Letters of Jonathan Begg, Salt Spring Island, 1860-62

To William Chisholm, Esq.
Onion Grove,
Cedar County,
Iowa, USA

Aboyne Place
Salt Spring Island
Near Van Couver's Island
March 10, 1860

Dear William and Margaret,

I take this opportunity of again writing you from this place. The history of my transactions and operations since I came to the Pacific coast are so voluminous that I can not begin to tell all. You are aware that I wintered last year in California, where I immediately got employment at $40 per month to superintend a nursery. After remaining there some 3 mos., and having seen quite enough of the society and climate to suit me, I left without a penny in my pocket to push my fortune in the North. On arriving in Victoria about the first of June of last year the town was suffering from a reverse in business caused by bad news from the mines. Finding I could get no work of any kind as there were hundreds more out of employment, I immediately went to work and rented a vacant house with 2/3 of an acre of land wherein I put in about 1500 cabbages &c. As the land was of a poor description, I did not realise much from it. In the fall I advertised as a gardener &c. in the local paper when I got a job to work for Mr. Wood the banker which set me a little on my feet again. When I resided in Victoria I had other work on hand of greater moment than than my every day employment. I found the land system in such a deplorable condition that no one of out of the employment of the J.B. Coi could procure an acre of land of the public domain. I saw that justice and reform was necessary. So I commenced a movement which has since changed the whole land system in the colony. I got up a public meeting in one of the principally hotels where strong resolutions was passed carried accompanied by an urgent petition to the governor and local legislature was carried. A deputation of the most respectable citizens was chosen to wait upon the governor &c. So the movement went until the H.B. governor and council had to submit to the popular demand. The result is we have been allowed to pre empt for 2 or 3 years the public land to the extend of 200 acres each with the prospect of being able to obtain them at about $1.25 per acre as by that time they will be in the hands of the local legislature who are pledged to a man to reduce them to the satisfaction of all parties. I was one of 18 adventurers who went out to view the land. When we lighted on the Island mentioned on the heading of this letter. It is about 20 miles long and varying from 2 to seven miles wide. It lies at the bend of the canal De Horo on the Georgian Channel, and lies immediately opposite the mouth of the Fraser River being distant about 40 miles N. W. of Victoria and within 1/2 mile of Van couver's Island. I can see the mouth of Fraser distant about 20 miles with the Cascade Mountains distant 75 miles any clear day on going back about 1/4 miles to the top of a mountain behind me.

This is one of the most romantic regions I was ever in. Scotland is nowhere in that respect in comparison. But to my narrative. The band of adventurers referred to including myself finding the island beautifully situated in the midst of an archipelago more beautiful than the 1000 islands of the St. Lawrence this being the most convenient to Victoria [...] of San Juan we determined to form the settlement here. we drew for choices of selection. I was fortunate enough to get the second so you may readily conceive I have not a bad farm. My lot fronts 1/4 of a mile in a nice little bay where about 2 miles oppsd in between me and Fraser River lies a long island shielding me from the N.W. summer wind. Behind my lot, on its rear it borders a beautiful fresh water lake [St. Mary's Lake] of some 2 miles in length teeming with fish. I have about 80 acres of prairies on the farm. It is not exactly a prairie as it more resembles an English park or pleasure ground as here and there there is a clump of beautiful balsam growing. Last fall I erected a cabin on my lot 14 x 17 -- it is a log one and covered with shakes on poles being altogether more open than a house that would freeze to death a cow in winter in Canada with nothing but a small fireplace and mud floor, yet so beautiful is the climate that I have passed the winter in it very comfortably.

I need not tell you that commencing in the wilderness without capital and a stranger to boot has been a hard task, but I have a perseverance and industry. I have so far surmounted all my difficulties very satisfactory and am now in possession of 200 acres of the best land on the Pacific Coast. This spring I have commenced operations in company of 2 young men. I have taken in company for this year only. I have got about 3 acres inclosed and under cultivation which I am at present at work on. We will be able to put in 1 acres vegetables, 1 acres turnips & cabbage. 1 acres potatoes. I have planted 75 apple trees this spring and put in a n umber of gooseberries current bushes in addition to the crop already referred to. You may imagine how vegetables pay here when green peas sell at 10 to 20 1/2 cts pr lb, cabbages from 2 1/2 to 10 cts, onions 10 cts lb., turnips 2 1/2 cts &c. Schooners pass to Victoria by my place from Nanaimo about 3 times a week and we have a weekly mail. I am post master and have established a little store on my lot in addition to my farming operations. I will send you a paper with my advertisement on it.

There is now 50 settlers on the island. The farms are 200 acres each 1/4 mile fronting the straight and 1 1/4 back so there is a settler and house 1/4 mile on each side of me for quite a distance. From being the originator of the land movement I am known through the length and breadth of the colony and I now mingle in the best society in it.

I have not been in such good health for many years as I am at present. The fine climate, plenty of work and good prospects I have at present has done it.

My live stock at present consists of a Tom cat and young dog. I may mention that I have a valuable salt spring on my lot -- very strongly impregnated with salt pure salt, being 1/5 salt.

The fare in $25 from Sanfrancisco to Victoria on steerage and 50 cabin. From Victoria to my place they charge $2 in schooners.

It is very cheap living here as the Indians who are very useful and very good to white men bring us large quantities of the best the water, woods and forest can produce fro a mere song. For instance, I buy a god buck weighing 100 lbs for $1.50 in trade, the trade costing me originally about half that amt. A salmon weighing 10 lbs. can often be bought for 12 1/2 cts. A duck costs about 12 1/2 cts. Grouse 25 cts in trade.

English noblemen live no better in this respect than we do for we have the best the sea and land can provide for a trifle.

A word about the climate. I have now seen a a little of both California and this country. In California the climate in the winter is indeed beautiful but there is something so very relaxing in the California climate as to make you sensitive to the least air of cold. I was astonished on arrival in Sanfrancisco last year to find men sitting shivering at the stoves when in fact the weather was something like early June weather in Canada. I felt the effect myself. After being there a few months, I began to be sensitive to the least air of cold wind and the winds blow very strong in many places there. The summer here is like Italy, while in California everything is burned up by an almost vertical sun turning the season almost completely so that the summer is the season of rest in the vegetable world of California.

The society of California although improving is not any the best. And the government is rascally bad. No man except a clever rogue or Irishman can attain any position there. The only thing I liked in California were her fruits. In that she is superb. This colony and the adjacent territory presents numerous advantages for a new beginner over California. The land here is excellent in many places. The government is better and this climate and society is more to my taste. I have quite a number of Canadians for neighbors, at least parties recently from Canada.

This is the cheapest place in the American continent to live in. Everything wearable and required in a family can be bought as cheaply as in Toronto and many things cheaper owing to Victoria being a free port.

Now having brought forward my history for the last two years, I may now ask you what you have been doing and what are your prospects for I have learned nothing from the east since I left it except on letter from yourself while in California which contained no news except a number of queries which I have now tried to answer in the above. If you get this all right do please answer -- you answer to this no. 2 so I shall know what you reply to. Send me all the news far and near for 18 months past and I will write in return. Give my kind regards to any of my friends you may see, or write to. Rem. me to the Buffalo folks and also to you Pickering friends.

Yours truly,
Jonathan Begg
Salt Spring Island P.H.
by Victoria
Vancouvers Island
via Overland Route

Salt Spring Island
Near Van Couver's Island
June 3rd. 1860

My dear friends,

I take this opportunity of again writing to you. I have not up to this time heard from you since i arrived in the colony. I my last In related my experience on the Pacific Coast together with my views etc. so that it would be needless to repeat it. Suffice it to say that it, the country has shown proofs of lasting greatness this summer few have dreamed of and so far as the Fraser River is concerned it is now proved beyond a doubt that it contains inexhaustible supplies of the precious metal all along the river and its numerous tributaries through 6 or 7 hundred miles of country.

I have taken a farm and am now hard at work putting in cabbages and turnips. I have 4 acres under fence and two acres already in potatoes and vegetables. The balance will be in cabbage and turnips. I hope to have in 10,000 cabbages this summer which will bring in sometimes at 10 cents per pound, which I expect they will bring me in the spring. My farm contains 200 acres of the best land in the colony and is admirably situated midway between New Westminster and Victoria the respective capitals of British Columbia and Van couvers Island. I am very well pleased with my prospects here and should the gold field of British Columbia prove of a lasting character, which I have every reason to believe I cannot fail doing well here in a few years. The climate is excellent as far as I am able to judge and I have now just one years experience of it. The summer here is unrivalled and the country looks like a gentleman's pleasure grounds, so splendid and variegated does it look in it summer vesture. Farming is not conducted here on grand principles. Any little that is done or has been done heretofore has been by old servants of the H.B. Coi who are more awkward than the animals they drive. One can see here the old carts, farm implements and the mode of cultivation in vogue 30 years ago in Britain. A good practical farmer here with a little means would not fail to make rich in a few years; for instance, turnips sell at 1 cent per lb by the quantity, hay 30 to 50 dollars per ton, butter 30 cents lb., eggs 75 cents doz. And every other thing of produce in proportion -- and these prices must last so long as the gold fields are productive, and that is now a fixed fact for dry digging of boundless extent has been discovered this spring which averages from 5 to 10 dollars per day to the man.

We are not badly off for company here. There is already quite a number of Canadians -- settlers on this Island as we lie on the highway to Nanimo the coal fields and only 25 miles distant from that place we have always as many as three or 4 schooners &c. calling on us weekly on the way from Vancouvers to Victoria and we have a mail about every ten days. And your humble servant has been appointed postmaster. We had an election of legislative assembly men and Salt Spring &c sent a member. I was appointed [electoral] officer on the occasion. The members had to be worth $1500 so we had to appoint a man from Victoria as no settler could qualify. The member is elected for three years. By that time we hope to be represented by a local man. I had the honour of organizing the first agricultural society in the colony so we have the Salt Spring Island Agricultural Society and hope to have something good to show next fall. We are a present anxiously waiting to hear from home in order to have the land reduced to $1.25 pr. acre. A petition from the local legislature has gone home to obtain said reduction.

I like this better than any country I ever lived in and had we only a little good society it would be a perfect paradise. I may remark that society is daily improving by respectable families coming from England and the colonies.

I costs little to live here. Our natives supply us with all luxury of the season for a trifle. Fancy a fine buck for $1 -- salmon weighing 20 lbs 12 1/2 cents, brace of grouse, 25 cents, &c. This is the country for an epicurist.

I am in excellent health and spirits hoping that this may find you all the same. Hoping you will will send me a long letter with all the news from there.

Yours truly,
Jonathan Begg

Via overland Route 2
J. Begg
Post Master
Salt Spring Island
Near Vancouver Island

Written across Page 1: James and Elspet must be grown to be quite a size. I should be glad if James were here. He would be excellent company for me and would thrive here like the cedars of Lebanon in its native forest.

Salt Spring Island
July 16, 1860

Dear Friends,

I am in receipt of your letter dated on March 1st and observe its contents. I was expecting never to have heard from you any more. I think the excuse of not knowing my address a very lame one. In gleaning over your letter I notice that George has got an heir I am glad of that as I thought my family name was doomed to die out with this generation. I regret to hear of the death of Mr Green. I suppose his brother is working the farm. I am glad to notice that your republican tastes are dying out. That institution is beautiful in theory but will not stand the taste of practice in this degenerate age. I am loosing interest in Canada and were it not for a few friends I left there I should blot it from my remembrance for ever. I am discouraged at some of my Canadian friends conduct in not writing to me. I have sent several letter and papers to Legg and others but I have got no reply. I got a letter safely from Mr J Begg Aberdeen Scotland. He tells me that Mr P. Legg has got married and Rachel is about being married to a Doctor in Demerara.

A friend McIntryre who left Canada with me is about 200 miles up the river and is connected with a slucing company who are averaging there 8 dollars per day to the man. There is no fear of a man that likes to work can do very well anywhere he likes to go throughout this region of country. But the place is cursed with a lot of fellows who came out after government situating who are too genteel to handle a spade and pick and useful for no purpose in a new colony. The result is many of them has met bitter disappointment coming out here and they write of losing accounts accordingly. I often meet with men who has excellent yea most aristiscratical connections in Canada driving a cart, wheeling a barrow or taking lumber from a saw mill. This is the country that has no respect of persons the Doom is work or starve. But to the man that is willing to work there is a rich reward.

It is now summer and the weather is all that the heart can desire. The climate here is beautiful in the extreme. Seldom does winter last longer than a fortnight and the Spring, summer and autumn is superb. I could not give you a more approximate idea than stating that the soil resembles the best most lovely of Scotland with here a range of mountains and there is a fertile valley and there is a beautiful valley of 200 miles just discovered on the Fraser River a little distance from the mouth. Everything is going on the Fraser's river this season. It has been proved now beyond a doubt that gold does exist there is large quantities. All the miners are doing well this year on the Fraser River. Trails are being cut steam boats are being built on the Inner Lakes and everywhere vast improvements are begin carried on throughout the Interior. Farming will be a paying business here for a long time as witness butter 50 cts lb eggs 75 cts dozen oh for a good clucking hen with a well filled nest. you will be wanting to know what I have been about this summer. Well I have fenced 4 acres and has the most of it under crop -- principaly potatoes, cabbages, turnips. The potatoes I expect to be able to sell for 50 cents lb and the other crops in proportion. You many imagine I have not been idle with other two men in hire. [illegible sentence]

I put in 64 apple trees this spring and they are all doing well some of them is grown in fat sprouts this spring already. This is the most bountiful country for wild berries in the north they are so beautiful. I have also able [illegible] mineral salt spring on my lot from which this place has derived its name. I have named my place Balmoral and hopes to make it as fashionable a watering place some day. I have just returned from Queensburgh or other New Westminster the capital of British Columbia being just 15 miles from the mouth of the Fraser River it is a very stirring place. Only one year ago since t was laid out and now it has so far progresses as to show the outlines of general streets, wharfs and docks and with houses occupying a good deal of frontage of the town already. There were eleven boats lying in port at the time of my arrival there.

[the following is written over the previous pages, perpendicular to the rest of the letter]

There is nothing finer or more in the world that the scenery and grand climate here. On going back of my house a little way you can see the mouth of Frasers River and its course to the Cascade Range. That Range towering like huge giants in the distance 8 miles away. The snow is to be seen all year on them. I think I will be able to make more out of my 4 acres this year than you will out of your improved farm. Mr Donald McKay is the only man in Canada that has taken the trouble to answer my letters and the only person in consequence with who I correspond. He informs me that in this last that Mr Legg was just returned from Demerara and Rachael was about being married one was in a uprising a missing, horrible to relate.

Labourers wages from 25 to 40 dollars wouldn't board a a man and his wife can get 50 dollars readily. A good woman can earn far more than a man in this country as a general wage. I have just to close the mail as the schooner is waiting in the offing opposite my door to take it on board.

PS Give my kind regards to all our friends remember me to your Buffalo friends and give them my condolence Joe it was a serious affliction the loss of such nice childern as theirs. You know I am not apt to relish childern much but I had a particular liking for these as they were so gentle and pretty. I hope all your family are well. Jamie must be quite a lad by this time. I hope to be able to pay you a visit in five years should I live as long as that lets me I expect a RR will be pretty well underway connecting this side to the East.

Yours very truely
Jonathan Begg

Balmoral Nursery
Salt Spring Island
Near Victoria, V.I.
Nov. 23, 1862

Dear Friends,

I have this evening taken a few minutes to pen these lines to you to acquaint you that I am still in my usual health with the exception of a cold caught amongst the icey regions of the Carraboo I have been healthy out here. Since I wrote to you last a great emigration has been pouring into this colony. Large vessels arrive weekly from all parts of the world laden with passengers and merchandise. English capitalists have gone into investments in this colony and has shown fruits in the way of erecting substantial warehouses, wharfs &c in town and in the erection of sawmills &c in the country.

I returned in due course from Carraboo that famed goldfield after travelling some 1500 miles with my blankets and grub on my back. My experience during 3-4 months I was absent would fill an interesting volume. I packed cabbage plants right into the mines and planted them out also. I should have realised $2.50 per head if I had not got starved out before they matured. I went up there in company of a person who was to supply me with provision all summer but who was not able to keep his agreement owing to the dearth of provisions and i had to return again after undergoing great hardships with little profit except for some orders I was able to to take on my way down. However it will be satisfactory to know that I am steadily progressing with the colony. My property is every day becoming more valuable and my means are steadily increasing. I am now able to supply the demands of British Columbia with young fruit trees grown at my own nursery. I have sold a large quantity this season of my own growth and every year the trade is increasing. I expect to put in 50,000 grafts this season and plant out about 1000 orchard trees. Referring to the subject of trees,my commencing that trade here has been a decided hit. A large local demand has sprung up, owing to the number of settlers just now settling up the wild land. In Canada or the North States, you see no growth of fruit trees like what we have here. This season I had plums put on shoots of 7 feet in length and on in. in thickness and apples at two years old as large as the same in Canada at 3 to 4 years old. I have trees 12 feet high and well proportioned whit I put in three years ago small trees.

You will see by the above that this is a country we can grow stuff in. I saw tomatoes ripen in August as I passed down by Williams Lake which is 3000 feet above the sea level and 300 miles N.E. from New Westminster. There are many good openings in the way of farming in this country in fact no country in the globe shows the like. I know farms that has netted 30,000 dollars. I know some farmers that has made $10,000 in cutting and stacking wild hay in the course of 6 weeks. Barely and oats for fodder brings 20 to 25 cts per lb and it cost me $4 1/2 per night at some pints to keep a horse at hay. When will your Iowa prices compare with that? There is no country presents the openings for a working man that this has done.

This season has been remarkably mild so far. It is more like September weather than anything else.

I remark what you say on the subject of my coming over to get married &c. But that is the rub I cannot leave my beautiful place Balmoral for any such foolish purpose at present as my business will retain me here in spite of fate for one or two years more. It is difficult for a person to find a suitable substitute to transact one's business in this gold country where everyone is on the move. I think as a second best resort I had better get you to find a wife for me, box her up and send her by express. Surely the war has now decimated the country sufficiently to throw in one's way the chance of getting an interesting widow if no maidens are to be had. I am now quite prepared for matrimony in worldly point of view. Plenty of everything to keep a woman comfortable.

The city of Victoria is improving rapidly. Large stone and brick warehouses are being reared in every direction and there there are now a number of streets already built up. It will soon be one of the first cities on the Pacific. I think you missed it very much sticking down in that poor place Iowa where you toil to raise corn at a bit a bushel. There is plenty of good land to be taken up here in favourable localities at 41 per acre with 4 years to pay it in. This spring brought out shoals of Canadians to this coast many of whom have sent for their families and are now permanent residents among us. And amongst the number who should I have met this spring by James Cummings stalking along the streets of new Westminster. I was somewhat surprised when I saw him. He informed me his father has been dead for some years.

This colony has a great destiny before it. It is bound to acquire commercial importance at an early date. It has a good climate, excellent agricultural resources and mines that can not be worked out in a century to come. My trip to the mines this season set at rest all previous doubts I had on the matter. I saw some of the miners dig out what you would consider a good year's work at every shovel of dirt they took from the bedrock.

I can assure you however it is not all gold that glitters. The miners endure hardships you form no conception of in the want of provisions &c. I have lived for days while in the Carraboo on beans boiled without pork or salt or any other substance besides water, and miners have lived for weeks on that alone this summer up there. I paid $1.25 per lb. for beans and could get nothing else. I lived on beans straight for several days that is on beans without salt or sugar. Flour could not be had at 150 per lb early in the season when I was at the mines.

The adventures of almost each miner forms a romantic and stirring narrative of itself. I have had my share on this coast as well as elsewhere. A railroad company has just been formed to join Victoria and Esquimalt Harbour at a distance of 3 miles and another is in projection to pass my place to Nanaimo. I wish the Pacific Rail road were made. I would then pay you a visit. There is published now 3 daily papers in Victoria besides some weeklies. One of the dailies is verily as large as the Globe [in Toronto]. I have fruit trees 12 feet high will be bearing heavy crops next year is i have luck with them. I suppose all you boys and girls are grown to good sizes now I should like very much to see you all again but I fear the pleasure is removed some distance form me. you might send me over the oldest boy as you can now well spare him. I will have him well educated and will provide for him otherwise. Apart from getting me a wife by express I know of no better service you could render me than by sending the boy. Remember me kindly to Mrs. Chisholm senior and your sister Mrs. Gibbs also all other enquiring friends. I hope Margaret is in her usual good health but first she must quit the family accumulating or else you will have to look for estates on the Pacific. Iowa will not be broad enough to contain your family. I will be glad to hear from you on receipt of this with all the local and family news but no general news. For God Sake do not fill you letters with general news any more as I know what is going on in the States better and quicker than you do. You forget we have an Atlantic telegraph here with news at Victoria 5 days from new York.

Yours very truly,
Jonathan Begg

Victoria, V.I.
Dec. 27, 1862


Dear William,

I have long expected to hear from you and our other friends. I wonder when you will take it in your heart to write again I suppose your hands are so full on the topic of war that you have no time o write. Indeed you were such an enthusiastic American and republican that I should not be at all surprised to hear of your being in the list of patriotic soldiers fiting for the Republic -- probably adding my sister to the long list of widows that it made by the war. In your last you stated that it is time I should be thinking of matrimony, and that I should come over and bring a wife away with me. I can assure you that I have thought a good deal on the subject and however much I should like to go over for that purpose I find there is insuperable difficulties in the way just now I have my business in such a shape just now that it would be quite impossible to leave for a year or two yet.

I have now earned a good home for a wife and in 2 years more I hope to have made a competence for life. Now my hard experience here has made me an extremely practical man and I treat every affair of life in that mode. So you need not be surprised at the delicate commission I now entrust to you to get me a wife. In this country there are plenty of women and good looking ones too but they are generally spoiled before they get here. In connection with the above subject -- I have long thought that I should be very happy with such a model woman as your sister Mrs. Gibbs but I fear there are insurmountable difficulties in the way were she as willing to share my heart and hand as I am hers. I confess she is one of the few women I can love and respect through life. The awful calamity which befell my respected friend Mr. Gibbs has left it an open question whether to marry again or not -- while your mother is alive I know it would be cruel to part the aged mother from her kind daughter and companion of her years -- so that here exists a difficulty of the most insuperable kind. Were your sister willing to accept my hand I have loved Mrs. Gibbs as a girl and admired and respected her as a dutiful wife and would feel that my happiness would be complete were there none of these difficulties in the way. Of course I hear so little of you and them I suppose things have changed very much mayhaps from what I anticipate or can conceive of. I think therefore I cannot do better than leave the matter entirely in your hand. If a devoted daughter could leave and aged parent and come to a distant land like this then I would know what course to propose but I fear I have done wrong in broaching the subject at all. I leave it entirely in your hand. If you think it would curtail the comfort, happiness or enjoyment of the aged mother let the whole subject pass into oblivion to be named no more but on the other hand if you think it would be comparable with the peace of the old women then you are at liberty to make Mrs. Robin Gibbs your sister a proposal of my hand if she could but be able to endure a journey half round the globe for the home I could offer her.

Here I have only to say in a few years we will be no distance from you as you are aware the Pacific railroad will some day soon shorten the distance between us, to be only mere pleasure trip. this is a lovely season and fine climate. Now when I write it is like June weather. The sun has come out today like a day in June. The country is rapidly filling up and the land is rapidly being taken up. My place is becoming quite valuable. I have 20 acres fenced and parcely under crops. I raised 4000 fruit trees and had them ready for the market this season. I send you some scraps out of our new papers. Give my kindest regards to your mother and your sister Mrs. Gibbs and let me hear of their welfare when you write to me. I trust to hear from you soon with all the news. I mean local news. Do not fill your letters with stale news. I know all of what is going on better than you do and hear it more quickly from New York.

Yours truly,
J. Begg

Source: Salt Spring Island Archives, Jonathan Begg, Correspondence, Jonathan Begg, Letters of Jonathan Begg, Salt Spring Island, 1860-62, 1858-1862

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