British Columbia history, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, Oral history, Record keeping, Vancouver history, Writers

The rich warehouse of stories in Early Vancouver

Vancouver’s First Archivist (self-proclaimed)
Major J.S. Matthews
CVA Port P. 11.1

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a smallpox outbreak in Vancouver in 1892, with quotes from Early Vancouver – a seven-volume set of books based on interviews with settlers undertaken by James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s first archivist.

“Major Matthews” – or simply “The Major” as he still is called in local archival circles, claimed the position of city archivist for himself in the 1930’s even though he was not at the time employed by the City of Vancouver.

The volumes of Early Vancouver contain information on a vast range of topics from city halls, to Hotel Vancouver construction, the fire of 1886, trees, streets, hockey teams, and Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations through story, photos, drawings, and maps – frequently accompanied by notes and commentary from Major Matthews.

There is a wealth of raw information woven into the stories depending on what the witness noticed, cared about, or thought was important. Sometimes you only get teasers about a subject because conversations veer off in other directions following the interviewee’s train of thought, making the exact meaning, timing, or relationships mentioned in a transcript unclear.

For example, here’s an account of the 1892 smallpox outbreak by early Vancouver Alderman W.H. Gallagher. In its essence, the story reveals the sense of panic and actions taken by the citizens of the city and its nascent civic administration to make sure noone with smallpox landed in Vancouver, but Gallagher also makes mention of the police and fire department at the time, as well, incidentally, about there being no road to Port Moody at the time.

“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a steamship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf.

The news soon spread through the little city.

“It was this way.

Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; afterwards the Charmer, and the Premier was an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers.

So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”

Major Matthews: Who started the fun?

Mr. Fraser: “The Premier. The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade.

Vancouver Fire Brigade outside Fire Hall #1 (Water Street)
1895
CVA AM54-S4-: FD P41

The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the” (cold water) “hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.”

Early Vancouver contains a lot of rich raw information but be aware that much of it needs to be untangled and cross-referenced  in order for it to be comprehendible.

Still the stories give a feeling for the subject at hand,  and the anecdotes suggest countless embryonic story ideas.

And now, since 2011, the 7-volume set is available electronically  in 2011.  Before that, researchers had to go in to the Archives to look at the print editions, consulting  each volume’s index individually.

Now you can search across all seven volumes  at once, or limit your search to a specific volume.

For keyword searches, use quotation marks for phrases.

Or use the advanced search page to do a Boolean-like search using the Ultraseek search engine over multiple fields (body, title, link etc) and by date.

Enjoy perusing this fascinating resource – as much a product of the time Major Matthews collected the stories as the actual information they convey. 

l


 

 

Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Dupont St, First Nations history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, Oral history, Record keeping, Research, smallpox, Vancouver history

Smallpox in Vancouver in 1892

Vancouver’s first city archivist, Major James Skitt Matthews
who collected stories of early settlers
Photos is from the City of Vancouver Archives
Port P. 11.1

We know about the ravages of smallpox in the colonies of North America, and the devastation they brought to the First Nations communities here but lesser known is an outbreak that occurred in Vancouver in 1892.

Stories about the outbreak can be found within Early Vancouver, a 7-volume set of books filled with the documented interviews of early Vancouver settlers undertaken by the city’s first archivist Major James Skitt Matthews.

Early Vancouver  includes stories and first-hand accounts and details about early Vancouver people, places, businesses, and events, including a few stories about the smallpox outbreak here, in 1892.

I will write about some of the idiosyncracies of Early Vancouver (of which there are many) in a later post but for now, here are some stories I found about the 1892 smallpox outbreak. In them you will also find information about the volunteer fire brigade, Port Moody, Dupont St (now part of East Pender St.), prostitution, the character of various streets in the city at that time, and more.

From Early Vancouver Vol 1, p. 85 from Mrs. J.Z. Hall

” I think it must have been in 1892 that we had the smallpox scare in Vancouver. It was supposed to have come in by the “Empresses”[steamships] from the Orient (sic).”

“It was a terrible July; yellow flags were everywhere; no one who went through it will forget the scare we got. Houses were quarantined back and front—there was no getting out of them; people were quarantined all over the city. We lived on Nelson Street—I was Miss Greer then—Nelson Street was very sparsely settled, so was Robson Street, but there were cases on Robson Street. One young man, [who helped] Mr. Hanna, the undertaker, contracted the disease and died.”

“It was the custom to put those stricken in an express wagon, and with the driver ringing a bell to keep people away, warning them, the load of sick, frequently girls from Dupont Street, who had been visited by the sailors from the Empresses, would be driven down to the dock, and taken by boat to Deadman’s Island”

 

From Early Vancouver Vol 4, p 171, from A.W. Fraser

“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a ship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf. The news soon spread through the little city.”

“It was this way. Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in [to Vancouver] she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers. So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”

“The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade. The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the [cold water] hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.” 


Since 2011 Early Vancouver has been available  electronically, allowing for online searches.

I’ll write more about Major Matthews and about Early Vancouver in the weeks to come

Archives, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, military history, Record keeping, Remembrance Day, social history, Women, women's history

Trying to study war no more

chessmen

 

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.

Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice.  Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness.  Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.

Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.

When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.

And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting  the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.

I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.

And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?

The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.

And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.

Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.

Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.

Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.

And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle.

 

 

 

Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Record keeping, Research

How archival documents are organized

One of the biggest challenges inherent in archival historical research is figuring out how records or documents are organized.

Sometimes you have to backtrack to find a permit or registration number from one set of records to get into another set of records to find the information you’re really interested in.

A cardinal rule of archival arrangement is that records are kept in the order in which they were created. That’s because documents found next to one another can give clues about  the way different records were created or used, and about the reality of life at the time. It also explains the rationale for some of the custodial work of archivists and the instructions you are often given to use a set of documents. It’s essential they remain in the order in which they were found – or given to you to use.

archive image
some archival documents are hand-written in an old style which adds to the challenge of reading them

It’s part of what makes archival research challenging but, in my opinion, also interesting because it gives a portal into the thinking of a past era.

While doing your research, it may not be apparent how a set of files or documents are arranged.  This might be explained in material accompanying a set of documents, probably written by the archivist who processed the records.

But in many cases – mostly to do with time and budgetary priorities – you’ll be on your own to work out the system in which the records have been arranged. You’ll have to look at them with a critical eye to figure out the system that exists, so you can use the records most effectively.

Think of it as an adventure! Because otherwise you could become very frustrated.

Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Record keeping, Records management, Research, Vancouver history

Archival records weren’t created for future researchers

archive image
some archival documents are hand-written in an old style which adds to the challenge of reading them

 

An archives is, often and strictly speaking the records created in the course of the daily work of a business, society, church, club, or government agency or department. 

These records include documents such as letters (correspondence), minutes of meetings, work-flow documents, registrations forms, records of employment. cemetery registries – all that kind of stuff.  

They are the tracking, book-keeping, and monitoring documents created by, for example finance department could  know who to send the property tax assessment to. Or so that plots in different parts of the cemetery were assigned to the next person to be buried there. Or so that the health inspector knew who the owner was if  a customer complained about the cleanliness of a restaurant.
The department or organization that created these records probably had no thought to researchers of the far future who might use them as a means of tracking down relatives,  figuring out the comparative value of land over time, or compiling stats on tuberculosis deaths in a given year. 

They collected information and instructed their staff to manage it based on what that administrative department found most useful or pertinent at the time and for the purpose the records were intended.

They would have been compiled in a way that made sense at the time based on their needs and uses, something that may be unclear or even illogical to a present-day historical researcher.

Documents could have been organized according to address, legal address, or name of an applicant. They could be in chronological order based on the date someone applied for a building permit. Or they might be arranged in some combination of these.

More next Saturday.