The first inhabitants were the Abenaki, who travelled the region for hunting and fishing. The only settlement during the French regime was a trading post at Grandes-Fourches ( Sherbrooke). Shortly after the American Revolution a large number of English Loyalists left the US for Canada and settled in the area of Baie Missisquoi on the northeastern extension of Lac Champlain. In 1791, the British government granted them land in the form of townships.
The first of the 95 townships conceded was Dunham (1796). In 1792, the region (then an electoral county) was called Buckinghamshire. Later it became known as the “Eastern Townships of Lower Canada” (as opposed to the "Western Townships of Upper Canada") and “Eastern Townships” by 1806 (see alsoLower Canada; Upper Canada). The name was translated to “Townships de l'Est” towards 1833 and “Cantons de l'Est” in 1858, but the region officially became “Estrie” in 1981; this last name is still debated.
Early settlers were American, English and Irish. After 1840 a wave of French colonization swept into the region, and between 1871 and 1881 Francophones became the majority. Anglophones now account for less than 10 per cent of the region’s population.
Equipped with an excellent road system since the 1820s, the region underwent considerable growth following construction of the Grand Trunk Railway between Montreal and Portland, Maine, in 1853. The road and rail networks encouraged the exploitation and development of natural resources such as timber, asbestos, granite, copper and limestone as well as the harvesting of Christmas trees. The Eastern Townships was one of the first mining regions of Canada, with many mines dating from as early as the middle of the 19th century. For over 100 years, most of Canada's commercially important asbestos came from the Eastern Townships. Mines in Thetford Mines operated between 1877 and 2012, and mines in Val-des-Sources (formerly Asbestos) operated between 1881 and 2011.
Hydroelectric power generated by the numerous waterfalls of the Rivière Saint-François and its tributaries resulted in the establishment of sawmills and flour mills, and since 1855, the development of textile plants, foundries and the pulp and paper industry. The 20th century brought heavy industry to Sherbrooke, and it gradually became the “Queen of the Eastern Townships.” The snowmobile industry flourished in Valcourt after its founding by J. Armand Bombardier. University research and the arrival of high technology have resulted in the establishment of a microelectronics industry. Since 1985 it has been the site of the first viticultural industry in Quebec, centred in Dunham.
The region has two universities: Université de Sherbrooke (francophone), and Bishop’s University (anglophone) in Lennoxville — testament to the Townships’ biculturalism. One of the region’s curiosities is its round barns, designed to protect their owners from the devil (according to local legend, “the devil hides in the corners of barns”). The Eastern Townships also contain several large parks, museums, nature interpretation centres and festivals. The Magog-Orford area has become a major year-round international tourist centre.