When Captain George Vancouver made his first Gulf Islands sightings in 1792, the area was already home to several First Nations people. They lived a semi-nomadic existence living off the bounty provided by the sea and lands. In recognition of the history of its original inhabitants, the Gulf Islands region is often referred to as the “Salish Sea.”
Captain Vancouver claimed the islands for the British Crown, and referred to them as being located in a “gulf.” While the Gulf Islands are clearly not in a gulf, the name stuck.
In the same year, Spanish and British cartographic expeditions also explored the area intent on finding a passage to the northwest Atlantic.
Galiano Island’s name was derived from the Spanish explorer Dionisio Galiano, and now the marine park at the north end of the island has been given his first name, Dionisio Point Marine Park.
Saturna Island was named after the Spanish ship Saturnina, captained by Jose Maria Narvaez, who left his name on a Saturna Island bay.
Gabriola Island also bears evidence of the history of Spanish exploration from the late 18th century, as in the Malaspina Galleries and Descanso Bay. Gabriola is believed to be related to the Spanish word for seagull — gaviota.
In 1858-59, a British cartographic expedition on the HMS Plumper was dispatched and resulted in both the production of more accurate maps and the naming of various islands, mountains, points and waters.
Local residents named the waterway between Galiano and Mayne Island “Plumper Pass” after the ship. However, Captain George Henry Richards officially named that waterway “Active Pass,” not because of the water’s turbulence, but after the US Active, the first steamship to navigate the pass in 1855. Now the name “Plumper” is used to identify the waterway between Saturna and Pender islands.
Also in the late 1850s, pioneers began establishing settlements. American blacks and Portuguese arrived in 1859 and carved out homesteads in fertile valleys on the north end of Salt Spring.
Settlers from other parts of the world soon followed, and established farms and small industries, such as fish salteries and produce farms.