Before B. C. Was Born

First of a series of articles narrating the romantic experiences of a pioneer who has seen a great province emerge from the wilderness

May 1 1929

Before B. C. Was Born

First of a series of articles narrating the romantic experiences of a pioneer who has seen a great province emerge from the wilderness

May 1 1929

Before B. C. Was Born

First of a series of articles narrating the romantic experiences of a pioneer who has seen a great province emerge from the wilderness

As related by JASON O.ALLARD to B. A. McKelvie

IMAGINE, if you can, a person alive to-day who could recall the days when Montreal was a stockaded trading-post, with sentinels on watch above the palisades for the approach of hostile Indians; when communication with Europe was restricted to one vessel a year that brought supplies and took away the rich fur harvest of the forests. If Time had spared such a person, what a panorama of history he could unfold! What a story he could tell, first-hand, of the changing conditions in this Canada of ours!

The changes that such a person would have witnessed in two centuries in Eastern Canada I have seen come about in the West. I am not boasting—for there is nothing but years of which to boast—but still I have seen the Pacific province of the Dominion emerge from a state of savage wildness, with less than 250 settlers of Caucasian blood living behind the pickets of trading establishments, to its present status.

I can recall the days before the Crown Colony of British Columbia was formed, and it was not until a year after my birth that the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was created. My recollection carries me back to times when coinage was unknown and a beaver skin was the standard currency of the country; when tribal warfare was waged under the very guns of the fortifications, and the Indian code was an eye for an eye, a life for a life; and when blood alone could salve the wounded pride of a native noble. Yes, and I have good reason to remember that code, for I still carry in my body the shot from a savage’s musket to remind me thereof.

Not long ago I was asked my nationality, and the best answer I could give was that I was a “Hudson’s Bay man.”

“But,” laughed my questioner, “that’s not a nationality.”

“Well,” I replied, “call me a British Columbian.” “That won’t do either,” was the answer.

“Well, I guess then I am a Canadian.”

“No, you’re not—that’s not a nationality either.”

“Then you’ll have to figure it out for yourself,” I said. “My father was born in Montreal, and his forefathers came there before the conquest. My mother was an Indian princess, and I was born before there was any form of Government other than that of the Hudson’s Bay Company in this country—what am I?” He could not answer.

My birthplace was Fort Langley, eighty-one years ago. In 1848, Fort Langley was one of the largest and best establishments in the West. The stockade enclosed sixteen or seventeen houses and sheds, and four bastions of squared logs guarded the angles. From the ports of these blockhouses frowned cannon, ready at a moment’s notice to hurl roundshot and grape, and spew forth death and destruction in defense of the establishment, and of the homes of the inhabitants.

A Hectic Day at Fort Yale

THE Indians of those days were numerous and warlike.

Two years before I was born, my father, Ovid Allard, was in charge of the post at Fort Yale which he had built. There was no stockade about this post, because, so terrified of the savages were the men, who had accompanied my father and another clerk, named Robertson, to establish this post at the lower end of the Fraser Canyon, that they deserted before the pickets could be raised. He remained there, however, with his family, trading with the natives.

One day Chief Spentlum and his band of warriors from higher up the river attacked the place.

They captured the establishment and bound my father. My mother was at some distance from the place when she heard of the attack from a Kanaka servant. She ran to her husband’s assistance, picking up a hoe from the field as the readiest weapon, of offense.

When she reached the store, it was to find my father bound hand and foot and the Indians ransacking the shelves. Chief Spentlum was bending over a bale of goods. She rushed at him, with hoe uplifted, and called out that she would cleave his head in two if he did not order the release of his captive. This the Indian did, and when my father was liberated, my parents succeeded in driving the invaders from the store and barricaded the door. Then my brave mother called out in the Indian tongue, threatening Spentlum with the vengeance of her people, the Cowichans—the terror of the lower coast—if he and his warriors did not leave. Knowing well that he could not now carry the place without losing a number of his braves, and also aware that such a circumstance must sooner or later come to the ears of the great Chief T’shoshia, my mother’s near relative and overlord of all the Cowichan tribes, Spentlum withdrew.

And that was the manner in which Fort Yale was saved from destruction. I relate this story just to give some idea of the state of the country in the days of which I speak. I might add another incident that took place only a few months before I was born.

A year after the effort of Chief Spentlum to take Fort Yale, my father was sent to build another post, Fort Hope, fifteen miles downstream at the junction of the Fraser and Coquihalla rivers. The Company, by the treaty of 1846, which established the boundary line betweenBritish territory and the United States, found that the chief depot of the West, Fort Vancouver, was in United States territory. A new shipping arrangement had to be made, and a new trail for the brigades from Fort St. James, Fort Kamloops and the other interior posts had to be located. A. Caulfield Anderson, a chief factor, discovered a way to the lower Fraser via the Coquihalla, and consequently it was decided to build a new post where the Coquihalla joined the Fraser.

The Indians about Fort Yale who were then at war with those of the locality of the new post, tried to prevent my father and his family from leaving. They managed to get away, however, in the dead of night and make the journey by canoe to their new station through swirling waters. There my father erected the stockaded post of Fort Hope.

The Indians looked upon my father and his children as being supernatural. They thought that they were immune from death. One day, shortly before I came on the scene, my little sister drank some poison by mistake and died. My parents were heartbroken but hid their grief before the natives, for if the latter had suspected for an instant that the family was mortal, the consequences might have been disastrous.

That night, with the tears streaming down his face— for he was very devoted to his children—my father took up the boards of the floor of the house where they were living, and dug a grave, and into this the rude little coffin of cedar planks was lowered by the flickering light of a tallow dip. Kneeling down, the two mourners muttered the prayers that father had learned as a boy in far-off Canada and had taught to his native princess; and then, with sorrowing hearts and tender care they filled in the little grave.

It was this sad event that took my mother to Langley where I was born, for they had to feign jollity and freedom from care before the Indians—and she could not well succeed. Then, too, they were afraid that some of the natives would ask for the little girl.

So it was decided that my mother should go to Langley. Later my father was transferred back to that place as Indian trader, and chief assistant to J. Murray Yale, the officer-in-charge.

The Fate of the Tonquin

MY earliest recollections are of my old Indian nurse and the tales she used to tell me—stories of the birds and animals and the strange things they did and said; tales, too, of Indian warfare and of the days before the white men came to set up a new dominion and send the natives out to search for beaver.

When I was old enough to run about, the old Indians told me stories of my mother’s people, and of events that had happened long before. And young as I was,

I can still recall some of those tales, which often in later years were repeated to me. The Indians took a great interest in me, for descent among the natives is matrilineal; and through my mother I was regarded as the rightful heir to the great chieftainship of the Cowichan people. Recently I was on Vancouver Island with a friend and was amazed to find that the old men, and some of the younger ones too, still paid me homage by reason of my mother’s ancestry.

Some of those Indian stories are of historical value. For instance, I heard from the lips of those who were present how forty-five years before—when old men were but boys at the time—Simon Fraser came down the river that to-day bears his name; how plans were laid to kill him, and how Chief Wattle-kainum potlatched all his wealth to buy the white man’s life and stay the attack that was planned for the following night upon the explorer’s camp.

Then, too, I remember an old bow-legged Indian who carried

water for the fort from the

river. He had witnessed the blowing up of the Tonquin,

Astor’s ill-fated ship, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

He had been captured as a small boy and was a slave of the West Coast tribes at the time, in 1811, when the Tonquin was captured by Indians, and all but one or two of the crew were killed in the first assault.

These sailors had been in the rigging when Captain Thorn, his officers and the men on deck were murdered. They knew that it was only a matter of a few hours at most before they too would be killed. At last, they managed to make their way below decks, and waited until the vessel was alive with pillaging natives. Then they set fire to the powder magazine and exacted a terrible revenge, for several hundred savages were killed in the explosion.

Washington Irving tells in his “Astoria” of the ship’s destruction, and so does Ross in his “First Settlers on the Columbia”

—and Ross’s story tallies almost exactly with that told to me by the Indian who, as a slave, witnessed the whole affair. The Hudson’s Bay Company ransomed this slave, and he came to Fort Langley where he worked for many years as water carrier. He was very, very old when he died, and he often described the affair to me, not only as a very small boy but when I was a youth.

An Ambush That Failed

A ÆR. YALE, chief trader in charge of the fort, was -*-*'-*a peculiar little man, very taciturn and retiring, but brave and experienced. He was of small stature, and known throughout the service as “Little Yale.” He was very conscious of his lack of inches, and it was laughable to see him keeping as far away as he could from Governor James Douglas, head of the Western Department who used to visit Fort Langley, in order that the comparison in their heights would not be so obvious. Governor Douglas stood well over six feet and his build was in proportion, truly a magnificent man in body, and equally gigantic in mind.

In some way Mr. Yale incurred the enmity of Chief Tzouhalem, who was a vicious, bloodthirsty man, hated and feared by his own tribe on Vancouver Island and by all the Indians of the lower coast. It was Tzouhalem who, in 1844, had led the attack on Fort Victoria. Just why he wanted to kill Mr. Yale, I do not know, but he came to Fort Langley for that purpose and hid himself behind a tree stump just below the rising-ground where the post was established. All day he waited for a chance to shoot the officer as he came out the fort gate, but Mr. Yale did not find occasion to leave the fort and so escaped death. Late in the day my father was informed of Tzouhalem’s ambush, and sallied out by another gate with some men and drove him away.

Not long after this, Tzouhalem himself was murdered—and, like Samson, he was trapped by a woman.

He had ordered two young men to young paddle his canoe to one of the Gulf Islands—Kuper Island I think it was—where he intended to kill a man. He made the mistake of boasting to his paddlers what he was going to do, and it happened that his proposed victim was a relative of one of the young fellows.

They watched their opportunity and extracted the ball from Tzouhalem’s musket without him discovering it. He walked boldly into the big rancherie house, pointed his musket at the object of his wrath and fired. When the man did not fall, Tzouhalem backed up against a post and drew his knife, knowing that he would be attacked. A woman stole up behind him and, quickly passing a stick in front of him, caught both ends of it and drew him up against the post, thus imprisoning his arms. The men immediately fell upon him and killed him. He was so much hated that the Indians cut off his head and made a football out of it.

A Journey to Victoria

'T'HERE were gay times at Fort Langley, too, especially when the annual fur brigade would sweep down the river with the argosy of New Caledonia; or when the company’s ships would arrive with supplies. Then there would be high celebration; bagpipes and fiddles were pressed into service, and reels and square dances became the order of the day for the voyageurs and sailors. At the Big House, as the officers’ quarters were known, there would be feasting and merriment galore — ah, yes, dangers and privations would be forgotten when there was occasion for a spree.

In 1853 we left Fort Langley —the result of a disagreement between my father and Mr. Yale. The trouble was over cranberries and dogs—a strange combination indeed!

It happened in this way. Mr. Yale, who left the outside management entirely to my father, was approached by an American captain named Webster, who had come to the lower river to collect cranberries. Webster wanted barrels for the manufacture of containers for salt salmon, and sought them at Fort Langley where there was a cooperage. Mr. Yale referred the captain to my father, and intimated that the stranger’s wants should be supplied. Later, when the company officials at Victoria heard of it they were furious, and Mr. Yale passed the blame on to his assistant. This naturally caused some illfeeling, and his resentment was brought to a head when my father shot one of his dogs. He used to keep a pack of vicious curs about the Big House. It was part of my father’s duties to see that everything was locked for the night and then take the keys to the Big House, and go there in the morning to get them. One day while on this errand, a dog attacked him and he shot it. High words followed, and father declared that he would quit the service rather than continue to serve under Little Yale; but in later years they patched up their differences and became good friends again.

The headquarters of the Western Department were at Fort Victoria, and we started for that place where it was father’s intention to resign from the service which he had entered in 1834 at the age of seventeen. It took us four days to make the trip in an Indian canoe—to-day the palatial steamers of the C.P.R. make the trip from Victoria to Vancouver in as many hours—thus have times changed.

There was only one steamer on the Coast in those days—the historic old leaver v/hich was the first steamship to churn the waters of the Pacific. She was fitted out like a frigate, with cannon and boarding nettings, and with sabres and muskets stacked ready for instant use. A wonderful ship we thought she was too, when she would beat her way up the Fraser and drop anchor off Fort Langley —and the Indians never could overcome their awe of her. They could not comprehend what made the paddles go round, or why she emitted such clouds of smoke.

On arriving at Fort Victoria my father was persuaded by Governor Douglas— senior officer of the company and head of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island—to remain in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay. He offered him a station at Nanaimo—or Colvilletown as it was then known—where the company had recently opened coal-mines; and the offer was accepted.

We stayed a few weeks about Victoria awaiting transportation to Nanaimo. The atmosphere of Victoria has changed greatly since those days. Now it is often referred to as “a bit of Old England on the shores of the Pacific,” but at that time it was a fortified trading-post. Palisades enclosed a square of about one hundred yards and strong bastions stood at diagonal corners mounting ninepounders. Beyond the fort were gardens, and one or two houses had been erected outside of the enclosure, but close enough so that their occupants could run into the fort when the big alarm bell was sounded. The Songhee village was situated across the harbor.

We went to Nanaimo on the old Recovery, in tow of the Beaver, and lived on board the old ship for several weeks while a log house was being built for us on shore.

Nanaimo was defended by a single octagonal bastion which, thanks to the Native Sons of British Columbia, still stands in a state of good repair. It was set on the highest point of a small peninsula where coal was first discovered, and its guns could meet attack from any angle. At a lower elevation and a short distance away was the company’s store, enclosed by a high fence Log huts for the workmen had been erected without any idea of system, and to-day the winding streets of Nanaimo city attest to the lack of town-planning foresight of J. W. McKay who had charge of the place.

There was only a handful of whites at the place, but a little later the establishment was augmented by the arrival of a number of Old Country coal-miners with their families who came out in 1854 on board the Princess Royal. Indian warfare and savage treachery were matters of daily occurrence, and I notice in the journal of that year, which was owned by my friend the late Mark Bate, that Mr. McKay set out that he was called upon to warn the Indians from carrying on their fights so close to the dwellings.

Indians were employed underground with the half dozen miners. The whites were credited with wages, while the natives were paid in cotton shirts. Almost daily in those first two or three years, work would be halted while the Indians got together to repel the expected invasion of hostile tribes from the Mainland, or in consequence of some rumor that the dreaded Yucultas, or the even more feared Haida raiders from the Queen Charlotte islands were coming.

He Died to Save His People

'T'HERE was one memorable invasion L by the northern tribes that cost the life of Wun-wun-shim, the great chief of the five villages that comprised the S’nenymo confederacy. The company had a salt well and a sawmill in addition to the mine. They employed five Kwakiutl Indians in getting out logs for the mill. This displeased the S’nenymoes, and they ambushed the strangers and killed three of them. The others escaped and made their way home.

It was probably a week later that the alarm was sounded, and men left the mine and mill and ran toward the bastion or their homes to look after their families. Women caught up their children and hurried them to the safety of the blockhouse. And this time there was cause for alarm, for a fleet of one hundred war canoes, carrying probably 1000 braves, swept around Protection Island and headed into the bay. The il’nenymoes could muster only forty canoes, but they went out bravely to meet the invaders.

It was a magnificent sight as the rival fleets came to a standstill on the sunlit waters of the harbor for the customary parley that preceded such an engagement. It was the Indian law that reparation could be made for a death, and the Kwakiutls demanded that three S’nenymoes die and gifts be made to the relatives of the Slain Kwakiutls. To this the S’nenymoes agreed—but who would be the three? No one volunteered. At last Wun-wun-shim rose in his canoe.

“Surely,” he said, “I, Wun-wun-shim, the great chief of all the people here, am worth three common men. I will pay the blood-price.”

The Kwakiutls conferred for a moment among themselves—yes, the proposal was a just one; they would accept the life of Wun-wun-shim.

With arms folded he stood in the bow of his canoe and met his death. Twice did the marksmen of the northern force wound his flesh before a bullet struck him between the eyes. And thus died a chief for his people.

There was a school at Nanaimo for the few children who were there, and this I attended.

It was while I was on my way home from school one day that I was shot. My father was in charge of all the Indians about the establishment, and as overseer he had to punish a native one day. The savage was wounded in spirit, and according to the blood code, felt bound to wash out the injury to his pride in the blood of a relative of my father. He lay in wait for me, and shot me.

The charge of small shot struck my right hip, and tore away a portion of the flesh of my thigh. I fell, screaming with pain, and some men hearing my cries, ran to pick me up and carry me home.

My assailant died the same night— my mother’s relatives knew nothing of the white man’s laws, and I was their young prince.

B.C’s First Jury Trial

SO much for the code of blood. Now, before I close, let me tell of the first jury trial held West of the Rockies.

In a drunken brawl between two miners one was so badly kicked that he died, and the other, a French-Canadian, was arraigned for his murder. There were no lawyers in the country in those days, and J. W. McKay undertook to hold court. He knew it was customary in such cases to hold an inquest; and also there was such a thing as a preliminary trial; but of the procedure of the latter he was somewhat hazy, so he decided to combine them. The French-Canadian was accused of murder, and he asked my father to appear for him. A jury was impaneled and court was declared to be open. The proceedings were somewhat as follows:

Ovid Allard—I appear for the accused.

Mr. McKay—Yes, that is all right.

Ovid Allard—I enter an objection.

Mr. McKay—To what?

Ovid Allard—The jury.

Mr. McKay—The jury! On what grounds?

Ovid Allard—I base it on the Magna Charta.

Mr. McKay—What has the Magna Charta got to do with this affair?

Ovid Allard—The Magna Charta says that a man can only be put on trial before his peers or equals ...

Mr. McKay—That is correct.

Ovid Allard—Well, as there are no French-Canadians on the jury, the prisoner is not before his equals, and we will not admit that these men on the jury are his peers.


This was a puzzler, but after considering it for a time in his capacity as magistrate and coroner, Mr. McKay agreed that perhaps the objection was a good one. The jury was dismissed, and a new one was impaneled with half its members French-Canadians. Strange to say, there was a disagreement, so the only course open was to bind the accused over to keep the peace and answer to the summons of the Governor if he should decide to proceed further—which he never did.

I could go on indefinitely telling of those early days of old Nanaimo, but I have told enough, perhaps, to bear out my contention that the rapid changes on this Coast in the past seventy-five years were counterparts of the changes in the East that it required two centuries to bring about. I will only add this; that we remained at Nanaimo until the spring of 1858 when it was evident that a great gold rush would take place that summer to the Couteau country, as the vicinity about Yale was known. Then Governor Douglas asked my father to go back to Yale to use his influence to keep the peace between the Indians and the whites. The gold rush came—and thirty thousand mad gold-seekers flocked into the country in the next few months— and their coming hastened the establishment of the dominion of the Crown and the creation of the colony of British Columbia.

Editor’s Note—This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Allard and Mr. McKelvie dealing with the early days of British Columbia. The second will appear in an early issue.