Author Tags: Early B.C., First Nations, Forts and Fur
Reputedly the first European settler on Vancouver Island independent of the Hudson's Bay Company, Walter Colquhoun Grant was a debt-ridden aristocrat who had no farming experience. He arrived in August of 1949, briefly worked for the Hudson's Bay Company as its first surveyor on Vancouver Island, and sold his 80-hectare homestead in Sooke in 1853. The province of British Columbia did not exist by the time Grant returned to England, so he can't be properly described as British Columbia's first European settler. [See John MacKay and John Jewitt entries] The settler John Muir actually arrived at Fort Victoria with his sons slightly before Grant but Grant is generally touted as the first colonist to own land in what later became B.C.
Grant was born in Edinburgh into a notable Scottish family on May 27, 1821, the only child of Margaret Brodie and Colquhoun Grant who was selected by Wellington to head his intelligence division for the Waterloo campaign of 1815. His father became the subject of a biography, The First Respectable Spy: The Life and Times of Colquhoun Grant, Wellington's Head of Intelligence (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969) by Jock Haswell. Five of his six uncles, including James McGrigor (later Sir James) who was Wellington's chief medical officer, contributed military service to England. As an infant, Walter C. Grant was taken to India where his father served in the First Burmese War as a brigade commander and contracted malaria. While they were returning to Scotland, his mother died at sea when he was seven years old. He was tutored at Brodie Castle in Scotland. His father died on September 28 while "taking the cure" at Aix-la-Chapelle, France, in 1829.
By age 24, Gray was a captain in the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) but he was not enamoured of military life. He briefly attended Royal Military College at Sandhurst until the failure of his bank radically changed his prospects. Unable to retain his position in the army, he borrowed privately and opted to sail to Fort Victoria in order to re-establish himself as a member of the landed gentry on what he described as "Vancouver's island." In 1848 he wrote to his older cousin William Brodie, "... my debts are so numerous & my creditors so pressing, that even if I got patched up in my present position for a short time, I sd. [should] eventually be obliged to succumb." To emigrate, Grant had to first conform to strict immigration guidelines designed to dissuade riff-raff from spoiling the future of Little England. The price of land was set at one pound sterling per acre and each landowner was required to bring with him five single tradesmen and the married couples for each 100 acres purchased. Grant described the regulations as "six to every 100 acres, one half of whom are to be farm labourers & the other half mechanics." Pleased to throw off his red tunic, Grant was optimistic. "There will be no difficulty," he wrote, "in finding plenty of hands, Sioux & Blackfoot Indians par exemple can be transported from the neighbouring main land who will work for a week for the remuneration of 'A shirt.'"
While Grant took an unusual path to Fort Victoria, overland via Panama, one of the nine labourers who preceded him to Vancouver Island (on a different ship) died at sea. Having paid for land in advance in England, Grant had understood he would have free choice of land upon arrival. He soon discovered he was prohibited from building anywhere within 25 miles of Fort Victoria because the surrounding arable land being reserved for the Hudson's Bay Company. Joining his eight workers, he supervised their clearing of land on the shores of the Sooke Basin, near the Aboriginal community known as T'sou-ke. To reach the place, Grant’s men had travelled 20 miles up the coast in canoes because there wasn’t a trail beyond Metchosin. Grant's desire to replicate a little piece of Scotland at Sooke was so pronounced that he tried to teach Gaelic to some of the nearby Aboriginals. He called his residence Mullachard after his forefathers' home at Strathspey, Scotland.
He worked as an HBC surveyor with limited success, then resigned on March 25, 1850 after several of his workers left him. He was disheartened by the lack of support from the Hudson's Bay Company, his distance from Fort Victoria, and the land itself. Vancouver Island, he wrote, was "little better than a mass of Rock, with a few little garden patches... from what I have seen & heard... 19/20ths of the island at the very least were useless rock... The climate is very delightful to the labourer, but I do not think very favorable for the ripening of crops... The Savages have an abominable custom of burning the woods, & the smoke rising hence, together with a fog which hangs over the country eternally during the summer months, wd. [would] prevent one recognizing one's dearest friend at 100 yards distance, nay sometimes at 100 feet... the descriptions of the coal found in the island have been much exaggerated, both as to quantity & quality."
Grant built a sawmill in 1850, hoping to export lumber to San Francisco, but by 1851 he confessed in a second letter to his cousin, "... if it had not been for the episode of a 2 months trip down to the Sandwich Islands last winter, I really believe I sd. [should] have committed Suicide." Short of funds, he went looking for gold in Oregon, initially renting his property. Disillusioned, he decided to sail for Scotland in 1853. He donated his croquet set to the Victoria Open School and he more famously gave the Muir family, who bought his sawmill, three bushes of Scottish broom that he had acquired during his vacation on the Sandwich Islands. These fast-spreading plants were a gift to him from the British Consul in Honolulu, who had brought them from Tasmania. They have since proliferated around the province.
Grant's efforts at colonial life have been belittled. Sir George Simpson remarked that Grant had "a peculiar talent for getting into the pockets of his friends." Eden Colville, a visitor to Fort Victoria in 1849, observed that Grant's "flightiness" amounted "to near lunacy." It was not Grant's fault that his family fortune was lost in the collapse of an English bank. He did his best to hire a proficient farm manager, knowing he himself was not qualified to manage such work. The support he received from the Hudson's Bay Company was necessary. Grant himself concluded, "I have done better for the men I brought out with me than for myself. I employed them at high wages, and have now established them on plots of land of their own. None of them left me except by my own consent, & they are all except 3 now established on the island--of these 3 one was drowned, one died of cholera, and the other is now working in Oregon." Relieved to have no mouths to feed but his own, Grant bid his retreat.
Grant returned to England and the British Army. He served during the Crimean War and in India where he died of dysentry at Sangor, Central India, on August 27, 1861 at age 39. During his lifetime Grant presented two papers about Vancouver Island to the Royal Geographical Society, one in November of 1857 and the other in December of 1859. He was made a fellow of the Society in December of 1858. He is the namesake for Grant Road in Sooke.
Grant, Walter, C. Descriptions of Vancouver Island by Its First Colonist (London: Royal Geographical Society, 1857).
Grant, Walter, C. Remarks on Vancouver Island, Principally Concerning Townsites and Native Population (London: Royal Geographical Society, 1859).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Early B.C." "Forts and Fur" "First Nations" "Indianology"