Shire town of Antigonish County.
The word Antigonish is of Micmac origin. According to Dr. Silas Rand it is derived from Nalegitkoonechk (Nalegitkoonech or Nalegitkunech), meaning "where branches are torn off." It is said that there the bears broken down branches to get the beech nuts. The earliest known use of the name which persists as Antigonish is in Nicholas Denys, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America which was published in 1672. In that book it appears as Articougnesche. On Jumeau's map of 1685 it is seen as Antigonieche and by 1755 it appeared in its present form Antigonish.
In 1784 Colonel Timothy Hierlihy and the other officers and men of the Nova Scotia Volunteers received a grant of twenty-one thousand six hundred acres on Antigonish Harbour, this was later known as the "Soldiers Grant." Colonel Timothy Hierlihy had served in the Prince of Wales Regiment during the American Revolution, recruited men for service in Independent Companies and in 1778 was sent to the Island of St. John (now Prince Edward Island) with the troops under his command being stationed at Charlottetown. In 1782 these troops were merged with the Nova Scotia Volunteers with Hierlihy as commanding officer.
The early settlement was at the entrance of Antigonish Harbour at what is called Town Point. Colonel Hierlihy named his projected town and township Dorchester in honor of Sir Guy Carleton, first Baron Dorchester, who had served as commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America during the latter part of the American Revolution. This town failed, like other attempts to make the formation of a village precede the cultivation of the land.
Some of the settlers discovered that the soil was more fertile at the head of the tide and so sold their land at the harbour and moved up the river. Others found that large trees grew on the intervale and on the hills and cut these to float down the streams to Antigonish Harbour. The Napoleonic wars caused a demand for timber in Great Britain, particularly from 1809 to 1819. A settlement called Antigonish Intervale began to develop slowly at the junction of the West and Wright's Rivers. Here Nathaniel Symonds opened a shop in 1804 and about 1806 he began to manufacture potash from the wood ashes of the trees being cleared along the intervale.
A post office was established in 1816 at "The Village", which as early as 1821 was called Antigonish. A telegraph office was opened in Antigonish on July 19, 1852, by the Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company and on August 11, 1852, telegraph communication was completed between Halifax and Sydney.
The Eastern Extension Railway was opened for traffic from New Glasgow to Antigonish in September, 1879, and from Antigonish to the station at Crittenden's Creek in December, 1880.
A telephone exchange was installed in 1888 which was purchased by the Nova Scotia Telephone Company in 1900.
In 1804 the Presbyterians organized a congregation at the home of Nathaniel Symonds at Antigonish, where they met until a small Church was erected on what became Church Street. Rev. James Munro was the first minister to the congregation numbering thirteen families. During the ministry of his successor, Rev. Thomas Trotter, the original log church was replaced in 1828 and the old building became Mr. Trotter's school and a third church which was constructed between 1861 and 1864 by Alexander MacDonald, Alexander Munroe and Joseph Crockett and had since been enlarged. In 1925 the congregation of St. James Church voted to enter into the fellowship of the United Church of Canada.
Although in the early days Antigonish was visited by Anglican clergymen from Guysborough, the first Anglican priest appointed permanently in the district was the Rev. Thomas Howland White, rector of Trinity parish which included Bayfield, Linwood and Antigonish. The land on which the present church stands was a gift of John Thomas Hill on November 4, 1834. The present St. Paul's Anglican Church was consecrated on September 4, 1903.
The first Roman Catholic chapel in the village of Antigonish was built in the year 1810 when Father Alexander MacDonald of Arisaig was the priest for the district. In 1811 it was cared for by Father Alexander McDonel, who resided at Arisaig as assistant to Father MacDonald, and made missionary visits to Antigonish. Bishop Plessis named the new mission St. Ninian's in 1812. The first resident pastor was Father Remi Gaulin who came in 1815. Father William Fraser (later Bishop Fraser) took charge of the parish of Antigonish in 1824 and replaced the chapel with a frame building which could accomodate a congregation of eight hundred. The cornerstone for the blue limestone structure with freestone trimmings was laid on June 29th, 1867, by Rev. Dr. John Cameron, V. G., and was completed in 1874. St. Ninians became the Cathedral church of the Diocese when the Bishop's seat was removed from Arichat to Antigonish in 1886 in the episcopacy of Bishop John Cameron.
St. Francis Xavier University was founded as a college in 1853 in temporary quarters at Arichat, Richmond County, but two years later was transferred to Antigonish. An engineering school was established in 1899 and the first science graduates were granted degrees in 1904. Mount St. Bernard College for women was affiliated in 1894 and St. Martha's School of Nursing in 1926.
An extension department was established in 1929 for work in adult education in the farming and fishing communities of eastern Nova Scotia. The influence of this adult education program has spread through the world, particularly to Asia, Africa, the Caribbean area and Latin America. The Coady International Institute provides training for both Canadian and foreign students in extension work and adult education. First wing of the new building was opened in 1961.
Xavier Junior College was established as an integral part of the University at Sydney in 1951 to serve the needs of industrial Cape Breton. The chapel of St. Francis Xavier University was opened and blessed by Bishop James Morrison, D. D. in 1948 and the Angus L. Macdonald Library (in memory of the late Premier of Nova Scotia) was officially opened on July 17, 1965,. A large percentage of those living in the town are employed by the University on a professional, administrative, clerical and maintenance level.
The congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha was founded in 1900 by the Rt. Rev. John Cameron, Bishop of Antigonish Diocese. Their motherhouse is named Bethany. From the management of the domestic work of St. Francis Xavier University the activities of the Sisters have been expanded to hospitals, orphanages, schools and social service extension work. In 1906 St. Martha's Hospital was opened at Antigonish and has a 180 bed capacity. The R. K. macDonald Guest Home for Senior Citizens was opened in 1958 in a fire-proof building.
Each summer Highland Games are held at Antigonish. The first Games were in 1863 being sponsored by the Highland Society which had been established on August 22, 1861 by Dr. Alexander McDonald, pioneer physician of Antigonish County.
The town of Antigonish was incorporated in 1889, the first mayor being Leonard C. Archibald, a prominent business man and Rupert Cunningham, town clerk. The commercial and industrial life of Antigonish depends mainly upon the surrounding farm area. It has a dairy, bakeries, machine shop, woodworking factory, contracting firms and a quarry and monument works as well as shops, banks and service industries. A weekly newspaper, The Casket, is published and there is a 10,000 watt radio station C.J.F.X. and a television outlet CFXV-TV.
The population in 1961 was 4,344.