Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Roberts City and Semiahmoo City, 1858

One of my favorite activities as a child was exploring old, collapsed settler homes in search of old bottles, dishes and other artifacts from the turn of the century.

Both Point Roberts and Birch Point had several old cabins tucked away on the flats or in the woods when I was growing up. My mother grew up at Point Roberts and regularly visited Birch Point (Where another Alaska Packer's Cannery was operating) so she remembered where some of the first structures were located. Most of the log huts were built by individuals who worked at the Alaska Packer's Cannery. By the time I was old enough to explore, most of the buildings had collapsed and folded back into the landscape from which they had been built; and, it took a sharp eye to pick out the outline of the remains of the rotting huts among the fallen logs, ferns and moss.

I didn't find much. A few pieces of broken china, a very moldy catalog and dozens and dozens of old bottles and jars buried in the ground.

British author R.C. Mayne describes the birth of "Point Roberts City" and "Semiahmoo City" in a series of articles and a book that was published around 1862.

The enclosed document is from my mother's collection. My mother wrote a number of historical articles about Blaine and Point Roberts and translated some of the old documents that were originally written in Icelandic to English. She passed away in July of 1998 from complications from a series of strokes.

July 12, 1858 – “Since our last visit, the greater part of the Spits and all of the level land at the extreme of Point Roberts have been “pre-empted,” half a dozen wooden huts had been built on each and called respectively Semiahmoo and Roberts City. My English readers who know only the “cities” of that old world should be informed that, in such a rapidly progressing country as America, any spot whereon a liquor-store and a post-office, with two or three huts about them, are built, is immediately named a “city.” All over the country these “bogus” cities, as the more staid Americans call them, are to be found. Many of course, to use their own phrase, “cave in” and this was the fate of Roberts and Semiahmoo Cities, for in less than six months they were deserted.” R.C. Mayne,“Four Years in British Columbia and Vancouver Island, London: John Murray, 1862, pg. 52).

"When the first runs to the diggings commenced, Point Roberts, upon or near where there was no house or any symptom of one being built, was at once fixed upon as the site of an important city and half a dozen buildings sprang up on the flat in front of the bluff, where, while the stream of boats and canoes was pouring up the river, they drove a brisk and flourishing trade in whisky especially. But when the rush subsided, and steamers took the place of boats and canoes in which the earliest minors had made their hazardous passage from Victoria, Roberts found its occupation gone, and nothing but the remains of two or three log huts marks the site of the departed city.” (R.C. Mayne, Four Years in British Columbia and Vancouver Island, pg. 81).

The doom of Roberts City was the arrival of the steamboats, which, besides being safer than the flimsy craft used heretofore, were faster. And, except on rare occasions, Roberts City was not a scheduled port of call.

But, in its short history, there is no doubt it saw a lot of life. It would not be surprising if many of those who were forced to roam by the Vigilante and Law and Order Committees of San Francisco paused here, and maybe even some of the personal feuds which began on the shores of the Golden Gate were continued at Roberts City.

It’s not too difficult to imagine the grade of liquor peddled for a high price, which “made” Roberts City, for it is not likely it was any better, and it couldn’t have been any worse, than the villainess brandy sold at Fort Langley. A letter from the Fraser River diggings to the San Francisco Bulletin, dated December 17, 1858 and appearing January 3, 1859, said “it is fortunate for both countries that the officers of the Boundary Commission did not have the opportunity of sampling the Langley Cognac, or the ultimatum once hinted at by Mr. Polk, “54-40 or fight!” might have yet to be resorted to "in order to settle the knotty question.”

Perhaps it was too much “Langley Cognac,” mixed with miner’s optimism, or perhaps they really thought they had something, but on October 7, 1858, the Victoria Gazette reported: “We are informed by Thomas E. Gray of Point Roberts, that placer diggings and auriferous quartz leads have been discovered on the Squamish at the head oh Howe Sound.

By the 19th of the month a couple of boats were being fitted up to take parties to the new diggings, for, as the Gazette stated, “
Everybody in Point Roberts is perfectly satisfied that the gold lies on the Squamish instead of the Fraser and the Thompson Rivers…”

Exactly a month after this report appeared, Point Roberts had a number of distinguished visitors, headed by James Douglas, who was on his way to Fort Langley to be sworn in as Governor and to launch the new Crown Colony of British Columbia. A letter dated, “New Fort Langley, 20th of November, 1858” appeared in the Gazette for November 25th:

“Yesterday, the birthday of British Columbia was ushered in by a steady rain, which continued perseveringly throughout the whole day and in a great measure marred the solemnity of the proclamation of the Colony. His Excellency, Governor Douglas, with suite comprising Rear Admiral Baynes (commanding naval forces on the Pacific station)’ Mr. Cameron, the respected Chief Justice of Vancouver Island; Mr. Begbie, the newly appointed Judge of British Columbia; Mr. Lira, and others proceeded on board H.M. ship Satellite, Captain Prevost, on Wednesday morning, by the Canal De Haro to Point Roberts, where His Excellency remained during the night. On Thursday, His Excellency and suite were conveyed by the Hudson’s Bay Company’ s screw steamer Otter to the Company’s steamship Beaver which was lying moored within the mouth of the Fraser River…”

In this connection it is interesting to note that, although not a scrap of visible evidence remains to show the existence of the Roberts City of the gold rush era, the biographer of James Douglas, Dr. Walter N. Sage of Vancouver, B.C. is the owner of property near the site of the City.”

The dying days of Roberts City appear to be those of tragedy. On March 5th, 1859, the Victoria Colonist reported "Six unidentified persons had drowned in attempt to cross from Semiahmoo to Point Roberts." In the newspaper account names of several residents of the Point are given: Captain Alexander McLane, Thomas E. Gray, who acted as coroner at the inquest into the tragedy, and the jurors, A Prescott, W. Fitzpatrick, J. Cohn, W. Tuke, M. Erkstine, Harvey C. Snow and J.C. Baar.

Another tragedy occurred on April 17th, 1859, and was reported in the Colonist for April 30th. It said, "the second son of Captain McLane had been burned to death when fire destroyed their home." On July 18th, according to the Colonist for July 22nd, fire destroyed William Fitzpatrick’s store causing $5,000 dollars damage and also burned the
“building formerly occupied by Captain McLean.”

No further references to Point Roberts appear in the Victoria newspapers until the 1890.s, and for the obituary to “Roberts’s town” we must turn to the description of the Point that appeared in the Vancouver Island Pilot for 1864.

“Roberts Point is the termination of a remarkable promontory which stretches southerly from the Delta of the Fraser River. It presents a broad face to the south, and its southern extreme is a little more than 1 ¾ miles south of the 49th parallel of latitude; the eastern point of the promontory is a remarkable white faced cliff, 200 feet high, its summit crowned with trees; from it the land gradually falls westward and terminates in Roberts Spit, a low single point, within which is a small space of level clear land, where a few wooden buildings were erected on the first discovery of gold in the Fraser River, and named Roberts town; for a few months it served as a depot for the minors, but it has long been deserted.”

Perhaps a sentinel to Roberts City still remains on the Point. Tradition says several men were buried at the base of a knarled old fir tree, on the old Sage property south of the Breakers. Some say this was a hangman’s tree, but the truth is probably less glamorous. (Bruce Ramsey, Unpublished manuscript).

The British had a company of soldiers garrisoned on Point Roberts (at the time of the boundary survey). There was quite a village on the point at the time, and several hotels one which was kept by the Wiley Brothers, and one by Captain McLean, who died a short time ago in New Westminister. The British forces opened the boundary line across Point Roberts, which is about three miles wide, and on the west side near the shores of the Gulf of Georgia sat a stone monument. Just as they were ready to place the shaft in position one of the soldiers died, and his body was buried at its base. Thus, the farthest west monument on the international boundary line is also the grave stone of a British Soldier.

The British forces remained on Point Roberts several years, and had a garden to supply them with vegetables on what is now Blackie’s spit near the mouth of the Nicomekl River. (The Blaine Journal, December 19, 1889).

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