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Vancouver Island's Lonely Governor

For the week of Monday March 11, 2002

On March 11, 1850, Richard Blanshard, the first governor of Vancouver Island, read his commission to a small assembly of British subjects at Fort Victoria. This inaugurated the first British colonial government west of the Rocky Mountains.

Richard Blanshard's Arrival at Fort Victoria

Richard Blanshard's Arrival at Fort Victoria
© Image Courtesy of BC Archives /
Call Number: PDP00475

For decades, tensions simmered between Britain and the United States over who possessed the northwestern Pacific territory. In 1846, the two countries signed the Oregon Treaty, setting the boundary between the U.S. and British North America west of the Rockies at the 49th parallel. However, still fearing American expansion northward, Britain established the colony of Vancouver Island on January 13, 1849 to strengthen its presence in the area.

Six months later, Blanshard, a young English lawyer, was appointed as governor. He was an unlikely candidate. James Douglas, a high-ranking official in the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), was initially recommended for the position. Due to political pressures, the British Colonial Office appointed Blanshard instead. Britain was reluctant to hand over civil control of Vancouver Island to a HBC official. The company already had a virtual monopoly of the fur trade there.

From the beginning, Blanshard's stay on Vancouver Island was unpleasant. He found Fort Victoria covered under 30 cm of snow and his house unfinished. Blanshard accepted the position of governor without salary, expecting to receive a 1000-acre land grant. He soon learned that the land was attached to the post and not for his personal use. His living costs were an outrageous ₤1100 a year, paid entirely from his own pocket. To make matters worse, Blanshard soon realized he had little authority, and was often at odds with Douglas, the real power in the colony. There were few independent British settlers. The vast majority of residents were HBC employees primarily accountable to Douglas, who oversaw not only the fur trade, but also land sales and public works expenditures.

Richard Blanshard

Richard Blanshard
© Image Courtesy of BC Archives /
Call Number: A-01112

Discouraged and in poor health, Blanshard resigned less than nine months after arriving. Before departing from Vancouver Island in September, 1851, he created a three-member council to advise the new governor. The British Colonial Office appointed Douglas as Blanshard's successor. He enjoyed a distinguished career as governor of Vancouver Island and later, the new colony of British Columbia.

Richard Blanshard and Sir James Douglas are both persons of national historic significance. Fort Victoria is a National Historic Site of Canada, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 is an event of national historic significance.

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