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Early Monuments Commemorating Explorer Simon Fraser

October 8, 2015

In 1808 Simon Fraser stopped off at the village across from where the city of New Westminster is now to ask the locals for directions and to obtain a canoe. Just below this point, the river splits into two channels. Fraser, with lieutenants John Stuart and Jules Quesnel and a crew of 19 voyageurs, were fur-trade employees seeking a supply route from the interior to the Pacific Ocean. Their great accomplishment was to complete such a long and arduous journey to the coast and back, challenged by innumerable natural hazards and often faced with hostility from the populace of this region. As leader of the expedition, Simon Fraser has since been honored, most notably by the river and the university which both bear his name. However there was a time, early in the 20th century, when his memory appeared to have been neglected. Public enthusiasm led to the erection of three significant monuments, spaced about decade apart.

In September 1908 a memorial was placed in a park at New Westminster, overlooking the river and facing the native settlement on the opposite bank twice visited by Fraser.

In September 1921 after prompting by Colonel Donald McGregor of Vancouver, a commemorative  headstone was installed on the grave of Simon Fraser by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In August 1931 a plaque was unveiled at the Fraser River lookout on Marine Drive in Vancouver, not far from where Fraser briefly viewed the Gulf of Georgia for the first and only time.

September,1908, Simon Fraser Memorial, Prospect Park, New Westminster

ISimon Fraser Memorial - New Westminstern conjunction with an exhibition of Simon Fraser artifacts and memorabilia at New Westminster in September 1908, a tall stone memorial marker was dedicated in a beautiful garden setting on Albert Crescent.  Placed on top was a bust of Simon Fraser, looking out over the river, with one eye on the Kwantlen village site on the opposite shore, known as Kikait, and the other on the diverging river channels to the west, which in Fraser’s time were populated by thousands of threatening Cowichan and Musqueam tribesmen.Simon Fraser monument at Westminster Quay

That monument has since been moved to the New Westminster Quay, west of its initial position on the promontory at Prospect Park. If the monument appears to have lost something of its former prominence — even to the extent of having turned its back on the river — it is at least more accessible.

September 1921, Simon Fraser grave monument, St Andrews, Ontario

Born in New York State in 1776, Simon Fraser died and was buried at St Andrews Ontario in 1862. More than 50 years after his death, the cemetery where he was buried had fallen into disrepair. This fact was discovered independently by Colonel Donald McGregor and Sir Donald MacMaster, who both hailed from the same area as where Fraser lived out his final years.

Colonel McGregor had known Simon Fraser in Glengarry, Ontario, before coming to British Columbia in 1864 in search of Cariboo gold. McGregor was at one time the librarian at New Westminster.

An opportunity to improve Simon Fraser’s final resting place arose when the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir Robert Kindersley, visited Vancouver in May 1920. At a meeting with the Vancouver Pioneers Association, Colonel McGregor spoke to Kindersley about former company employee Simon Fraser.

“The colonel has a proposition very near at heart and he put this up to the distinguished visitor with excellent results. A few years back he visited his old home of Williamstown, Ontario, and found, at the little village of St. Andrews near at hand, that the grave of the great explorer Simon Fraser, whose name is commemorated in British Columbia by the Fraser River and to whose efforts this province owes probably more than to the efforts of any other man, was sadly neglected. Comparatively recently the well-known Canadian M.P. in the British Parliament, Donald MacMaster, also visited his old home at Williamstown and discovered the same fact. Mr MacMaster wrote Colonel McGregor recently upon the subject and the colonel decided that this was the opportunity to get some steps taken in the matter.”

Sir Robert Kindersley was “greatly interested” and “suggested a monument to be erected to the memory of Fraser at the head of his grave.” The HBC would bear the whole cost, but if others wished to contribute they could do so. Sir Robert asked Colonel McGregor to personally take charge of the work of installing a fitting cemetery marker. Accordingly, a large monument was unveiled in September, 1921 at the grave of Simon Fraser. It bears this inscription:

Grave of Simon Fraser discovered - 1936 - Colonist photo by P. Philip“In memory of Simon Fraser, explorer, born 1776, died 1862. While in the employ of the Northwest Co he conducted important exploration and pioneer work, principally in the area now known as British Columbia, which he helped to secure for the British. He led the first exploring expedition to descend the great river which bears his name, reaching the Gulf of Georgia on July 2, 1808. This monument was erected in 1921 by the Hudson’s Bay Co. over the grave where he and his wife were buried.”

The cemetery thereafter fell into disrepair until, in 1936, whereupon Simon Fraser’s grave was once again “discovered.”  A photograph of the neglected grave, taken by Patrick Philip, appeared in the Colonist. (This is the same P. Philip whom we know from this blog as District Engineer for the Department of Public Works in 1921 when the Pacific Highway was paved.) The Premier of Ontario made provision for the upkeep of the cemetery thereafter.

 

August 1931, Simon Fraser monument at Lookout Point,  Vancouver.

On Aug 5, 1931 at Lookout Point on Marine Drive near Musqueam Reserve, a bronze tablet fixed to a stone monument was formally unveiled by Georgina D McLeod of New Westminster, great grand niece of Simon Fraser. As described by Walter N Sage,

lookout monument 1930 plaque“in the midst of an open space stands a shaft of grey granite on a rectangular base, bearing the words:

“Near this place in July, 1808, Simon Fraser of the North West Company ended his dangerous exploration of the Fraser River from Fort George. The hostility of the Indians prevented him from proceeding farther. His object was to find a trade route to the Pacific from the Interior Forts and thereby avoid the long journey across the Continent.””

The stone monument was erected the previous year by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, of which Judge FW Howay was the western representative. Among the attendees at the dedication ceremony were Sage and Robie Reid.

What became of that old tablet honoring Simon Fraser’s accomplishment?

The plaque now at this spot is a new one, also put in place by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The brevity and directness of the old inscription has been replaced by a rather wordy, uncomplimentary text.

Exploration of Fraser River Monument - Lookout Point - Marine Drive - Vancouver“Exploration of the Fraser River. Although Spanish seamen had noted the Fraser estuary in 1791, when Alexander Mackenzie reached the upper Fraser in 1793 on his way to the Pacific, he thought he was on the Columbia. Simon Fraser and John Stuart of the North West company explored the river under same misapprehension in 1808, realizing only when they reached the sea that two great river systems drained the north Pacific slope. Although the Fraser was not throughout its course a practical canoe route, the Hudson’s Bay company integrated it into a new supply system when forced in 1848 to abandon the Columbia.”


Historic Site

The village of Kikait, where Simon Fraser stopped on his trip down the North Arm of the river to the coast in 1808,  was in 1859 the location of the Revenue Station during the Fraser River gold rush, and also the site of the first farm on this side of the river, established by Samuel W Herring in 1860.


 

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