Nova Scotia Archives

Footprints in the Sand

Pre‐1867 Government Records for Sable Island

What to Look for in this Resource

The Island's turbulent waters had been sinking vessels — and the early profits of occasional government intervention — for many years prior to 1801. It was widely felt that a government-sponsored presence on the Island would ensure aid for any who found themselves wrecked, and offer a general deterrent to those who made their living through wrecking or other mischief.

A report written by Seth Coleman for Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Wentworth in 1801 detailed Coleman's discoveries when sent to investigate the possibility of establishing a permanent human presence on the Island. Coleman plunged immediately and thoroughly into describing the harsh landscape, documenting the shipwreck he encountered upon arrival, details of the flora (pea grass), fauna (horses) and residents (various shipwreck survivors). He then made a case for the potential and necessity of a lighthouse, and speculated on the success of an active settlement, believing the Island could support “several families.”

Reports like Coleman's generated the momentum necessary for establishment of a life-saving station, and in June 1801, an Address of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly made provision for the settlement of “three families of good character.”

Records from this early period (1801 to approx. 1820) focus primarily on physical development of the settlement and survival of the early settlers. There are detailed lists of building supplies and food sent to the Island, as well as garden seed and livestock. Also included are records of resident officials, labourers, and others, all building new lives for themselves amid the sand dunes.

With the early success of the 'Humane Establishment' (as the life-saving station was known) came a call for more and better infrastructure. Boats were built, buildings were raised, and crops were planted. Plans for lighthouses progressed. Trade between the island and the mainland was regular and thriving. Families were established and grew. None could deny that this unlikely outpost had become a settlement and a community.

A few years after the founding of the Humane Establishment, there is a noticeable shift in the records. Where previously the documents focused almost exclusively on the expenses of foundation and upkeep, around 1820 the records of expenses begin to be balanced against the records of profit. Operating the Establishment was an ambitious and costly undertaking, one which the Commissioners for Isle Sable became determined to offset. The life-saving venture would have to pay for itself — a decision reflected in various lists and receipts for products such as seal oil, skins, cranberries and horses, all sent from Sable to Halifax, to be sold.

There are also records of salvage operations, which was another way the Humane Establishment recouped costs; the case of the John & Mary, wrecked off Sable in 1805, is a good example. Researchers can trace the wreck from the recovery of its cargo, to the auction of salvaged goods and equipment, to the division of profits between the Establishment and the vessel's crew. In the case of the John & Mary, £80 went to the Establishment for the effort of salvaging the goods. The crew of the ill-fated vessel were paid what wages they were due; owing their lives to the Human Establishment's rescue efforts was considered sufficient further compensation.

This digital resource offers a wealth of information for historians, ocean scientists, biologists, genealogists and other researchers, providing everything from simple receipts for supplies to detailed descriptions of life in a fledgling and definitely unusual Nova Scotia settlement. The documents 'are what they are' — handwritten government records from a time and place that is now far away and challenging to understand; nevertheless, they illuminate a chapter of the Sable Island narrative that frequently gets lost: the story of its people.