What stories Victoria’s old burial ground tells

I’ve visited many cemeteries throughout southern B.C. in my travels and this is one of my favourites.

If you’d like a great read, try the latest publication by Victoria’s Old Cemeteries Society. It’s all about The Old Burying Ground aka the Quadra

Street Cemetery aka Pioneer Square.

I’ve visited many cemeteries throughout southern British Columbia in my travels and Pioneer Square, the name that I prefer, is one of my favourites.

Sandwiched between busy thoroughfares and Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria’s second cemetery (1865-1873) yet achieves an atmosphere of peace and quietude much as it would have when this was a quiet corner of the city. With its crumbling monuments and headstones, many of which have been moved to the back fence line and the exact locations of the graves they originally adorned lost, it’s about as close to Victoria’s colonial days as you can get.

Some fascinating pioneers reside here in this half-block-long burial ground and, oh, what stories they can tell!

There’s poor George Sloane, victim of a high-noon, Wild West shoot-out when tens of thousands of fortune seekers, many of them American, descended upon Fort Victoria en route to the sandbars (and, they hoped, gold diggings) of Fraser’s River. As noted, George didn’t get there, being gunned down by a nasty named "Liverpool Jack". Over a woman, of course.

Some would swear that Adelaide Griffin, another resident of Pioneer Square, is still with us in spirit as her ghost, a female form in "shimmering white," has been sighted numerous times since her death in 1861.

One of the most striking grave markers is that of Lt.-Cdr. Charles Rufus Robson’s "broken mast," symbolic of life cut short. Master of Her Majesty’s gunboat Forward, he died, not at sea, but from being thrown from his horse. His funeral was one of the largest staged in early-day Victoria.

There have been only two interments in Pioneer Square since its replacement by Ross Bay Cemetery, one of these being the renowned pioneer surgeon and politician Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken who joined his wife Cecilia in the family plot a full 56 years later.

My favourite historical characters here are the steamboating Jamieson brothers, Smith Baird, Archibald and James. Smith was the first to go when his sternwheeler blew up on the Fraser River in April 1861. Archibald and James followed him just four months later, killed when their steamer, the Cariboo, exploded in Victoria Harbour. All three, victims of faulty boilers or faulty operation by their engineers, are interred here. Incredibly, two other brothers also died in steamboat accidents, the sixth and last brother surviving only because he became a clergyman!

Another heartbreaker is little Maggie Sutlej who was forcibly removed from her native family during a naval police expedition to Ahousat. Renamed Maggie after R/Adm. Denman’s wife and Sutlej after his ship, HMS Sutlej, she was brought to Victoria then accompanied the Denmans on a cruise to Valparaiso. She died en route, it’s thought of a broken heart, and was buried at sea. In 1867 the Sutlej was ordered to sail for home. The crew took up a collection to commission an obelisk in memory of those of the ship’s company who’d been killed or died while stationed here. Among those remembered was Maggie Sutlej. Weather has worn away the names in sandstone but, happily for posterity, they’ve been recorded elsewhere.

The list goes on. There’s Old Jackson who was interred in an unmarked grave, his brother and inheritor having broken his promise to provide a headstone. And John Costello, aka Billy the Bug, known for being goodhearted but also for his abilities with his fists as well as a boatman, who died bravely in the line of duty. And martyred provincial policeman John Ogilvy who’s better remembered for having pioneered working with honey bees on his Saanich farm.

And mystery woman Johanna Maguire, and Capt. Charles Dodd who made grisly history by acquiring and returning the scalp of a murdered Whidby Island man to his family.

I could go on but why don’t you read of them for yourself in The Old Cemeteries Society and the Old Burying Ground (Pioneer Square), just published by the Old Cemeteries Society? You can inquire about a copy by checking out their website, www.oldcem. bc.ca. Tell them I sent you. www.twpaterson.com

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