It is located near the mouth of the River John on the Northumberland Strait, half way between Pictou and Tatamagouche near the boundary with Colchester County. River John was colonized by Europeans during the 18th century and its port and the proximity of plentiful timber led to the development of a small shipbuilding industry.
Today the local economy is based on the seasonal industries of fishing, agriculture, and tourism. The area is a popular summer cottage location for residents of Halifax and other urban areas in the province. The village supports various local shops, a library, a consolidated school, several churches, a post office and a volunteer fire department.
The Nova Scotia folklorist W. Roy MacKenzie (1883–1957) lived in River John.