Denman Island plays a part in the rich history of British Columbia’s First Nations people, many of whom lived a migratory life in order to sustainably use the resources of the land and water. Archeological evidence indicates there was a First Nations presence on the island as long as 5,000 years ago. This evidence includes shell midden beaches and ancient petroglpyhs on the cliffs of Chrome Island, off the southern tip of Denman Island.
Members of what are now the Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw nations – including the Pentlatch, Qualicum, K’omoks and Sliammon – had temporary or permanent summer camps on Denman for activities such as hunting deer, fishing for salmon and harvesting clams, oysters and herring roe.
Summer villages have been documented at what is now called Henry Bay on the west side of the island and most likely in the area in and near what is now Fillongley Park. Henry Bay had previously been called Village Point but was re-named in 1923 due to the proliferation of B.C. locations with the same name. Some islanders have reverted to using the name Village Point.
Europeans first mapped Denman Island during the 1791 voyage of the Spanish ship Santa Saturnin. The island was named Denman in 1864 by Admiral George Henry Richards, hydrographer (surveyor) for the British Admiralty. It is named for Rear Admiral Joseph Denman, who commanded the Pacific station from 1864 to1866.
The first wave of European immigrants came to Denman Island in the early 1870s. In her book, “My Ain Folk”, about her pioneer family, Winnifred Isbister described relations between the settlers and First Nations residents as friendly, however she wrote: “Gradually, as the island became settled by the white man, the Indians spent less time at their summer homes and none have resided here since the turn of the century.”
By that time, white settlers were logging, farming and planting fruit trees on Denman Island. Logging was profitable for a time and there are still trails that follow the routes where railway tracks were laid, then pulled up again, to support operations as loggers moved throughout the island. However, farming was the primary occupation for most islanders. Cattle, sheep and poultry were shipped to Vancouver Island markets along with vegetables, fruit, milk and cream.
Apples became Denman’s best-known export. Large orchards were planted below the escarpment along Lacon Road or in the island’s warm heartland on Denman Road. Approximately 100 heritage apple varieties remain on Denman Island and are celebrated at the autumn Applefest.
Prune plums, sour cherries, pears, gooseberries and quince were also grown in the past and continue to be cultivated on the island. Agriculture remains an active sector on Denman, albeit on a much smaller scale than in its heyday in the twentieth century.
In the 1930s, beaches at Denman’s north end were seeded with Japanese oysters and the harvests grew into a million-dollar business by the 1970s. Seafood lovers around the world continue to savour oysters from Denman Island. These oysters may be obtained at the Fanny Bay Oysters Seafood Shop in Buckley Bay when in season.