The town was established by the four founding fathers, Patrick Sutherland, Dettlieb Christopher Jessen, John Creighton and Jean-Baptiste Moreau during Father Le Loutre's War, four years after Halifax was established. The town was one of the first British attempts to settle Protestants in Nova Scotia intended to displace Mi'kmaq and Acadian Catholics. British settlement posed a lasting, grave and certain threat to Mi'kmaq's control over their traditional territorial borders of Mi'kma'ki within Wabanaki. Considering that British conditions for peace required surrender of Mi'kmaq sovereignty to the Crown, Wabanaki groups raided Lunenburg nine times in the early years of the settlement in an attempt to reclaim their loss.
The historic town was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in 1995. This designation ensures protection for much of Lunenburg's unique architecture and civic design, being the best example of planned British colonial settlement in Canada. The historic core of the town is also a National Historic Site of Canada.
Originally a Mi'kmaq encampment and clam harvesting site known as āseedĭk, the site became a Mi’kmaq and Acadian village named Mirliguèche for over a hundred years. Mirliguèche is believed to mean "milky surf" or "milky bay", referring to the harbour's appearance in a storm. Acadians under the command of Isaac de Razilly established kinship and trade relations with the local Mi'kmaq and settled among them in the first half of the seventeenth century. A 1688 census indicates there were 21 at Mirliguèche (ten Europeans and 11 Mi‟kmaq), in one house and two wigwams, with half an acre under cultivation. In 1745 there were reported to be only eight settlers in the village. Four years later, Cornwallis reported that there were a number of families that lived in comfortable wooden houses.
After the British Conquest of Acadia in 1710, Nova Scotia remained primarily occupied by Catholic Acadians and Mi'kmaq. Father Le Loutre's War began when Governor Edward Cornwallis arrived to establish Halifax with 13 transports on June 21, 1749. By unilaterally establishing Halifax, the Mi'kmaq believed the British were violating earlier treaties (1726), which were signed after Father Rale's War. Upon the outbreak of Father Le Loutre's War, on October 5, 1749, Governor Edward Cornwallis sent Commander White with troops in the 20-gun sloop Sphinx to Mirligueche and had the village destroyed. By 1753 there still was only one family in the area – a Mi'kmaq man named "Old [Paul] Labrador" and his métis family.
After establishing Halifax, the British quickly began to build other settlements. To guard against Mi'kmaq, Acadian and French attacks on the new Protestant settlements, British fortifications were erected in Halifax (1749), Bedford (Fort Sackville) (1749), Dartmouth (1750), Lunenburg (1753) and Lawrencetown (1754). The Natives and Acadians raided the Lunenburg peninsula nine times in the first six years of its establishment.
Dissatisfied with the English colonists sent to Halifax in 1749, Cornwallis appealed to the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations (Board of Trade) in London to recruit more Germans and Swiss. Over 2,700 Foreign Protestants signed up for the passage and emigrated to Nova Scotia. Most came from the Upper Rhine area of present-day Germany, from the French- and German-speaking Swiss cantons and from the French-speaking principality of Montbéliard. They stayed in Halifax under British protection while working on the fortifications to pay off the cost of their passage.
In 1753, three years into Father Le Loutre's War, John Creighton led the group of Foreign Protestants stationed in Halifax to resettle Mirliguèche, naming the new British colony Lunenburg. The town was named in honour of the King of Great Britain and Ireland, George August of Hanover, who was also the duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Like Halifax, the British established Lunenburg unilaterally, that is, without negotiating with the Mi'kmaq, whose sovereign territory it had always been. In the spring, Governor Hopson received warnings from Fort Edward that as many as 300 natives nearby were prepared to oppose the settlement of Lunenburg and intended to attack upon the arrival of settlers. On June 7, 1753, supervised by Lawrence, escorted by several ships of the British Navy and accompanied by 160 Regular soldiers, 1,453 Foreign Protestants from Halifax landed at Rous' Brook.
During Father Le Loutre's War, in mid December 1753, within six months of their arrival at Lunenburg, the new settlers rebelled against their living conditions. The rebellion became known as "The Hoffman Insurrection". The Rebellion was led by John Hoffman, one of the Captains who had established the settlers in the town.
Hoffman led a mob, which eventually locked up in one of the blockhouses a number of Commander Patrick Sutherland’s troops and the Justice of the Peace. Commander Patrick Sutherland at Lunenburg asked for reinforcements from Halifax, and Colonel Robert Monckton was sent with troops. Monckton arrested Hoffman and brought him to Halifax, where he was fined and imprisoned on Georges Island (Nova Scotia) for two years.
Because of the living conditions and encouragement from Le Loutre, a number of the French- and German-speaking Foreign Protestants left the village to join the Acadian communities.
During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the town was protected by several small blockhouses that were garrisoned by British regulars as well as by provincial troops from Massachusetts. These forts were erected to protect the town from raids by French warships and from attacks by Acadians and Indians. The first church in the community St. John's Anglican Church (Lunenburg) was established (1754).
During the Expulsion of the Acadians, specifically the Bay of Fundy Campaign (1755), a contingent of Foreign Protestants under British protection rounded up Acadian cattle at Grand Pre and drove the herd back to Lunenburg where the livestock was divided among the new settlers. In the fall of 1755, 50 original inhabitants (likely "Old [Paul] Labrador" and his metis family) that were still on the Lunenburg Peninsula were deported, first to Georges Island (Nova Scotia) and then onto North Carolina.
The Wabanaki Confederacy raided the Lunenburg Peninsula nine times during the war. For example, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq attacked in the Raid on Lunenburg (1756), in which twenty settlers were killed. Despite the protection of increased number of blockhouses built on the peninsula, eight more Indian/ Acadian raids happened against those on the Lunenburg Peninsula over the next three years. A total of 32 people from Lunenburg were killed in the raids with more being taken prisoner. The British reported that most of these raids were by the Mi'kmaq and Acadians at Cape Sable (present-day Shelburne and Yarmouth Counties).
In the April 1757, a band of Acadian and Mi'kmaq partisans raided a warehouse near-by Fort Edward, killing thirteen British soldiers and, after taking what provisions they could carry, setting fire to the building. A few days later, the same partisans also raided Fort Cumberland. Because of the strength of the Acadian militia and Mi'kmaq militia, British officer John Knox wrote that “In the year 1757 we were said to be Masters of the province of Nova Scotia, or Acadia, which, however, was only an imaginary possession … “ He continues to state that the situation in the province was so precarious for the British that the “troops and inhabitants” at Fort Edward, Fort Sackville and Lunenburg “could not be reputed in any other light than as prisoners."
Following the raid of 1756, there were eight more raids on the Lunenburg Peninsula over the next three years. In 1757, there was a raid on Lunenburg in which six people from the Brissang family were killed. The following year, March 1758, there was a raid on the Lunenburg Peninsula at the Northwest Range (present-day Blockhouse, Nova Scotia) when five people were killed from the Ochs and Roder families. By the end of May 1758, many of those on the Lunenburg Peninsula abandoned their farms and retreated to the protection of the fortifications around the town of Lunenburg, losing the season for sowing their grain. For those that did not leave their farms for the town, the number of raids intensified.
During the summer of 1758, there were four raids on the Lunenburg Peninsula. On July 13, 1758, one person on the LaHave River at Dayspring was killed and another seriously wounded by a member of the Labrador family. The next raid happened at Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia on August 24, 1758, when eight Mi'kmaq attacked the family homes of Lay and Brant. While they killed three people in the raid, the Mi'kmaq were unsuccessful in taking their scalps, which was the common practice for payment from the French. Two days, later, two soldiers were killed in a raid on the blockhouse at LaHave, Nova Scotia. Almost two weeks later, on September 11, a child was killed in a raid on the Northwest Range.
After the Siege of Louisbourg (1758), Gorham's Rangers were stationed at Lunenburg for the winter. (Ranger Joseph Gorham owned 300 acres of land at Lunenburg: land still named Gorham Point at the end of present-day Second Peninsula, two islands nearby,a peninsula leading from the community of Mahone Bay as well as the Seven Islands, near Sacrifice Island in Mahone Bay.) Despite the presence of the Rangers, another raid happened on March 27, 1759, in which three members of the Oxner family were killed. The last raid happened on April 20, 1759. The Mi’kmaq killed four settlers at Lunenburg who were members of the Trippeau and Crighton families. During the years 1760-1761, the Mi'kmaq signed a series of Peace and Friendship treaties with the British, ending hostilities and withdrawing their support for the French.
During the American Revolution, American Privateers engaged in the Raid of Lunenburg (1775) and the Raid on Lunenburg (1782) and on both occasions devastated the town. During the raid of 1775, the 84th Regiment of Foot (Royal Highland Emigrants), which was defending Nova Scotia, attacked the U.S. privateer ship off of Lunenburg, as other privateers from the ship were looting the town. The privateers were captured and taken to Halifax.
During the War of 1812, Nova Scotia’s contribution to the war effort was its citizens purchasing and building privateer ships to attack American vessels. Four citizens of the community of Lunenburg purchased a privateer schooner and named it Lunenburg on August 8, 1814. The new owners were Capt. Oxner, Henry Wollenkaupt, Philip Rudolf and Henry Mosher. The schooner was ninety-three tons, and had five guns and a crew of forty-five men.
The Lunenburg captured the American vessel Lucy on September 15, 1814, and the American ship Ranger on November 15, both prizes were brought back to Lunenburg. In addition, it captured others. One of the largest American privateer schooners the Lunenburg caught was Minerva, of Wiscasset, Maine. Another was the sloop Experiment, caught off of Point Judith, Rhode Island on January 21, 1815. After that, the Lunenburg captured three American sloops and one schooner before February 15, 1815.
After a long naval battle in Mahone Bay, the Lunenburg militia was sent to take prisoners from the American Privateer Young Teazer.
Lunenburg was begun as an agricultural settlement, taking advantage of one of the few pockets of good soil along Nova Scotia's South Shore. However, in the 19th century the town evolved as a major centre for the offshore banks fishery, building and manning fishing schooners to exploit the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the fishing banks off Nova Scotia. The town was incorporated on October 31, 1888. It helped sponsor the construction of the Nova Scotia Central Railway in 1889, which became the Halifax and Southwestern Railway and helped further develop fishing exports and allied industries such as the Lunenburg Foundry.
While wooden shipbuilding lapsed in other parts of Nova Scotia with the arrival of steamships, Lunenburg yards specialized in fishing schooners which remained competitive until the 1920s. The most famous was Bluenose built in 1921 by Smith and Rhuland, a schooner which brought in record catches and won the International Fishermen's Trophy.
Lunenburg's small shipyards and foundry played an important role in the repair of many smaller warships, such as minesweepers and corvettes, during World War I and World War II. The Royal Norwegian Navy used Lunenburg as a base in World War II, building a large base next to the town known as "Camp Norway".
Relying heavily on Newfoundland migrant labour, Lunenburg made the transition from fishing schooners to trawlers and continued as a major fishing centre after WW II. Success in building wooden trawlers preserved many skills and technology from the sailing era which led the town to become a leader in building large sailing ship replicas, beginning with the film ship Bounty in 1960 and continuing with Bluenose II in 1963 and HMS Rose in 1970.
Tourism is Lunenburg's most important industry and many thousands visit the town each year. A number of restaurants, inns, hotels and shops exist to service the tourist trade. Numerous artists operate their own galleries. The town is home to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, part of the Nova Scotia Museum. The schooner replica Bluenose II is operated by the museum and based out of Lunenburg. The town is also home to the privately run Halifax and South Western Railway Museum and the Lunenburg Heritage Society's Knaut-Rhuland House.
The town has a history of being an important port and shipbuilding centre with three active shipyards (Scotia Trawler Equipment Limited, Snyder's Shipyard and ABCO Industries Lunenburg Shipyard). The Lunenberg foundry casts brass, bronze and aluminum, and is specialized in naval work. In 2010, a two-year, $15-million restoration was started on the Bluenose II at Lunenberg. Shipbuilding infrastructure worth $1.5 million was added to the Lunenburg waterfront as part of the Bluenose II restoration contract. The government mishandled certain aspects of the restoration project, leading to a $1.7 million budget overrun as of 30 April 2014; at the time, Premier McNeil called the project a "boondoggle", and asked the Auditor-General to investigate. As of 30 August 2014, costs had exceeded $19 million, although the works had been transferred to public view at the Fisheries Museum.
There are now numerous small businesses, high-tech industries including Composites Atlantic and HB Studios, and trade plants including High Liner Foods, which was at one point the largest fish plant in Canada. This plant now handles manufacturing and most fishing is done offshore.
In the 2016 Census of Population conducted by Statistics Canada, the Town of Lunenburg recorded a population of 2,263 living in 1,040 of its 1,206 total private dwellings, a change of 2999780000000000000♠−2.2% from its 2011 population of 2,313. With a land area of 4.04 km2 (1.56 sq mi), it had a population density of 560.1/km2 (1,450.8/sq mi) in 2016.
Lunenburg, together with its surrounding areas, has its own distinct dialect, known as Lunenburg English, which is influenced both by New England English and by German.
The 2010 Japanese movie Hanamizuki was partly set and filmed in Lunenburg and the science fiction television show Haven was partly filmed there though it is set in the United States. The fairhaven town is featured prominently in a 2010 series of Cisco Systems network product ads featuring Ellen Page. The 2012 film The Disappeared was shot in Lunenburg during September 2011.