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Finding A Home for Immigrants in the 1880s

November 17, 2015

From the Blacks who first ventured to the Cariboo in the 1860’s and wrote home declaring this land the Ophir of their dreams, to the Germans who found a new heimat at Hall’s Prairie, to American settlers of the Midwest seeking better prospects, immigrants often arrived in batches, and with some foreknowledge of the land they were seeking. Typically a guide or two would first be sent out into this rumored land of milk and honey, to inquire as to the opportunities for settlement.
The scout would make contact with the local agencies and people knowledgeable about the lay of the land before those back home were encouraged to pull up stakes and bring out their households. In the case of individual families, the father would often come out first and obtain work before sending for his wife and children.

Donald McGregor portraitColonel Donald McGregor assisted a group of Norwegians in their settlement and evacuation from the Squamish Valley in 1887, but he was not alone in helping them.

In the first week of 1888, as the women and children remained housed at the Immigration Building at New Westminster, the men left in boats to Plumper’s Pass, where they were accommodated by TR Figg, “who kindly placed a house he owns, at the Pass, at their disposal.” There the men engaged in fishing and were reported to be “doing splendidly.”

“They find cod, halibut, sturgeon and other fish in abundance and are greatly pleased with their location and prospects.”

Thomas Spence bought all they could catch, for sale at Vancouver and Victoria.

“Col McGregor went down to Plumper’s Pass yesterday to confer with the Norwegians concerning their future location for fishing. It is just possible that the Colonel will go tto Victoria again to interview the Government on the question before returning.”

In the end, the Norwegians did not choose a coastal location. The group of families secured land at Whonnock, on the north side of the Fraser River above Haney.

“Col. McGregor went up to Wharnock by the Atlantic express [east-bound CPR train] yesterday to see how the Norwegian settlers are getting along.”

(Further information about this settlement can be found at whonnockhistory.ca)

Without practical arrangements, migration could be a harrowing experience. In October a Norwegian woman with two children arrived at New Westminster, said to be starving, and unable even to speak English. It was determined the destitute woman had come seeking her husband who had preceded her. She was sheltered in the immigrant shed and all her needs taken care of local citizens.

For his part, Donald McGregor was said to be “becoming quite famous as an aid and advisor to intending settlers.”

Captain TH Alcock of St Johns arrived at the door of Colonel McGregor in 1887, lead man for immigrants from Newfoundland. They were said to be seeking land and fishing grounds along the coast.

“The Newfoundlanders number in all seven persons, and represent an intending colony who will leave for this coast in the course of a couple of months, providing the delegation reports favorably.”

Thomas Henry Alcock brought out his family and other Newfoundlanders to British Columbia. At the turn of the century the Alcocks were drawn up north to the Klondyke, before returning to the lower coast.

Another party assisted by Colonel McGregor were some “well to do farmers” from Middlesex, Ontario. The vanguard was “two gentlemen named Cameron,” who arrived with letters of introduction to McGregor. They represented 12 families who, if reports were favorable, would bring with them “several herds of thoroughbred cattle, some blooded horses and other valuable stock.”

One of these who approached the Colonel was almost certainly Alexander Cameron, who settled on Livingstone Road in a part of south Langley to which he gave the name Lochiel. According to FortLangley.ca, Mrs Cameron and family arrived a year after, accompanying their Durham cattle across Canada.

A great many modern British Columbians had ancestors who were assisted by Colonel Donald McGregor. Independent, but liaising with various government and non-governmental agencies, he was a special commissioner.

The Immigrants Home at New Westminster

An Immigrants Home was erected in 1883 by the City of New Westminster.
“Open to all,” the facility would shelter newly arrived immigrants for “a reasonable time, until they find employment or locate upon land.”
The builders were “Murray, Clow & Lord.”
The wood-framed building was 22 feet in height, “nicely painted outside,” and “with a cupola and flag pole on top.” It was said to present “a very good appearance.”
A “long lofty hall” measuring 26 by 80 feet contained a large cooking stove and kitchen facilities for the use of all residents.
At each side of the hall was a row of 4 rooms, each provided with its own fire-place.
These 8 apartments, each of which could accommodate 4 persons, were described as “well finished,” “well lighted,” “warm and comfortable.”

Market-Square---New-Westminster---1862The site of the Immigrant Home was on Market Square and commanded “a beautiful view of the river and islands.”

Market Square was laid out in Colonel Moody’s plan of Queenborough, dating back to 1859.  It is now occupied by the Law Courts.

Measuring about 200 by 300 feet, and “surrounded by a picket fence,” the square had been “neatly graded and leveled by the chaingang.”

Originally built to do double duty as an Agricultural Hall and Exhibition center, ancillary buildings included cattle sheds, stables, livestock pens and a storehouse.
The complex was often referred to as the Immigration Sheds.


Surrey’s Intelligence Officer for immigrants was described in the post about Nils Christian Hjorth.

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