The home in this image of pioneer life is far more fancy that what the first settlers in the Cowichan area had. (submitted)

The home in this image of pioneer life is far more fancy that what the first settlers in the Cowichan area had. (submitted)

Column T.W. Paterson: Cowichan pioneers had to work together

“They stood not on dignity. Every man was as good as his neighbour.”

“They stood not on dignity. Every man was as good as his neighbour.”—Reeve A.B. Herd, referring to the first white settlers.

You’re not likely to see it today: almost an entire front page of a newspaper devoted to a talk about “old timers”.

But things were different a century ago and such was the case in November 1920, as my friend George Croy pointed out after perusing a bound volume of old Cowichan Leaders he came across in a local antique shop.

The story, unaccredited but quite possibly written by longtime Leader correspondent and Valley “oracle,” the late Jack Fleetwood, was about a talk given by North Cowichan Reeve A.B. Herd to an enthralled audience of 60 or so at a Farmers’ Union meeting in Somenos.

Herd wryly noted that, as a Valley resident of only 36 years’ standing (i.e. from 1884 on), the real original settlers in the Valley, those who went back four generations to the 1860s era, were so close-knit they didn’t consider him qualified to join their ranks as an “oldtimer.” Ergo: their was no invitation for him to join them in their annual Pioneer Society dinner, an event noteworthy for, among other things, the non-observance of the prevailing Prohibition Act.

Many of the first white settlers, of course, had passed on since their arrival in the ’60s. He thought all of them to have been of the finest character, including a “college wrangler,” a reference that, regrettably, he didn’t elaborate upon.

Nor did he identify most of the characters he spoke of, such as the man who was “so passionate of nature that he would twist the tale [sic] of an animal or gouge its eyes out”.

He made an exception of Henry Leach. He was long remembered for the time he drunkenly ended the reign of the local (and anonymous) “Beau Brummel,” owner of the only top hat in the entire Valley which he wore on all formal occasions such as balls, weddings and funerals, much “to the envy of his neighbours”. Until Leach bet that he could jump clear of the hat from a distance of 10 feet. He came up short. Herd: “…Whether his balance was groggy or lacked sufficient fire, the result was disastrous, for the jumper landed on the plug hat. It was greatly missed thereafter.”

“They were all strong men, strong in all the qualities which this pioneer life required,” he continued. “They were unafraid of hard work and possessed lots of patience to wait for results. There had to be willingness to deny oneself the luxuries of life.

“Most of them brought little or nothing with them. Over the trail from Victoria they would come, leading a cow and carrying a sack of flour on their back. They were very independent, which was a great compensation to the early life. They stood not on dignity. Every man was as good as his neighbour…

“These old pioneers never worried over the question, ‘who is my neighbour?’ Their neighbour was any whom they could help. They rendered assistance to the settler at Shawnigan or Chemainus as readily as next door. This was one of the finest features of those times, and it meant a great deal to the individual, something which is not realizable today. They were always willing to lend, not only tools and implements, but time and energy.”

Most of them, he pointed out, were unmarried, and “home-making was not a strong feature with some of them”. He recalled the pioneer who shared his one-room shack with his pig, each having their own bed of straw — until the cold weather when the man of the house would let the pig warm up its nest then expropriate it for himself.

Another bachelor, having invited an itinerant preacher to dinner, proceeded to dump the pan of mashed potatoes onto the middle of the table. Dinner done, he simply swept the meat and vegetable scraps, including any leftover potatoes, to the floor for his dogs to clean up.

And there was the bachelor who swept his floor with a garden rake because he found it to be more effective than a broom.

As for the few ladies, Herd was equally circumspect, describing them for the most part as having been neither young nor beautiful. “But they brightened the homes and lightened the community life of the settlement. Their sphere was only limited by what was needed to be done.

“Life or death found them always ready to help, but they could rejoice when occasion arose. They made light of their own troubles. There were no doctors convenient, no hospitals and no district nurses. The women were certainly factors which made for success in those pioneer times…”

Herd had more to say that evening, and so entertaining was his talk that it was predicted that, at the next meeting of the Farmers’ Union when he completed his look back at Valley history, there’d be standing room only.