Two BC Landscapes

  • Daniel Marshall
    Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New El Dorado. Ronsdale Press (purchase at
  • Cole Harris
    Ranch in the Slocan: A Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896-2017. Harbour Publishing (purchase at
Reviewed by Ron Welwood

Cole Harris’ grandfather, Joseph (Joe) Colebrook Harris (1871-1951), had no head for business and was deemed unsuited for the family’s pork-curing enterprise in Calne, Wiltshire. At the age of eighteen, Joe was sent to Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, and then made the trip westward where he laboured as a pioneer farmer in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. On the advice of “a pair of eccentric British intellectuals,” he visited the Kootenay region of BC and in 1896 purchased 245 acres (c.100 ha) of mountainous land overlooking Slocan Lake. Unfortunately, the 1890s mining boom in the Silvery Slocan was on the wane and his dream of an inexhaustible market for locally grown vegetables and fruit was not guaranteed. In reality, the Harris Ranch (a.k.a. Bosun Ranch) became little more than a subsistence farm: “Even in its prime, the ranch consumed money and work while yielding little product,” Cole Harris writes in Ranch in the Slocan. Over the years the property supported a silver-lead mine (Bosun Mine, 1898-1930), elderly Japanese Canadian male internees in the 1940s, and counterculturalists (war resisters, a.k.a. draft dodgers) during the 1970s. In the 1920s, the ranch’s failing orchard operation was replaced by dairying. Although farming was Joe Harris’ avocation, socialism and Fabian ideals were in his DNA—“his was an English Fabian voice emanating from a Kootenay mountainside.” Convinced that society was divided between useful and useless people, he created the Useful People’s Party, which garnered three votes in the provincial election.

Ranch in the Slocan is a charming and engaging book that weaves together excerpts from J. C. Harris’ memoir plus diaries, letters, family recollections, and personal anecdotes including an admission that there was turmoil within the family concerning J. C. Harris’ “awkward will,” which was finally probated in 1964. Many photographs from the Harris family’s collection complement the text. Ranch in the Slocan definitely captures the spirit of three Harris generations who have occupied a seductive and challenging property for over 120 years. For the author, a noted historical geographer, the ranch was the “geographical centre” of his life, and “[w]hatever else, the ranch produced well-lived lives.”

Claiming the Land focuses on the Fraser River corridor and the 1858 Gold Rush. Daniel Marshall’s expansive tome chronicles how Indigenous people were the first to discover gold on this river. Exaggerated American news stories about the thriving gold trade between Indigenous people and the Hudson’s Bay Company heralded this new El Dorado—the Fraser River Gold Rush. Since the California bonanza of 1849 was over, the newspapers now had a new auriferous story to promote. Their inflated reports enticed thousands of American fortune hunters to migrate north either by ship or overland in search of that elusive, lucky strike. Consequently, the landscape was dramatically altered and scarred by placer mining that destroyed ancestral fisheries and damaged spawning channels. This invasion inevitably led to a gold-salmon conflict. British law and order was overwhelmed and often supplanted by US vigilante justice determined to “exterminate the red man.” In the wake of these foreign interlopers, many Americanisms supplanted the land’s Indigenous place names—e.g., American Bar, Texas Bar, Boston Bar, etc.

Marshall’s lucid script documents the complexities of the 1858 Gold Rush and the various confrontations between Indigenous people and gold-seeking immigrants. Antagonistic biases were targeted not only against Indigenous people, but also against other ethnic minorities. Fortunately, the Fraser River War skirmishes (16-25 August 1858) culminated in the signing of peace treaties. As Marshall states, “[t]he year 1858 was a year of chaos unlike any other in British Columbia and American Pacific Northwest history.” Within the span of one year, foreign gold-seekers followed by colonial settlers overran traditional Indigenous territories. This was the beginning of the province’s ongoing conundrum of unresolved land claims. According to Marshall, the 1858 Gold Rush also spurred Canada to expand as a transcontinental nation: “The story of the Fraser River gold rush presented here is decidedly different from accounts previously written.”

Both Harris and Marshall have impressive academic credentials, but their respective publications are far from pedantic. Marshall provides several useful maps and six appendices, including an expansive and fascinating list of “Fraser River Gold Rush Bar Names, 1858-59.” Marshall’s eighty-three pages of notes are particularly impressive, and so is his extensive bibliography (more than forty pages). Both books also include useful indices. These two titles are recommended—Harris’ unique, regional biography of a BC landscape and Marshall’s revisionist history concerning an often-overlooked topic.

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