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Discovery

The island was the first land sighted by John Cabot in 1497. He is said to have landed in Aspy Bay, on the northern tip of the island, and claimed the land for England.(6) In the early 1500's, Basque fishing crews from the Basque region of Europe began traveling to the island for its bountiful fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.(1) Thousands of years before either the European fishermen or John Cabot ever set foot on Cape Breton, the native Mi'kmaq Indians inhabited the island. The Scottish Sir James Stewart, Lord Ochiltree and 60 others formed the first official settlement near Louisbourg on the eastern coast.(6)

War for the Island

Cape Breton Island switched hands between the British and French several times before finally reuniting with Nova Scotia in 1820.(1) A provision of the Treaty of Utrecht gave the island to France in 1713, but the British captured the French fortress at Louisbourg some years later. The fortress eventually fell to the British during the 7 Years' War.(6) Around 1758, the first Scottish immigrants began settling on Cape Breton.(6) People of Scottish descent form nearly half of the population of Cape Breton Island. In the 1790's and the 1830's, the island experienced two huge waves of Scottish immigrants.(1) After landlords drove Scottish tenants off their land in the 1820's, the landless emigrated to Cape Breton to continue living as they had in their homeland. The French soon returned and settled nearby, along with the Irish. The blend of the cultures has created a culture unique to Cape Breton Island. Gaelic and Acadian French are still spoken in many communities, especially along the western coastline.(1)

Coal and Steel Industries

In the early 1900's, coal and steel became huge industries on the island. Sydney, the largest city on Cape Breton Island, became a booming industrial town after the building of a steel plant.(17) Coal mining has contributed significantly to the culture of Cape Breton. Great numbers of immigrants moved to the island to work in the mines, increasing the population rapidly. The coal miners gained a sense of community through sharing the hardships of the mining life and forming unions to protest their rights. "Ethnic pockets" were formed in mining towns with each town having a predominant ethnicity. Religion helped bind people together. When each group arrived, they built their own church. (11) After World War II, the coal industry deteriorated significantly. Today, pulp and paper manufacturing, fishing, tourism and agriculture are the main industries. (1)

Hughie on his lobster boat
Hughie on his lobster boat off the
coast of Mabou, Cape Breton Island.

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© Amy Clendenin 2002
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Site last updated: November 2002