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dave obee Commodore's arrival set the stage

By Dave Obee

There were no newspapers in Victoria to record the arrival on April 25, 1858, of the Commodore, a steamer from San Francisco loaded with miners anxious to get to the gold fields. There were, however, reporters on hand. One of the passengers on the Commodore sent a letter to the Alta California newspaper in San Francisco, describing what he saw.

"The good people of Victoria were at church when we arrived, and were perfectly astounded when they came out and beheld between four and five hundred Yankees, armed with revolvers and Bowie knives," he said.

"At first, they thought we were the vanguard of a filibustering army coming to take possession of Victoria Island; but our conduct soon proved we were not the fire-eaters that we appeared to be, and they soon became reconciled to our appearance, especially when we began to spend the quarters, which, no doubt, were very acceptable."

When the men stormed off the Commodore after five days at sea, they effectively doubled the population of Victoria. That posed a problem when it came time to find a meal.

"With the dint of scraping and gathering together from their county larders, and raising the price, we succeeded in getting enough to eat," the report in the Alta California said.

After dropping off most of its passengers in Victoria, the Commodore continued on to Port Townsend, where more left the ship. Then it continued on to Nanaimo for a load of coal, which distressed many of the passengers.

The crew of the steamer had failed, after all, to drop off all of its cargo. Many of the passengers did not get all of their possessions until the Commodore returned with its fresh supply of coal.

That would have been icing on the cake for some of the passengers, who had not been happy with the vessel itself. It left San Francisco about seven hours later than scheduled on April 20, and there were fears raised by some on board that it might not survive the trip to Victoria.

As one man said in a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin, the steamer required a thorough overhaul.

"We have officers paid for attending to the examination of sea-going ships, and I specially commend them to the Commodore," he said.

Many of the new arrivals in Victoria departed as soon as they could for the Fraser River, prepared to take it on even though the river was reported to be high and the current strong.

Some took the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Otter across Georgia Strait, or the Gulf of Georgia as it was known then.

Others made their way by canoe -- a correspondent for the Bulletin said six canoes left Victoria on one day in late April.

They left behind a community that was, as another writer said in a letter to the Bulletin, on the verge of major changes.

"The people here are rejoiced that a new era dawns upon them. Soon, very soon, the island will be under the direct administration of the British government, and then comes a lasting farewell to the grinding policy of the Hudson's Bay Company," the letter said in the May 7 Bulletin.

"Too long for the respect and healthful independence of their people, have they held semi-regal sway in these dominions.

"Once placed on these broad acres an industrious and energetic people, and houses will take the place of pig pens; the ready steamer will tow the lumbering scow, and the steam engine will cast aside the crawling ox-cart.

"This is no chimera, no fairy picture; but in the course of ordinary events all this will occur in our own good time."

The Bulletin also provided a lengthy description of Victoria at the time, drawing heavily from a directory of the North Pacific written by Alexander George Findlay in 1851 as well as from other sources.

"Vancouver Island is destined to become soon a country of vast importance. Whether the mainland on the east side of the Gulf of Georgia and extending northward from Frazer River is of equal value for settlement we have no means of knowing," the Bulletin said. It described Victoria as the chief settlement of the Hudson's Bay Company.

"Royal Bay occupies the southeast extremity of the island, and lies to the northeast of what is called Albert Head. It contains Victoria, in the harbour of the same name, and Esquimalt, or Squimal, harbour to the west of it.

"The last named harbour is very commodious, and is accessible at all times. It is deep, safe, and almost large enough to shelter the ships of all Christendom," it said.

"Victoria harbour, the original name of which is Camozack, or Cammusan, though not the best, is the most important of all on Vancouver Island, and lies two miles to the west of the one just described." (Odds are, they meant to say "east" rather than "west.")

The newspaper described Fort Victoria is a square enclosure of 100 yards, surrounded by cedar pickets, 20 feet in height, having octagonal bastions, each with six six-pounder iron guns.

Gov. James Douglas had selected the site of the fort when he was an official of the Hudson's Bay Company. His work did not impress the Bulletin, which said the fort was badly placed.

Douglas had chosen the site with agriculture in mind, the newspaper said. The Bulletin had a strong preference for the Esquimalt harbour.

And what of the Commodore, the vessel that brought all of those new arrivals on April 25, 150 years ago?

The Commodore was launched in 1850 as the Brother Jonathon. It was 250 feet long and 36 feet wide, with room for 750 passengers.

It was originally used on the route between New York and Panama, where passengers could cross the isthmus on foot or mule to connect with vessels on the Pacific coast.

In 1852 the Brother Jonathon was taken around Cape Horn to go into service on the Pacific. In 1856 the vessel was sold and renamed Commodore.

In July 1858 the Commodore had to abandon a trip to Victoria and speed back to San Francisco, with the crew throwing cargo overboard to keep the vessel from sinking. Many passengers lost all of their possessions.

The vessel was rebuilt after that. In 1861 it almost sank again, and was rebuilt again, then renamed Brother Jonathon.

In July 1865, it struck a rock near Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border. Of the 244 people on board, only 19 survived. It was the worst disaster on the Pacific coast to that time.

Posted April 27, 2008


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