Hornby History

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Someone has said “a people without a history can have no vision”. The people of Hornby Island are standing on history. It is to be found in the remnants of snake fences, and in the derelict orchards, in the blackened shell-flecked soil around the shores, and in the indigenous trees and shrubs from which the first people took their sustenance. It is to be found in the soil and in the sandstone and conglomerate sedimentary rocks, in the pebbles on the beaches, and in the basement rock on which the Island rests.


The rocks of Hornby Island are part of the island arc Wrangellia, which started its life as molten lava, three hundred and fifty million years ago, south of the equator. The arc, the result of one ocean plate meeting another and subducting, journeyed north on the back of the Pacific Plate, eroding gathering limestone. On reaching the latitude of present-day Mexico, about one hundred and seventy million years ago, another set of volcanic eruptions added more volcanic rock to the terrain.

From these two major geological events came the Island’s basement rock, and later, 65 to 70 million years ago, most of the ingredients for the Island’s sedimentary rock, the pebbles in the conglomerate and the eroded rock from the tumbling hillsides, came from the recycled substance of Wrangellia’s earlier geological history. Also in the sediment are found fossils of sea creatures, and pieces of petrified wood dating from trees that grew at that time.

Continuing tectonic plate pressure first folded and then faulted the layers of sedimentary rock. The movement of glaciers and the raising and falling of seas in the interglacial periods, scoured the rock and then padded the dips and valleys with clay, sand, and glacial till. Some of the boulders and cobbles were brought from as far away as the Coast Range Mountains.

Ten thousand years ago, three thousand years after the last glacier retreated, the receding seas started slowly to reveal Hornby Island with much the same shape that it is today. Vegetation started to grow and by five thousand years ago people from Deep Bay were visiting the Island gathering the Island’s bounty and fishing from its shores.


Hornby Island and its surrounds, immediately prior to the advent of western civilization, was the territory of the Pentlatch, a people belonging to the Coast Salish group of West Coast people. They and their ancestors, being semi-nomadic, used the Island seasonally and cyclically nine months of the year and became part of the Island’s ecosystem. The island could provide for nearly all their needs.

In 1791 A.D., the Spaniards named the Island, Isla de Lerena but in 1850 the British renamed it Hornby Island, after Rear Admiral Phipps Hornby, at that time Commander of the Pacific Station. Ten years later Mt. Geoffrey and Phipps Point were named after the Admiral and his son, Captain Geoffrey Hornby of HMS Tribune while the officers of his ship had their names immortalized in other Island promontories.

By 1850 there were practically no Pentlatch left. Sickness, slave raids, the movement of people into their territory from the land further north, and the collapse of their world from the compounding of these misfortunes, finally wiped out the people to whom the natural life of Hornby Island was a part.

During the 1860’s Hornby Island was virtually empty of people. It was the sight of the Island on fire at the end of the decade that decided George Ford, one of the earliest recorded settlers, to move from his settlement in Comox to Hornby Island. Fires made clearing land easier. Other settlers followed. In 1870 a whaling company moved its base of operations to Hornby Island, but in less than two years it went into liquidation and one hundred acres at Whaling Station Bay with wharf, sheds and other buildings were auctioned off.

The early settlers were able to choose land which was sheltered, amply provided with water, and having deep fertile soil. By the turn of the century Hornby had become a fairly prosperous farming community. Although many who came to farm found the sale of logs from the clearing of land more profitable than the farming itself.

Hornby Island, like all islands, promised a dream. The Island challenged, dared, and offered an escape. Not everyone who came succeeded and even those who did succeed, often found their children seeking dreams elsewhere. By 1960 most land had changed hands several times. Families had come and gone. Some orchards were derelict and many fields were overgrown. The 150 people on the Island, were made up of fishermen, subsistence farmers, resort owners, their children and one or two retired intellectuals. Towards the end of the sixties developers discovered the Island and three farms were turned into small lot residential subdivisions.

To avoid more indiscriminate carving up of the Island, a policy restricting subdivision to a ten-acre minimum lot size was introduced. This coincided with the arrival of the counter culture people, and the Island flowered with artists, craftsmen and academics seeking a more meaningful life. In 1974 the Islands Trust was formed to preserve and protect the Gulf Islands, which includes Hornby Island, against inappropriate use and development.

Legislation does not ensure the spirit of a place. Hornby Island itself with its beauty, with its history deep into the past, its tranquility, its changing light and seasons, must be allowed to capture the hearts of those who dwell here. Hornby will endure although it has not always been an island and one day may not be again. It has travelled a long way and gone through many changes. Every person that owns land, holds it as a temporary tenant, in trust for future generations.