BROWN, Robert

Author Tags: 1850-1900, Early B.C., Gold, Natural History

Born in Camster, Scotland on March 23, 1842, Robert Brown arrived in Victoria in 1863 at age 21 as a botanical seed collector for the British Columbia Botanical Association of Edinburgh. Governor Arthur Kennedy placed him in charge of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition of 1864 that crossed the island at several points but never ventured further north than Comox. During this expedition, Robert Brown became an important explorer of Vancouver Island and one of the better chroniclers of indigenous culture in the 1860s, although he frequently used terms such as "savagery" and "barbarism." Reviewer Clarence Karr noted in BC Studies No. 85, "Brown seemed unable to accept the Indians' time-honoured desires to take part in their annual harvest of food if that meant that they would be unwilling to work for the expedition irrespective of the wages offered." Brown nonetheless managed to provide one of the first written records of a potlatch, at Alberni, and he also provided some of the first accounts of new Euro-American settlements at Cowichan, Chemainus, Comox and Nanaimo.

While Brown was concerned with scientific matters, other members of his entourage were, to his disappointment, equally concerned with finding gold. His expedition is chiefly remembered for its discovery of gold at Leech River, a river named after his second-in-command. A brief gold rush ensued. Brown's River, west of Courtenay, is named for him--reportedly at the insistence of his travelling companions. Brown made other exploratory forays before returning to Britain to become a journalist in London. He died in London on October 26, 1895. He is not to be confused with Robert Brown (1773-1858), the botanist who collected specimens in Australia during the first half of the 19th century and became first keeper of the botanical department of the British Museum.


On the Formation of Fjords, Canons, Benches, Prairies, and Intermittent Rivers (London: Royal Geographical Society, 1869)

On the Geographical Distribution and Physical Characteristics of the Coal Fields of the North Pacific Coast (Edinburgh: Neill & Company, 1869)

Vancouver Island: Exploration, 1864 (Victoria: Harries and Company, 1865)

First Journey of Exploration across Vancouver Island (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1987)

Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (UBC Press, 1989), edited by John Hayman.

[BCBW 2004] "Early B.C." "1850-1900" "Natural History" "Gold" "Classic"

Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (UBC Press, 1989)

Since the 1850s a variety of Scotsmen have explored Vancouver Island and later written about their work in detail. These include Governor James Douglas, the best known of the group; Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant, the Island's (and B.C.'s) first independent settler; Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, industrialist and writer; Alexander Caulfield Anderson, fur-trader and author; Eric Duncan, farmer, poet and philosopher; and William Downie, the first European to ascend the Skeena River. Scotsmen all; most as quick with a pen as with an axe or a walking stick. The curious reader following William Downie's trails will eventually discover the writings of his countryman, Robert Brown. Next to Sproat, he was the most active writer among these Scottish explorers.

Now, thanks largely to the efforts of editor John Hayman, for the first time in this century a book of Robert Brown's will be in print in Canada. Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (UBC Press, 1989) is based on the journal that Brown kept while he led the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition during the summer of 1864. The book also contains a collection of Indian legends and one of the earliest written accounts of a potlatch (held at Alberni).

Back in 1864 Victoria needed a gold rush. Due to the mainland gold rush moving further into the Cariboo and New Westminster becoming the natural centre of commerce, Victoria was sinking back into its original quagmire of silence. Gold cured everything on the frontier. So the city fathers sent Brown into the interior of Vancouver Island to find gold. To everyone's amazement, Brown was successful. The subsequent rush to the Sooke and Leech rivers lasted less than a year, but it gave Victoria renewed hopes. Meanwhile Brown led his men off into the sunset, unaware of the importance of the rush, and oblivious to the fact that few really cared what Brown's V.I.E.E. did with itself.

It now appears that Brown saw life through slightly out-of-focus lenses. As an explorer he was not highly important. But no brief commentary here can do justice to the complexity of Robert Brown's situation as a writer. He made some of the first literary attempts to transport the West Coast imagination from the local to the national and even further abroad. Brown was the first to fail at this, and he failed miserably. In the process he left behind B.C.’s first short story, and a posthumous edition of The Adventures of John Jewitt.

-- By Charles Lillard

[Spring / BCBW 1989]

Robert Brown & Leechtown
Article (2014)

from BC BookLook

A man of action who led an adventurous life, Peter Leech had already fought in the Crimea and served with General Gordon in Khartoum before arriving in the Colony of British Columbia in the fall of 1858 to serve under Colonel Moody as one of the Royal Engineers instrumental in building the infrastructure of the fledgling colony. The gold rush that followed the discovery of gold by the VIEE in the summer of 1864 brought over a thousand miners to the area within a few months, but they didn't stay.

Sixty-four years later, the Historical Association of British Columbia erected a cairn on the site of the former Leechtown. It was the first of October, 1928, and the rain was falling as Provincial Archivist of British Columbia, John Hosie, delivered a speech [excerpted below] at the unveiling of this memorial cairn, the second memorial to the lost city.

The first memorial was a pair of apple trees planted in the spring of 1865. Built from stones salvaged from the fireplace and chimney of what had been the Gold Commissioner's house, the 1928 cairn marked the discovery of gold in the area on July 17, 1864. Its unveiling was attended by sixty people, among them Lieutenant-Governor R. Randolph Bruce and Mrs. Fannie Faucault, of Walhachin, B.C., daughter of Peter Leech and his wife Mary McDonald.

The work of the VIEE in the inland areas of Vancouver Island was a quest pulled between the desires of its commander, the 22-year-old Robert Brown, for botanical and ethnographic information, and by those of its supporters for information on potential mineral deposits. Brown came to British Columbia supported by the British Columbia Association of Edinburgh, and his job was to collect, according to John Hayman, the editor of his journal, "Seeds, Roots and Plants ... for the space of three years." His performance in collecting and preserving botanical specimens from British Columbia that might be catalogued and propagated in Scotland was disappointing, and not only had his relationship with his sponsors soured, but his money was running out when he was fortuitously appointed to command the VIEE. His journal of the expedition is centred on the people and cultures he met, and on what he learned from the aboriginal people who supported the expedition throughout its tenure.

A man of his time, in tracing the story of Leech's relationship with gold, Hosie does not note the many ways aboriginal knowledge of the "uncharted lands" informed the expedition. "Prior to 1864," Hosie writes, "little had been heard of gold deposits on the Island, although desultory prospecting had been done in various accessible rivers and creeks around the coast. The coast-line, indeed, was an open book, but the interior was more or less an uncharted wilderness with locked-up mysteries in its heart. In 1864, at the suggestion of Governor Kennedy, several public-spirited citizens in Victoria formed themselves into a committee and organized a fund for the exploration of Vancouver Island. A considerable sum of money was raised, the Government contributing dollar for dollar. The main objectives of the exploration were the possible discovery of gold or other minerals, and the examination of the country as to its suitability for settlement. The support afforded the committee was substantial and encouraging, and soon a leader, Dr. Robert Brown, of Edinburgh, Scotland, was appointed commander of the expedition."

Hosie remarks on Brown's resolve: "We will do our best," Brown writes, "but I neither promise to discover prairies, nor mines, nor yet a Goshen—a land flowing with milk and honey, but I will try. We are searching for truth, and that we will find. If the Island is worth anything the sooner it is known the better; if not, make the best of what you have."

Hosie, in his speech at the cairn, continued:

"Dr. Brown, you see, ladies and gentlemen, was a canny Scot, and something of a
philosopher. To-day we are only concerned with one result of the expedition—the discovery of gold on the historic spot on which we now stand. Dr. Brown was not present when this discovery was made, being in the Cowichan District pursuing his investigations there, and writing his brilliant, distinctive, and sometimes ironic, diary. Before leaving Victoria he deputed Lieutenant Peter Leech to proceed to Sooke River, with the following instructions:

'You are hereby directed to take charge of the field parties of the expedition
during my absence from the main body, and over it for the time being you have
absolute power and authority of the direction of its movements in conformity with the general orders appended. You will proceed with the whole party with all prudent speed to the headwaters of Sooke River. Finally, trusting that you will execute this important trust in a manner which experience has shown you are capable of.'

“I need not say that Lieutenant Leech amply justified the confidence placed in him
by Commander Brown. His letters preserved in the Archives Department show that
he was a most efficient, capable, and resourceful officer. He later became city engineer of Victoria ... Carrying out his instructions, he duly proceeded by vessel to Sooke, travelling up the river of that name, and on the 14th July, 1864, made the first discovery of gold on the bars of the river. In his letter of that date he states:

'I have to report for your information that we have found good indications of
gold on the Sooke River at a point about six miles from the inlet and about one-quarter of a mile above the canyon shown on Mr. Whymper’s sketch which I forward along with this note. The parcels which are enclosed contain the prospects obtained by Mr. Foley. Number 1 contains the result of 15 pans; number 2 contains the result
of 2 pans. Mr. Foley estimates the result about 2 cents to the pan, the highest estimate being about 25 cents to the pan.'"

Here is Leech's most famous comment on the extent of the gold:

"A discovery which I have to communicate is the finding of gold on one of the
forks of the Sooke River about 10 miles from the sea in a straight line, and in a locality never hitherto reached by white men, and in all probability never even by
natives. The lowest prospect obtained was 3 cents to the pan; the highest, one dollar
to the pan, and work like that with the rocker would yield what you can better calculate than I can, and the development of which with what results you can imagine. The diggings extend for fully 25 miles, and would give employment to more than 4,000 men. Many of the claims would take 8 to 10 men to work them. The diggings could be wrought with great facility by fluming to the stream. The country abounds with game and the honest miner need never fear but that he could find food without much trouble. The whole value of the diggings cannot he easily overestimated. The gold will speak for itself.”

The gold did speak for itself, as Hosie noted.

"Just as soon as the news of the discovery of gold reached Victoria and publicity given in the Colonist newspaper, men began to flock out in considerable numbers. Not only did they flock from Victoria, but according to Dr. Robert Brown, who was in the Nanaimo District at the time, there was a miniature stampede from Nanaimo, and even a number of Brown’s party and Leech’s own party showed a disposition to disengage themselves from their official duties to follow the lure of the precious metal. Leech had the greatest difficulty in retaining the services of certain members of his party.

“Leech’s instructions did not permit him to remain many days in this vicinity.
Having thoroughly examined the banks of the Sooke and Leech Rivers, and sent in
his reports, he proceeded northward to Sooke Lake; thence to Cowichan, the Nitinat
country, and Alberni. It soon became necessary to provide suitable trail accommodation from the mouth of the Sooke River and also from Goldstream for the convenience of prospectors making for the scene of the gold discoveries. The authorities in Victoria were greatly excited over what appeared to them to be another El Dorado. The first parties travelled by steamer to Sooke Harbour, thence following the river to the claims. A trail, which presently became a wagon-road, was constructed from Sooke Harbour up Sooke River to its junction with the Leech, and almost immediately a similar trail was made over the Goldstream Mountains to Wolf Creek, and down Wolf Creek to its confluence with the Sooke.

“Great numbers of men of all ages staggered over these rough trails carrying their implements. In the course of a month a small town had arisen on Kennedy Flat, in this immediate neighbourhood. It was at first a town of tents, but presently log houses arose, and a number of stores, saloons, hotels, etc., were erected. Within six weeks’ time six general stores, groceries, and three hotels were operating. The townsite was surveyed into lots in September, 1864, and about thirty-one lots were put up for sale at the land office in Victoria on October 3rd at the upset price of $100 per parcel.

“A very busy man was Richard Golledge, who was sent out by the Government as
Gold Commissioner. Mr. Golledge’s letters reflected something of the excitement among the miners, and the difficulty incidental to keeping calm such a community.
Nevertheless, he reports that as a whole the miners were exceedingly well-behaved.
The staking of claims proceeded with a rush and Golledge was overwhelmed. His reports show that in August and September, 1864, considerable quantities of gold were extracted from all bars on both rivers. Individual nuggets to the value of as high as $75 were taken out. By November 9th, 1864, four months after the discovery of gold, some 1,200 miners were at work, and at December 10th, 1864, $2,690 had been collected for miners’ licenses. Also, at November 9th, 1864, according to Magistrate Foster, of Sooke, there were no fewer than thirty premises licensed for the sale of alcoholic liquors.

“The Gold Commissioners quarters, which included the Court-house and Police
Station, was a substantial log structure where Mr. Golledge officiated and kept his records. He was provided with a safe, firearms, and other conveniences. The site was designated in official records as Kennedy Junction or Kennedy Flat, after His
Excellency, Governor Kennedy. Some thirty large trees were removed to make room for the buildings, leaving an open space in front. The buildings were erected in
November and December, 1864. Prior to this Mr. Golledge transacted his business in a tent. Alas, for the condition of Government House to-day, that no effort was made to preserve it is somewhat of a reflection on public sentiment. Doubtless had the Historical Association come into being earlier, steps would have been taken to
preserve the last surviving relic of the old town.

“In addition to the Government offices, we have here in front of us two tangible, living memorials of the Leechtown of old in the shape of two apple-trees, now hoary, but still alive and hearing fruit. Their persistence in the circumstances is remarkable. They were planted by Governor Kennedy and his daughter on the occasion of their visit of inspection to the goldflelds in the spring of 1865.

“As to the complete disappearance of the town, which boasted some substantial buildings—years after the gold had petered but and the town became deserted, the place was swept by fire. Now Mother Nature has resumed her sway and taken the site back into her bosom again."

Hose began his memorial speech with words to inspire prospectors to continue the quest begun by the VIEE:

“I will not delay you further, other than to state that with regard to the amount of gold taken from this vicinity there are differences of opinion. It is estimated that in the years 1864-66 the amount taken out did not exceed $200,000. Most of the gold was obtained half-way up the Leech between Kennedy Flat and the North Fork. We know, however, that a vast amount was taken out irregularly of which there is no record."

Hosie hinted that gold could still lie in the vicinity of the now-lost Leechtown:

"There is little doubt but that some rich spots still exist in the neighbourhood of Leech River, but they must be quite limited, and ... hard to find.... Whether the Leech will ever come into its own again, whether, as has been suggested, the surface has only been scratched, and whether with the employment of new methods the Leech might not he successfully exploited, we are not competent to say."

Hosie remarked on "the poetry and romance and glamour" of the story of Leechtown, and urged others to pay their respects to "the memory of the men who explored this area and for a brief spell made the wilderness resound with their labours." He closed by reading a bit of romantic doggerel written to mark the occasion by Donald A. Fraser:

Leechown, 1864-1928

Here thronged tense hearts and hands in search of gold!
And gold they found! Like magic, in a day,
Uprose a flimsy town, grim, gaunt, but gay,
And all-sufficient those stern lives to hold;
But Fortune’s smile soon, Ah, too soon, grew cold;
Fickle and false she fluttered on her way;
Faded the gleam, and those she did betray
Passed on, and left all things to Moth and Mould.

Yet can they live again through Memory!
For lust and lure of yellow gold are still
All-powerful to tempt Humanity,
And at their tale our hearts must throb and thrill.
That Memory may call in clearer tones,
We here to-day uprear these speaking stones!


This information has been adapted and edited from the Fourth Annual Report and Proceedings of the British Columbia Historical Association, 1929.

For more on Robert Brown, consult John Hayman's Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989).


The Gold Will Speak For Itself

Dr. Patrick Perry Lydon's self-published book on B.C. history, The Gold Will Speak For Itself: Peter Leech and Leechtown, Victoria's Gold Rush (2013), also records the good fortune of Peter John Leech, when he was given command of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (VIEE) in July 1864.

Humbly described by Lydon as "more like a scrap-book than a book," The Gold Will Speak For Itself has been published in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the finding of gold at Leechtown, slated for July, 2014, to coincide with events planned for Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, at the grave of Peter Leech, and at the Leechtown Railway Station on the Galloping Goose Trail.

"I have been fascinated with gold-panning and Canada since I was a child," says Lydon, chairman of the Leechtown Commemorative Committee, "and “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service remains one of my favorite poems. "Little did I know that, years later, I would pan for gold in the Wild Horse Creek near Fort Steel and Cranbrook and a few years later I would pan at Bonanza Creek in the Yukon and participate in the Dawson City International gold-panning competition in 1997."

Dr. Patrick Perry Lydon was born in Galway, Ireland and was educated in that City and at Clongowes Wood College, Dublin. He gained his Medical Degree at the University College Galway and then his Fellowship in Psychiatry after training in Dublin, the Crichton Royal Hospital, Dumfries, Scotland and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow. He emigrated to Canada with his wife Anne Marie in 1975 and he obtained his Fellowship in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in 1979. He has practiced in Brandon, MB and then Cranbook, BC, before moving to Victoria in 1983. He has been a member of the Old Cemeteries Society, the Victoria Genealogical Society, and he has been President of the Victoria Lapidary and Mineral Society on three separate occasions. He has been a member of the Vancouver Island Placer Miners Association since 1997 and has served as Director for two years. He has a placer claim on the Loss Creek, not far from Leechtown. Dr. Lydon has a special interest in the assessment and management of Adult ADHD and continues to have a private practice in the city of Victoria. He has two children, Louise and Robert. His wife Anne Marie passed away in 2011 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery.

The Gold Will Speak For Itself: Peter Leech and Leechtown, Victoria's Gold Rush (Lydon Shore Publishing 2013) 9780987969002. $22