For six years a cult was located on DeCourcy Island. I suspect I am not alone in my frustration that although it was eighty-five years ago, our island continues to be identified by Brother XII’s time here. His residency only lasted six years. There were others who lived on this island, hardworking, honest people, both before and after the Aquarian Foundation.
It goes without saying that before any of us were here, the Lyackson First Nations people lived and fished in these waters for thousands of years. I will leave the history of the indigenous people in this area to the experts and explore the stories of our island, beginning with the first of the European settlers; the men and women who lived on the farm since 1873.
After all, there have been enough books written about the cult. We don’t need another one. There are other Stories to tell.
Probably like me, you are surprised to discover many of the locals in Nanaimo and even Cedar have never heard of DeCourcy Island. Imagine if you will, how they must have thought, if at all, about DeCourcy in 1873. As evidenced in the documents I have found, many thought….” Mudge, Gabriola, DeCourcy… all the same place, those islands out there….” They use the names interchangeably.
The Government of Canada passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872. It provided the legal authority under which the Crown granted lands to individuals, colonization companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company, railway construction, municipalities and religious groups. The act devised specific homestead policies to encourage the settlement of the West. Any man, or woman (if she was the sole head of the family) over the age of 21 was eligible for a grant of a 165-acre plot of land. Policy varied over time but most eligible homesteaders who paid a $10 administrative fee were given three years to build a residence and clear at least 30 acres for farming. Once the authorities decided progress had been made, the settler received patent for ownership of the land.
The first land grant for DeCourcy Island was issued to Robert Burrell on the 27th of October 1873. I don’t know how he found DeCourcy. I like to think he was on a sternwheeler returning from Barkerville, travelling from New Westminster to Victoria with a stop in Nanaimo. I picture him passing through Dodd’s Narrows and thinking much like many of us… “I’d like to live there…. Own my own land, build a little house, maybe get me some sheep and have a good life away from the hustle bustle of city life.”
Everything I can find out about Mr. Burrell indicates he was a good guy. A man who anticipated that Barkerville, during the wild and crazy days of the gold rush was vulnerable to fire. The kind of man who would chase a thief 678 miles to recover stolen money for his bank. His nautical skills perhaps could have been better, but everyone seems to have liked and respected him.
Burrell was born in Glasgow. He first appears in Canada when listed in the Victoria City directory as he rose through the administration of the Bank of British North America beginning in 1863, then 1869 and again in 1871. In 1866, records appear of his mine claims in Barkerville during the Cariboo Gold Rush while he was posted there as the Manager of the same Bank.
Isobel Bescoby mentions Burrell in her book Society in Cariboo during the Gold Rush (P 199)
There was apparently no thought of organized protection against fire. Individual miners and storekeepers may have equipped themselves with leather fire-buckets. By 1867, having already suffered a depletion of their material goods, a few Caribooites under Robert Burrell and John Buie, fire wardens, collected $676 in aid of Barkerville fire brigade. Most of the inhabitants, however, felt that Cariboo was a charmed community, protected by God against fire and all other dangers, and therefore no precautions against destruction by fire were taken in that year. A little over a year later, on September 16, 1868, the whole “metropolis of Cariboo was destroyed by a fire originating in a saloon where a “hurdy” dancing girl was ironing.
After the Barkerville fire, Burrell moved back to Victoria and was the interim Manager of the Bank of British North America on Yates Street. An article appeared in the Victoria British Colonist on November 28, 1871 (page 3) which tells a remarkable tale.
Forgery and Successful Pursuit
Robt. Burrell, Esq, of the Bank of British North America, returned from a trip to Idaho yesterday. The trip was made under the following extraordinary of circumstances. About six weeks ago James Huarey stole a check on the Bank of British North America for $1600 from W. C. Anderson at Yale, forged Anderson’s endorsement and was paid the amount at the Bank in this city. On discovery of the fraud the Bank obtained an extradition warrant from our Government. In the meantime, Huarey had taken flight to the United States. Mr. Burrell, of the Bank of B.N.A., went in pursuit with the warrant and overtook the rogue at Salmon River, Idaho. Finding, to take proper legal steps to bring Huarey back to British Columbia, it would be necessary to go to Boise City which would involve a great deal of time and cause a heavy expense which the Government would scarcely refund, Mr. Burrell thought it best to take back the $1600 with $300 additional for expenses, and leave the swindler to escape unwhipt of justice as he might.
Every Clint Eastwood movie I have ever watched prompts my imagination as to how Burrell convinced Huarey to repay the money with a $300.00 fee for his trouble. He must have been quite the formidable guy…
In 1873, Burrell left the bank and applied for the land grant on DeCourcy Island. He brought with him 100 sheep to start his farm. A long career with the Bank and years living through the Cariboo Gold Rush could not have been very profitable. The sheep were bought on account from a butcher in Victoria. It was announced in the Victoria British Colonist Burrell drowned while rowing from Nanaimo harbour to DeCourcy Island just three months after moving here.
December 21, 1873 (page 3)
Reported Drowning. The Star Emma arrived from Nanaimo yesterday morning bringing intelligence of the supposed drowning of Mr. Robert Burrell, near Nanaimo last Wednesday night. Mr. Burrell had established a stock ranch on DeCourcy Island, about 8 miles from Nanaimo, and started in a small row boat for home on Wednesday about 1 o’clock. On Friday morning several articles which Mr. Burrell is known to have had in the boat were found on the beach about 1 1/2 miles from town. From this it is feared that the boat was capsized, and Mr. Burrell drowned on Wednesday night. An Indian woman who lives near the point thinks she heard some person shouting that evening. When the Emma sailed a party had gone to DeCourcy Island to ascertain if the missing man had reached there. Mr. Burrell is well known and liked throughout the Province. He was for a long time Manager of the Bank of British North America’s business on William Creek.
Burrell died without a will. When his estate was probated, essentially the sheep were returned to the butcher and there were few other assets. Upon his death the land reverted to the crown until 1875 when Roger Elphinstone was issued a grant. There is no evidence that Elphinstone ever took up residence on the island and the land was again returned to the crown.