Newcastle Island has had quite a journey from a seasonal fishing site for the Coast Salish to the beautiful marine park it is today. Each year the Natives would practically pick up their houses and move on, leading the Spanish and Hudson’s Bay Company explorers to believe the island was uninhabited. The herring that attracted the Coast Salish were an industry of their own. Several Oriental herring salteries and fisheries were built on the Northwestern coast of the island. A migrating Snuneymuxw pointed out the existence of coal on the island, which produced the industry that would provide work for Nanaimoites for years to come. During the mining for coal, the island’s sandstone was found to be exceptional and was sought after for years by different cities, and even different countries. Many different companies from all over fought for leases to cut the Newcastle Island stone. Also wanting the durable stone was an industry entirely different from architecture. It was pulp-stones that were needed up and down the coast to grind up tree fibres into pulp for papermaking and Newcastle sandstone proved to be one of the best. Even with all those different uses of the land, the Canadian Pacific Railway saw the beauty within and bought the island to create their own little island resort. It was then sold, after a decrease in popularity, to the City of Nanaimo who got so far into debt that they sold it to the BC Government, who turned it into a marine park. After years of success as a marine park, we get the lovely, picturesque island that we enjoy today.
Before European discovery
The two Native villages located on Newcastle Island were called Saysetsen and Clotsun. The Snuneymuxw, the Nanaimo branch of the Coast Salish linguistic group, inhabited both. Saysetsen, located on the east side of the island facing nearby Protection Island near Midden Bay, had easy access to
the herring that spawned in The Gap during late winter and early spring. To catch the herring, the Snuneymuxw would use a hardwood stick inlaid with sharp whalebone teeth along one side of the stick. By striking this device into the water, they were able to catch ten to twelve fish per try, quickly filling their canoes.
The people of Saysetsen would live on Newcastle from January to April in order to catch the spawning herring before moving on to Gabriola Island where they would stay until early August. Then they would traverse the Strait of Georgia to the mouth of the Fraser River. They would stay there until the end of August to catch the sockeye and humpback salmon before continuing back to Vancouver Island for the chum salmon run. They would then be back on Newcastle Island by January. Not much is known about the other village, Clotsun, except that its name means Protector.
The burial rites of the Snuneymuxw involved the deceased being placed in trees, contrary to popular belief that there were burial chests in the Newcastle caves from this time period. If there were burials in the caves, they are believed to be from the members of other tribes employed in Nanaimo or on Newcastle Island to mine coal.