The Trial of Tshuanahusset: Fair or Foul?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 3
Support Materials 1 (Briefing Sheet)

Relations Between First Nations People and Settlers

This trial is not simply a case of one man, Tshuanahusset (also called “Tom the Indian”) being charged with the murder of another, William Robinson. It raises a bigger issue of conflict between First Nations people and settlers in coastal British Columbia.

For centuries (1650-1850), First Nations peoples lived quite harmoniously with the fur traders who came into their territory from Montreal to obtain furs, and later fish and berries. The Canadian fur traders were not interested in taking up First Nations’ lands, but only in making use of Native hunting and trapping skills to provide the furs for sale in European markets. European-Canadians were dependent on the First Nations for this trade.

With the gold rush of 1858 on the Fraser River in southwestern British Columbia, matters changed. First Nations peoples and settlers began a long struggle for land. Drawn by the hope of a gold strike, many white people moved into the area. When they found no gold, many decided to stay and take up land for farming. British Columbia was one of the few areas in Canada not to make treaties with the Native population when a new area was opened up, even though there was a legal obligation to do so. First Nations people have spent more than a hundred years fighting for the return of their lands, or at least for the legal sale of these lands to the non-Native peoples who took them.

During the early settlement years, First Nations people protested against the illegal possession of the lands in various ways. Some made formal representations to the government and even to Queen Victoria. Others made a habit of “stealing” from vegetable gardens of new farmers on what had been their lands. Still others refused to leave lands they believed they owned. In extreme cases, First Nations people inflicted violence on the newly arrived settlers.

Relations between First Nations people and settlers during the settlement era of British Columbia (1858-1901) were not entirely unfriendly. On Salt Spring Island, for example, one-quarter of all marriages were between a Native woman and a non-Native man. By 1881, almost half of the children on the island were of mixed parentage. First Nations women not only provided families for settlers, they also gave them local knowledge about how to live off the land and sea in a remarkably rich environment. Skilled in hunting and fishing and in the cultivation and preparation of local foods, they played a key role as settlers adapted to conditions on the Pacific Coast. They taught whites skills and helped them to adapt to a life without doctors, roads, or the store-bought produce many settlers had relied on in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Europe, or the United States.

Non-Europeans also settled in the area of present-day Victoria. In 1857, the governor of the colony of Vancouver Island, Sir James Douglas, invited African-Americans to settle on rural lands near Victoria. Wishing for political reasons (and other reasons) to install a non-Native population in the region, he promised British citizenship to the African-Americans, including the right to vote and own land. The only condition was that they establish farms on cheap country land. Several hundred people accepted his offer, with the first hundred arriving in April 1858. Some of them rowed over to Salt Spring in July 1859 and became the foundation of the African-American community there, which had grown to about 65 people by the time William Robinson was murdered.

In these early years, Salt Spring Islanders prided themselves on the equal relations between African-Americans and the larger British population. The African-American population was among the most educated on the island, and many men became active in local politics. As the first non-Native arrivals, they were also able to settle on some of the best land. There is some evidence that the African-Americans did not enjoy complete equality: they congregated in one part of the island and, following the first two murders, many decided that life there was not safe and so moved off the island or away from the coast. Some historians have argued that they left because the conclusion of the American Civil War ended official slavery in the United States. Whatever the reasons, the African-American community became much smaller and poorer after the murders of the late 1860s.