A Brief History of Sable Island

Sable Island is named for the French word sable, or “sand.” The island, comprised of sand bars and sand dunes, and some fresh water ponds, is the surfaced part of a ridge at the edge of the continental shelf, formed by glacial retreat over 15,000 years ago, give or take. The island’s size and shape vary widely over time, affected as they are by winds, storms, tides, and currents.

The island first appeared on maps in the early 16th century. Its early names included Fagunda (named not too originally after himself, by Jo o Alvares Fagundes, the person likely to have first named and noted the island); Santa Cruz, Barcelos, and Isola della Rena (rena is Italian for sand). It seems to have been first named Isle de Sable or Sable Island by 1601.

Since the 1500s, there were numerous attempts to settle the island, some which lasted a few years, and virtually all of which failed over time, due to the harsh conditions of the environment and the difficulty of travel to and from and of sustaining livestock or agriculture over the long term. Ambitious or misinformed colonists, adventurers and capitalists from Portugal, Basque, France, Spain, England and New England all made forays to or ran adrift upon the island in their attempts to expand trade; establish settlements or military outposts; or exploit the island’s resources, which included at different times furs, skins, tusk ivory, and blubber oil.

The history of the island and its mostly short-lived settlements indicates that while Sable was sometimes a destination in and of itself, more often it was at best an inconvenient physical impediment between points A and B, or at worst a fatal end to a ship’s voyage. The island is famous as a site of more shipwrecks than landings.

By the mid 18th century, livestock herds had been introduced by settlers to the island (later to perish or be consumed) for about 200 years. The island’s famous horses are likely descended from animals that were part of livestock including horses, cows, sheep, goats and hogs landed on the island by Thomas Hancock of Boston in the late 1750s. The animals may have been confiscated by the British from Acadians during their expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in the mid 18th century.

In the late 1700s, rumours of plunderers who preyed on wrecks (or perhaps forced them) prompted the Nova Scotia legislature with the necessary endorsement of England (the island was British under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, until Confederation) to establish in 1801 the first permanent station for the purpose of providing a lifesaving “Humane Establishment” on the island. The prime mover behind this impetus was Sir John Wentworth, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. The island’s first superintendent was James Morris, who landed in October 1801 with his wife, children, and a handful of male staff. Warning flagstaffs were erected, and beach patrols implemented. Light stations were eventually put up in the late 1800s, although they had to be moved as the sands underneath them shifted away. Sable Island commissioners continued to be appointed until 1960, when the “Establishment” was shut down. Since that time, residents have remained on the island, but in other capacities such as staffing the Sable Station. The last shipwreck on the island occurred in 1999 and improvements in navigation technology rendered the need for a lifesaving station on the island obsolete.

Interest in Sable Island has persisted for over 500 years. As for recent history, interest in the island’s present status and its need for protection were due in part to the expansion of oil exploration in the Atlantic in the area and concerns about the effect of such expansion on the island. The plight of the Sable horses also seized the public imagination when the Canadian government proposed to sell them in 1960. The horses gained protected status in 1961 by an amendment to the Canada Shipping Act. In 1999 the Sable Island Preservation Trust was formed in order to ensure a human presence continued on the island when the meteorological station was being shut down by the Canadian government. Environment Canada continues to maintain an upper air weather station on Sable, and the island is now a site where the human presence is monitored and limited to environmental and natural history research aimed at preserving the island’s ecosystem and the sea, air and land life that relies on it.

Armstrong, Bruce. Sable Island. Toronto: Doubleday, 1981.
Campbell, Lyall. Sable Island, Fatal and Fertile Crescent. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1994.
Christie, Barbara J. The Horses of Sable Island. Lawrencetown Beach, N.S.: Pottersfield Press,1995.
de Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle, A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004.