Early black settlers
By Danda Humphreys
It was spring, 1858, and the Hudson’s Bay Company settlement at the foot of Fort Street was a-buzz with unaccustomed activity. For 15 years, the fur trade had been the focus for the men who worked at the fort and on the surrounding farms. But now there was new excitement. Gold finds on the mainland had been confirmed! First come, first served! Fortunes for one and all!
In San Francisco, men from all four corners of the continent gathered on street corners, in saloons, around the docks. And in the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a group of Blacks anxious to escape the threat of persecution and slavery in the so-called “free” state of California decided to go with the goldminers, north to Vancouver Island.
Their strongest supporter here was James Douglas, top HBC man in these parts as well as Governor of both Mainland and Vancouver Island colonies. Born in British Guiana to a Scottish merchant and a Barbados-born “free coloured woman,” and therefore himself part-Black, he had sympathy for these people—and plans for their future. He offered them land and freedom under the British flag. Apart from anything else, he figured they would help maintain a healthy presence here in Victoria while gold fever raged on the other side of Georgia Strait.
So when the Commodore sailed into Victoria’s harbour on April 25, 1858, it carried hundreds of eager prospectors—and a small group of Blacks. While miners—20,000 of them in a few short months—sailed in by the boatload, gathered gear for the gold fields and steamed away across the Strait, the Blacks stayed. What’s more, they sent favourable reports to friends and relatives back in San Francisco. Within a few years, Victoria’s Black community had grown from 35 to more than 250.
These hard-working pioneers farmed in Saanich, served on City Council, settled on Salt Spring, making a significant impact, with contributions too numerous to mention in this small space, on their respective communities. Their names included Alexander, Estes, Jones, Booth, Clanton, Gibbs, Lester, Lee, Mitchell, Moses, Ringo, Stark, Spotts, Stokes, Sullivan, and more. Descendants of many live among us to this day.
In Pioneer Square (formerly the Quadra Street Burying Ground) and in the Shady Creek United Church Cemetery in Saanich, stones mark the final resting place of many of those early arrivals. And on the Inner Harbour, near the Belleville Street corner, a plaque set into the top of the Causeway wall commemorates the arrival of the first Blacks who chose to call Victoria home.
Danda Humphreys has spent almost 10 years researching and writing about local history, and admires the strength and courage of people from all over the world who helped create this, the oldest European settlement on the North West Coast. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the April 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.