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Alexander Williams of Derby – A Black Pioneer

February 22, 2015

Alexander Williams, a black pioneer of British Columbia,  settled at Derby in  1862 and was one of the founding fathers of Langley Township.  When he was aged and no longer able to care for himself, he was looked after at the Provincial Home for Old Men at Kamloops.  A last resort for many of the old miners and settlers of early British Columbia, the Home for Old Men came into being in partly as a result of the death of another aged black man, William Williams, twenty-five years before.

Provincial Home for Old Men -  Kamloops BC

William Williams

In November 1879 an elderly and infirm "colored" man by the name of William Williams was found on the street  in a very weak condition and brought into the Victoria city jail for safe-keeping,  where he was cared for until he died.

An inquest discovered he was originally from Baltimore, USA, that he first came to BC in 1858,  was a miner in the Cariboo, and in recent years resided at Victoria. His age was said to be 67 or 75 years. Williams health had deteriorated and he had become dependent on the charity of others. At the city jail he was housed, fed and received medical attention.

Dr JS Helmcken found he had died of natural causes and the Coroner deplored the fact that there was no public facility to take care of those such as William Williams, the "indigent sick."

Alexander Williams

Alexander Williams, also a native of Baltimore, in June 1862 recorded a pre-emption claim for 160 acres of  land "near old Langley."

It is Alexander Williams who was very likely the "Alex the darkie" mentioned by some early Langley settlers, although he was not the first black known to have lived there.  WB Crickmer, first rector of the Church of England at Derby,  employed a black servant in 1859.

Denied at Derby

On January 22, 1870, Alexander Williams joined with later settlers Alfred Freeman and James McFarland to petition the Governor to grant them ownership of their homestead properties.

"That your petitioners, with the knowledge and consent of the Magistrate of the District of New Westminster did (six years ago) take up and settle upon Lands which are part of the abandoned Town Site of Derby. That we have been in constant possession ever since and been making improvements by fencing, clearing and building. . . "

Unfortunately for Williams, Freeman, McFarland and later squatters at Derby, the Magistrate’s approval was an "oversight."  No pre-emption could legally be approved there. For one thing, it was surveyed land, and besides, portions of it were owned by others. Lots had been sold at Derby in the first auction of public land in British Columbia in November 1858.  When New Westminster was chosen capital of the colony, owners who had bought lots at Derby were offered the opportunity to exchange them for lots in the new city, by means of a credit for the purchase price.  Not all did. There were some who held on to their Crown-granted Langley lots, and so the government had no power to grant the land to anyone else.  Joseph Trutch, Commissioner of Lands & Works, although sympathetic to the claims of the settlers,  could not accede to their wishes.

"I cannot see how this prayer can be granted; for it is clear that the Government have no power to convey land held in fee simple by private individuals."

 

Founding Fathers

Alexander Williams was a signatory to the settlers’ petition  of March 23, 1872 to incorporate the Township of Langley.

Another signatory to the Langley petition was one William Williams, but whether he was related to Alexander Williams, and whether he was the same who died at Victoria, we cannot say.  At William Williams’ inquest it was said he had no family.

(For the full list of Langley petitioners see “The Birth of Langley Municipality” at the Fort Langley History website.)

Anything of Consequence – Dominion Land

After Confederation Derby townsite fell under the purview of the federal government. In 1887 the Department of Agriculture cast its eyes rather lovingly on the property occupied by four squatters at Derby, with a view to locating a Dominion farm there.

"It is beautifully situated about 14 miles east of here [New Westminster] on the south bank of the Fraser River, comprises an area of about 800 acres, about one half of which is black alluvial soil, the remainder rich yellow loam, the whole of it with a rich blue clay subsoil, . . . You may say that it is all of the very best land found in the Province. . . Its situation is the very finest on the Fraser River, fronting on it as it does a distance of 2 1/2 miles. . . .In fact for climate, character of soil, natural aspect for farming and fruit growing, and convenience of water and railway communication, it is unsurpassed on the continent…."

Derby 1887 homestead mapAs for those living there:

"There are four squatters on the land along the banks of the Fraser,only one whose improvements amounts to anything of consequence, this man’s name is Edge, has been settled there 13 years."

A sketch map shows the location of Alexander Williams house, near to that of Jason Allard.

Or view on Google Map.

The site was not selected for the Dominion farm, and the suspended state of occupancy rights at the old Derby townsite remained undisturbed.

Alex Williams’ later years

In the census of 1891, Alex Williams is listed as being 50 years of age and his occupation “miller.”

Williams’ neighbors were the widowed Catherine Muench and her children, the eldest being Joseph age 21.

Residing nearby was Hamilton Edge, age 24, whose father had been killed by the Maple Ridge land slide of 1880.

In February 1899 it was reported that

"Mr Alexander Williams has lost his farmhouse and buildings at Langley by fire."

At the time of the 1901 census an Alexander Williams, "African,"  was residing in a ward of the Royal Columbian Hospital.  His birthdate is given as June 4, 1817.  Although the Langley Alex Williams was known to have been admitted to the Hospital, the age of this man does not agree with other records.

Alexander Williams died March 24, 1904 at the Provincial Home for Old Men at Kamloops BC. The death certificate records that he was 69 years old, born in the United States. Although again there are differences in the recorded age, the obituary in the Kamloops newspaper identifies this man as Alex Williams of Derby.

 

"Another death occurred at the Provincial Home this week, Alexander Williams, a colored man, dying yesterday at the age of 69 years. He was a native of the United States, but came to this Province some years ago and resided at Langley for a long time. Later he was admitted to the Columbia Hospital, New Westminster, and was transferred to the home here two years ago. The funeral took place to-day, Rev. A.E. Hetherington officiating."

 

The Provincial Home for Old Men was set up to provide accommodation and care for ageing British Columbia pioneers, many of whom were bachelors without family, and who could no longer care for themselves.  It was just such a facility as was recommended by the inquest into the death of William Williams in 1879.  

Without family around to relate their history, the pioneers who spent their last years at the Old Men’s Home are, like Alex Williams, often forgotten. 


The old men’s home was built on the property of William Ussher, the Provincial Constable who was killed by the McLean gang, in 1879.

James Wilson, a pioneer of Brownsville,  died at the Old Men’s Home.


George Browse  homestead at Derby Townsite - former property of Alex WilliamsThe question of squatters rights at Derby remained unsettled until the Samuel Maber commission in 1911 cleared the way for Homestead grants to be issued. 

By then the old homestead of Alexander Williams had been taken over by George Browse.

Fifty years after Williams had first occupied the land in 1862, Browse had the benefit of a homestead grant in 1912. . .and the privilege of being taxed.

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