By Doreen Marion Gee

The land beneath our idyllic seaside community was once a vast sun-swept farm that was home to early pioneers and settlers. And a farmhouse and farm buildings stood near the location of our own present James Bay Beacon office! Long before the British colonists arrived, First Nations' peoples called this piece of Eden their own; they raised their families and grew and harvested food on the fertile soil and green rolling hills next to an endless ocean. Our roots are frozen in time: everything has changed and nothing has changed. 

When Captain James Cook landed on Vancouver Island in 1778, the landscape was already populated by Native Aboriginals - the first humans to also walk in what we now call James Bay. Southern Vancouver Island was home to many aboriginal families: each called themselves by distinct family group names. The virgin James Bay Peninsula was the traditional territory of the Swengwhung tribe who belonged to the Lekwungen, a group within the Coast Salish. Their descendants are part of the present Songhees First Nation.

A pivotal figure in the founding of Victoria was Sir James Douglas, the name behind our “Bay” and the historical “Peninsula.” As the chief trader for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), Douglas made a reconnaissance of the tip of Vancouver Island in July 1842, chose the site for Fort Victoria the same year, and supervised its construction in March 1843. In 1850, the James Bay Peninsula lands of the Swengwhung people became the property of the HBC. Many historians see this process not as 'lands purchases' or 'deeds of conveyance' but as negotiated 'treaties' with the clear goal of transferring title of the land from the indigenous natives to the HBC. The British Crown had handed control of Vancouver Island to the HBC but with one strict caveat: the HBC must make the land available for settlement.

The words contained in this treaty between the Swengwhung people and the Hudson's Bay Company are disturbing reminders of the massive injustice of this transaction: “Know all men, we, the Chiefs and People of the Family of Swengwhung, who have signed our names and made our marks to this deed on the thirtieth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and fifty, do consent to surrender, entirely and for ever, to James Douglas, the agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Vancouver Island ... the whole of the lands situate and lying between the Island of the Dead, in the Arm or Inlet of Camoson [sic], where the Kosampsom lands terminate, extending east to the Fountain Ridge, and following it to its termination on the Straits of De Fuca, in the Bay immediately east of Clover Point. The condition of or understanding of this sale is this, that our village sites and enclosed fields are to be kept for our own use, for the use of our children, and for those who may follow after us; and the land shall be properly surveyed hereafter. It is understood, however, that the land itself, with these small exceptions, becomes the entire property of the white people for ever; it is also understood that we are at liberty to hunt over the unoccupied lands, and to carry on our fisheries as formerly. We have received, as payment, Seventy Five pounds sterling.” One source cites the personal wealth of Sir James Douglas at that time at around 5000 pounds.

Under the ownership of the HBC, the land on the James Bay Peninsula was surveyed and subdivided. The northern area within the boundaries of our present Simcoe, Toronto and Montreal Streets was subdivided, mostly into town lots. The lands that lay south and west of those streets were retained as farmland by the HBC, for grazing cattle and grain and root crops. These rich fertile flat lands of James Bay became farms for the early settlers. Originally, all of the area was called “Ogden Fields Farm.” By the early 1850s it was known as “Dutnall’s Farm,” named after John Dutnall, the HBC farm bailiff. Then by 1855 its name became “Beckley Farm” - after the village of Beckley in East Sussex, England. The total expanse of the Farm was 1,212 acres.

Researching this article was a spell-binding journey back in time. Our James Bay Beacon office sits on the original Ogden Fields-Dutnall's-Beckley Farm land – and so does most of present James Bay all the way to the ocean. Over a century and half ago, a farmhouse and farm buildings stood near the southeast corner of Menzies and Simcoe Streets, on the corner across from James Bay Square where James Bay Coffee and Books resides. My childhood home at 27 Government Street was situated on the same tract of land that Sir James Douglas designated as farmland just after Fort Victoria was built.

It is absolutely thrilling to ponder the rich tapestry of history that unfolds right beneath our feet. The soil that lies deep below the sidewalks of our community once bore the weight of the First Peoples who walked through fields of golden grass and on verdant green rolling hills that felt the ocean mists. And if you stop and listen, the thumps of horses' hooves as the early settlers worked the land can still be heard through the winds of time.

The panorama of a magenta-blue skyline and a restless ocean enchanted those who first gazed upon it. And it is still doing its magic in 2015. Some things never change.

This article is dedicated to the Swengwhung First Peoples and their descendants, the original and true owners of the land underneath this paradise we call James Bay. 

Historical Sources:

                                The Colonization of Vancouver Island 1849-1858 by Richard Mackie


                                The Fort Victoria and Other Vancouver Island Treaties, 1850-1854

                                BC Archives MS-0772

                                James Bay Neighbourhood Association – James Bay History