When I was young, my family and I would make long road trips across Canada: sixteen-hour days in a car with no A/C, melted crayons, and Randy Travis on perpetual loop; only stopping for washroom breaks, meal times and heritage stops.
Nothing gets you acquainted with Canada like driving across it.
In the summer of 2017, I decided it was time to acquaint my own family with this tradition. We all jumped in the car and started making our way across British Columbia. This time there was blessed A/C and a greater variety of music.
The need for washroom breaks, however, remained untouched by the passage of time, and we soon pulled off the Crowsnest Highway into the Visitors Information Centre at Greenwood, British Columbia. I made a beeline for the bathroom, but was quickly thrown off my mission when I discovered that the washroom was attached to the community museum. I desperately wanted to take a look through it, but knew we were pressed for time. After a quick chat with the volunteer at the desk, I promised to come back one day. I then bustled back to the car, and we continued on our journey.
Heritage sites feature strongly in my childhood memories; visiting these sites is arguably one of the major reasons I became interested in, and pursued history academically. Greenwood's museum, therefore, remained tucked away in my mind. On a road trip two years later, I made a point of stopping to look around.
The museum was divided up into sections covering the town's mining and logging history, it's architecture, demography, day-to-day life, and its role in Japanese internment. There were manikins in period clothes, reconstructions of hotel rooms, bar scenes, and internment lodgings. There were cases filled with mined treasures from the Boundary region, newspapers hanging on the walls, and a reconstruction of a Chinese laundry. It was very much something that made me feel as though I had stepped straight back into my childhood.
During my perusal of the mining section, I was drawn to a photograph that hung on the wall (feature image). It showed six South Asian men sitting on a wooden porch in front of eleven white men. There was no plaque telling who these men were, or where it was taken. I was intrigued. I snapped a photo, and hoping that my background in South Asian studies might help, decided I would try and discover who these men were; I wanted them to be seen, to have a name, and for their contribution to the development of British Columbia to be recognized.
I started with what I had. The photograph.
During my studies at Boston University, I was taught how to "read" photographs for clues. What style of facial hair do the men have, what clothes are being worn by the sitter? Are there prominent or recognizable features in the surrounding landscape? Through this process I could narrow my search window - the photo was likely taken at Greenwood's Sawmill Office in or around 1910.
With this in mind, I delved into the written record...
I started in the most likely place: the 1911 Canadian Census. I soon found out just how poorly catalogued the census is from a non-Western European perspective. It was nigh on impossible to find anyone with the common surname Singh simply because of poor transcription of non-white names. Workers were also often itinerant; they would arrive at a mine or logging camp, work for a period, and then move on to the next place that could offer them employment. Some would have a home base in Vancouver, and move between the interior and the city depending on the season, or work available. These frequent movements made it difficult to track South Asian workers reliably through the Census.
I then turned to historic newspapers from the interior.
First I defined where I was looking. Opting to begin with a small area and expand as needed, I selected newspapers from in and around Greenwood that were being printed in 1910: The Boundary Creek Times, The Ledge, and The Phoenix Pioneer.
Thus narrowing the region, I did likewise to my keywords. I utilized, for instance, the commonly held surname Singh - which lead me to both those who held that name, and those who were mentioned alongside them. I added in occupations and locations, knowing that they were most likely involved in logging, log processing, mining, or all of the above at various times.
This generated a tidy list of people who had passed through Greenwood or its environs, and happened to make the news.
Looking at that list, I should have been elated. I was, however, struck by the knowledge that I would never know which of the names matched the faces in the photo. I suddenly realised that I had let my excitement run away with me. Short of a publication or memoir stating that "[name] sat for a photo in Greenwood Friday last..." there was no way to prove who the photographed men were with any measure of certainty.
I could, however, make an educated guess: On February 20, the Phoenix Pioneer published a notice summoning one Bert Adams to appear in the County Court of Yale at Greenwood to answer charges being brought by eight South Asian men. Adams, despite being a wealthy man who owned swaths of woodland in both the Boundary and neighbouring regions, had opted not to pay his workers. Rather than walk away, they decided to sue him.
Given the type of land Bert owned, it is likely that the plaintiffs were loggers. They may have had cause, therefore, to go to the regional Sawmill Office at Greenwood - where the photo was taken. The men's names were: Attar Singh, Amie, Govinda, Bertapa, Nama Singh, Delepa, and Amru.
They appear in the press only twice; the same summons was re-printed the following week. It is not known, at the time of writing, whether or not these men ever received their wages. We do not know what they did, or where they went following the incident.
Inconclusive results can be discouraging. This research journey, however, lead me to another - and discouraged though I was, I soon felt a flame of curiosity surge. In amongst the newspaper clippings I had found mention of a marriage that had taken place in 1913 between a "Hindoo" and a white woman living in Victoria, British Columbia. The wording was sneeringly racist, going far beyond the bar of what was - then - commonly printed rhetoric. It gave me pause, and I wondered:
"Who was this couple, who married despite the fierce racist backlash they would have inevitably faced? And why was a wedding in Victoria being discussed in a newspaper in a small town nearly 400 miles away?"
And with that, some of the most interesting research of my genealogical career began...
As president of Compass Rose Genealogy, and recent History graduate of the University of British Columbia, Morgan can't keep quiet about the all of the interesting and intriguing "everyday" histories she encounters. From past residents of British Columbia, to the extraordinary stories of everyday people in other climbs - if she felt that spark of excitement, you're sure to find her blogging about it here.