When we compare it with rivers such as the mighty St. Lawrence and even the nearby Annapolis, the Cornwallis pales in significance. However, rising in the heart of the Annapolis Valley and meandering at a leisurely pace to the Minas Basin, the partly tidal Cornwallis provides drainage and irrigation for some of the best farm land in the province. And there was a time when the Cornwallis was of historical significance.
It was the Cornwallis that in the 1680s attracted Acadians from Port Royal when they decided to establish a settlement in this region. Along with Grand Pre and Canard, the tidal section of the Cornwallis around New Minas was settled, the Acadians most likely attracted by the possibility of dykeing the land upriver. In that time the river was called Riviere St. Antoine, a name the Acadians later changed to Riviere des Habitation.
Snuggled along the south bank of the Cornwallis, Kentville undoubtedly owes its existence to a convenient ford on the river, a ford first used by natives and later the Acadians and Planters. Without stretching the imagination much, it’s possible to establish a link between the Acadian settlement on the Cornwallis in New Minas and the village’s current status as a major commercial center. Travelling upriver, we find that the settlement and growth of Coldbrook, Cambridge, Waterville and Berwick are solidly linked with the nearby Cornwallis. The same can be said of Port Williams downstream, the first ferries and early bridges on the Cornwallis undoubtedly being a factor in its development.
Some of the first mills in this area were established on the Cornwallis River and its tributaries. When the railroad came to this area, the tracks for the most part were laid beside the Cornwallis, most likely because the natives, the Acadians and later settlers established trails parallel to the river.
Any history written of this area would be incomplete without reference to the influence the Cornwallis had on colonisation and the patterns of commercial growth. Arthur W. H. Eaton recognised this when preparing his history of Kings County. In the chapter on the Acadians, Eaton has numerous references to the settlements on and near the Cornwallis, recognising that the river influenced settlement here. While you won’t find it in the index, Eaton has numerous references to the Cornwallis River throughout his history.
For several years I’ve been gathering information on the Cornwallis River with the hopes of one day of writing a short history commencing with the Acadians. Other than brief mentions here and there by various writers – Esther Clark Wright in Blomidon Rose, for example – no serious research has been done on the river. I hope to rectify this and perhaps publish my research. Once completed, the history will be posted on my website.
The general plan is to scour all available literature, such as the various community histories, to collect every mention of the Cornwallis. Hopefully this research will result in a comprehensive history of the river over at least a 300 year period. This work is ongoing and readers who may have historical information relating to the Cornwallis, no matter how trivial it may seem, are asked to consider contributing it. All contributions to the history will be acknowledged in the completed work.