How Mifflin Gibbs made his fortune in gold rush Victoria

Mifflin Gibbs was one of the most successful black merchants in Victoria. Gibbs had a partnership with Peter Lester and their firm ‘Lester & Gibbs’ had everything a miner could want. Some say it was the first provision store in Victoria to rival that of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Born in Philadelphia in 1823, Gibbs was eight years old when his father Reverend Gibbs died. One of three sons, Gibbs helped out with odd jobs while his mother Maria worked cleaning laundry. When they were teenagers, Mifflin and his brother Jonathan apprenticed as carpenters. Eventually, the brothers became active in the anti-slavery movement; a time which marked the beginning of their political lives.

Mifflin Gibbs

Mifflin Gibbs

In 1850, Mifflin Gibbs went to the gold rush town of San Francisco and found work as a carpenter. Two years later, he entered into partnership with Peter Lester and together they ran the ‘Clay Street Pioneer Shoe & Boot Emporium’. Their business was prosperous but it didn’t take long before anti-black sentiment to take its toll. Discrimination supported by increasingly restrictive immigration policies prompted many members of San Francisco’s black community to leave.

As soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush, Gibbs headed north to Victoria.
Gibbs arrived in June, 1858 with provisions including flour, bacon, blankets, picks and shovels. Miners bought everything he had and Gibbs ordered more with the help of Lester who was still in San Francisco. Within a few weeks, Gibbs set up the store of ‘Lester & Gibbs’ in one half of a house; the other half, he rented out for $500 a month.

After a successful year, Gibbs travelled to the eastern United States for a lengthy visit. During that time he married Maria Alexander, who had been a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. The couple returned to Victoria to his five acre lot in the James Bay district. Gibbs became a British subject in 1861.

Life in Victoria was not without its challenges. There was still prejudice against blacks; however, at least they could rely on British law for protection. Determined to change the status quo, Gibbs ran for election as city councillor for the new municipality of Victoria in August 1862. Voting was done by a show of hands in public and the results were very close; Gibbs lost the election by only four votes. Despite this setback, Gibbs continued to be politically engaged and frequently made his points of view known.

After seven years of marriage, his wife left him and returned to the United States with their five children. Meanwhile, Gibbs committed himself to expanding his business interests. In 1864, he ended the partnership with Lester and moved on to earn his living from real estate, construction and mining investments.

In November 1866, Mifflin Gibbs ran again for Victoria city council, representing the district of James Bay where he lived and this time, he won. Re-elected the following term, Gibbs was so preoccupied with a coal mining venture in the Queen Charlotte Islands that his seat was declared vacant.

In 1869, Gibbs returned to the United States where he obtained a law degree and became a judge.