Stories From the Archives – Don Johnson: Cowboy of the Atlantic

“They called me the Atlantic Cowboy because I broke in horses and rode all over the place […] I liked that island so much because of the variety. For instance, when I first went to Sable a fella could ride horseback and go down all over sod right to the lake beach, then on good hard beach to No. 3 Station and the horses would hardly make a print in the sand. Then when you go to No. 3 you could drive on sand and go right to the East Light. And there were lilies down there and freshwater ponds and all kinds of flowers like daisies and buttercups. I loved it.”
– from an interview with Don for the book “Sable Island” by Bruce Armstrong

Donald Stewart Johnson – Superintendent of Sable Island from 1939-1942, and then again from 1945-1948. He was also lovingly called the “Atlantic Cowboy” by his peers. His love of Sable Island was clearly instilled when he was just a young child; it was practically destiny – or Don’s own will – that brought him back to the place he loved and the place he would one day call his home.

When Donald was only a child, he visited Sable Island quite frequently. His father was the Captain of the supply ship to Sable, the Lady Laurier, and often brought him along to play on the best playground of them all – the sandy shores of Sable Island.

When he turned 16, he went to King’s College which was still in Windsor at the time. His taste for adventure, however, couldn’t be held back and he joined the Humane Establishment on Sable Island about a year after having enrolled in the College. Although he loved Sable Island, he searched for a new adventure on the mainland and went on to be a Constable with the RCMP. He then had a plethora of other jobs until he went back to Sable Island. He was Quartermaster for a ship going between Boston and South America, he was the Corporal in charge of the RCMP in Sydney (Nova Scotia), he was an observer in sea planes for the flying squads, and finally but perhaps most interestingly he was a freelance artist and cartoonist.

After many years of working on the main land Don was appointed as the superintendent of Sable Island in 1939. Happy to be in the place he loved and longed for Don quickly settled into his role. Unfortunately, the Second World War was just around the corner and made his time in the official role as Superintendent end only a few years later, in 1942. Don, being a brave and patriotic man, quickly signed up for service with the Canadian forces. He was practically begged to stay on the Island, as he was invaluable to operations there, and notes that he was offered a considerable sum of money to stay on the Island as Superintendent, but he wanted to do more for humanity. He joined the Forces and his skills were later utilized to set up the Fleet Air Arm, the Navy’s air arm, on Sable which was active from 1942-1944. After the war in 1945, Don returned to his full-time role as Superintendent of Sable Island and remained in this role until 1948.

When it was his time to go due to family sickness, he and his wife were both sad to leave. They loved Sable Island and had so many great memories from their stay on the Island of wild horses and salty sea breezes. Ms. Johnson, Don’s wife said about Sable Island, “I loved it […] I would have loved to stay down there five or six years more” (from Bruce Armstrong’s book, mentioned above).

Although they had to go, they brought some amazing stories back to the mainland with them. From plane crashes, to explosions, to warm and friendly social teas, their life on Sable was a rollercoaster they did not want to get off. I can’t wait to share the amazing stories I dig up this summer about Don’s life and life on Sable Island during the 1940’s. Make sure you are following the Friends of Sable Island Society’s Facebook and Instagram to get small tidbits and photos that I uncover, as well as the website to get more detailed information on Don and his life.

By the way, hello! I’m Rebecca. I am the summer student this year with the Friends of Sable Island Society. You may remember me from the summer of 2016 when I transcribed and shared stories from R.J. Boutillier’s letter book. I can’t wait to share more stories with you guys this summer!