Two Algonquian peoples, the Abnaki and the Micmac, inhabited the area before Europeans arrived. John Cabot may have landed (1497) on the tip of Cape Breton Island; European fishermen were already making regular stops during their yearly expeditions. An unsuccessful French settlement was made in 1605 at Port-Royal (now Annapolis Royal); in 1610 the French succeeded at the same site. For the next century and a half France and England bitterly contested rights to Acadia, which included present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In 1621, Sir William Alexander obtained a patent from James I for the colonization of Acadia. Control alternated between France and England through several wars and treaties.
Under the Peace of Utrecht (1713–14), the Nova Scotia peninsula was awarded to England, although Cape Breton Island was retained by the French. Hostilities were renewed in 1744. During the French and Indian War (1755–63), a tragic incident was the expulsion of the French Acadians—described by Longfellow in Evangeline. The Treaty of Paris (1763) gave nearly all of what remained of French North America to England. Prince Edward Island, joined to Nova Scotia in 1763, became separate in 1769. During this period Nova Scotia pioneered in Canadian history with the first newspaper (Halifax Gazette, 1752), the first printing press (1751), and the first university (King's College, Windsor, 1788–89).
With the influx (from 1783) of United Empire Loyalists leaving the American colonies, lingering sentiment in favor of joining the new United States was overwhelmed, and New Brunswick and Cape Breton became (1784) separate colonies. Cape Breton rejoined Nova Scotia in 1820. During the early 19th cent. thousands of Scots and Irish arrived. Under Joseph Howe, Nova Scotia became the first colony to achieve (1848) responsible (or cabinet) government. It acceded to the Canadian confederation as one of four original members in 1867 after considerable difficulty over economic arrangements. Nova Scotia has recently struggled to stabilize an economy damaged by decline in the mining and steel industries. Federal programs have been undertaken to develop secondary industries and to locate offshore oil or natural-gas deposits, and natural-gas production in the Cape Sable area, with pipeline transport to New England, began in 2000.
Progressive Conservatives dominated politics from 1978 to 1993, when Liberal John Savage became premier. Savage was succeeded in 1997 by Liberal Russell MacLellan, but in 1999, Progressive Conservative John F. Hamm became premier. Hamm and his party were returned to power in 2003. Hamm retired in 2006 and was succeeded as premier by Rodney MacDonald. The Progressive Conservatives narrowly retained power in the 2006 elections. In 2009 voters elected the province's first New Democratic party government; Darrell Dexter became premier. The 2013 elections brought a Liberal government into office, headed by Stephen McNeil. The province sends 10 senators and 11 representatives to the national parliament.