Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Descendents of black BC pioneer John Freemont Smith in Vancouver and Kamloops

In Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, historian Crawford Kilian writes the following:

"Born in the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands) in 1850, [John Freemont] Smith was a restless, multi-talented man whose career was much like that of Mifflin Gibbs. After some years in Victoria, he married 15-year-old Mary Anastasia Miller in 1877. The 1881 Victoria census lists him as a boot and shoe maker, living with his wife and three-year-old daughter Gertrude Florella. Mary had been born in Victoria but her 'origin' is given as Northwest Territories—which in those days included today's Prairie provinces. She was probably native or Métis.

"The family moved to Kamloops in 1884; Smith started a shoemaker's shop. In 1886 he moved to nearby Louis Creek, and later liked to boast wryly that he was 'the first white man on the North Thompson.' He served as an Indian agent and postmaster in Louis Creek, but also prospected all over the BC interior. He tried unsuccessfully to develop some mica deposits near Tete Jaune Cache, and was also involved in a coal-mining venture at Chu Chua.

"In 1898 Smith and his family (now numbering seven children) returned to Kamloops, where he set up a store and also worked as a mining and agriculture journalist. In 1902 he became secretary of the local Board of Trade; a year later he was elected alderman, a post he held for four years. In 1908 he was appointed City Assessor. He had also helped found the local Conservative Association. Smith's careers as prospector, businessman and Indian agent seem to have been notably untouched by prejudice. He was a popular community leader, respected for his energetic 'boosting' of Kamloops." (133-34)

Kilian then goes on to recount the one recorded incident of racism against Smith and his family, when a local militia officer refused to work with him. The officer stated in a letter that he "refused to recognise this appointment of a nigger to an Indian Agency," and that Smith's "colour, race and ... his negro-Siwash family are notorious"; he summed up his objections by adding that he believed "races subject to the whiteman are better governed by a whiteman." The federal government tried to intervene on Smith's side, but the project failed as a result of the conflict (134).

This morning, Ashok Mathur (the director of the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada at Thompson Rivers University) and members of the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project met with Gregory Smith Allen, the grandson of John Freemont Smith, and Andrea Baines, Smith's great-granddaughter. Both descendants of the pioneer are from California, to which Smith's youngest daughter relocated in the early twentieth century. This is their first time visiting the adopted province of their ancestor, and we met with them in Vancouver (on Commercial Drive) the day before they are to carry on to Kamloops to see firsthand the city Smith helped to build. Mathur, who currently resides in the Freemont Block, a Kamloops heritage building bearing the pioneer's name, has been researching Smith's legacy in the city and the region.
John Freemont Smith

Gregory Smith Allen
Gregory Smith Allen and his niece Andrea Baines
Sheilagh Cahill, Ashok Mathur, and Gregory Smith Allen
Andrea Baines and Naomi Moyer