Pioneer miner James Copland ‘put his fist in life’s face’

When I introduced James Copland, pioneer, career prospector and fount of knowledge, in April, I said there’s more to his story than that.

Indeed there is, as shown by a positively glowing 1935 column in the Vancouver Sun on the forthcoming occasion of Copland receiving the King’s Jubilee Medal. Marine editor Pat

Terry introduced him, then 97, as "a veteran, noble Scotsman, one of the old and marvellous breed who reached [the] Port of Vancouver before it was ever heard of".

Terry chose to write about him, he explained, because "I pay tribute to men of courage and strength, and James Copland, as good as he was when he first put a fist in life’s face, came round the Horn in sail to be one of the first to open up this country. May I be half the man he is, when I can look forward to my century as nearly as he can…"

High praise indeed. Grand Forks Mayor T.A. Love was behind Copland’s receiving even this modest and belated recognition for a lifetime of unsung labour; or, as Terry put it, his "obstinacy in the face of adversity" that rivalled the fictional exploits of movie heroes. Mayor Love thought Copland was "probably the oldest continuous resident of British Columbia."

Terry marvelled at how Copland, as had so many others of his day, uprooted his life in Forfarshire, Scotland as a 19 year old (he was, in fact, 14 when he left home and 19 when he came here) to sail before the mast and halfway round the world to an unknown wilderness. To begin life anew with only ambition and his physical stamina upon which to build.

Terry: "You must try and visualize the wonder of a man – 97 years old, remember – and the life in Scotland which he left. How different was the world in the days when, in 1858, he reached what is now this beautiful and modern port [Vancouver]…back in the days of no port, no buildings, no trade unions, no employers’ organizations, no men and women settled with security or lack of security…

"It passes my understanding…how a man of that calibre, even, could stand up to the rigors that he would have had to face…"

One of as many as 5,000 other hardy fortune seekers, for several years Copland had tried the Fraser River placer diggings, most of them on sandbars already staked by others, after stints in the Australian goldfields and Peru, Chile and Brazil. He’d headed for the Kettle River in 1880 and he’d had "some success" on Rock Creek – enough that, other than sporadic sorties to other gold rushes as they occurred, he’d made Rock Creek his home for 70 years.

In fact, he wouldn’t have moved to Grand Forks two years before had not a forest fire destroyed his cabin. And if a broken his collarbone hadn’t made it too difficult for him to chop his own firewood.

Perhaps his greatest tangible asset as a nonagenarian was his excellent memory of his own adventures and of those of the colourful men whose names have become legends, or whose names grace our maps.

I’m not aware that James Copland’s name is on our maps nor if any of his priceless memories were recorded for posterity; this, despite the fact that others had recognized what he had to offer provincial heritage and considered it.

"I have in fact been in all the mining camps of B.C., placer and quartz," he once said, simply.

What a treasure of knowledge he was; what a loss to posterity was his death.