In the mid 1800s, most of the Europeans who had settled on Vancouver Island lived at Fort Rupert (by modern day Port Hardy) or Fort Victoria. Most of Vancouver Island was still viewed as a vast, uncharted wilderness.
Smallpox and other European epidemics had taken a heavy toll on the First Nation population of the Island (the major outbreak affecting the island in 1862), and many communities had amalgamated. In some cases seasonal camps and villages were empty for significant parts of the year, creating the impression to the European traders that many areas had been deserted.
In 1864 the governing body of the Colony established the ‘Vancouver Island Exploration Committee,’ noting that much progress had been made in surveying the waters abound Vancouver Island by ship, but comparatively little was known about its interior topography or possible mineral riches.
The expedition leader was Dr. Robert Brown, and one of the nine members (a number which did not include hunters/ miners/ or First Nation guides/interpreters) was artist and naturalist John Buttle.
A journal which includes illustrated images of the trip as well as report to the government of the colony in November of 1864 provide vivid detail of the expedition’s adventures around the Cowichan Valley, the mid-West Coast, the Nanaimo area, the Comox Valley, and the area which would eventually become Strathcona provincial park. This expedition increased settlers’ awareness of the Island.
In the 1890s ‘The Province,’ a weekly digest, came up with an idea to sponsor another expedition. This exploration would travel the length of Vancouver Island, and updates would be reported through a serial in the newspaper.
The Reverend William Washington Bolton, Cambridge educated, who had previously spent three years in Esquimalt, was hired to lead the crew.
In July 1894 the group left Victoria by ship and they were dropped off at Shushartie Bay. The group intended to start their expedition at Cape Sutil, known at the time as Cape Commerell.
This group travelled overland to the area near Holberg, then acquired canoes and paddled through Quatsino Narrows and down Neurosis Inlet. From here the crew set off on foot. The maps which were available to the expedition were not very accurate, and Bolton later stated that “We could not tell that the chart was wrong, and came near to paying very dearly for our ignorance.”
Although they had planned to traverse the entire length of the island within the next two months, they soon realized that this goal was not achievable.
They made their way from Woss Lake over the eulachon trail to Tahsis, and then boarded a canoe and a ship to get to Port Alberni.
From here they walked the remainder of the island on well-used trails to Victoria.
The dream of completing the expedition was revived in 1896 when phase two of the expedition was launched. John William Laing joined Bolton, and this time the group started their exploration at Nimpkish Lake. Forty-six days later the group reached Port Alberni, essentially completing all phases of the exploration and filling in many portions of the maps which previously showed large parts of the Northern Vancouver Island as ‘uncharted.’ (Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.)