Why does this document exist?

Newspapers are often the richest source of information on life in the 19th century. Of course, this is only true in urban areas large enough to support a newspaper. In the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia there were only two centres large enough to support papers in 1864, the capitals, Victoria and New Westminster.

Newspapers' principal function is to make money for the publisher, which they did by selling copies to readers and selling advertisements. In the 19th century they had a different look from today's newspapers. Normally they had no pictures or images, and in the case of the newspapers here, they ran their advertisements on the front page and the news inside.

The newspapers of the day tended to be intensely partisan to their locality and tended to be quite political, aligned with one or another political party or faction. In the case of these newspapers, the politics was largely in support of the local governor, and opposed to the former governor, James Douglas, who retired in 1864 just as the first killings on Waddington's road took place. Douglas had been governor of the two colonies at once, and in May 1864 each colony got its own governor: Frederick Seymour in British Columbia and Edward Kennedy on Vancouver Island.

Then, as now, sensational stories helped sell newspapers, and checking the facts did not always take priority. The papers also had the role of telling the readers, that is, white colonial society, about itself, or at least about those parts of itself that were considered "newsworthy" and interesting to those buying and selling newspapers. Who the readers were thought to be can be discerned by the title of Victoria's main paper, “The British Colonist”.

Nineteenth century newspapers, unlike urban papers in our own multimedia universe, often carried very detailed coverage of a much broader range of activities -- transcriptions of evidence given in court, for example, or the complete content of a municipal council meeting, or information about who was visiting whom from the "old country". Those wanting publicity for products or services took full advantage of newspapers' popularity, and advertisements, classified and otherwise, provide the historian a rich, if more mundane, source of information about daily life at any particular time than the front-page stories. Because they carried so much information about such a wide range of issues -- local, regional, national and international -- newspapers have been preserved by generations of Canadians in libraries and archives, helping us to understand many aspects of our collective past.

Why would we use this source?

Newspapers contain an abundance of information that can help us to understand both specific and general aspects of the economic, social and cultural history of Canada. But should we believe it all? There are many reasons why we should not. The hunger for news and the lack of information in the 19th century, for example, often meant that rumour and hearsay were published as fact. Many newspapers in the 19th century were financed and supported by political factions, and 'the news' was presented through partisan eyes for explicitly political purposes. Newspaper content was also biased by cultural assumption about what was newsworthy; many aspects of 19th century life that we might like to read about -- diet, the experiences of women and children, or "good news" stories generally -- seldom presented themselves for discussion.

Old newspapers are not always easy to read. Sometimes they are faded and other times so brittle that pieces crumble under the touch. To preserve them, many newspapers have been microfilmed, but often the filming is not clear or misses words in the creases. In these cases where words are not clear we have inserted "[illegible]" into the text.

These "problems" are, paradoxically, also the newspaper's greatest strength as an historical source. While the factual accuracy of newspaper coverage always needs to be checked against other sources, newspapers can, if read critically, tell us a great deal about what many people thought was worth discussing in a public forum. They demonstrate the terms upon which ideas were raised and addressed, giving us insight not only into what important social, cultural and political issues were raised, but how people understood them. And, then as now, newspaper advertising and Letters to the Editor can highlight some of the concerns of everyday life in 19th century society.

How do we find and use this source?

University and larger public libraries often hold copies of old newspapers on microfilm, as do various archives. The best way to search for the large numbers of historical newspapers available to British Columbia researchers is to go to the BC Newspaper Index, which is now available online.

Historical newspapers can be searched by title and by place of publication, so finding newspapers is not difficult. Using them is not so easy, and this is not just because of poor microfilm readers throughout the province. Most newspapers are not indexed in the 19th century, making it difficult to research a particular topic, event or person, although there is a partial index to the British Colonist at the BC Archives with copies at some univeristy libraries. Historian Daniel P. Marshall has argued that the advantages of indexing have had some unforeseen results on the history of British Columbia. Because of the relative ease of finding out about specific people and events through the Colonist's index, researchers have tended to "see" the region's history primarily through the biased lens of the Colonist's explicit liberal reform politics. To leave this site, and explore this source further, go to:

The British Columbia Newspaper Index: