The island was initially inhabited by various Salishan peoples before being settled by pioneers in 1859, at which time it was officially called Admiral Island. It was the first of the Gulf Islands to be settled and the first agricultural settlement on the islands in the Colony of Vancouver Island, as well as the first island in the region to permit settlers to acquire land through pre-emption. The island was retitled to its current name in 1910.
Salt Spring Island is the largest, most populous, and the most frequently visited of the Southern Gulf Islands.
Salt Spring Island, or xʷənen̕əč, was initially inhabited by Salishan peoples of various tribes. Other Saanich placenames on the island include: t̕θəsnaʔəŋ̕ (Beaver Point), čəw̕een (Cape Keppel), xʷən̕en̕əč (Fulford Harbour), and syaxʷt (Ganges Harbour).
The island became a refuge from racism for African Americans who had resided in California. They left California in 1858, after the state passed discriminatory legislation against blacks. Several of the families settled on this island; others on Vancouver Island. Before the emigration, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs and two other men had traveled up to the colony to interview Governor James Douglas about what kind of treatment they could expect there. He was a Guyanese man of multi-ethnic birth, and assured them that people of African descent in Canada were fairly treated as the colony had abolished slavery more than 20 years before.
The island was the first of the Gulf Islands to be settled by non-First Nations people. According to 1988's A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy, it was the first agricultural settlement established anywhere in the Colony of Vancouver Island that was not owned by the Hudson's Bay Company or its subsidiary the Pugets Sound Agricultural Company.
Salt Spring Island was the first in the Colony of Vancouver Island and British Columbia to allow settlers to acquire land through pre-emption: settlers could occupy and improve the land before purchase, being permitted to buy it at a cost per acre of one dollar after proving they had done so. Before 1871 (when the merged Colony of British Columbia joined Canada), all property acquired on Salt Spring Island was purchased in this way; between 1871 and 1881, it was still by far the primary method of land acquisition, accounting for 96% of purchases. As a result, the history of early settlers on Saltspring Island is unusually detailed.
Demographically, early settlers of the island included not only African Americans, but also (largely) English and British Isles settlers, including Irish and Scottish, as well as aboriginal and Hawaiian. The method of land purchase helped to ensure that the land was used for agricultural purposes and that the settlers were mostly families. Ruth Wells Sandwell in Beyond the City Limit indicates that few of the island's early residents were commercial farmers, with most families maintaining subsistence plots and supplementing through other activities, including fishing, logging and working for the colony's government. Some families later abandoned their land as a result of lack of civic services on the island or other factors, such as the livestock-killing cold of the winter of 1862.