Category Archives: Pioneer Stories

Short stories about pioneers in British Columbia

The Petition and the Pigs

November, 1853 – Outside Fort Victoria

It all started with Staine’s pigs. Farmer Robert Staines woke up early one November morning to feed his livestock. Normally, he could hear the familiar grunts of his prized pigs as he walked along the path from his house. Not this time.  As he approached the gate, he realized it was ajar. His pigs were gone.  After looking everywhere, he rode his horse to neighbouring “Cloverdale” farm owned by William Fraser Tolmie, who was also manager of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company.

Under this umbrella of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, wholly owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, were four “Company farms” each with their own ‘bailiff’.  Staines pounded on the door and after hearing some shuffling of boots, Cloverdale bailiff Emanuel Douillet answered.

“I’ve never seen your pigs,” Douillet said.

Five pigs meant nothing to someone like Tolmie who ran a large operation of hundreds of acres, but for Staines, whose five acres included crops for oats and barley, every loss was significant.

Sensing something was not right, Staines skulked around the property and walked alongside the pig enclosure. He recognized not three, but five of his pigs.

Staines was beside himself and rode over to see Justice of the Peace, Thomas Skinner. For a sunny afternoon in November, it was still warm enough that the leaves were still on the trees. It was the kind of bucolic setting that reminded him the day he disembarked off the ship from England just five years previous.

He told Skinner of what had happened and right away Skinner promised to go over with a warrant to Tolmie’s farm.  Staines was relieved to get his pigs back, but the relief didn’t last for long.

While Staines was checking his pigs, Douillet swore a complaint to the newest Justice of the Peace, David Cameron, brother-in-law of Governor James Douglas.

“Justice Skinner came to the Cloverdale with a few of his helpers and took Tolmie’s pigs. He wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say.” Douillet said.

Cameron discussed the matter with Douglas over dinner the following evening.

“I disciplined Skinner last year over his handling of that Webster affair,” Douglas said.  “Charge Staines with trespassing.”

Cameron went one step further and removed the pigs from Staines farm.  “They will be taken into the custody of the court while the matter is settled.”

Two days later, Justice of the Peace David Cameron presided over the case of R. vs. Staines.

The pigs came home and the charges against trespassing were dropped, but Staines was humiliated. His outrage was kept in check until he learned that David Cameron, a mere Justice of the Peace for a few months, was soon to be a Supreme Court Justice.

Something had to be done. Staines spoke with the merchant James Cooper who in turn spoke with Edward Langford.

“The very thought of Cameron, a former manager at the Company’s coal mine, to be interpreting the rules of law is absurd!”

They decided to have a meeting at Staines house.

In attendance were three merchants and two Justices of the Peace. They were James Yates, William Banfield, James Cooper, Edward Langford and Thomas Skinner.

“When I arrived here three years ago, I assumed that matters would be settled according to British law, not by a few people with no legal background whatsoever,” said Staines.

“It’s an oligarchy, is what it is,” said Yates looking carefully at Langford and Skinner, former Hudson’s Bay men themselves.

Cooper nodded. “They want to protect their interests, but theirs is a monopoly which is completely illegitimate in its form. I’m quite sure that Her Majesty will concur. The Company has all but prevented me from doing business.”

Everyone was aware of the others troubles with the Company. Being an independent merchant in a Company town was next to impossible.

At the centre of the table was the petition that Robert Staines had drafted. Over the course of the evening, they changed sentences and paragraphs until they agreed on the wording.

It was titled “Concerning the Appointment of David Cameron, to the role of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Civil Justice.”

Yates stood as he read the petition in full:

There have been innumerable grievances inflicted by the Local Government of this Colony of Vancouver’s Island.  Some of these matters may, on the surface, seem petty and ordinary but the actions by the Governor, James Douglas, have made our businesses bankrupt and our lives miserable.

We the undersigned, are protesting the appointment of David Cameron to the role of Chief Justice. As the brother-in-law of the Governor, Mr. Cameron cannot be at arm’s length from any of the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

It is our most anxious wish to have the laws of the country ably and impartially administered. We most humbly ask that your majesty would graciously cause an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the recent creation of the Supreme Court of Civil Justice.

We cannot consider our safety to depend upon our innocence or the rectitude of our cause.

Over the next ten days, sixty nine signatures  were collected; representing the full population of Victoria that was not affiliated with the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Many of the towns people were reluctant to sign at first, but Staines reassured them that their names would be held confidentially.

In another two weeks, a ship was due to sail from Esquimalt to San Francisco.  Staines volunteered to deliver the petition to her majesty while the others raised money for his trip.

The evening before, several of the original group stopped by to wish him well. The next day, Staines awoke and boarded the ship, the Duchess of Lorenzo.

Once he was onboard, however, he grew uneasy. It wasn’t just that the ship was a wobbly, overloaded hulk, it was the feeling that he was being scrutinized, much like a bug under a magnifying glass.  Of the ten people on board, four were crew members and the others he recognized as HBC men.

The first day on board, he was invited to join them for a game of cards. One of the HBC men showed him a couple of large gold nuggets, “from the Queen Charlotte Islands.” he was told.  Staines was impressed at the sight of it. Then they started asking him questions. Where was he headed? What was his business in San Francisco? Staines had been so focussed on his mission, he hadn’t thought of anything to say, but he knew it wouldn’t be appropriate to tell these men that he was about to protest against one of their own.

Checking to see no one was looking, Staines took the petition out of his valise and put it inside his jacket pocket.

In the evening, dark clouds rolled overhead and large waves swelled beneath. Staines held on.  At times like these he’d rather be outside facing the danger rather than in some claustrophobic cabin.

“How soon will the storm pass?” he asked one of the crew.

“Once we make it past Cape Flattery, we’ll be alright.”

Staines fell asleep in his cot as the ship tilted from side to side.  There were the usual creaking noises from the beams, but his senses didn’t wake him up. A shadow came across his prone figure and struck him with a forceful blow.

Unconscious, Staines was carried to the stern and dumped overboard. The petition drifted with him to the watery depths.

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Surviving Pine River

Pine River

May 15,1860

“Goodbye,” Chloe whispered to her husband, Edward. His eyes were barely open and there was a sickly pallor about him. She could smell the illness that had spread from his wounded hand. Chloe knew she had to get help soon, or Edward wouldn’t live.

She was weak with hunger. It had been so long since they had enjoyed a meal; she had tried to get food but it had been a difficult winter. First there were the storms. It had been a brutally cold winter and Edward’s musket had become irreparably damaged. At the time he had been still optimistic that they had enough provisions to see them through until Spring, but then a tree fell on their canoe, breaking it in half. Edward set about trying to repair it but to no avail. She wanted to help him build a raft, but he insisted that he do it alone. “It’s important to rest,” he told her. Weak and tired, Edward was chopping a branch from a tree to use for the raft, when the axe slipped and nearly severed his hand. Chloe did her best to help him, but his suffering continued.

Chloe took the baby in her arms and held her small, frail body against her own.

Seven and a half weeks ago, her baby had been born, fat and healthy in their cabin. Edward had celebrated the event by writing a note in his diary. “March 31, 1872. “Born this day a girl with vocal cords in fine working order.” Every day, as Chloe counted and portioned out the dwindling supplies.

When they were still building the cabin, Edward would get out his diary and read aloud  what had happened a year ago on a certain date. It was almost a year since they first met in her traditional territory. The sight of white men passing through was becoming a familiar one so she wasn’t surprised when she first caught sight of Edward in a canoe. She remembered how he smiled at her and waved with his paddle. At that moment, his canoe had become stuck on the shallow bottom and he wobbled the canoe from side to side. Her brother Jean offered him a long pole with which to propel his canoe forward and the Englishman was effusive in his gratitude. He came ashore and they struck up a conversation.

His name was Edward Armson and he was from England, bound for the “gold diggings” in British Columbia.

“My wife died last year,” he lamented. “All my family is deceased except my sister.”

Chloe felt sorry for him. Jean asked him how he planned to make a living. “You can only pan for gold when the water is low. At certain times of the year, you have to do other things like trapping. Do you trap?”

“I’m good at hunting, but I’ve never trapped before. I’ve heard the gold diggings are quite prosperous, aren’t they?”

Edward stayed around for several days and after which it became clear that Chloe wanted to be with him.

“Why don’t you come too, Jean? We can see the country together.”

Jean agreed and the three of them set out in a canoe, with Edward in the front, Chloe in the middle and Jean at the back to steer.

Over time, it became apparent that Edward wasn’t an outdoor person like Jean or Chloe. He was a good student though and he was eager to learn.

By the time they reached the Peace River in the early spring, Jean decided that he wanted to explore the country on his own. Edward and his sister would be fine, he thought.

“Meet me here next Spring when the last of the snow has melted,” he had said. Edward wanted to set a specific date, but Chloe knew what her brother meant.

The river was free of ice and the snow had finally melted. This day had finally come.
As she held the baby her trembling arms, she saw the last of the snow had finally gone. The snow that had hidden food from their sight and kept them cold had melted to reveal wet, muddy earth. She imagined her brother was out there somewhere.

She stood still for a moment then walked forward, one step at a time. She had to keep going, she told herself. She couldn’t look back at the cabin. The sun was a faint shadow through the leafless limbs of the trees, but it was a cloudless sky and it lifted her spirits.

The raft was still there, tied to a tree. For a few moments, she rested and checked the baby’s blankets, making sure no cold air could possibly chill her. The baby’s eyes were closed. She had become silent and gaunt like the rest of them. Chloe kissed her tiny fingers, hoping her warm breath would feed her. Then she climbed onto the raft, holding the baby closely.

Chloe stood up and pushed the raft forward with a long pole. It took all her strength.  The raft was swaying beneath her feet. Watching her baby closely, she pushed the raft forward again. A tremor suddenly went through her body as she lost her balance, falling backward into the water.

Her clothing was so heavy it weighed her down. Using all her strength she tried to pull herself from under the water. Finally breaking through to the surface, only to see the raft caught in a current and quickly disappear down the river and around a bend. The last sight of her helpless child made her try to swim faster, but the raft had vanished from sight.
_____
Jean was thinking about his sister Chloe and brother—in-law Edward as he paddled up the Peace River in his dugout canoe. The last of the snow had melted, it would only be a matter of time before he saw them both. He wondered if their trapline was productive. It had been a cold winter and the pelts would have been thick. Every so often he would glance down the river, half expecting their canoe to come in sight but there was only a group of buffleheads in the distance.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something unusual. Standing up, he could see a raft that was being pushed along haphazardly by the current. There was something on it too. Strange, he thought.

Jean got into his canoe and a minute later he had paddled to the raft and had pulled himself alongside where he was at eye level with a small bundle. Curious, Jean stretched over the raft with one foot in his canoe and reached for the tightly wrapped blankets and lifted it towards himself. He held his breath as lifted a cloth that covered the face of a baby.

Forgetting about the raft, Jean paddled with determined strokes towards his camp and carried the baby to where the campfire was still burning. He poured water into a pot and while it boiled, he quickly prepared a mallard duck he had just shot that morning and plopped it in the water watching the fat and grease bubble. When it was cool enough, he took a spoonful of liquid and let it sit on the baby’s lips. To his amazement, the baby’s lips moved and the duck broth disappeared. He gave her spoonful after spoonful and she swallowed each one.

The baby was still too weak to cry. What could he do? Gathering the baby close to him, he got in the canoe and paddled to where he had remembered seeing an Indian encampment.

They were still there and he called out a greeting in Chinook as he approached. Suspicious at first, they relented when he showed him the small baby. At first they thought it was sick but after delicately unwrapping the child, they talked amongst themselves and decided the baby was just hungry.  One of the women in the group gathered the small dark-haired baby in her arms and started nursing the infant.

The Indian women were full of questions, but Jean could only give them limited information about discovering the baby hours earlier on a raft. He thanked them and left.
___

Over the course of the next few weeks, Jean waited around for Edward and Chloe but there was no sign of them. Worried, he decided to venture down the Pine River and see if he could find them.  Where the Pine River merged into the Peace, there stood a fur-trading post put there in the last century, or so he had been told.

The birch trees were just starting to show some signs of new foliage he noticed as he paddled downriver. He kept a close eye on the shoreline, looking for a gravel beach or some sort of landing. He didn’t think that they were too far from the mouth, but he kept paddling onward.

Up ahead was a cluster of branches that must have been carried along with the current. As he approached, he saw a piece of red cloth snagged on a branch.

Jean brought his canoe closer and took the cloth. Just as he was about to get back into his canoe, he noticed some sticks near the shore that had become piled up and saw a piece of black leather. It was beyond his reach.

Bringing his canoe ashore, out of the corner of his eye he noticed faint deer tracks still visible in the soft sand. Glancing back on the spot he had noticed before, Jean found the piece of black leather. Reaching his hand into the ice cold water, Jean lifted a leather boot.

It belonged to his sister.
____
After he buried his sister, Jean sat on the beach and thought about her sad fate. What had happened? He should have come around in the winter, even if it meant making his way along the ice. She was all the family he had left and now she was gone. Where was Edward? How could he have let this happen?

He lit a fire and ate some of the food he’d brought with him. Then he slept under his canoe.
Around midnight, he heard some wolves howling on the opposite side of the river, their voices echoing off the high rocks.

The next morning, he awoke before dawn and got back into his canoe. He knew what he was looking for and he paddled steadily until the shore flattened out again.

There was a stand of birch trees along the shore and luckily their foliage was still small enough that it was easy to see beyond them. As he scanned the area, his eyes caught a large dark shape.

A huge pine had blown down, crushing the roof of the log cabin and obliterated the door.
Jean removed enough branches so that he could gain access to the interior. The door came away in his hands and he stepped inside.

Against the back wall was a make shift bed on which lay Edward. What had happened to Edward? Part of his hand was missing. A baby’s rattle was on the floor next to a square package wrapped in birch bark. He picked them up. There wasn’t anything else to retrieve. He blocked the front door as he had found it and left.
____
Jean went down to the river and washed himself. He untied the string from the birch bark and saw a leather-bound book. It was Edward’s diary. The script was so cursive it was hard to read at first, but the entries were short and to the point.

He read about their daily struggles, trying to find enough food. For several weeks, Edward had constrained himself to one meal a day in order that Chloe would eat enough. They named the baby Lily. She was a healthy child, he wrote. He noticed how the writing style changed from thick strokes to barely discernible lines. In the last page, Edward wrote:

“I am dying, effects of accident. Write Barstow and Blake, Solicitors, London, England. Wife and baby weak from starvation. Will try to meet Jean.”

Jean felt a lump in his throat as he paddled up river. Five days later, Jean found the Indian encampment and inquired about Lily. She was putting on weight, they said. He handed one of the elders the diary of her late father. They promised to give it to Lily when she was old enough.

He was going to return next year, he told them. Jean was going to paddle east to Saskatchewan. From there, he would find one of the Hudson Bay forts and give them a message to forward to Barstow and Blake, Solicitors in England.

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To Fort George on the Cariboo Road

Imbert Orchard recorded an interview with Ivor Guest in 1964. Guest had travelled from his home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Fort George, British Columbia in 1910. Here is an excerpt of that story from “Voices of British Columbia” by Robert Budd.

“We went to Ashcroft, bought a team of horses and a wagon, put our belongings in it and started for Fort George.  We weren’t horsemen, I wasn’t. We got along about ten, twelve miles from town. One horse begin to make a funny noise. So I didn’t know what it was, and we gave him a drink of water and the further we went, the more noise he made.

Jerkline transporting freight on the Cariboo Road near Ashcroft, BC, 1909 (credit: Voices of British Columbia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So a fella came along, McMullin, with a jerkline outfit. Jerklines were three teams and a leader. McMullin came along and I said, “Look, what’s the matter with this horse?”

“Oh,” he said, that’s old Yeller, he’s got the heaves.”

“Well, I said, what do you do for that?”

“You can’t do anything for it. Just take it easy and he’ll do alright.”

So we went along with the heave-y horse all the way through to Fort George, but all along the way there were many of these jerkline outfits. All the freight went in with horses then. We didn’t see a car, of course, no trucks, all the time we were on the way.

They had some wonderful big roadhouses on the Cariboo Road: the Hundred Mile, Ninety-Five and Hundred and Fifty, and so on. We tented out but we did stop a time or two and the teamsters they all stopped at these roadhouses and sleep and eat there. The horses were put up and fed.

We got to Quesnel, and at Quesnel they had a ferry and a fellow was running the ferry across the river; he took us over. And we started for Fort George. The road was a very, very poor road. After we crossed the Blackwater River [West Road River], the road was just slashed out through the timber. No road at all. It was pretty hard going and no feed and no place to buy any.

It was a nice spring, nice weather, and there was a little grass, but we’d have to take the horses way down someplace where we could find grass. And we finally got into South Fort George on the Fraser River; the first day of May, 1911.

Well, we had quite a time to feed the horses. I went to get oats, and oats was twelve cents a pound, and I got fifty cents worth in a little sack and gave each of the horses a feed, all there was in that. And of course, I made up my mind right then, we had to get rid of these horses.

The next day a man named Paulette came along and he said, “I’d like to trade a canoe for this horse,” he said pointing to old Yeller.

I said, “sure!”

So he brought over a canoe. “Look, nice new canoe.”

It looked good to me. And he put the canoe up on the beach and a couple of paddles and two traps.  So I said, “the horse, you know where he is.” He got the horse.

I went uptown and met a fella, Ernie Livingstone from back in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  I told him how I traded the horse.

He said, “you traded for canoe?”

I said, “yes, looks good, brand new and nice shape, everything.”

So we went down and looked. He looked at it, and the first thing he said, “I knew it was no good.”

“Well,” I said, “what’s wrong with it?”

“Well,” he said, “see that split in the bow and the split in the stern?” He said, “it’s gonna have two halves, that’ll just break right in two.”

“By golly,” I said, “I’ll fix that up. I’ll put tin on it.”

He said, “you can’t put enough tin on there to hold it. It’s gonna split.”

Sure enough, I put the canoe in the water. It came out and it just broke in two. That was about a week after I traded, it broke right in two, two pieces.

Paulette came back and he said, “that horse died.”

“Well,” I said, “you can have the canoe back.”

He said, “both stung!” and laughed.

(note: I named the horse and omitted a few paragraphs)

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