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SAYWARD, WILLIAM PARSONS, businessman; b. 9 Dec. 1818 in or near Thomaston, Maine, son of James Sayward and Lucy Wheeler; m. 20 June 1861, in Victoria, Ann Connor (d. 1870), widow of — Chambers, and they had a son; d. 1 Feb. 1905 in San Francisco and was buried in Victoria.

William Parsons Sayward was 11 when his father, a ship’s captain, was lost at sea. Educated in Thomaston, he left grammar school at age 17 to become a carpenter. Finding few opportunities locally and possessing what one biographer has called “a spirit of adventure,” he journeyed down the coast to Florida in 1838. Apart from a brief return to Maine and three years in Boston, he was employed there as a contractor and builder until 1849, when he left for the California gold-fields. He found work immediately as a carpenter and builder in San Francisco but by the end of the year he had moved to Sacramento, where he opened a bakery near the diggings. Staples commanded extraordinary prices, and Sayward’s loaves of bread “were worth almost their weight in nuggets.” In 1851 he sold his interest in the bakery and bought a lumberyard on San Francisco Bay.

Having heard of the Fraser River gold-rush in the spring of 1858, Sayward sold his concern and arrived in Victoria in June. Local sawmills could not keep pace with the enormous demand, and he immediately entered business as a lumber merchant, obtaining a cargo of lumber from a mill on Puget Sound, Wash., and reportedly selling it “almost before it reached the wharf.” The most important lumberman on Vancouver Island in the 1860s, he invested his profits in town lots in Victoria’s commercial district and acted as a financier. He may have had some sort of partnership with Robert Howe Austin, a Nova Scotian who, like Sayward, had come to Victoria via California.

In 1861 Sayward, who at first imported American lumber, bought a newly built sawmill at the mouth of Shawnigan Creek, some 30 miles from Victoria. He leased timberland at Chemainus, building logging camps there, and enlarged his mill when it proved “inadequate to meet the increasing demand.” The mill in turn stimulated further enterprise: in 1864 he erected a grist-mill nearby and the colonial government built a road connecting the mills with the Cowichan valley. By that time Sayward’s sawmill, together with others at Alberni and on Burrard Inlet, had gained dominance over Puget Sound producers in the colonial market.

Sayward operated his mill at Shawnigan profitably until 1878. In that year, at his large lumberyard on Victoria Harbour, he built a sawmill, which soon formed, along with the Albion Iron Works, the core of Victoria’s industrial district. Timber, primarily Douglas fir, was towed in booms to Victoria by Sayward’s scows and steamer; he also employed a schooner in his lumber business. Sayward’s domain eventually extended to Puget Sound and to the mainland of British Columbia. In 1881 he bought a large mill at Port Madison, Wash., and with it timber leases in that state and a fleet of ships. He thereby circumvented the high American tariff on lumber. Sayward also owned, briefly in the 1880s, a share of the giant Hastings Saw Mill on Burrard Inlet. Between 1882 and 1895 he acquired additional timber leases, on Quadra Island and in central Vancouver Island. Altogether, according to the Victoria Daily Colonist in 1894, he possessed about 30,000 acres of timberland.

At its peak, in 1891, the Victoria mill, the largest on the island, produced 60–70,000 feet of lumber and 25,000 feet of laths per day, all intended for the domestic market. “In order to always have the best seasoned lumber in readiness,” the Northwestern Review of Seattle noted, “over 1,000,000 feet is kept stored in the yards – a feature known and appreciated in the building trade.” Sayward’s son, Joseph Austin, took over the management of the Victoria mill in 1891, and the following year Sayward Sr sold it and a portion of his timber limits. By 1892 he had also disposed of his Port Madison mill. In 1896, at age 77, he retired for good, leaving his son in charge of his lumber empire, and moved to California, where he would die in 1905.

A prominent capitalist, Sayward had invested in or directed a number of other Victoria-based businesses, including waterworks, electricity, pulp and paper, copper, silver, coal, land, cattle, and sealing companies. Having retained his American citizenship, he could not run for political office in Canada. Though he had few institutional affiliations outside business, he was the founding president of the British Columbia Pioneer Society in 1871 and a member of the Oddfellows. An Episcopalian in the United States, he became a staunch member of Victoria’s Anglican community: he held a pew at Christ Church Cathedral and later joined the Reformed Episcopal Church of Edward Cridge.

Sayward was perhaps the most successful of the Americans who came to British Columbia during the gold-rush of 1858. An astute businessman, he knew when to begin or abandon an enterprise, and ultimately he built an industrial empire on the skills he had learned as a carpenter and builder. Allied through his church and business interests with Victoria’s commercial and political élite, he was never a full member of it because of his national loyalty. The town of Sayward and the Sayward district, both on Vancouver Island, are named after him.

Richard Mackie

BCARS, Add. mss 520, list of pew-holders, 1866; Add. mss 1950, 158, file 3; 159–60; C/AB/30.7J/10; D-19, Sayward’s Mill (Mill Bay) file; E/B/Sa9; GR 1372, F 69/12; F 899/8; F 909/22g; F 963/1; GR 2635; GR 2636; GR 2637. City of Victoria Arch., 98410-11, British Columbia Pioneer Soc., constitution and members list. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 27 March, 21 June 1861; 18 Aug. 1870; 29 April 1871; 28 Feb. 1878; 15 Aug. 1882; 5 May, 18 Aug., 15 Nov. 1885; 19 Sept. 1894; 15 July 1896; 2, 7, 11 Feb. 1905. “Victoria’s industries,” Daily Colonist, holiday number, December 1887: 22. Directories, B.C., 1882/83, 1884/85; Victoria, 1860. R. E. Gosnell, A history o[f] British Columbia (n.p., 1906), 345–46. Journals of colonial legislatures of Vancouver Island and B.C. (Hendrickson), vol.1 . Kerr, Biog. dict. of British Columbians. W. K. Lamb, “Early lumbering on Vancouver Island, part ii, 1856–66,” BCHQ, 2 (1938): 95–121. Northwestern Rev. of Seattle (Seattle, Wash.), 1 (1891), no.5: 22 (copy at City of Victoria Arch.). C. A. Sayward, The Sayward family . . . (Ipswich, Mass., 1890), 121–24. Victoria illustrated; published under the auspices of the City of Victoria . . . (Victoria, 1891). “A Victoria pioneer still a loyal booster . . . ,” British Columbia Magazine (Vancouver), 10 (1914): 245.

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Cite This Article

Richard Mackie, “SAYWARD, WILLIAM PARSONS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayward_william_parsons_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayward_william_parsons_13E.html
Author of Article:   Richard Mackie
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   February 23, 2024