The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Backwoods Back-Story

An Historical Prologue

By Lizzie Love

This article was originally published in the April 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

Lizzie LoveSome weeks ago I began work on an article about Elizabeth Jane SOAL who spent many years teaching in North West Canada, early in the 20th Century. I realised quite quickly that her story needed a history … or what writers know as “back-story”. Our editor agreed that it would provide a good general interest article.

The tale concerns the activities of the Anglican Church in British Columbia from mid-19C when the fur trade gave way to the quest for gold, and the Indian lands were taken over for settlement and industry.

Early days in BC

For the first hundred years after contact the trade between whites and the tribes of Northern British Columbia and its offshore islands was based on the pelts of sea-otter. Although the Haida, Nishga, Gitskan and Tsimshian clans saw only a fraction of the profits made by the traders, their standard of living rose. Unfortunately, their self-sufficiency declined.

By the mid-nineteenth century the otters were almost extinct and the area was moribund and lawless. The tribes had been joined by ex-Hudson’s Bay Company employees, loggers, white trappers, misfits, and would-be gold prospectors. The currency was strong liquor ... or the bodies of the women-folk.

Captain James C. Prevost reported this situation to the Church Missionary Society in England whose gun-boat patrolled the coast. The Church despatched a lay missionary, William Duncan to offer the 19th century “magic bullets” … i.e. God, civilised behaviour and vaccination against smallpox. Prevost provided Duncan with a free passage from England and deposited him at the mouth of the Naas River on 1st October 1857. Duncan was just 25 years old.

Duncan was a success. He had building skills and obvious people-skills too, because he soon gathered a small community around him. Duncan was an evangelical. For him God was a way of living together ... a way of treating other people. He and his followers built their own settlement of Metlakhatla, away from the lawlessness of Fort Simpson. Their numbers were later swelled after the first great smallpox epidemic in 1862 when it was seen that his people were spared. Outside Metlakhatla a third of all Indians in British Columbia perished.

It was the gold-rush plus an influx of settlers that led to the establishment of the Crown Colony of British Columbia. The Church of England, seized the moment and established a diocese of the same name and extent under Bishop George Hills in 1860.

Back in the UK the CMS wanted Duncan to be ordained. They wanted the sacraments brought to the Indians, but Duncan felt he should stick to the simple and practical. He did not want to confuse people with ritual, or bring the idea of “the Blood and Body of Christ” to people rumoured to have been cannibals.

Some in high places saw Duncan as an embarrassment. Others stood up for him, but eventually amid an alleged dirty-tricks campaign the Church of England split BC into three diocese … two small ones New Westminster, and British Columbia in the south and Caledonia covering the northern half of the province. They sent Duncan his very own Bishop.

Stern and Wild

The Diocese of Caledonia is vast ... more than 200,000 square miles. It covers the Northern half of BC from the Yukon border down to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The regions are of widely differing character. There are mountain ranges, great tracts of forest, plains of wheat, and spatterings of off-shore islands. The Rockie Mountains isolate the inner plains from the coast and water-filled splits of rivers chop the diocese horizontally into chunks that make centralised organisation impossible.

The Seven Sisters Mountains, Kitwanga, British Columbia

The Seven Sisters Mountains, Kitwanga, British Columbia

Choosing a See City for Caledonia was a knotty problem. In the east, the people of the Peace River look to Edmonton in Alberta as their “local” city and folks in the south look to towns in the regions of Cariboo and Columbia. The original mission had covered only the coastal area from the Skeena north to the Naas so the missionaries, had arrived via the coastal route, later striking inland from Prince Rupert at the mouth of the Skeena. So it was in 1877, that Prince Rupert was declared the See City of Caledonia.

A Turbulent Priest

William Ridley was a man with a problem. His elevation to Bishop was attended with consternation in some quarters and it was claimed that the offer of a Bishopric was mooted by friends in high places to restore his missionary zeal. He suffered long periods of ups and downs and a tendency to overreact.

Ridley began his work in the Punjab, from whence he was shipped home for "health" reasons after becoming "overzealous". He was assigned a quiet living in Wiltshire where he sank into apathy and depression and it was from there he was plucked, consecrated and packed off to Canada, in 1877, full of a new enthusiasm. His brief was to sort out the maverick evangelical William Duncan and introduce the sacraments to the Indians.

He and Duncan clashed repeatedly over almost ten years and eventually came to blows. Ridley was obsessed with Duncan and imagining that he and his Indians had designs on the school house, he mounted a personal armed vigil to prevent them dismantling it and hauling it away. Nothing happened. Ridley spent a lonely night in the porch with his guns. He had also contacted the BC Government who sent an armed vessel (borrowed from the US) to put down what they believed was an uprising. The inhabitants of Metlakhatla woke one morning to find it in the harbour. It didn't stay long.

After that damp squib, there were more dirty tricks and with a heavy heart, Duncan turned to the American Government for help and was gifted land on Annett Island in the Yukon 70 miles away. He and around 700 Christian Indians moved up the coast in the summer of 1887 and founded New Metlakhatla, while Ridley steered Caledonia away from evangelism towards the ecclesiastical.

Two years before Duncan's departure a young layman, Alfred Edwin Price had arrived at the mission as an eager 23-year-old. In 1888 he married Elizabeth ANSTEE and the following year was ordained by Ridley. Price stayed in Caledonia until 1920, spending much of his service inland at Kitwanga, where he built a school and the Church of St Paul. A son, Reginald, was born, and is said to have become a surgeon at The Hospital for Sick Children in London's Great Ormond St.

Bishop and Mrs Ridley settled up-river at Hazelton. In 1886 the Rev John Field arrived for a long career as minister there, bringing his wife, a deaconess. They were joined in 1901 by the feisty indomitable daughter of a Lewisham greengrocer, Elizabeth Jane SOAL ... my great-grandfather's sister. Like Alfred Price, she stayed many years, and eventually in middle age became his second wife.

Both Alfred and Lizzie Price died before I was born, but “Skeena”, the house they eventually built in Clacton-on-Sea had a special ambience and, under my grandmother’s benevolent rule, made me safe and welcome in a disrupted childhood.

Sources: Anglican Archives in Vancouver.

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