The Remarkable Adventures of "Portuguese Joe" Silvey: A True Story of British Columbia by Jean Barman
Preface by Manuel Azevedo
There is a Portuguesesaying that God is everywhere, but the Portuguese were there first. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Portuguese Joe Silvey was one of the earliest pioneers of what is now British Columbia. Joe Silvey was only one of many Portuguese who reached both the east and west coasts of Canada long before 1867, the year of Confederation (British Columbia joined in 1871). In fact, 2004 is the 300th anniversary of Canada’s first letter carrier, Pedro da Silva of New France, an occasion that has been honoured with the issue of a commemorative stamp by Canada Post.
Portuguese Joe Silvey sought his fortune in the gold rush of 1858 at a time when the non-aboriginal population of British Columbia exploded from about 1,000 to 20,000 or more in a matter of months. Victoria, a sleepy town of about 400 people, became a sprawling tent city overnight, filled with gold seekers from every corner of the world.
Although Joe was unlucky in his search for gold, he did find a beautiful wife in the unspoiled paradise that was Vancouver. In the first non-aboriginal marriage in Vancouver, he wed Khaltinaht, the granddaughter of the legendary chief, Kiapilano. The wedding took place at Musqueam, and the newlyweds set off in a canoe piled high with blankets to Point Roberts for their honeymoon. Later Joe returned to Gastown, where he opened a saloon at the corner of Abbott and Water streets, across the street from Gregorio Fernandez’s general store. He lived at Brockton Point, in what later became Stanley Park, with other pioneers: the legendary whaler Portuguese Pete (Peter Smith); Joe Gonsalves, aka Portuguese Joe No. 2; and Vancouver's first police officer, Tomkins Brew. All of them--except Fernandez, who remained a bachelor--married aboriginal women.
After the tragic death of his wife Khaltinaht, Joe Silvey found yet another beautiful wife, Kwahama Kwatleematt (Lucy) from Sechelt, and together they raised a dozen children on Reid Island off the northwest tip of Galiano Island. Joe worked hard to raise his family and protect them from the prejudices of the times. He fished for dogfish and herring, which he sold to loggers and visiting ships, he built boats and houses, he planted orchards, he operated a store, he established a school for his children and he entertained his family with the accordion and Portuguese dances. He never returned to his homeland, the island of Pico in the Azores, aka the Westerly Isles--Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal on the same latitude as New York City.
Like his countrymen from the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde islands, Joe established deep roots in British Columbia. These men, like other pioneers from every corner of the world, contributed to the building of BC. Joe practically founded the fishing industry and obtained the first herring seine licence in the province. His Brockton Point neighbour, the legendary Portuguese Pete, started the whaling industry; Joe Gonsalves of Madeira built the first deep-sea docks on the Sunshine Coast with the help of the “black” Azorean, Joe Perry; John Silva of Cape Verde, later of Gabriola Island, planted what may have been the province's first apple orchard on Mayne Island; John Enos (Ignacio) of the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, the first European settler at Nanoose Bay, helped build the bridges of Nanaimo. In Victoria, Joseph Morais owned and operated a hotel, restaurant and miners’ exchange in 1861. The Bitancourt and Norton brothers, from Sao Miguel and Flores Islands (Azores), respectively, developed dairies, coal mines and quarries on Salt Spring Island.
Now, for the first time, the respected historian and professor Jean Barman gives us a very human glimpse of the life of one of these pioneer builders of British Columbia, Portuguese Joe Silvey. She traces his adventures, his fortunes and misfortunes through the stories told by his children and their descendants. In this very personal, heartwarming monograph, she brings one family to life, thereby providing us with a better understanding of the untold lives of hundreds of other early pioneers, whose contributions and sacrifices made British Columbia what it is today.
Early Salt Spring home builders By Morton Stratton
Four very young Portugese youth (two sets of brothers) were among the earliest settlers on Salt Spring Island, arriving about 1860 just after Willis and Sylvia Stark, the Jones brothers and other pioneer families. Estalon and Manuel Bittancourt established claims on the shores of Vesuvius Bay and the fertile land to the cast; John and Delarvo Norton (the family name was adopted from the captain of the ship bringing them from Portugal) took up their claims on the gently rolling uplands between the present golf course and Lady Minto Hospital. Manuel and Delarvo disappear from the record; but Estalon Bittancourt, Manuel's son, Reid and John Norton put their roots down on the island, raised their huge families here, and erected some of the substantial homes which graced central Salt Spring Island at the turn of the century. It is particularly unfortunate that three of the finest homes built by the Bittancourts no longer exist (One demolished and two destroyed by fire) and hence cannot be represented in the photographic exhibit of old homes scheduled by the Canadian Arts Council for June 20 in Mahon Hall. But happily, several others are still well preserved, as are two houses built by John Norton.
Estalon Bittancourt had a particularly romantic and interesting career. Born in the Azores about 1845 he developed a roving disposition and a longing to go to sea. At the age of about 15 or 16 he swam out to a sailing ship bound for the goldfields of Australia.
Soon after, the lure of the sea brought him to Vancouver Island. Refused shore leave by his captain he waited until nightfall and swam ashore at Royal Roads. Purchasing a sloop, he did a good business for several months carrying sawdust from Mill Bay to Victoria. Then disaster struck; a driving gale piled his frail craft on the rocks at ten mile point just north of Cordova Bay; but fortunately his ability as a swimmer saved him after a hard struggle with the swift running current. Perhaps tiring of his adventures on the sea he took the advice of his fellow countryman, John Norton, who already knew something of Salt Spring, and established his land claims behind Vesuvius Bay.
STORY OF THE FAMILY
For a full generation, from the 1860's until death in 1917, the story of Vesuvius is in a real way the story of the Estalon married, raised a large family of nine children, became a substantial businessman and farmer and developed the agreeable habit of building substantial homes for himself and his family. The earliest and the finest, his own home above the docks at Vesuvius, existed in its later days as the Vesuvius Bay (An annex was built in 1886 for son, Fred, and wife, Annie). This big house was the centre of Estalon's enterprise. Hero he ran a general store (supplied by a sloop with which he delivered goods to and from Victoria) and a friendly little neighborhood pub (a decent enough establishment, but still off limits to the strict Methodists at Central Settlement.) Later he developed the store into the Vesuvius Bay Hotel. A major source of income for the growing Bittancourt family came from the operation of the sandstone quarries at Vesuvius, originally developed in 1860-61 by five partners who took of for the goldfields of the Cariboo in 1861.
AT FULL STRENGTH In the 1880's the sandstone quarry was running at full strength and the family operated three sloops carrying stone to Victoria and Esquimalt. The Esquimalt dry dock, the original causeway in front of the Empress Hotel and several churches in Victoria were constructed of Vesuvius sandstone. Coal was also mined at the Bittancourt place; especially at nearby Dock (now corrupted to Duck) Bay. Bea Hamilton tells us this coal retailed for 25 cents a bag! Since the Vesuvius docks were the principal window on the world for settlers north of the Divide, the Bittancourts were often the first to welcome newcomers to the island. One of the early priests working this mission field, Father Kremera, was once flung from his canoe into the waters at Sansum Narrows. He made it to shore and staggered through the bush where he was found by Bittancourt. Years later (1894) it was Bittancourt who greeted the Rev. E.F. Wilson upon his first arrival at Salt Spring on a cold February morning and directed him on his way to Mrs. Stevens; Boarding House. Meanwhile, over the years the Bittancourt land holdings were expanding (some of the acreage farmed with the help of his son, Charlie) until at the time of Estalon's death in 1917 at the age of 74 there were 437 acres registered in his name.
FIVE HOUSES The family home - turned hotel was destroyed by fire on 1975 but five houses still attest to the prosperity of this enterprising pioneer. Best known are the three "dowry houses" that ringed Vesuvius Bay (photo in Toynbee's Snapshots), built by Bittancourt for three of his married daughters (one house has since been moved to the top of the hill where the road descends to the bay). A house built across the road from the wharf for his son, Fred, about 1892 was recently moved to the Farmer's Institute property on Rainbow Road and will serve the community as Salt Spring Island's first museum after remodeling is "The Ark" the jewel of them all. The Bittancourt family was Catholic and had originally installed a chaplin in the attic of the old family home where once a month a Catholic priest attended to celebrate mass. Later, Estalon built a small chapel up the road from son Fred's home. This pretty little building, now a residence, still stands with a bell in the gable, a fitting testimonial to the devout Catholic family whose legacy lives on at Vesuvius Bay.
HIS NEPHEWS Equally well known to the next generation on Salt Spring, including many now living were Estalon Bittancourt's nephews, Reid and Arthur Bittancourt. After he moved here in the 1880's Reid's life was intimately related to the development of the Ganges area. Arthur, on the other hand, made his name in Alaska but he is remembered locally for the meticulous care with which he dismantled the Methodist chapel at Central board by board and window by window and reassembled it on Hereford Avenue. Here the structure now stands as the street side portion of the Legion Hall. Complete with a new roof, the operation cost $300. Arthur also did some exceptional carpentry work in the early 20's in the home of Dick Toynee on Churchill Road. Abraham Reid Bittancourt was an outstanding carpenter and builder. (See Valerie Richards comment on his craftsmanship in a recent Driftwood). He apparently developed his skills before moving to the island. In 1890 he worked with Mr. Herd of Somenoa in the construction of the T. W. Mouat house which still stands on the ridge west of St. Mary Lake.
BULLOCK MANSION Certainly the biggest commission was building the impressive Henry Bullock mansion in 1892 for a contract price of $2,000. Subsequently, he erected several houses in the village of Ganges; for example, the home at the corner of Rainbow Road and Lower Ganges Road across from the health office. But better known was the splendid home and store put up in 1904 at the foot of Ganges Hill, known more recently as the Dr. Francis nursing home (demolished in 1967). Reid's career as a storekeeper boat operator and patrol officer for Canada Customs are beyond the scope of this article. In concluding these comments on the Portugese pioneers, mention must be made of John Norton (born Delavera). Like Reid Bittancourt, he raised a fine family on Salt Spring. His children were contemporaries and playmates of some of Salt Spring's older living residents (see Toynbee's school snapshots). John Norton was a prosperous farmer in the area west and north of the present Valcourt Centre.
ON NORTON ROAD Here he constructed for his second wife the family home which stands on the left up Norton Road and is now surrounded by so many lovely flowers and overgrown shrubs. Incidentally, this house, owned by a granddaughter of John Norton, is the only house in the Heritage House Committee's survey which is still in the hands of a descendant of the builder. John Norton also built a house for A.J. Smith about 1903 which stands on the left of Blain Road above Greenwoods, commanding a panoramic view of Ganges Harbour. The Nortons and the Bittancourts, only recently so well known on the island are gone now. But the houses they built stand as a tribute to the contribution they made to the growth and diversity of our fascinating island.