By Doreen Marion Gee

Recently I was interviewed Stephen Hume, a journalist from the Vancouver Sun. We were both musing about why politics in BC seems a world apart sometimes, unique and disconnected from the rest of Canada. He gave a very thoughtful answer. In his view, BC's political culture bears the stamp of a heavy American influence right from our province's early days. The fact that the very first newspapers in the colony of Victoria were founded and produced by Americans seems to lend credibility to Hume's theory.

The Fraser River Gold Rush changed the sleepy fort of Victoria overnight. All of a sudden the tiny community of 500 was caught up in the frenzied madness of men possessed by the gleam of gold and riches. In the summer of 1858, Victoria swelled to over 5000 people when the first load of gold miners from San Francisco arrived on the steamboat Commodore. Business exploded, financed mainly with money from south of the border. Soon another ship arrived from San Francisco with California newspapermen James W. Towne, Henry C. Williston and Columbus Bartlett who brought the first modern printing press to Canada's west coast. 

Towne, Williston and Bartlett produced the first newspaper ever printed on Vancouver Island in 1858, under the name of the Anglo-American. However, the owners decided to substitute Victoria Gazette for Anglo-American at the suggestion of "many citizens of Victoria." (Hugh Doherty, Editor, The Daily Colonist, Victoria, BC, 1968-73). According to Doherty, “The Gazette was a thoroughly professional undertaking from the start. Small in size (similar to a modern tabloid), it was designed to be folded and carried about easily; an important feature because the Gazette was aimed at itinerant gold miners as well as town residents.” At the start the newspaper adamantly defended the neutrality of its American enterprise, strongly denouncing any suggestion that it was opposed to the regime of Sir James Douglas or represented American opinion. Unfortunately, the proprietors of the Victoria Gazette abandoned this altruistic position when further developments unfolded.

During the last months of 1858, four other newspapers kindled the interest of settlers in early Victoria – all produced and printed by Frederick Marriott, also from San Francisco. Two very important media legacies resulted from this printing frenzy: Alfred Waddington's The Fraser Mines Vindicated; or, the History of Four Months, which Doherty writes, was the first non-government book produced on Vancouver Island”; and “the ancient hand press” where Amor de Cosmos printed his first issue of the British Colonist on Dec.11, 1858. While Amor de Cosmos launched his attacks against Douglas through the venue of the Colonist, the Victoria Gazette stayed out of the fray - publishing their regular dull and uninspiring material in comparison.

However, the political impartiality of the Victoria Gazette abruptly ended in the summer of 1859. At that time, the right to occupation of San Juan Island was being hotly contested by both the USA and Britain. The island was home to American settlers and British employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, both laying claim to its fertile soil. On June 15, 1859, an American farmer named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a British-owned black boar which was rummaging through his potato patch – setting off the “Pig War.” This animal killing inflamed the tensions between the groups of settlers and the US Army dispatched Captain George Pickett to San Juan Island with troops. When US soldiers landed on San Juan Island, the Victoria Gazette awakened from its political slumber to fiercely defend home and country. Doherty: “The San Juan Island controversy caused the paper to bare at last its American soul.”

Borrowing from the 'Bard' in its lead article, the Gazette alleged that the controversy was a "A Teapot Tempest" and the decision to send soldiers “was only made to protect American settlers already there from Indian attack, and there was no violation of 'alleged' British rights. The island obviously belonged to the United States, 'such clearly being the fair interpretation of the treaty [of 1846],' so there was no danger of Anglo-American relations being impaired unless action was taken from the British side that would aggravate the situation, a reference to Douglas' desire to match force with force.” (Doherty) The newspaper chided Governor Douglas, stating he had no authority to land troops himself.

The Victoria Gazette threw the final barb with chest-thumping arrogance. They disdainfully proclaimed that only the Americans would put San Juan Island to proper use and, left in the hands of the British, it would waste away unsettled and undeveloped. Thus ended the non-partisan stance of the American-owned Victoria Gazette. Doherty adds that “Enterprises were almost immediately set in motion which would soon pinch the Gazette out of existence.” 

These early powerful influences by the Americans through the media on the political life of our neophyte city brought the face and perspectives of our southern neighbours into BC's political life. Some, like Hume, would speculate that this American finger-print has never left.