Sable Island Gold

John Campbell tried several times in the mid-1800s to mine gold on Sable Island, but his efforts faced rough seas, literally and figuratively.

Campbell, a resident of Dartmouth, read about the California gold rush in newspapers in 1849. He wanted to join those seeking their fortunes in California and prepared to travel there. However, according to author and mining agent, Alexander Heatherington, “Circumstances happened to prevent his departure….”

Since he could not travel to California, Campbell decided to look for gold in Nova Scotia instead.

Most Nova Scotia gold is in quartz veins that started forming 400 million years ago as North Africa and North America started colliding. Sub-sea sediments were squished between the tectonic plates, upthrusted and folded as they turned into rock. This allowed fluid to leach gold from rock deep underground and flow into cracks in rock closer to surface, forming veins of quartz and gold as the fluid eventually cooled and hardened.

The deposits that triggered gold rushes in California and the Yukon were different. They were placer deposits (aka alluvial), meaning the gold was concentrated in ancient river sediments after being eroded from bedrock gold deposits. Water eroded the rock and gold and carried the eroded sediments downhill until they settled out. This concentrated the gold in one area, creating placer deposits.

That's why a classic image of prospectors is someone using a pan to find gold in rivers and streams. They scooped up water and gravel in a pan, swirled it around and the gold, which is very heavy, settled on the bottom of the pan while the lighter gravel and dirt washed over the side. This was a simple but effective small-scale method of extracting the gold.

Nova Scotia has some placer gold but very little compared to places like California and the Yukon. The reason is Nova Scotia was repeatedly covered with glaciers in the past 100,000 years, until the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. The glaciers dragged sediments and rocks along with them as they moved, scattering the gold of any placer deposits that existed prior to the glaciers.

California and the Yukon, on the other hand, were not as heavily glaciated as Nova Scotia was. They had many more thousands of years of stream erosion than Nova Scotia, and this liberated huge quantities of gold from bedrock deposits. Their placer deposits were mainly left intact because they had less glaciation, so they were just waiting to be discovered in the 1800s.

Alexander Heatherington wrote in 1868 that Campbell panned placer gold in several places along Nova Scotia’s shore as early as 1849, the same year he abandoned his plan to travel to California: “Mr. Campbell continued his investigations with varied success until 1857, when he obtained the co-operation of Mr. R. G. Fraser, the assayer, who made some experiments on the sands at Fort [Clarence], in Halifax Harbour, from which they obtained a very good show of gold.” (Fort Clarence was where the oil refinery on Dartmouth’s waterfront is now.)

Campbell also obtained samples of sand from Sable Island and found that they contained placer gold. Henry How, author of “Mineralogy of Nova Scotia” (1868), said the Sable Island sands were “richly auriferous” (gold-bearing).

Campbell’s belief was that placer gold scraped off Nova Scotia by glaciers was eventually carried into the ocean, and that some of it became part of Sable Island. Sable is the top of a huge sand bank that started forming about 18,000 years ago when a melting glacier left a 30-metre-tall ridge at its margin. Much of the glacial sediment that Sable Island is made of came from Nova Scotia, so Campbell’s theory was generally sound. (How Sable Island formed is explained further at

In 1857-58, Campbell applied to the provincial government for a license to prospect and mine on Sable Island. The license was granted but, according to Heatherington, its terms were so “illiberal” – unfavourable - that Campbell declined the license, even though he and some partners had already bought tools and machinery, and had arranged for miners and a ship to transport them to the island.

Campbell later wrote that he was “refused” the mining rights on Sable Island and “the gold is allowed to remain there as it was.”

Several years later, as Nova Scotia’s first gold rush started in the early 1860s, Joe Howe, then-Provincial Secretary, asked Campbell to tour the eastern counties of the province and report back on their geology and potential for minerals. Henry Poole, manager of the General Mining Association, was commissioned to the do the same for the western counties and their combined report was released in 1862. Areas Campbell researched became some of the highest-producing gold districts in Nova Scotia.

This project led to Campbell being sent to Sable Island to assess its mineral potential. According to Heatherington, Campbell was promised control of any placer gold deposits he might find on the island.

With another chance to pursue gold on Sable, Campbell sailed there on a schooner named “Daring,” but weather and sea conditions prevented him from landing. Instead, he sailed back to Isaac’s Harbour and gathered material for the report (

We are not aware of any other attempts by Campbell or anyone else to find placer gold on Sable Island.

While gold exists in the sands at Sable Island, as it does in all rock and sand in at least some tiny amount, it is likely that the island’s gold potential would not be enough to warrant a modern mine. Sable Island is now a national park, so industrial activities like mineral exploration and mining cannot take place there anyway.

Campbell became the government’s Provincial Geologist and played an important role in gathering geological information about Nova Scotia’s gold districts, finding placer gold in a number of them. He also worked with William Cunard, son of Nova Scotia shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, on placer gold mining at the Ovens, one of the few places in Nova Scotia that produced significant quantities of placer gold (

The first documented discovery of gold in Nova Scotia is usually considered to be in 1858 at Mooseland but it would be more accurate to say that Mooseland was the first discovery of gold-bearing quartz veins. Campbell’s placer gold discoveries, potentially as early as 1849, were arguably the first intentional gold discoveries in Nova Scotia (as opposed to accidental discoveries: