Vowell Creek, Vowell Peak, Vowell Glacier
It is ironic, perhaps, that a man who had such a troubled relationship with the isolation of British Columbia now has a creek, a mountain, and a glacier named after him in one of the more isolated parts of the province.
Arthur Wellesley Vowell
- Born: 17 September 1841, Ireland
- Died: 26 September 1918, Victoria
- Gold Commissioner, Provincial Magistrate, Dominion Indian Superintendent
Arthur Wellesley Vowell was born in Ireland as the twelfth of thirteen children. He served as part of the Irish militia in England before leaving in 1861 for the colony of British Columbia with his friend, John George Brown. The two arrived in Esquimalt in 1862 and joined the Cariboo Goldrush. Neither were successful in gold mining, and Vowell returned to Victoria. Brown remained in the Cariboo, and later became a whiskey trader before eventually advocating for the creation of Waterton Lakes National Park (which isn’t relevant to Vowell’s story, but I thought was interesting).1
Vowell found work labouring on the Cariboo Wagon Road before joining the public service in 1864, starting a lifelong career in the civil service. He worked in the New Westminster jail, then in 1866 as a constable at Big Bend on the Columbia River during the gold rush there. He remained there until 1872, when he was appointed Gold Commissioner and Magistrate in the Kootenay District, followed by a similar post in Omineca (near Prince George) and Cassiar (northeastern) districts. He also had a brief stint in the Provincial Legislature as a representative for the Kootenays.2
Life in the West
Vowell had a strong reputation among settlers for being dependable, although he chaffed somewhat over the locations he found himself in. He actively disliked working in far flung and isolated districts.
In a letter to a friend, politician William Smithe, Vowell complained, “I am heartily sick of the mountains, of bed rock, of sluices and everything connected with the “honest miner!””3 Vowell wanted a post away from the frontier, preferably on the Coast or even in Ottawa.
In the 1880s, he wrote numerous letters to John A. MacDonald requesting a Senate seat representing British Columbia. His request was never granted. Although respected, Vowell was a political outsider who had spent his career isolated on the frontier: a disadvantage that he was never able to get away from.4
Work with the Dominion Government
In 1890, Vowell took a role as Indian Superintendent, a position he would hold for twenty years. In some ways the position was a promotion, as it meant that Vowell was working for the Dominion Government instead of the Provincial one. In practice, it placed Vowell as the bureaucrat standing between the hopes of the Provincial Government and the aspirations of the Dominion.
Vowell’s role was to visit Aboriginal groups, to ensure that their rights were protected, and to generally extend “civilization” to the First Peoples of British Columbia.5 In 1898, Vowell also took over as head of British Columbia’s Joint Reserve Commission. This expanded his job to include the allocation of reserves, and he was able to set aside fifty-nine reserves in the province before the Provincial Government dug in its heels and refused to allow any more land to be “given”.6
In his position working with Indigenous people, Vowell was also actively involved in adding to his personal collection of Aboriginal “antiquities.” Museums around the world obtained Aboriginal artifacts through Vowell’s trading of them and in some cases, at least, evidence suggests that these objects were taken rather than freely given.7
Vowell continued to struggle with the isolation and deprivations of frontier life. He was reported as having, “quite frequent pillow fights with himself, and, at the same time screaming at the top of his voice, when in reality he was quite alone.”8
Struggling with his mental health, Vowell’s life ended tragically. His cause of death is listed as suicide by gunshot. He never married, and his estate was left to nieces and nephews of his many siblings around the world including in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and England. Money was also left to a Women’s Christian Temperance Union Refuge Home in Victoria and a charitable organization offering destitute children free education.9
It is ironic, perhaps, that a man who had such a troubled relationship with the mountains and isolation of British Columbia now has a creek, a mountain, and a glacier named after him in one of the more isolated areas of the province. Vowell’s reputation as a steady and reliable civil servant kept him employed and respected, but it is safe to say that he was unhappy with his continued role in the backwoods of British Columbia.