(18?? – 1873)

Although not much is known about Robert Burrell, who pre-empted land on DeCourcy Island in 1873, one story about him is tantalizing not only in what it tells, but also in what it omits. It makes one wish we knew more about the man. Before he pre-empted 160 acres of land on DeCourcey Island (then considered part of the general district of Gabriola Island) Burrell worked for the Bank of British North America (BBNA), in Victoria and, for several years, as manager in the newly opened Cariboo branch in Barkerville [1]. Newspaper accounts of Burrell report he was well thought of by his peers [2], and this photograph of him suggests the confidence of a man accustomed to success, a confidence that was not misplaced, according to what follows.

On November 28, 1871 Victoria’s British Colonist newspaper reported that Burrell, then the interim manager of the Victoria branch of BBNA, “returned from a trip to Idaho yesterday”, and goes on to recount the “extraordinary circumstances” of his trip [3]. In October the bank discovered they had been defrauded of $1600 (a considerable sum of money then) by someone who had stolen a check drawn on the BBNA, forged a signature, received the cash from the Victoria bank and then fled to the United States. Burrell, with an extradition warrant obtained from the colonial government, pursued the forger and caught up with him in Salmon River, Idaho. There Burrell discovered that, in order to complete all the legal paperwork involved to bring the forger back to British Columbia, he would have to continue on to Boise City. Since this would involve a great deal of both time and money for which he would not be reimbursed, Burrell “thought it best to take back the $1600, with $300 additional for expenses, and leave the swindler to escape unwhipt of justice as he might.”[3] With these words the story in The Colonist concludes. It would be interesting to know just how the swindler was persuaded to hand over the money – or how Burrell traced him from Victoria to Salmon River…. but that is all we are told of the story.

Burrell certainly showed himself to be enterprising and energetic, but he was not resident on DeCourcey long enough to have made his mark as an early settler. His pre-emption claim is dated October 27, 1873 [4] but on December 21st, not quite two months later, he was reported drowned while rowing home from Nanaimo.[5]

He had started a stock ranch on DeCourcey [6] — but nothing is known about what happened to his animals, or any of his other possessions. His land must have reverted to the Crown. A few years later, land on DeCourcey was pre-empted by other Gabriolan settlers, first by Roger Elphinstone on January 11, 1875, who seems not to have stayed long on the island, and then on September 15, 1876 William Flewett pre-empted 160 acres of DeCourcey. Probably Flewett’s land included some of what Burrell had originally pre-empted. The only other record of Burrell’s life we have found so far is some correspondence about the bank act,(7) and letters concerning lands he bought in the New Westminster district in September of 1871, and also in March 1872 (8). Nothing seems to be known about what happened to this land, whether he ever lived there, before pre-empting land on DeCourcey, or whether he sold his claim to that land.

A number of early settlers in this region, whose names are first known when they pre-empt land or are mentioned in the newspapers, then seem to disappear from history. No further mention of them appears in any of the records. It has been assumed, by Jean Barman, among others, that they have “moved on” (9) — returned home, or left for more promising territory. But it seems likely that some, like Burrell, drowned on their way to or from Nanaimo. Transportation between Gabriola and Vancouver Island was risky in the days before there were ferries. Currents can be very strong, and even in summer, storms can be sudden and fierce, overturning small boats with no help in sight.


[1] The British Colonist, April 24,1869 p.3; June 26, 1869, p.3; and April 27, 1870, p.3.
[2] Colonist articles about him quite often refer to the general esteem he was accorded. For example, in the June 26, 1869 issue, p. 3, Burrell is “favorably known from his connection with the Cariboo branch” (of the BBNA), and when his death was reported in 1873, the paper says he “is well known and liked throughout the Province.” Dec. 21,1873, p.3.
[3] The British Colonist, November 28, 1871, p.3.
[4] BC Archives GR-0766: BC Dept. of Land & Works:Pre-emption Records of West Coast Land, 1861-1886; Box 12, File 1458.
[5] The British Colonist, December 21, 1873, p.3; and December 25, 1873, p.3.
[6] The British Colonist, December 21, 1873, p.3.
[7] BC Archives GR-1372: BC Colonial Correspondence: 1857-1872: Microfilm B01312, Item 241. Letters from Burrell, Robert and William C. Ward.
[8] BC Archives GR-0868: BC Dept. of Lands and Works: Lands and Water correspondence in 1871-83, Box 1, folder 2, files 75/72, and 85/72.
[9] Jean Barman in “Island Sanctuaries,” SHALE No.2, March 2001, p. 13.