheese factory, and had a railway station on the Eastern Extension Railway to Cape Breton." 1
As the name of the "central place" of its district - and the way we are using it here - the Heatherton area encompasses a number of hamlets and rural areas around it. Bayfield, Summerside, Afton, Beauly, Glassburn, Black River, Black Avon, MacLellan Farm Road, New France, and Fraser's Grant. Fraser's Grant, perhaps the most historically significant location in the district, acquired its name from its first settlers, the five siblings of Bishop William Fraser: Colin, Thomas, John, David, and their sister, Jean (m. Donald Chisholm). Bishop Fraser emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1822, cajoled into coming by his siblings who had already emigrated here, but arriving with a deeper purpose to minister to his fellow Scots. He is reported to have been "profoundly learned, singulary affable, modest and unobtrusive, he never cared for human applause, nor dreaded any man's displeasure". 2 After being consecrated as Bishop in 1827, he made his residence in Antigonish, a few miles west of Heatherton and Fraser's Grant, and made his home there for the rest of his life. He remained there, among his people, despite being Bishop of Halifax for a period and enduring fierce criticism for not taking Halifax as his seat. This position suggests that the Bishop did not just take comfort from being among his countrymen, or from being able to minister in the Gaelic tongue, or from being near his kin, but, rather, from something more. It suggests that being embedded in the clan structures and "Old Catholicism" of the Scottish Highlands was something he needed to sustain himself in his life and his ministry.
In the same way that Durham & the West River of Pictou were overwhelmingly Presbyterian, Heatherton and its surrounds were overwhelmingly Catholic. In fact, the trust of Bishop Fraser in the "Strathglass" culture of Heatherton was borne out much later after his death. Heatherton and her sister communities of St. Andrews and Merland became the centre of determined Catholic agitation in the later part of the 19th century and the early 20th century - agitation which gave birth to a number of the key leaders of the Antigonish Movement. And, through that leadership, changed the course of Nova Scotia history. Heatherton played a role here on the world stage.
While the 1881 census shows 88% of Heatherton residents having Catholic affiliations, other denominations were represented. Bayfield was home to Saint Mary the Virgin Anglican Church and there were small Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist communities which co-existed comfortably. In terms of ethnicity, the district was considerably more mixed than might be expected from the discussion of the Fraser influence above. While 46% percent of the population was "Scots", a further 42% of the population was of "French" extraction. Think of New France, the area immediately adjacent to Fraser's Grant. It was settled by French-speaking families, with names such as Bonvie, Boudrot, Delorey, Gigneau, Melanson, and Perault. The "Irish" and "English", present even in Eastern Nova Scotia, had about 5% each of the population, and other ethnicities included "Indian", "African", "German", and "Dutch". 3
Of the 627 people with active occupations at that time - meaning active in the market - the overwhelming number - two-thirds - were involved in farming. However, the range of trade and commercial occupations among the other third was still quite broad: 7 basket makers, 8 blacksmiths, 9 coopers, 2 dressmakers, 4 seamstresses, 1 milliner, 3 shoemakers, 1 tailor, 8 carpenters, 3 masons, 4 clergyman, 9 teachers, 2 school mistresses, 17 in sea-faring occupations, 30 servants, and so on. Given the distance one could travel in an hour at that time, Heatherton proper was the "central place" for a district which was largely self-sufficient.
This is the beginning of a story about the Heatherton District and its place in history.
We are deepening this history with a geo-genealogy of the residents of the village, beginning with the 1881 census. This work is being led by the Heatherton Development, Culture & Wellness Assocation. Here is the link to the programming site for Heatherton, Antigonish Co..
1. Ferguson, Charles Bruce. (1967). Place-Names and Places of Nova Scotia. Halifax: Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
2. Johnston, A. A. (1994). Antigonish Diocese Priests and Bishops, 1786-1925. Antigonish: the Casket Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd.
3. The names of the various ethnicities used here are those employed by the census enumerators in 1881.