Salt Spring Island Archives
Box 256 Ganges PO • Salt Spring Island • V8K 2V9 • Canada

A brief history of Salt Spring Island

photo Gail Neumann

Salt Spring Island's beauty, the picturesque bays and coves, the expansive views over a usually placid sea, the rugged mountains and lush valleys, the beaches dotted with sea creatures and driftwood, the twisted splendour of the arbutus and Garry oak trees, and the springtime meadows resplendent with wild flowers have always attracted interesting, creative, and idiosyncratic residents. The opinions and beliefs of this eclectic mix of individualists cover every stand of the idea spectrum. If you introduce an issue or express an opinion, expect lively debate.

The island's history is a microcosm of British Columbia history, a long period of aboriginal habitation followed by a frontier society of loggers, fishermen, farmers, and even some miners. Salt Spring is part of the traditional territory of the Saanich, Cowichan, and Chemainus First Nations, and aboriginal use of the island dates back at least 5,000 years. Permanent settlements fluctuated over the years with the main centres of population at HwnJ'nuts (Fulford Harbour), Shiyahwt (Ganges), StsBth (Long Harbour), and Puqdnup (Hudson Point). A major epidemic in the 1780s and subsequent warfare with northern peoples shifted resident populations to villages on Vancouver Island, Kuper Island, and Valdes Island from which the various families continued to access their lands and resources on Salt Spring. Aboriginal people remained at the present-day Tsawout Indian Reserve on Fulford Harbour until the 1920s, making this the longest continually occupied place on the island.

Despite the absence of large populations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Salt Spring continued to be an important source of natural resources for aboriginal people. Because of the great diversity of the environment and wealth of resources, the island is still described as "a breadbasket" or "Indian supermarket" by aboriginal elders.

From the establishment of the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849, aboriginal lands were alienated by land sale agreements, the so-called Douglas Treaties. However, the colony was unable to reach any agreement regarding aboriginal lands on Salt Spring. In 1859, parts of the island, along with the Chemainus Valley on Vancouver Island, were the first lands in Western Canada to be occupied by non-aboriginal people without land sale agreements. A brief colonial war in 1863 ended active resistance to non-aboriginal settlement. The legacy of unsettled land claims remains, however, and today Salt Spring is part of the land claim of the Hul'qumi'num First Nations, a collective of Cowichan and Chemainus peoples.

In 1859 Governor James Douglas allowed many indigent immigrants in Victoria, desperate for a place to settle, access to aboriginal lands. Some of these chose Salt Spring, despite the fact that the island was isolated from centres of civilization by the surrounding waters, that it was geographically rugged and covered by huge Douglas firs that had to be cleared before farming could take place, and that no treaties had been signed with the aboriginal peoples who used the island as a hunting and fishing reserve and considered it theirs.

About half of the first settlers were Blacks from San Francisco who had come to Victoria in 1858 seeking an environment in which they had the same rights as everyone else. Among the other settlers were Australians, other Americans, and Europeans who had come to Canada in search of gold. The early settlers also included a number of former Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) employees, including several Hawaiians who had been brought to the Pacific Northwest by the HBC; Japanese who came as fishermen and labourers; and more affluent immigrants from the British Isles. By 1895, the population was quite multicultural as the following analysis by the island's Anglican minister indicates:

The present population of the island is estimated to be 450. A large number of different nationalities are represented. There are approximately, old and young, 160 English (or Canadians), 50 Scotch, 20 Irish, 22 Portuguese, 13 Swedes, 4 Germans, 2 Norwegians, 34 Americans, 90 Halfbreeds, 40 Colored, or partly colored people, 6 Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians], 10 Japanese, also 1 Egyptian, 2 Greeks, 1 Patagonian.

The first settlers had enormous problems to overcome. They found most of the land heavily forested. There were no roads, no wharves, no regular transportation to and from the island, no stores, no mail service, and nobody to ask or hire for help. Most pioneers were poor and had chosen Salt Spring mainly because they could claim land and pay for it years later. They lacked farming experience, money, and the equipment necessary to hack homes and farms out of the forest. Many had minimal food and clothing, and all had to worry about cougars, wolves, and bears. They also faced the hostility of some of the aboriginal people who saw them as trespassers.

Still, the hospitable climate, fertile soil in some parts of the island, and abundant seafood in the surrounding waters sustained the newcomers as they had aboriginal peoples for centuries past. By 1900, Salt Spring, with other Gulf Islands, was famous for its large harvests of fruit. Later dairying became important and the butter produced by the Salt Spring Island Creamery from its opening in 1904 enjoyed a wide and illustrious reputation. Poultry and sheep farming were also important; the island is still known for its Salt Spring lamb.

Gradually, over the years, services improved and the population of the island climbed. By the 1930s, vacationers discovered the island, and resorts opened to welcome them. Cottagers from Vancouver and Victoria grew in number from the 1950s, and islanders began subdividing land to take advantage of this interest. A spiral of growth began with increased services and infrastructure attracting more people, and vice versa. Today, the largest areas of employment on the island are in such service areas as tourism, construction, real estate, and retail businesses. As well, e-mail and courier services have facilitated a wide variety of home-based businesses.

From the sixties, artists and craftspeople - potters, painters, stained-glass and basket makers, woodworkers, quilters, paper makers, and others - began arriving on the island. Today, their signs dot island roads, and Salt Spring's artists and artisans are responsible for attracting many tourists to the island. Although the most successful artisans also sell in nearby Victoria, Vancouver, and throughout North America, the popular Saturday market remains the single, most important venue for most artists' and craftsworkers' products on Salt Spring.

From its beginnings, the island has been a home for those seeking an alternative lifestyle. And people looking for alternatives are usually fiercely independent, opinionated, and feisty. Though argumentative, islanders are mostly tolerant of each other, and Salt Spring society today contains a wide assortment of beliefs, economic levels, careers, and other interests, although it is not nearly as ethnically varied as it was in its early days. One of the growth areas has been alternative health care and services. For some reason, the island attracts many counsellers, massage therapists, and other caregivers. At the end of the twentieth century, Salt Spring is home to about 10,000 people.

For further information, consult
Salt Spring: The Story of an Island
by Charles Kahn (Harbour Publishing, 1998)
The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849-1863
by Chris Arnett,(Talon Books, 1999).