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MUIR, JOHN, coal-master, farmer, sawmill operator, and politician; b. 28 May 1799 in Ayrshire (now part of Strathclyde), Scotland; m. Annie Miller, and they had five children; d. 4 April 1883 at Sooke, B.C.

John Muir, an Ayrshire coal-master, was living in Manchester when he was recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company in November 1848 to work their coalfields on Vancouver Island. Surface coal deposits had been discovered in the region of Fort Rupert (near present day Port Hardy) in 1835, but little had been done to exploit them. By 1848, however, the Royal Navy and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company were negotiating with the HBC to purchase coal supplies for their steamers. As its local employees were unfamiliar with coal mining, the HBC had turned to Britain for recruits.

Within three weeks of signing a three-year contract as overman, Muir led a party including his wife, their four sons, their widowed daughter with her two infant children, and two nephews to Gravesend, England, where they boarded the barque Harpooner. Shrewdly, Muir had secured miners’ contracts for his sons, one of whom was only nine years old, and for his nephews. The party arrived at Fort Victoria, Vancouver Island, in June 1849. After a short stay they boarded the HBC brig Mary Dare for Fort Rupert near their base of operations; they disembarked on 24 September.

Muir, after surveying the Suquash field, realized that the coal was located chiefly along the beach of Beaver Harbour, where a small reserve had been gathered by hand and piled near the water by local Indians. Muir knew, however, that such coal was salt-ridden and the limits to its supply were obvious; consequently he began digging inland. With only a handful of miners to assist him, and having no machinery, animals, or heavy equipment, he made slow progress. Construction of Fort Rupert was not yet complete and iron goods were in especially short supply. All work was therefore performed by hand with the result that the miners literally only scratched the surface. The primitive methods, coupled with the general worthlessness of the Suquash coal measures, were bound to result in ultimate failure. Still, on 26 Jan. 1850 Muir reported to Eden Colvile*, the governor of Rupert’s Land, that despite reaching a depth of 41´ 6˝ without signs of a good seam, he was optimistic that one would be found.

Up to this time, Muir had acted merely as the leader of his small group, maintaining tight control over both his family and his opinions. Although he had voiced some concern about the quality of the food and had asked Colvile for more fresh provisions, he made no recorded complaint about discipline at the fort, poor equipment, or Indian harassment, all of which were beginning to alarm his family. He was, moreover, constantly faced with the demands of his subordinates that they be freed from above-ground labouring duties. According to their own interpretation of their contracts, theirs was the demanding, skilled pit-work for which they had been trained, whereas surface work, such as draining, clearing, hauling, and reinforcing the pit head, was the company’s responsibility – one it was obliged to fulfil but rarely did.

By early summer 1850, relations between the miners and the HBC employees at Fort Rupert had deteriorated sharply. A series of incidents culminated in the arrest and chaining of Muir’s son Andrew* and his nephew John McGregor. These men had refused to work as labourers, a defiance that had led the fort’s principal officer, George Blenkinsop, to take the action he did. He released the two miners after six days, hoping the confinement would restore a sense of discipline. It did not, for on 2 July Andrew Muir and John McGregor led all the miners, except John Muir, in a desertion to California. Both government and HBC officials investigated the situation, and Blenkinsop was criticized. In the meantime, Muir, his miners having departed, refused to work alone.

Leaving the company’s employ when his contract expired late in 1851, Muir relocated at Sooke on farm land previously owned by Walter Colquhoun Grant*. In 1852, however, James Douglas*, HBC chief factor and governor of Vancouver Island, recalled Muir to be overman at the company’s newly opened Nanaimo coalfield on the understanding that Muir would have complete control over all mining matters. Muir agreed, and signed a two-year contract which he dutifully fulfilled. Replaced in 1854 by Boyd Gilmour, another Ayrshire coal-master, Muir retired to his now extended land holdings at Sooke. Here he devoted his energies to Woodside Farm.

Muir was joined by his son Andrew and nephew Archibald, after they returned from San Francisco. The three men had become artisans skilled in several trades and they soon turned to cutting spars, squared timber, and piles. In 1855 they acquired the engines, boilers, and machinery from a wrecked steamship, thereby obtaining the means to erect the island’s first steam sawmill. By 1859, Muir and Company of Sooke was exporting 40,000 board feet from its wharf and in 1860 it opened a lumberyard at Victoria. Distracted by a nearby gold-rush at Leech River, the Muirs sold their lumbering operations in 1864. Curiously, the Muir family sought coal and not gold deposits in the area, and, being unsuccesstul, repurchased their original sawmill in 1867. With characteristic energy, the family increased both production and sales. The company continued operation until it was closed in 1892, nine years after Muir’s death.

John Muir had proved in part the wisdom of employing experienced miners for the embryo coal industry. By developing the forests and fields of Sooke, he and his kinsmen settled a relatively isolated area; by opening foreign and local markets for their lumber, they added substantially to the local economy. Of significance, too, was their sense of public duty. Muir had accepted an appointment as justice of the peace in 1854 and was the elected member for the Sooke district to the first assembly of Vancouver Island, 1856–61. From 1862 to 1866 he served on the Legislative Council, though he found it difficult to attend meetings. His son Andrew was the first sheriff of Vancouver Island. Few pioneers contributed as much to the island as John Muir, and his close-knit extended family created one of the first successful family firms on Vancouver Island. They can be regarded as the prototype of what was to become common in the island’s business community of the later 19th century.

Daniel T. Gallacher

PABC, Fort Nanaimo corr., August 1852–September 1853 (transcript); Andrew Muir, Diary, 9 Nov. 1848–5 Aug. 1850; Vert. file, Muir family; John Muir. HBRS, XIX (Rich and A. M. Johnson). Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 4 April 1883. B. M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the northwest coast of North America, 1810–1914: a study of British maritime ascendancy (Vancouver, 1971), 98–101. Rich, Hist. of HBC, II: 644. P. M. Johnson, “Fort Rupert,” Beaver, outfit 302 (spring 1972): 4–15. J. H. Kemble, “Coal from the northwest coast, 1848–1850,” BCHQ, 2 (1938): 123–30. W. K. Lamb, “Early lumbering on Vancouver Island, part ii, 1856–66,” BCHQ, 2 (1938): 95–121. B. A. McKelvie, “The founding of Nanaimo,” BCHQ, 8 (1944): 169–88.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Daniel T. Gallacher, “MUIR, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/muir_john_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/muir_john_11E.html
Author of Article: Daniel T. Gallacher
Title of Article: MUIR, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: September 21, 2014