CURRAN, WILLIAM HENRY, logger and farmer; b. 1 April 1843 in Providence, R.I., son of James Curran and Mary George; d. 4 April 1930 in New Westminster, B.C.
William Henry Curran typifies the resourceful 19th-century wanderer who did nothing outstanding, yet persevered and left an imprint in the form of numerous descendants. He exemplifies the generation of men who arrived in British Columbia during the gold rush of 1858–65 and who, responding to the gender imbalance among newcomers (by 1871 there were roughly three adult males for every adult female), cohabited with aboriginal women. Curran was a survivor committed to his family at a time when it would have been far easier to walk away, as did so many men, from such responsibilities.
The son of a father born in Ireland and a mother who came from Newfoundland, Curran left home at the age of 14 to become a drummer boy in the army sent by the United States government to quell the Mormons in Utah. According to the story he recounted in old age, he reached the Pacific northwest by 1861 and for the next couple of years moved back and forth between Victoria and Washington Territory. Curran’s parents had a cloth-dye business that was being superseded by new technology, so they and their younger son Frederick Johnson soon joined Curran in British Columbia.
By 1866 Curran was living with Mary Sitkwa Whilemot, a Cowichan woman born sometime in the 1840s who already had two children, Mary Ann Walker and James Walker, by earlier relationships with newcomer men. William and Mary had their first child together in 1867, the same year that he pre-empted 100 acres on the west coast of Salt Spring Island. Elizabeth (Eliza) Jane was followed by Ellen in 1870, Alice in 1872, William Jr in 1874, Julia in 1876, Margaret in 1878, and Edith Rose in 1883.
Curran worked hard to support his growing family. He later stated that he had once run for the provincial legislature but, if so, it must have been before British Columbia entered the Canadian confederation in 1871 since he does not appear on the lists of candidates in that year or later. By 1874 he had abandoned his Salt Spring property for land on the southern end of Thetis Island further north. The shift may have been at Mary’s initiative, for her mother and brother Jacob lived there or on Kuper Island, joined to Thetis at low tide. Curran logged with oxen and farmed over the next two decades. He acquired six quarter-section lots between 1874 and 1887 and built three log houses in different parts of the island. At some point his brother Fred and wife Rose moved nearby.
Curran took considerable care that his children were educated. He sent at least some of his daughters to the convent school established in the Cowichan valley by the Sisters of St Ann [see Salomée Valois*]. In 1870 Curran’s stepdaughter Mary Ann was enrolled; Eliza and Ellen followed in 1874. As for the two boys, no comparable private or public school existed and their level of literacy remained below that of their sisters. Despite his daughters being schooled as Catholics, Curran was an Anglican. When on 25 Dec. 1883 he married the mother of his children, it was in a Church of England ceremony at the Indian mission established in 1880 on Kuper Island.
Mary Sitkwa Whilemot Curran died in 1894. By then their children were mostly married. At loose ends, Curran went homesteading around Shuswap Lake in the southern interior. By now in his late fifties, he found a new wife, Elizabeth Toma, born in 1876 and so over 30 years his junior. Also an aboriginal woman, Elizabeth was (unlike Mary) literate, said to have been educated by Oblate missionaries. Curran soon had another family, which eventually would include seven children: Edith Rose, Louise Ellen, James, Victor, Agnes, George, and Thomas.
In 1901 Curran was still in the southern interior, farming in a modest fashion, but the family was living at Chemainus on Vancouver Island in 1911 when Curran pre-empted land on remote Lasqueti Island. He and Elizabeth built a small house and barn there, cleared land, and planted a vegetable garden and orchard. According to one of their sons, Curran also raised hay and, when it was very cold in the winter, sold it in the interior at a good price.
At a time when persons of mixed race were easy targets in a racially charged Canada, Lasqueti’s isolation gave a refuge. Family recollections speak to a strong sense of community. A long-time islander remembered that “the Curran home was always open to their neighbours.” Descendants have stressed how “everyone lived together – a version of utopia – there was great hospitality along the coast in those days – everyone looked after you – we all piled in together, lived together, ate together.”
According to a local historian who got her information from a descendant, “Schooling was intermittent for the young Currans.” “In their home they had but a few books and these were read over and over again.” The children attended the first school opened on Lasqueti in 1913 but it closed in 1917 after a second school began, too far away for them to attend. In part for that reason Curran’s second family led, as had their predecessors, mostly modest lives.
Age eventually caught up with William Henry Curran. Soon after moving to Lasqueti, he severely injured his back and thereafter he walked with a serious limp. However, as he wrote proudly in 1924, “the hair on my head has never turned gray; my hair is light-coloured, and the same as in my boyhood days.” Curran died in 1930, aged 87. Elizabeth had moved back to her girlhood home near Kamloops shortly before her death in about 1929. Today hundreds of Curran descendants contribute to every aspect of British Columbia’s society and economy.
[Details concerning William Henry Curran and his family were obtained in conversations with descendants Victor Edward Curran, Lewella Duncan, and Ed Philips at Victor Curran’s 90th birthday celebration in Vancouver on 15 Jan. 1994, as well as from family information given out at the party. Additional information was drawn from the author’s conversation with Georgina Curran Surgenor, a granddaughter of Fred Curran, on 24 Oct. 1998, from a manuscript family history supplied by Joe Warnock, a great-grandson of the subject, and from an e-mail message dated 2 June 2002 from Everette Surgenor, a great-granddaughter of Fred Curran. j.b.]
ACC, Diocese of British Columbia Arch. (Victoria), Kuper Island Mission fonds, RBMB.
BCA, A/E/R54/R54; /R54A; /R54.3; GR-0766, boxes 7, 13; GR-2951, nos.1894-09-045654, 1930-09-442438 (mfm.); VF36, frames 0941–43.
NA, RG 31, C1, 1881, Cowichan, B.C., dist. 191, household 199; 1891, Salt Spring Island, B.C., dist. 3, household 41; 1901, Vancouver, household 154; Yale East, household 16.
St Edward’s Church (Duncan, B.C.), St Ann’s Church, reg. of baptisms and marriages, 1859–85.
Sisters of St Ann Arch. (Victoria), RG II, S36, box 1 (pupils’s reg., St Ann’s Convent, Cowichan, Vancouver Island, 1864–April 1929).
B.C., Legislative Assembly, Sessional papers, voters’ lists, 1874–94.
Elda Copley Mason, Lasqueti Island: history & memory (Lantzville, B.C., ).
Electoral history of British Columbia, 1871–1986 ([Victoria, 1988]).
Memories of the Chemainus Valley: a history of people . . . , comp. Lillian Gustafson and Gordon Elliott ([Chemainus, B.C.], 1978)