Colonization, Settlers and First Nations

The year was 1850, anything on Vancouver Island north of Victoria was wilderness. Victoria became a colony of Great Britain in 1849 as a result of the operation of the Hudson's Bay Company. The “Company of Adventurers” as they were referred to were based in what is now Vancouver Washington. But Vancouver Island had resources of importance to them. Originally named Fort Albert, in honour of Queen Victoria's consort it was eventually named Fort Victoria, now Victoria. Nothing more than a trading post on the site of the present Empress Hotel. In 1846 the transfer of authority for the territory was transferred to Victoria.

Vancouver Island was not a rich fur trade area, something the HBC was known for. But we did have lots of land and resources, notably coal. The First Nations were generally friendly, but a few incidents did happen, one of which actually resulted in a public hanging (more on that in later articles). The first governor of the colony was James Blanshard. He lasted a short period of time, resigned and went back to Great Britain. That is where James Douglas stepped in. We celebrated 150 years of British Columbia becoming a colony of Great Britain, and it was under his command that it all happened. Even though Vancouver Island was a colony 8 or so years before the rest of the mainland joined.

Movement north from Victoria had a major obstacle. The Malahat mountain range precluded easy road traffic. So, Cowichan Bay became an important marine stop. The Hudson's Bay Company had established a trading post there, so it followed that colonists and traffic should follow. Originally boats anchored in the bay and the local first nations ferried the goods in canoes. Eventually Samuel Harris built a dock and commerce and settlement followed. From there north there was a road to Nanaimo and points along and beyond, but if you really wanted to get there you came to Cowichan Bay.

The cost of a parcel of land with the local natives was a couple of Hudson's Bay Blankets. Very few folk actually came here and settled in the bay, they thought it was too wild. They all moved outward to what is now Duncan, Mill Bay, Maple Bay, Cowichan Station, etc. Not only did they bring settlement but as most of them were of British descent they brought the culture and sports they enjoyed. Polo was played in many fields. We still have the second oldest grass tennis courts in the world next to Wimbledon.

Of course the railway changed all that too. Once the railway was built the movement of people and goods became much easier. Granted we had a primitive wagon road (the Cowichan Trail not the Malahat) but it took days to get up island. The Empress Hotel was built and many farms and fishermen sent goods on the rails there daily. We even had a famous resident. Robert W. Service spent a few years living in Cowichan Bay before he moved north and became famous. Rumours say he was asked to move as he had the habit of greeting visitors with a rifle...

Thomas Wagner is a researcher and historian in the area. Read about the Cowichan Bay History