Why does this document exist?

Inquests in colonial British Columbia were held when someone reported a suspicious death -- i.e., one that was not the result of obvious and natural causes -- to the authorities. A Coroner's Inquest, or Inquisition, would then be organized, and a medical doctor and other relevant witnesses would be called to give evidence before a coroner appointed by the Crown. Although very particular procedures had to be followed (the swearing in of the jury, the creation and preservation of a written transcript of evidence and verdict, and the existence of a court-appointed Coroner to oversee the whole), nineteenth century inquests were informal by contemporary standards. Held in whatever public building, often a schoolhouse or church, that was big enough to accommodate the proceedings in the community where the death occurred, inquests were usually organized and conducted quickly. Verbatim testimony (supposedly the exact words) of the witnesses was recorded, sometimes when the body in question was (literally) laid out before the 'court.'

Why would we use this source?

An inquest is the logical place to start a search for a murderer, whether it occurred last week or a hundred and fifty years ago. Inquests provide the first legal confirmation that a death was indeed a murder (as opposed to a suicide or accidental death), and inquest documents contain many factual details that were used in the murder investigation and trial. For the historian, inquests have other, more general, benefits. In their discussion of the often extraordinary circumstances surrounding the suspicious death, witnesses were often prompted to reveal ordinary aspects of everyday life -- mundane details about working and eating, for example, or petty squabbles and irritations -- that are not recorded in other sources because such things usually 'go without saying.' Witnesses not only described, but frequently commented on the significance of what they observed or experienced, giving us a rare insight into people's personal impressions of the world in which they lived. In order to make the most effective use of any source, historians must be aware of the circumstances of its production, and inquests are no exception. Even verbatim testimony had to be written down by somebody, and errors occurred in these transcriptions. Hand-written transcripts are often difficult to read. Many have been lost. Even though inquests contain abundant information about everyday life in earlier times, it is important to remember that inquest documents were created explicitly to investigate unusual, and in most cases unacceptable, events and behaviours.

How do we find and use this source?

Finding an inquest in any particular death in colonial British Columbia can be a very difficult task. Inquests were not kept in a separate government file during this period, but were instead kept with the huge volume of Colonial Correspondence and filed under the name of the coroner conducting the inquest. A partial index of inquests, organized by the name of the deceased, does exist in the BC Archives for this period, but the indexer got only as far as the letter "M". To find an inquest on someone whose name begins with the letters N to Z in colonial British Columbia, researchers need to find the name of the presiding coroner and preferably the approximate inquest date. Using the index to Colonial Correspondence, the researcher first finds, and then reads through, all of that individual's correspondence in hope of finding the relevant inquest. It has so far proved impossible to find the inquest that was certainly held after the death of William Robinson. Hours of searching have brought no results, and we assume that this inquest, like so many nineteenth-century documents, was either lost or destroyed.

The reference information for the Inquests Finding Aid at the BC Archives is:

British Columbia (Colony)
Attorney General
Microfilm 1859-1871, 1 reel, 16 mm (B 2446)

To leave this site and explore this source further at the BC Archives, begin by visiting the Inquests Finding Aid (GR-1328).