ASHBY, Daryl

Author Tags: Early B.C., Forestry, Forts and Fur, Labour

Historian Daryl Ashby spent more than a decade researching the life of B.C. pioneer John Muir for John Muir: West Coast Pioneer (Ronsdale, 2005). After Muir emigrated from Scotland in the late 1840s, he and his sons were first employed as "consignee" labourers for the Hudson's Bay Company. Muir gained the distinction of organizing the province's first labour strike in 1949, objecting to working conditions at Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island. Muir was sentenced to prison for demanding better pay and rejecting the HBC's militaristic style of labour management, but he remained defiant. Soon released, he took possession of his property at Sooke where he prospered. Ironically B.C.'s first labour agitator also became its first forestry executive, developing a steam-driven mill and acquiring the largest privately-owned fleet of ships in the Pacific Northwest. Muir became a magistrate and later a Member of the First Legislative Assembly.

[BCBW 2005]

John Muir: West Coast Pioneer
Review (2005) by Joan Givner

In his fictionalized biography of one of British Columbia’s first settlers from Europe, John Muir: West Coast Pioneer (Ronsdale $21.95), Daryl Ashby begins by having the 83-year-old Muir recall his family’s six-month sea journey from Scotland to Vancouver Island in 1849, when he and four sons had pledged to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company for three years in return for their fare and a twenty-five acre land grant.

Upon his arrival at Fort Victoria, John Muir was turning 50. One hundred acres of land were selected near present-day Sooke—territory inhabited for centuries by the native T’Sou-ke and accessible from the main colony of Fort Victoria only by canoe—because the harbour at Sooke reminded the Muir clan of Loch Lomond. After using his Scottish coal-mining experience at Fort Rupert to fulfill his HBC obligations, Muir homesteaded on his Sooke farm named Woodside, where he built the island’s first steam-operated sawmill.

While building a fleet of ships Muir became the largest exporter of lumber and raw materials in the northwest—in effect, the founder of B.C. lumber industry. From a lumberyard built in Victoria in 1860, Muir & Co. developed trade with South America, Asia and Australia, and supplied wood for sailing ships and buildings around the world, including the rebuilding of San Francisco after its fires. Muir doubled as a magistrate and an elected representative for the District of Metchosin and Sooke at Fort Victoria; his son Andrew served as Vancouver Island’s first Chief Sheriff; and Muir & Co. continued its lumber operations until 1892.

A first person point of view is tricky, especially for a historian, since the virtue of immediacy is offset by the danger of subjectivity and potential unreliability, but Ashby has skillfully adopted Muir’s voice based on his readings of Muir’s diaries. What gives Ashby’s story its dramatic tension is Muir’s antagonism for James Douglas, the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and later, Governor of British Columbia. Muir’s narration makes Douglas the villain of his piece, and the subjective account of his arch-enemy paints a picture that serves as a counter-balance to the official portraits—not so much warts-and-all as warts-above-all.

Muir’s hostility for Douglas began when the Chief Factor failed to welcome personally those who had traveled 12,000 miles in order to work for him. It built up from there as Douglas’ subsequent behaviour confirmed Muir’s first impressions. He saw Douglas as an autocratic, overbearing man with a sporadic temper whose mandate to establish a colony for the British government clearly took second place to his desire to see the HBC prosper. In particular, Muir found Douglas’ treatment of the Aboriginal population not only exploitive but barbaric, though no character in the book can escape criticism on that score.

In 1854, Muir joined other reformers to send a petition to the British Government requesting a new form of government for the colony—a democratically elected body that put the interests of the settlement before those of the HBC. The bearer of the petition was a respected clergyman, Robert Staines, who had witnessed Douglas’ lack of interest in the needs of the independent settler. Tragically, the ship on which Staines traveled, like many vessels loaded to excess by greedy owners, sank as it entered the seas of the open Pacific.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Douglas slandered Staines as “a violent party man, prudent neither in his conduct nor associations.” Nevertheless, the fact that Douglas was in conflict of interest must have been noted in Britain, for the severance of his connection with the HBC was soon made a condition of his becoming Governor of B.C.

The two antagonists eventually reached some accommodation. Governor Douglas attended a wedding in Metchosin in spite of the presence of those who had tried to depose him. To Muir’s credit he was fair-minded enough to admit at last, “I must confess he proved himself a man of vision over the long haul.”

While this account is dominated by two men, there are numerous colourful figures from the colonial period such William Alexander Smith, better known by his adopted name of Amor de Cosmos, who became editor of the British Colonist. He targeted Douglas’ abuses and became the second premier of British Columbia, after John McCreight.

Ashby also introduces Muir’s neighbour, Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant, usually described as the first independent settler on Vancouver Island and the first within the whole colonial region. Grant arrived at Fort Victoria in August of 1849—after Muir—and proceeded to join eight labourers who had preceded him, likely arriving on the same ship with Muir, to clear a farm about 40 km from the fort, at Sooke. Grant’s wish to turn the area into a Scottish settlement was so strong that he tried to teach the Aboriginals to speak Gaelic.

As a person of independent means who had no need to indenture himself to the HBC for his fare, Grant could travel abroad when he wished. After one trip to the Oregon territories to prospect for gold, he decided to liquidate his Sooke holdings and return to Scotland in 1853. To the Victoria Open School he gave his beloved croquet set in the hopes that the students who play the sport in his absence—but his second gift was a more dubious one. He gave the Muir family three bushes of Scotch broom that had come from the Sandwich Islands. These fast-spreading plants were a gift to Grant from the British Consul in Honolulu, who in turn had bought them in Tasmania. “That,” says Muir, “may explain why they proliferated in the devilish way they did.”

A Member of the First Legislative Assembly on Vancouver Island, John Muir died in Sooke on April 4, 1883. During ten years of research, Daryl Ashby of Victoria found the Muir’s original Fort Rupert homesite and the site of the first Muir sawmill in Sooke.

Joan Givner writes from Mill Bay on Vancouver Island.