Population: 1300 permanent residence
First Nations Influence
Cortes Island is the First Nations Coast Salish territory a people that inhabited the island on the eastern and western shores; in 1862 a small pox epidemic decimated the population. It was reported that feverish First Nations people were sighted staggering from their tents to the sea to cool themselves, and collapse and die as they crawled back to the beach.
In later years a different tribe of Salish arrived to occupy the island that the smallpox epidemic and enemy raids had depopulated.
Raids from warring tribes were a constant menace in the past, especially those of the aggressive Haida from the North and Lekwiltok from Quadra Island, often taking women and children to servein a life of slavery.
Midway between Smelt Bay and Manson’s landing, just north of the ancient First Nations Village of Paukeanun a petroglyph can be seen on a huge granite boulder. Only visible at low tide, this petroglyph shows the outline of a fish or whale, nine feel long. At Gorge Harbour, prominently displayed, are First Nations designs half way up the perpendicular cliffs. The artists must have been lowered by cedar ropes to achieve these ancient mementos of the dwellers of Cortes Island.
The Whalers came
Before the whalers appeared, whales of all types of marine mammals abounded in Georgia Strait. Captain George Vancouver wrote “Numberless whales enjoying the season were playing about the ship in every direction”.
Whaletown received its name from the whaling station that was operated on Cortes Island from 1869 to 1879. In June of the first year they slaughtered five whales, averaging 80 barrels of oil a piece ,for a total of 13,000 gallons of oil. Oils that were much in demand at the time for the production of soap, tallow, cooking fat, candles and lubricants, and “Worth in New York City, this very day $1.20 per gallon in greenbacks, or .87 cents in gold”.
That day the company also killed three other whales but lost them. In those early days of whaling on the coast, typically small boats were lowered from the schooner when a whale was sighted. Then the harpoon bombs were launched from the small pursuing craft. The men then anticipated a long and often dangerous struggle.
When the death of a whale was achieved the carcass was then towed to the schooner, however a large percentage of the whales were never recovered because they sank or wereinjured then carried away by the rapid tides.
A story to be mentioned about the early whaling days is one of Abel Douglas. One boat struck a whale with a harpoon, and Able manning the second boat managed to secure his iron in as well.
In his journal he says "The whale was a rather hard fellow to kill.” After the whales blubber was punctured by three bombs, the great mammal circled and dove. He came up directly under the second boat, thrust at it, put his head on it and pushed it “a considerable distance” underwater. The boat surfaced bottom up and the men swam for their lives.
The line then ran out at 180 fathoms and finally when they pulled up to the whale it was dead. The whale was then towed to shore, cut up, and the blubber was sent aboard the Kate to the try-works at Cortes Island, after that insident the whalers once again set out at once to look for more whales.
In 1871 The British Colonist out of Victoria reported “Whales are getting scarce in the Gulf” by January 1872 the whaling company Dawson and Company was in liquidation.
The only signs remaining of the whaling days at Cortes are the name Whale Town, the old wharf is gone as are all the buildings and infrastructure.
1900 and beyond
The economy of Cortes changed from the commercial whaling stations to farming, by 1903 there were twelve ranchers on the island, men women and children, 60 all told. Between 150 and 200 acres of hard cleared and cultivated land, a school was started but still there was no commercial wharf.
In 1974 the provincial government set aside 130 acres at Carrington Bay for a recreations area, and 117 acres at Manson’s Landing for a Class “A” Provincial Park. The park includes 1,250 meters of beach facing the lagoon and 400 meters of white sandy beach at Hague Lake.
At Smelt Bay there is a 40 acre Class “A” Park, its name taken from the fish that swim the seas into the creeks to spawn. These parks highlight the smooth, sandy beaches of Cortes, from this prominence you can also view the rolling, green hillocks that once were First Nations fortifications.
Today near the sheltered waters of Gorge Harbour, a marina with sites set up for camping and RV’s welcome the boating tourist, while Squirrel Cove has a small store and post office. Industries on Cortes today consist of tourism; shake mills, an oyster co-operative, fish farming and a vital artisan population.