The British Colonist online, 1858-1920

When the first sixty-plus years of Victoria’s British Colonist  became available online in searchable form, I lost quite a few hours to what could be better described as distraction than as focused research. The title of the newspaper suggests the aspirations shaping its editorial perspective. But, for me, the seductiveness of the early Colonist lay in the glimpses it afforded of stories that run counter to any standard narrative of white settler colonialism, but nevertheless documented fascinating—and integral—pieces of British Columbia’s colonial history.

Henry Buler writes to the Colonist

One of these glimpses came a March 1898 letter written by Henry J. Buler, defending the potlatch, which church and government were already working to eradicate. Buler’s communication addressed an earlier letter that the Colonist had published from the Rev. Alfred J. Hall, the Anglican missionary at Alert Bay, BC. Buler called Hall a liar (“this is the same Reverend … who was sent out here to teach the Indians that ‘…lying lips are [an] abomination to the Lord’”). He went on to refute the first letter’s claims point by point, concluding, “everything in our country is in your hands … let us have this only one thing—our joyous potlatch.”

Now, Henry Buler’s name was not unfamiliar to me, though I was surprised to come upon it in the Colonist. George Hunt, the long-time co-worker of anthropologist Franz Boas, refers to him in a couple of places, and Buler is also the subject of correspondence between Boas and Hall. Apparently Buler, like Hunt before him, worked for Hall for a time as a translator. Hall also gave Buler the job of caretaker of his first mission building at Fort Rupert after Hall decamped to Alert Bay.

I’d also heard mention of Henry Buler from contemporary residents of Fort Rupert and Alert Bay. And a man with a middle name of Buler shows up in the Hunt family tree. But no one I’ve talked to so far has known what family Henry Buler came from.

In his letter to the Colonist, Buler stated that he was a “successor” to his uncle and grandfather who were chiefs, but he did not give their names. George Hunt indicates that Henry Buler received a Hamhamt’sas dance from T’łagusdesalas, the head chief of the Tłoyalaława kin group who had no children, which suggests some kind of kin connection. Buler himself noted that he was the “son of the late A. Buler, one of the pioneers of Victoria.”

Still in distraction mode, I clicked my way to the BC Provincial Archives website and the BC Vital Statistics database, which yielded up a single mention of the surname Buler (and all variants I could think of). This was an 1881 death certificate for a man named Asbury Buler.

Asbury Buler, storekeeper

Asbury Buler turned out to be a window into a whole other piece of Vancouver Island’s colonial history. His death certificate describes him as  “(Colored),” gives his age as 55, his occupation as “Storekeeper,” his religion as Presbyterian, and his birthplace as Sussex County, Delaware, USA.

The first mention of this “pioneer of Victoria” that I have so far found was in an 1861 article in the Colonist  covering a Victoria court hearing held to “decide upon objections to the registered [voter] lists of 1859-’61.” Among the “forty persons, principally colored” in the court that day was an “Asbury Buhler” who, although admitting to have been born in the US, was able to claim a “£12 rental” (a property qualification was a prerequisite for voting). The decision on his voting status was therefore “reserved.”

Asbury Buler’s rental was perhaps for the store he operated on Government Street in downtown Victoria for many years “opposite Bank British Columbia.” At his store, according to advertisements for many years a fixture in the Colonist, he sold “Everything the human mind can imagine.” This included “hats and caps!” along with fine clothing, children’s hosiery, “superior guns,” gloves, “a large assortment of fashionable neckties,” beads, musical instruments, “Indian curiosities,” as well as “all kinds of second-hand goods bought and sold.”

Among the Colonist’s lists of steamship passengers arriving in and departing from Victoria, I also found an 1875 mention of Mrs. Buler, who embarked on a voyage with Asbury at least once. But there does not seem to be much other trace of her in the records. It seems possible that Asbury met her through his store.

I searched for Buler, Buhler, Buller, or Bewler, or any name beginning with B, in the US census of Delaware for the years 1830, 1840 1850 and 1860, without a single likely hit. The same for the entire US census for 1850 and 1860. The term “(Colored)” suggested that Asbury Buler might not have been counted in the regular census, where only the names of free Americans are to be found. Slave schedules exist for Delaware for 1850 and 1860, but they record names only of the slave owners.

What I imagine is that Asbury Buler might have been a slave, perhaps in Sussex County, who took the underground railroad to Canada and freedom, and from there made his way out to Vancouver Island to start a new life. There he clearly found some success.

“Rather formal English”

My impressions of Victoria growing up were shaped in part by the ferry’s approach through the Inner Harbour to the grand Empress Hotel and the Legislature building, and by the shops downtown offering British china and British teas. My mother used to comment that Victoria was the place where the British aristocracy sent their remittance men. In 1886, in a letter to his family, Franz Boas described his dinner with Victoria’s representative to parliament as “rather formal English” (Rohner, ed. 1969, p 22). “The general tone in the city …has a greater similarity to Europe [than to the US]. Lady and lord play the chief role in the newspapers, the military is a favorite topic of conversation, etc.” (p. 25).

But this “formal English” element hardly characterized the city as a whole. Also in 1886, Boas wrote that “I have never seen such a mixture of peoples among such a small number of inhabitants. Besides many whites there are a very large number of Chinese… also many Negroes and Indians.” (p22). This diversity began very early in the city’s history. In 1860, according to historian Lorraine McConaghy, Victoria was 25% black, peopled by a migration of black families from California.

It seems possible that Asbury Buler came to Victoria from California rather then from some eastern Canadian terminus of the underground railroad. His having been a storekeeper in California could explain why he could afford a “£15 rental” shortly (one assumes) after arriving Victoria. The Dred Scott decision meant, though, that if he had escaped from slavery he could still be recaptured even in California and returned to his former owner.

British territory, and perhaps Victoria in particular, might have seemed a safer choice. The governor of the colony, Sir James Douglas—the so-called “Father of British Columbia”—was himself the mixed-race, illegitimate son of a British Guyana sugar planter and a free black woman. Douglas’s wife, Lady Amelia Douglas, was the part-Cree daughter of a Hudson’s Bay Company factor. Douglas had appointed David Cameron, married to Douglas’s similarly mixed-race sister, to the position of Chief Justice of the colony’s Supreme Court.

In 1860, Cameron presided over the case of Charles Mitchell, a young slave from Washington territory, who stowed away on a ship bound for Victoria. It seems possible that Cameron’s family experience might have predisposed him to a sympathetic view of the situation. At any rate, he ruled that, since British law governed Victoria, and since slavery had been abolished under British law, Mitchell was now free. Mitchell had been born on the Maryland side of the Delmarva peninsula, mere miles from Asbury Buler’s own birthplace.

Ga’logami’, Kwakwaka’wakw chief 

A few days ago I was looking through one of the copies of a memory census that George Hunt made of Fort Rupert “from the year 1866.” (This census includes people born after 1866.) I’d had in my possession for some years the first draft of the census, but only recently laid my hands on the fair copy he mailed to Boas in 1919. I had never systematically compared the two. Now, however, as I was glancing over House 5—the house of T’łagusdesalas, the chief who had made Henry a Hamshamts’as—I noticed that the second-ranked chief in the house, Nułt’i, had a grandson described as “half-Breed negro.” This detail was missing in Hunt’s initial draft.

Hunt records the grandson’s name Gāᵋlâgᴇmeᵋ, or, in the modern alphabet, Ga’logami’. I think this must be Henry, and so now I have a Kwak’wala name for him, and a name for his mother as well. She was Tłapalasogwe’lakw. Henry did marry—he mentions his wife in his letter to the Colonist—but I don’t know yet what her name was, whether they had children, what year he died in, or many other details of his life.