1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Excerpts - A Most Unusual Colony

Letters of Mary Yates

The Fort Victoria Post Journal, kept meticulously by HBC clerk Roderick Finlayson, is the primary source for much of the factual content of the Mary Yates letters between 1849 and 1851.

Forest Fire Near Fort Victoria

August 28, 1849

I stopped writing yesterday when fire broke out in the woods north of the Fort, which I found quite terrifying. It's bad enough to see fires destroying acres of forest on far away hills, but fire roaring so close to the wooden buildings had me quite panicked. James was out with all the men cutting away the bushes and dry grass on the banks of the little stream which runs between the north side of the Fort and the woods. While some threw buckets of water on the flames, others beat them with green branches. Extra Indians were hired to make a trench around the north side.

They managed to put the fire out before it reached the fort, but from what we could see from inside it was a near thing. We women and the children were told to prepare to leave the Fort in canoes and stay out on the water, but Mrs. Douglas calmed us, saying she could see the wind was not blowing the fire this way. The men stood watches all night to make sure it didn't break out again. I don't like to think about the fire getting hold in this place where all is wood.

August 30, 1849

Just when we thought we were done with the fire in the woods it broke out again Tuesday night in three places, but the men put it out. Some Indians have been set to clearing away all the rubbish and dry sticks around the outside of the pickets. I have been so worried I could not put my mind to writing. The heat and smoke, and feeling unwell in the mornings. Mrs. Douglas, who has given birth to 11 children, though only four girls and the baby survive, suggests some sort of herbal tea for morning sickness, and has promised to send some over ...

The musquitoes are driving us all to distraction. We slap and swat at them and they reincarnate themselves for a constant feast of white flesh. Must close now as there is a ship leaving with mail on this afternoon's tide. Your ever affectionate Mary.

Excursion to the Mill Site

A trip up 'The Arm' to the HBC sawmill at the end of Esquimalt Harbour is based on a memoir written by one of the children from the Fort School. Robert Staines, Fort Victoria chaplain and schoolmaster, took the boys up the inlet for a natural history lesson. The (invented) letters of Mary Yates give him some extra passengers, including the girl students, Emma Staines the schoolmaster's wife, and James and Mary Yates.

November 20, 1849

We have had a most pleasant excursion to an extraordinary sawmill deep in the forest at the end of Esquimalt Harbour.

Gorge bridge
Gorge reversing falls

Mr. Staines arranged for canoes with Indian crews ... We embarked at the landing at about 11 in the morning after the mist had cleared and were transported up the Arm, which is a lovely winding salt water fiord extending about five miles inland from the Harbour. It is like a river with forest on both sides, narrowing at a gorge [where] the tide must be right or we would have to disembark and walk along the shore. The tidal falls reverse themselves as the tide goes in and out, and the force of the water is very strong as it runs over a rock in the middle of the narrow gorge. ... We rode the rapids in the canoes and felt like voyageurs - most exhilarating. The schoolchildren thought it the greatest adventure.

After a few more bends and turns the Arm opens into a wider inlet where there is a small natural plain with maple trees lining the shore. After rounding this point we made a portage of a few hundred yards to Esquimalt Bay - very muddy and boggy, thank goodness for the sea boots I got at the Sale Shop, several sizes too large but reasonably comfortable with a pair of James' socks over my stockings. Back in the canoes we were paddled across to the end of Esquimalt Bay to the mill site.

It is a surprising scene, hidden away in the forest where a stream falls over a rocky ledge to provide the water power for the mill. George McKenzie is the millwright in charge of a little party of French Canadians and Sandwich Islanders who live in a timber building on a small prairie below the falls. His wife Sarah is a tiny young half-breed girl from a Fort Colvile family. Mr. Staines performed their marriage ceremony at the Fort in September.

We had brought with us a picnic of cold mutton and chicken, loaves of Mr. Cathie's bread and an apple tart, but accepted their offer of a dish from a large pot of stew or soup which they had simmering on an outdoor stone oven. Goodness knows what variety of animal was included in the concoction, along with potatoes, turnips and anything available, but it was delicious. [The women] were cooking some meat, certainly not mutton, perhaps game of the country, on a grill over a fire in the pit. Dried berries in thin pieces of leathery texture, were offered as a sweet, a sort of Indian bonbon which the children found much to their liking.

On the way back ... it was dusk and our boatmen decided to make a race of it, singing their paddling songs as we sped back home. Several smaller canoes joined to escort us back to the Fort - a strange little musical regatta by moonlight, in the fresh clear night air smelling of pine and fir trees. Truly a wonderful, unforgettable experience.

The watchman let us through the gate just as he was locking up for the night, and there we were, back to the stuffy fort smelling of salt fish, damp furs, tobacco and unwashed bodies ...

Millstream falls
A pile of rocks is all that is left of the short-lived grist mill. Support timbers remained until the 1920s to confirm the site. There is still a deep pool at the head of Millstream Falls where the water was dammed in an attempt to keep the mill working.
(See Craigflower Country for a more complete story of the troublesome mill,
built in 1848 and severely damaged in a fluke flood in 1854.)

Birthday Party at Beacon Hill

June, 1853

The entire population celebrated with a grand picnic at Beacon Hill given by Mr. And Mrs. Douglas on the first of this month, with everyone invited - including the lower orders. The occasion was the birthday of young James the Second, who was born just three months after Harriet [the second Yates daughter].

It was indeed a lavish village fete, with Company officers and naval officers, the peasants and serfs, fiddle music and a piper for Scotch reels and other country dances. One attraction that would not have been seen in an English village was the large contingent of Indians in native dress who were made welcome. The boxing rings drew crowds but seemed out of place even here for a two-year-old's birthday party.

The picnic lunch - loaves and fishes, biscuits and tarts, tea and stronger beverages - was miraculously sufficient for all, and after lunch there were horse races. ...

The Company's new steamship Otter arrived in the harbour early this month. James joined the crowd at the landing to view this marvel, whose engines had been on display at the great exhibition at the Crystal Palace as an example of the very latest in steam power ...

News has just reached us that France is now ruled by Emperor Napoleon the third - what else is happening in the rest of the world?

Also see the James Yates Family

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