Mystery surrounded disappearance

"Every trail, whether foot, cattle or logging, was followed up and carefully scrutinized, and several dogs were kept hunting round all the time…"

$250 REWARD. Any person who will discover MR. JAMES CARSWELL, who is supposed to have been lost of the 24th instant in the Woods between Thompson’s Landing and Muir’s Farm, Sooke Harbor, will be paid the above Reward by HIBBEN & CARSWELL. -Victoria, May 27, 1865.

Such was the startling notice in the British Colonist of that date announcing the mysterious disappearance of the "Member of Parliament for Sooke District." Actually a member of the legislative assembly for the Crown colony of Vancouver Island, he’d gone missing "under circumstances that have given rise to serious apprehensions for his safety".

He, Mrs. Carswell and several friends had gone to Sooke on the steamer Enterprise. He’d left the others at Thompson’s Landing to visit the Muir family "and was observed to ascend the bank and proceed towards the road which passes at a considerable distance from the wharf and leads direct to Muirs [sic]". On the way, he met Robert George who gave him directions.

At 6 p.m., the Enterprise announced her departure by blowing her whistle. When Carswell failed to appear, and others who’d gone ashore said they hadn’t seen him, the steamer headed back to Victoria without him. Next day, a messenger was dispatched to Sooke to see if he’d shown up; he hadn’t. In fact, he’d never made it to the Muir homestead, and this raised the alarm for his safety as he was shortsighted, lightly dressed and without food or water.

Hence the $250 reward which, three days later, was increased to $1,000 in the hope of enticing Leech River miners to forego their claims and take up the search. (Note that this was a small fortune in 1865.) Because of Carswell’s prominence in the community, Gov. Kennedy placed a government vessel at the disposal of searchers who included two future provincial premiers.

By the 28th, two separate parties were scouring land and sea with "the utmost rigour". With the Muir farm as their headquarters, "Every trail, whether foot, cattle or logging, was followed up and carefully scrutinized, and several dogs were kept hunting round all the time; the part[ies] worked indefatigably, but were rather disheartened at their total lack of success. They are still determined to persevere, however…in close search of the bush surrounding the trail… But not the faintest clue could be found upon which to base any conjecture as to what had befallen the unhappy man."

To prevent any of the search parties going astray, they were accompanied by buglers through an estimated 50 miles of bush. The lack of a body, at least, sustained the hope that he was yet alive.

For all their efforts, which included the use of Indian trackers and professional hunters, a week passed with Carswell’s location "as much enveloped in mystery as ever". Rumours abounded, one to the effect that he’d met with foul play, another that he’d fled the country for reasons unstated but implied, and the Colonist hinted, ever so gently, at some "circumstance" known only to his closest friends.

For the sinister minded, it no doubt came as something of a disappointment when, next day, Carswell was reported to be alive and recuperating after having made his own way to the Muirs’ farm. Word was rushed to Victoria by canoe and the government steamer.

Sir James Douglas had dispatched it to fetch him when he was deemed fit to travel.

It was conjectured that he’d lost his way, decided to cut cross-country, and had since been wandering in circles. The wonder was that he hadn’t encountered any of the dozens who were looking for him. "What the poor man subsisted on during six long nights of fasting is at present a mystery," marvelled the Colonist, "though it is said that he found his way to a stream of water and probably there discovered water cresses, roots, or other vegetable matter sufficient to sustain life."

It was learned that, twice, he’d heard the voices of searchers and bugle calls without being able to make his presence known. At last word, James Carswell was home with his family and on the mend. This time, a happy ending.

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