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Cabinet of historical curiosities

Daniel Marshall traces personal connections to uncover overlooked aspects of BC's provincial heritage.

June 09th, 2024

Professor Daniel Marshall has travelled widely amongst First Nations peoples and makes his home in Victoria, B.C.

Untold Tales of Old British Columbia tells long-hidden stories that reveal how BC emerged from a period of chaos and transformation from the mid-1850s to after World War I and the Spanish Flu era.

Untold Tales of Old British Columbia
by Daniel Marshall (Ronsdale Press $24.95)

Review by Mark Forsythe

British Columbia is something of a whippersnapper among provinces. When eastern Canada was getting its act together in 1867, we remained a colony of the Empire. It wasn’t until 1871 that BC took the bait of a national railway. (Newfoundland was the final province to join in 1949.) The Rocky Mountains were a formidable barrier for East-West connections, which meant a natural North-South flow of commerce, people and culture.

The gold rush of 1858 deepened those ties to the South. More than 30,000 miners roared in from the US in a single year with most of the food, supplies and tools—not to mention whiskey—arriving on steamers from San Francisco or on the hoof along pack trails from the south. It looked like “Manifest Destiny” would sweep the entire Pacific Slope. “54-40 or Fight!” In no time, BC would slide into the US. So, why didn’t this happen? What kind of BC emerged? What did all of this mean for Indigenous people?

Dive into Untold Tales of Old British Columbia for some answers, an eclectic mix of vignettes from historian Daniel Marshall. The Victoria-based author of the award-winning Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New El Dorado (Ronsdale, 2018) draws on 40 columns crafted for the online magazine, The Orca. His timeline spans the fur trade and gold rush eras, through confederation (and BC’s threats of secession), finally touching briefly on the Great War and Spanish Flu era. This “Old British Columbia” includes intersections with the much deeper history of Indigenous people with whom Marshall has worked and collaborated for many years.

Marshall dubs his new collection, a “cabinet of curiosities,” and there’s also a sense that he’s sharing the family photo album. His ancestors travelled north after the California gold rush to chase the golden butterfly on the Fraser River; one farmed on the Saanich Peninsula, another built roads and trails to open up interior gold fields. A seasoned bush-whacker, Marshall revels in locating these routes or a long-forgotten battle site in the Fraser Canyon. Childhood travels with family elders forged a keen interest in BC history, from the ground up.

Untold Tales of Old British Columbia uncovers important contributions by Indigenous guides and interpreters, regales readers with tales of miners defying death and documents fortunes won and lost (including an American financial empire built from Fraser River diggings). There are also bridge builders—in both the metaphorical and physical senses.

James Douglas (1803–1877), first Governor of the Colony of BC.

BC was a multicultural place in 1858 during what Marshall calls “the third biggest mass of gold seekers in human history.” Most people living on the land were Indigenous and were soon to be pushed onto reserves. Some joined the new economy as miners or transporting other gold miners by canoe—some canoes even carried steel and iron for the iconic Alexandra Bridge. James Douglas, of mixed heritage (Scottish & West Indian), had forged strong relationships with Indigenous people during the fur trade era for the Hudson’s Bay Company and had married Amelia Connolly, the Métis daughter of a fur trader. Douglas had witnessed firsthand the American march westward and watched British trading territory dissolve into what is now Washington, Oregon and California. On orders from the Colonial Office, he worked to preserve this remote area as British territory, looked out for the welfare of Indigenous people and at the same time, encouraged settlement. He created alliances with Chinese miners and invited Blacks to escape slavery from the US, to be considered equal under British law. He also began to sign treaties with First Nations. Marshall writes, “Queen Victoria’s paradoxical policy of protecting Indigenous people while promoting progress presented colonial administrators like Douglas with an onerous task: to interpret and implement two mutually exclusive imperial goals.” The consequences are still with us today.

Joseph Trutch, KCMG (1826 – 1904), English-born Canadian civil engineer, land surveyor, and politician who served as first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.

A true Vancouver Islander, Daniel Marshall reminds us that the preferred route of the future Canadian Pacific Railway was actually to Bute Inlet, which involved island-hopping along multiple bridges to Vancouver Island that would include a toehold on Ripple Rock. (His grandfather lamented this lost opportunity for years.) A rail line from Campbell River was to end at salt water in Esquimalt. Marshall details why it didn’t work out that way, with some fascinating speculation about Joseph Trutch’s conflict of interest that steered the railway to the south: his toll bridge in the Fraser Canyon. “Vancouver Island was not needed as a western entrepôt, nor was the Island essential to the larger Canadian national dream,” writes Marshall. In the end, Canada was prepared to say goodbye to Vancouver Island if it didn’t like the final port choice of Burrard Inlet.

Peering through the lens of history can reveal much about the here and now. Marshall says this narrative is always changing, as are our points of view. An engaging storyteller with a gift for digging up long-hidden stories (many buried in American archival collections), his collection goes a long way toward revealing how BC emerged from a period of chaos and transformation. He is something like a miner panning gravel for nuggets and flakes before they’re swept downstream forever. 9781553807049

Mark Forsythe is author/co-author of four books and a former host of CBC Radio’s BC Almanac.

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