“I killed myself, in an hour, in the river that runs through one of our claims, 16 trout, some weighing over three pounds.”—William H. Lee.
“Here we are all settled in a new home,” wrote William H. Lee of Shamrock Lodge, Nanaimo, to Thomas Connelly, government agent, Dublin, in July 1887.
His family’s frontier cabin wasn’t as large or as comfortable as the home they’d left in the Old Country, but it was large enough for them. What mattered size, anyway, when “we have no rent or taxes to pay, no coal bill”. With fresh fish, fowl and venison as near as the door, and entire forests for firewood, the Lees wanted “for nothing, and none of us regret the change in that line”.
They missed their old friends, of course, particularly that first Christmas “in the woods,” but with a cabin overlooking the Strait of Georgia and “as pretty a situation as one could wish for,” they made do. A weekly steamer service kept them in touch with the outside world, roads were under construction to connect them with town and the new Island railway. “We have a post [mail delivery] once a fortnight — from the first of April next once a week — so we are not out of civilization altogether. We have some neighbours but all of the male sex; mother is almost the only woman in [their immediate vicinity]. I wish we had some of our friends out here.”
For Connelly’s edification Lee defined the qualities necessary to making a successful life on the fringes of civilization: “Anyone that would not mind a good, rough life, no luxuries, but plenty to eat, and plenty of hard work with axe and spade, would like it. The claims [homesteads] are all heavily timbered, but the soil is good here; they only stick the potato-seed in the ground, between the roots of the trees, and have the finest crops I ever saw in my life, both [sic] for size, flavour and abundance.”
The future for settlers such as himself, he was convinced, lay in dairy and poultry farming. Already Nanaimo and Victoria provided a year-round market for butter. Eggs sold from 25 to 50 cents per dozen, depending upon the season, and meat chickens earned $6 per dozen year-round.
With rich farmlands available for the cost of the labour in clearing them, “these prices ought to pay. You can buy a cow and a calf here for from $30 to $50, and the yield here of grain to the acre, as far as I have seen, exceeds the ordinary run at home. Mind, where we are, there was not a settler two years ago. None of them had a penny when they came out here, yet they are all content, and can always give you a comfortable meal if you turn in.”
For Lee and his neighbours, this truly was a land of opportunity. He cautioned Connelly that books written on British Columbia “exaggerate some things but, on the whole, they are not far out. There is plenty of game, but you must know how to get it; also plenty of fish, but it will not come out of the rivers or the sea of its own account, as they would lead you to suppose. I killed myself, in an hour, in the river that runs through one of our claims, 16 trout, some weighing over three pounds.
“I was the first of any of the settlers round [here] that ever caught anything [in the river near his farm]. They say that in the summer you can catch all you want, but I have not been here a summer yet, and I found it just as good sport, shooting duck, geese, grouse and snipe here as at home, only they are more plentiful here, but just as wild…”
Such was, at least for William H. Lee and his mother, life on the Vancouver Island frontier, 129 years ago. It was a life of hard physical labour, but one of immeasurable rewards, and it sounds almost idyllic today. Except for the hard, physical labour, of course.