FRASER, DONALD, journalist, businessman, and politician; b. 1810 or 1811 in Scotland; d. 2 Oct. 1897 in London, England.
Little is known of Donald Fraser’s origins except that he grew up in Inverness, Scotland, where he was a schoolmate of Alexander Grant Dallas*, future governor of Rupert’s Land, and John Cameron Macdonald, later manager of the London Times. According to a contemporary, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat*, Fraser studied law in youth and then “engaged in business and made money” in Chile and California. He had gone to California in 1849 as a special correspondent for the Times to cover the gold-rush. In the spring of 1858, when he heard from returning miners about the Fraser River rush, he decided to go to Victoria, Vancouver Island. He arrived in June armed with an introduction to Governor James Douglas* from the British consul in San Francisco.
Fraser had written his first, enthusiastic account of the British Columbia gold-rush in San Francisco, basing it on interviews with miners, and his optimism was not diminished by his tour of the mining district with Douglas in September 1858. His articles appeared periodically in the Times until the fall of 1860 and resumed the next year when gold strikes occurred in the Cariboo. At least one editor of a handbook, Robert Michael Ballantyne of Edinburgh, found these reports so glowing that he portrayed the rivers of British Columbia as “mere beds of gold, so abundant as to make it quite disgusting.” More than one miner, however, returning empty-handed, was heard to exclaim, “God damn Donald Fraser.”
From the outset Douglas was impressed with Fraser’s personality and “high legal attainments,” and Fraser quickly emerged as the governor’s trusted confidant and unofficial adviser, and as a leading booster of Vancouver Island. While they were touring the gold-fields Douglas appointed him and two others to a court at Fort Hope (Hope) to try a miner accused of murder. In October 1858 the governor made Fraser a member of the Council of Vancouver Island, a position he held until March 1862. He also sat on the Legislative Council from April 1864 to July 1866.
In Victoria, Fraser pursued a variety of business opportunities, speculating heavily in land until he owned more lots than any other resident. His prestige in the community was enhanced by his stand on controversial political issues such as the taxation of real estate and union with the colony of British Columbia, both of which he opposed. As a council member, he played a leading role in November 1864 in having the Vancouver Island House of Assembly reject a proposal from the Colonial Office that the colony assume the cost of the civil list in exchange for obtaining control of revenues from the sale of crown lands [see Sir Arthur Edward Kennedy*]. After Vancouver Island was terminated as a colony and taken over by British Columbia in 1866, Fraser returned to England and took an active part with Sproat and Dallas on the self-styled London Committee for Watching the Affairs of British Columbia, a powerful lobby to protect Victoria’s waning hegemony over the mainland and secure the relocation of the capital from New Westminster to Victoria, which was achieved in 1868 [see Frederick Seymour*].
Fraser spent the remaining 30 years of his life in England. At the time of British Columbia’s entry into confederation in 1871, reports in the local press claimed he was returning to Victoria, and there was speculation that he would be offered a seat in the Senate. He did return to Vancouver Island for a six-month visit in September 1872, spending much of his time in the company of his old friend Douglas. “I was out with Mr. Fraser, most of yesterday and greatly enjoy his society,” Douglas wrote to his youngest daughter, Martha. “He is full of information, his memory is prodigious, he forgets nothing. He enjoys the quiet dinners and social evenings at James Bay.” Fraser died of natural causes in 1897. His death notice in the Times was notably terse. “On the 2nd Oct., at Ben Blair, Putney-hill, London, donald fraser, late of Victoria, British Columbia, aged 86.”
Information on Fraser must be gleaned from newspaper items and writings by his contemporaries. See his accounts in the London Times, 1858–63, as well as local press reports, especially the Victoria British Colonist, 1858–60, and its successor, the Daily Colonist, 1860–66, 15 Nov. 1871, and 6 Oct. 1897.
PABC, Add. mss 257; Add. mss 505; B/40/4, esp. 10 Sept. 1872. John Emmerson, British Columbia and Vancouver Island; voyages, travels, & adventures (Durham, Eng., 1865). Handbook to the new goldfields; a full account of the richness and extent of the Fraser and Thompson River gold mines . . . , ed. R. M. Ballantyne (Edinburgh, 1858). Times, 6 Oct. 1897.