Ancestry is our own personal history. It can permeate our identities and it can take us in new directions. Ancestry informs who we are, yet we rarely consider it as an important factor in history.
Let us take one family from our Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC exhibit as an example. They are at the apex of power, the first governor of British Columbia and his wife. Theory suggests they should be models of European colonialism, a classic elite family. One should expect him to be a very flag-and-empire, conquest-oriented leader, with a worldview based in an upper class education. She would provide leadership for the women in society. Both should understand class structure from a very British perspective, employing tools of class, race, gender and power to control the colonial society.
But when you look into the ancestry of Governor of British Columbia Sir James Douglas, and his wife, Lady Douglas, that model does not fit.
Take race for example. The arrival of Mifflin Gibb, bringing 600 black families in the first migration of black settlers into western Canada, happened because of an invitation from Sir James Douglas, offering equality and opportunity under the law. Those families arrived in part because of the increasing racism in the goldfields of California, where even the rights of “Free Blacks” were restricted.
In a colonial world this seems a puzzling invitation across the barriers of nation and racial divides, and an equally odd acceptance by people born in the United States to leave for a young British colony. Yet the event makes perfect sense when, thanks to Charlotte Girard’s research, we learn that James Douglas’ mother and grandmother were likely “free women of colour” – descendants of West Indies sugar plantation slaves. His father was in the Caribbean sugar trade in Demerara. Slavery impacted Douglas’ own personal family history and his public actions.
So, ancestry connects to an invitation. As a result we have events like BC’s black gold rush pioneers holding a picnic and dance at Cadboro Bay in 1861 to celebrate Emancipation Day, the passage of the British Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
Faced with local racism in the white fire departments, they formed their own military unit, called the African Rifles – a sign of identity, of freedom – that became an honour guard for Governor James Douglas.
What of Lady Douglas? Her mother Suzanne was Cree, from northern Manitoba. Her father William Connolly was a Scottish fur trader. Lady Douglas was Metis, yet few people think of her as Metis. She became the only Metis person in Canadian history to hold a British title.
Her parents’ marriage, like most fur trade marriages, was conducted in the custom of the country – sometimes without a priest present, but before witnesses. When her father retired from the fur trade and went to Quebec he left his family, sought a religious dispensation on the grounds the marriage was not valid, and married his wealthy second cousin. This ended 28 years of marriage that had produced six children. Lady Douglas’ mother went to a convent. When William died, Lady Douglas’ brother John and her siblings sued to claim part of their father’s estate. Lady Douglas secluded herself in Victoria for fear that, if asked about the trial, her face might betray her emotions. She never spoke publicly about it.
In 1869 the trial ended in favour of her and her brothers and sisters. Using testimony from the fur trade about marriage and practice, it established in law that the “custom of the country” marriages of the unorganized territories of western Canada were legal marriages. It was, as historian Sylvia Van Kirk has pointed out in her book, Many Tender Ties, one of the great human rights victories in Canadian family law history, upholding the rights of the women and Metis children of western Canada’s fur trade.
The era of Sir James and Lady Amelia Douglas gave way to a more typical, Eurocentric group of colonial governors, but their ancestry and its connections led to human rights victories for fur trade Metis children and wives, and brought about the first black migration into western Canada. Our province is woven from those histories, carried in the lives of the people in the centre of our Gold Rush! exhibit.