Colony of British Columbia (1858–66)

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This article is about the original mainland colony. For the second colony of this name, which was a union of the former Vancouver Island and British Columbia colonies, see Colony of British Columbia (1866–71).
Colony of British Columbia
British colony


Capital New Westminster
Languages English
Government Constitutional monarchy
Queen regnant Victoria of the United Kingdom
Historical era British Era
 •  Established 2 August 1858
 •  Merged with Colony of Vancouver Island to form Colony of British Columbia (1866-1871) 6 August 1866
Succeeded by
Colony of British Columbia (1866–1871)

The Colony of British Columbia was a crown colony in British North America from 1858 until 1866. It was founded by Richard Clement Moody, who became the first Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia from 1858 to 1863. At its creation, it physically constituted approximately half the present day Canadian province of British Columbia, since it did not include the Colony of Vancouver Island, the vast and still largely uninhabited regions north of the Nass and Finlay Rivers, the regions east of the Rocky Mountains, or any of the coastal islands. The Colony of the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Stikine Territory were merged with it in 1863, and it was amalgamated in 1866 with the Colony of Vancouver Island to form a new Colony of British Columbia.


The explorations of James Cook and George Vancouver, and the concessions of Spain in 1794 established British claims over the coastal area north of California. Similar claims were established inland via the explorations of such men as John Finlay, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, Samuel Black, and David Thompson, and by the subsequent establishment of fur trading posts by the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). However, until 1858, the region which now comprises the mainland of the Province of British Columbia was an unorganised area of British North America comprising two fur trading districts: New Caledonia, north of the Thompson River drainage; and the Columbia District, located south of the Thompson and throughout the basin of the Columbia River.

Sir James Douglas, first governor of the Colony of British Columbia

With the signing of the Treaty of Washington in 1846, which established the US border along the 49th parallel, the HBC moved the headquarters of its western operations from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River (present day Vancouver, Washington) to the newly established Fort Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia were organised as a crown colony in 1849. Meanwhile, the mainland continued to function under the de facto administration of the HBC, whose chief executive, James Douglas, also happened to be governor of Vancouver Island. The non-aboriginal mainland population during this time never exceeded about 150 at Fort Victoria,[1] mostly HBC employees and their families.

By 1857, Americans and British were beginning to respond to rumours of gold in the Thompson River area. Almost overnight, some ten to twenty thousand men moved into the region around present-day Yale, British Columbia, sparking the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Governor Douglas - who had no legal authority over New Caledonia – stationed a gunboat at the entrance of the Fraser River to exert such authority by collecting licenses from prospectors attempting to make their way upstream.

Richard Clement Moody[edit]

When news of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush reached London, Richard Clement Moody was hand-picked by the Colonial Office, under Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to establish British order and to transform British Columbia into the British Empire's "bulwark in the farthest west" [2] and “found a second England on the shores of the Pacific”.[3] Moody arrived in British Columbia in December 1858, commanding the Royal Engineers, Columbia Detachment. Moody had hoped to begin immediately the foundation of a capital city, but upon his arrival at Fort Langley he learned of an outbreak of violence at the settlement of Hill's Bar. This led to an incident popularly known as "Ned McGowan's War", where Moody successfully quashed a group of rebellious American miners.

To normalise its jurisdiction, and undercut any HBC claims to the resource wealth of the mainland, the district was converted to a crown colony on 2 August 1858 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and given the name British Columbia. Douglas was offered the governorship of the new colony by the colonial secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, on condition that he sever his relationship with the HBC. Douglas accepted these conditions, and a knighthood. Moody, who had previously served as the first Governor of the Falkland Islands became the first Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.

Moody selected the site for and founded the new capital of British Columbia, New Westminster in 1859. He selected the site due to its strategic control of the mouth of the river, it defensibility, and its suitability as a port,[4] but he was also struck by its natural beauty, writing,

"The entrance to the Frazer is very striking--Extending miles to the right & left are low marsh lands (apparently of very rich qualities) & yet fr the Background of Superb Mountains-- Swiss in outline, dark in woods, grandly towering into the clouds there is a sublimity that deeply impresses you. Everything is large and magnificent.".[5]

Following the enactment of the Pre-emption Act of 1860, Colonel Moody and his engineers assisted the process of settling the Lower Mainland by surveying the area surrounding the capital "Queenborough" (rechristened New Westminster by Queen Victoria on 20 July 1859).

Moody also established the Cariboo Road and Stanley Park. He named Burnaby Lake after his private secretary Robert Burnaby and named Port Coquitlam’s 400-foot "Mary Hill" after his wife, Mary Hawks.[1] Port Moody in British Columbia is named after him.

Governorship of Sir James Douglas[edit]

The influx of people into the new colony required Douglas to act quickly in drawing up regulations and creating infrastructure. Magistrates and constables were hired, mining regulations drawn up, and townsites surveyed at Yale, Hope and Fort Langley to discourage squatting on crown land. In addition, roads were constructed into the areas of greatest mining exploration around Lillooet and Lytton. The colony, however, was not immediately granted a representative colonial assembly, because of uncertainty as to whether the gold rush would yield a stable, settled population. Douglas, who had endured unhappy conflicts with the assembly on Vancouver Island, was relieved.

A portion of the Cariboo Road in the Fraser Canyon, c. 1867.

The rush indeed was short lived, and the exodus of miners, speculators, and merchants was already underway by the time the Royal Engineers had laid out the colony's new capital at New Westminster. Prospecting continued, however, and additional finds farther inland in the Cariboo region in 1860 signalled an impending second gold rush. Provisioning was already proving to be an acute problem, and with more distant finds it became clear that wagon trains would have to replace pack horses, necessitating new infrastructure. By 1862, the Cariboo Gold Rush, attracting an additional 5000 miners, was underway, and Douglas hastened construction of the Great North Road (commonly known now as the Cariboo Wagon Road) up the Fraser Canyon to the prospecting region around Barkerville.

By the time of this gold rush, the character of the colony was changing, as a more stable population of British colonists settled in the region, establishing businesses, opening sawmills, and engaging in fishing and agriculture. With this increased stability, objections to the colony's absentee governor and the lack of responsible government began to be vocalised, led by the influential editor of the New Westminster British Columbian and future Premier, John Robson. A series of petitions requesting an assembly were ignored by Douglas and the colonial office until Douglas was eased out of office in 1864. Finally the colony would have both an assembly and a resident governor.

Frederick Seymour, second governor of the Colony of British Columbia, and his cat.

Governorship of Frederick Seymour[edit]

Main article: Frederick Seymour

Douglas's successor was Frederick Seymour, who came to the colony with twenty years of colonial experience in Van Diemen's Land, the British West Indies, and British Honduras. The creation of an assembly and Seymour's appointment in April 1864 signalled a new era for the colony, now out of the shadow of Vancouver Island and free of a governor suspicious of sharing power with elected representatives. Douglas's wagon road project was still underway, presenting huge engineering challenges, as it made its way up the narrow Fraser Canyon. Successive loans authorised by Seymour's predecessor, largely for the purpose of completing the road, had put the colony £200,000 in debt; and the Chilcotin War of 1864 cost an additional £18,000 to suppress. Seymour himself made the difficult journey through the Great Canyon of the Homathko and Rainbow Range as a show of force and participation in the hunt for Klatsassin, the Tsilhqot'in war leader, but the armed expedition reached a denouement when Klatsassin surrendered on terms of amnesty in times of war, only to be tried and hanged for murder, as Seymour had not endorsed the terms.

On Seymour's return overland, he made a tour of the Cariboo minefields, and along the Fraser Canyon, which made him increasingly convinced of the colony's future prosperity. On returning to the capital, however, fiscal reality set in as it became clear that British Columbia's indebtedness was getting worse. Even as the colonial administration took drastic measures to augment revenues and improve the road system to attract prospectors and settlers, the economic situation grew increasingly dire, and agitation grew for an amalgamation of the two colonies. Seymour opposed this proposal, but with pressure from various quarters of the colonial government, he eventually relented, recommending that British Columbia be the dominant partner, and (unsuccessfully) that the capital be located at New Westminster. The two colonies were united by an Act of the British Parliament, and proclaimed on 6 August 1866 (see Colony of British Columbia).


Colonial Assembly[edit]

Members 1863–1864[6]

Members 1864–1865[7]

Members 1866[8]

Supreme Court[edit]

In 1858 the British Government sent over Matthew Baillie Begbie as Chief Justice for the colony. Although trained at Lincoln's Inn he had never practised law, but soon published a Rules of Court and a timetable of sittings. He held the post, under consecutive administrative regimes, until his death in 1894. [9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Donald J. Hauka, McGowan's War, Vancouver: 2003, New Star Books, p.146
  3. ^ Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, (Toronto: University of Toronto), p.71
  4. ^ Ormsby
  5. ^ Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, (Toronto: University of Toronto) p.7
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Wild, Wild West Law". Retrieved 6 October 2015. 

External links[edit]