This Week in History


Black Pioneers in British Columbia

This story was initially published in 2002

On April 25, 1858, a group of free African-Americans from California arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, aboard the steamer Commodore. Prompted by an invitation from Governor James Douglas and anticipating a home with protected civil rights, they came to the British colony to start a new life.

Steamer Commodore Entering Victoria in 1858

Steamer Commodore Entering Victoria in 1858
© BC Archives / PDP00476

Earlier that year, the Caribou gold rush had attracted thousands of Caucasian Americans. Governor Douglas feared that Americans would overwhelm the British colony. Douglas, himself of mixed race, knew that African-Americans would be loyal to a government that assured them of their rights; so he sent a representative to California to promote their colony to a group of African-Americans. The group that arrived aboard the Commodore sent reports back to California of the opportunities available in British Columbia. Encouraged by assurances of land and constitutional rights, 400 families
travelled to Victoria.

Immediately upon arriving, these pioneers began establishing themselves, settling mostly in Victoria where they developed some of the city's most prominent businesses. Many thrived as merchants, barbers, and restaurant and saloon keepers. On Saltspring Island they created prosperous farms and ranches. These early immigrants also helped build an important road from the Harrison River valley to the upper regions of the Fraser River and pioneered the mining and service industries of British Columbia. In 1860, they made up the entire Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, the first volunteer militia in the colony. A prominent business leader, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, became the first Black person elected to public office in British Columbia.

Victoria Pioneer Rifles Corps

Victoria Pioneer Rifles Corps
© Library and Archives Canada / C-022626

Initially, the colonists prospered with minimal discrimination from the surrounding community. Increasingly, however, their efforts to participate in society were frustrated by growing prejudice against them. The Pioneer Rifles was disbanded. The new colonists were not allowed in theatres, they could only sit in certain sections of some churches, and were no longer permitted to participate as members of a jury. These colonists had expressly avoided creating separate community institutions such as churches and schools because they were convinced that the British colony would be different than the United States. Unfortunately, they could not escape discrimination. Despite the prejudice they encountered, these Black pioneers displayed great courage and resourcefulness. As time went on, the colony, and soon province, became more accepting, and Blacks in British Columbia regained constitutional rights.

In 1997, Black Pioneers in British Columbia were designated an event of national historic significance. Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was designated as a national historic person. Black Pioneers Immigration to Alberta and Saskatchewan is also a national historic event.

To learn more about Black settlers in the West, please read Black Pioneers Head to the Prairies.

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