The Colonist was founded in 1857 by a group of Nelson residents as a means to oppose the dominance of the large landowners of the district. At the time its only opposition was the Nelson Examiner, which the Colonist was largely established to challenge and to provide an alternative voice.
A committee of six including William Wilkie was the driving force behind the new venture, and it invited William Nation, a Sydney-based publisher with his own press, to move to Nelson to establish the newspaper. Nation and his family moved to Nelson the same year and the first issue of the Colonist was published from Wilkie’s store on 23 October 1857.
The Colonist was initially published twice-weekly, and in 1882 it became a daily. In 1866 another competitor appeared, the daily Nelson Evening Mail. For a period Nelson had three newspapers; two bi-weeklies and a daily. The Examiner ceased publication in 1874, leaving the field to the Colonist and Evening Mail. The Evening Mail became Nelson’s sole newspaper when it bought out the Colonist in 1920. The final edition of the Colonist appeared on 1 May 1920.