On These Shores


The gold rushes of British Columbia, starting in 1858, brought with them a diverse assortment of adventurers, explorers and prospectors. While a handful of Jewish pioneers established themselves as successful merchants and traders from the start, the defining moment for the Jewish people in Victoria wasn’t to happen until some time later. This exhibit explores the stories and events leading up to the laying of the first stone of the synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, in 1863, marking the establishment of the Jewish community itself.

We’ll consider how the contributions of everyday citizens from the Jewish community transformed Victoria from sojourn to permanent home. Why did they choose to stay in such an unfamiliar landscape? How did they navigate the chaos of the gold-rush population boom? Did they have any particular characteristics that enabled them to survive (and thrive) when so many others did not? Their ability to put down roots in this transient and frenzied frontier town was a formidable achievement and would pave the way for the rich cultural and political legacy of the region.

The challenge is to tell a story where there is limited documentation. Photographs from the 1850s are not common and tend to originate only from a few photographers. Written accounts of this time are predominantly from a European or an American perspective and do not include the voices of those from oral traditions or coming from minority positions. To appreciate the context of colonial times, we need to understand the factors that contributed to the political, social, cultural and economic climate.

Painting of BC coastal landscape by Louise Sylvester, circa 1900 (A.2012.004.008.back)

An Untamed Frontier

British Columbia is synonymous with rugged natural landscapes: majestic mountain ranges and deep valleys, powerful oceans and clear lakes, blue skies and lush forests, abundant wildlife and rich ecosystems. For as long as we’ve known, B.C. has always been a place of wonder and spectacle. Rich in culture, this land is home to adventure and possibility.

We don’t really know who the first travellers to B.C. were. Debates and theories have emerged and dissipated over their provenance: Scandinavian, Italian, Spanish or, as one theory suggests, perhaps Chinese Jewish merchants arriving by ship as early as 1600 CE (Chiel, 1966).

Eloquent accounts of the region’s landscape and people were detailed in explorers’ journals. Maps, logs, illustrations and correspondence provide perspectives on this place we now recognize as our province. Surely it was these accounts that became fodder for a legend in the making, alluring future explorers. Only the most resilient and adventuresome would ever successfully make the long and rugged journey in search of a new life, a new beginning.

Early visitors would have found the area to be full of life, though sparsely populated. Travel to and through this terrain was not easy: the landscape was rough and untamed; the islands remote; the vast mainland isolated by the Rockies from the continent farther east. Exploring this area would have been arduous, at times deadly, for the unfamiliar traveler.

“Return of a War Party.” Artist: Paul Kane (1847). Songhees Village and Fort Victoria. (Royal Ontario Museum ROM2005_5161_1)
“Return of a War Party.” Artist: Paul Kane (1847). Songhees Village and Fort Victoria, image provided by Royal Ontario Museum (ROM2005_5161_1)

First Peoples

Prior to European exploration, indigenous communities were self-sufficient and thriving, following sustainable traditions within a delicately balanced ecosystem. They were rich in culture: art, politics, spirituality, economic production and social and family structure.

By 1849, the indigenous population of B.C. numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 and included the Songhees (Lekwungen), Nuu-chah-nult, Stó:lō, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) and many other groups spread across the vast region, each with its own distinct traditions and culture.

Trade and commerce existed for many generations in the area prior to the arrival of the first sojourning merchants. In fact, the indigenous peoples of the Northwest coast were considered to be among the wealthiest, thanks to their successful traditional practices and sophisticated social customs, coupled with the area’s abundant natural resources. Perhaps their enduring system of commerce can be credited to the inherent sustainability espoused in their belief systems. Until the arrival of the first wave of foreign merchants, indigenous people prospered in cohesive, organized communities. These small but established groups often met the new visitors with a curiosity that ranged from interest to miscalculation.

Historic cultural divisions of BC's Aboriginal people. From Barman, p. xii
Historic cultural divisions of BC’s Aboriginal people. From Barman, p. xii

For those who migrated from Europe and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in pursuit of fur, trade with indigenous peoples proved a small yet lucrative industry. Colonial folklore at times has portrayed American Indians (the term used in American accounts) as naïve savages falling victim to unfair trade deals with colonial merchants, exchanging valuable furs for worthless “shiny objects.” Yet in fact, in these early times, small-scale trade involved relationships that were for the most part agreeable and reciprocal. The journals of notable explorers like Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson are consistent in their positive portrayal of the local peoples, illustrating their genuine kindness and generosity (Barman, 2007).

Given their predominantly oral tradition, historic accounts from indigenous perspectives are uncommon. Much of our understanding of the region in these early times comes from British or American viewpoints that vary and are at times contradictory in their interpretations.

By the mid-nineteenth century, British interest in the area had grown, both from a scientific and a commercial perspective. The Royal Geographical Society of London published several reports of the area describing the people and landscape from a marketing approach. British promotional literature was overwhelmingly optimistic about the possibilities of encouraging Christianity, civilization and commerce among indigenous people. English historian William Hazlitt coined the term “England of the Pacific,” suggesting invitation for settlement. He even produced a Chinook–English dictionary to ease the transition of pioneers to the new land.


The ostensibly benevolent approach of the British to the First Nations was markedly different from the much less favourable one of the Americans to Native Americans. Indigenous populations, particularly those of the Oregon territory, were considered by the U.S. government (and citizens) to be hostile and dangerous. At a time of nationalist expansion, indigenous people were considered an irritation that needed to be exterminated (Reimer, 2010).

In addition to British promotional literature, there were newspaper reports, government documents, merchant directories and other handbooks, journals and personal correspondence that all provide evidence of European and American attitudes. For the most part these accounts did not acknowledge the rich and sophisticated history of the indigenous peoples. By nature, they were ethnocentric, expressing a wholly different way of looking at human geography, values and ownership, economic and political systems, social organization and the concept of history in general. Lacking a written history, the First Nations people were at a disadvantage in their relations with the dominant culture, finding their voices lost in the cacophony and excitement of discovery.

barman explorer routes
Early overland exploration routes. From Barman, p xv

Because of their oral tradition, First Nations were considered uneducated and primitive by the colonizing world. Enlightened thought dictated that civilized societies must have alphabetical systems of language (Reimer, 2010). A lack of written history was thus perceived as a lack of history, which in turn implied that a people had no culture and was therefore inferior. According to enlightened European definitions, hunter-gatherers were developmentally delayed, whatever their success or sophistication. This myth suggests that societies must necessarily progress through phases of economic production to be considered civilized: from hunting and gathering to agriculture to commerce (Furniss, 2000).

The Enlightenment’s influence over the perception and communication of history skewed the colonizers’ attitudes toward the indigenous peoples of the Northwest coast. Whether affable or malignant in their intent, the opinions expressed failed to recognize with any deep understanding, let alone portray adequately, the essence and history of the local peoples, their land rights, kinship, systems of reciprocity or their cultural traditions. From the standpoint of the Americans and the British, the coastal lands were considered commodities and the indigenous peoples an inconvenience to their conquest.

HMS Constance Lying In Esquimalt Harbour, Vancouver Island, 1848, image (pdp01182) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a British venture, held similar views of the land and people. The company was founded in London in 1670 to manage the fur trade in Canada, initially concentrated in the Eastern regions. Although the HBC had ties to the government, it was not a Crown agency. Its main purpose was to turn a profit for its own private shareholders, not to act as an imperial pawn. Indigenous peoples played a key role in the venture, as they were familiar with the land and had well-developed hunting practices. Some historians posit that, in the early times, it was not the company men who had control but the indigenous peoples themselves, as HBC traders relied on them for product, for navigation of land and sea, for sustenance and for political posturing with other indigenous groups.

Simon Fraser’s encounters with Chief Kw’eh demonstrate the respect he and other white traders had for the chief. It might be said that Kw’eh was even regarded as an equal. In correspondence with James McDougall, Fraser recounts Kw’eh’s oration (right).

“Do I not manage my affairs as well as you do yours? You keep your fort in order, and make your slaves” meaning my men, “obey you … When did you ever hear that Quas [Kw’eh] was in danger or starving? When it is the proper season to hunt beaver, I kill them … I know the season when the fish spawn, and then send my women, with the nets which they have made, to take them. I never want for anything, and my family is always well clothed.”

(Barman, 2007)

Politics, Economics and Cultural Shifts

What started out as an informal system of trade had developed into a profitable venture as new routes to the Pacific Northwest were charted and the bounty of local resources was discovered in New Caledonia. Increased European migration and settlement meant changes to the environment with detrimental effect on traditional First Nations economic structures and ways of life. It was this upset to the balance that would lead to loss of indigenous wealth and independence (Ames, M. in Glasrud & Halseth, 1977). Introduction of alcohol, new diseases and armed conflict hastened the deterioration of cultures and practices. The reciprocal trade relationships of the early fur industry eventually fell in favour of demands made by the growing expatriated European populations, leaving First Nations as racialized outsiders.

While striking in its level of commercial exploitation and attitude of entitlement, the HBC also showed instances of opportunistic acceptance. From 1821 to 1846, the company maintained a policy of goodwill toward the First Nations. The HBC’s culture of tolerance is evident in the diversity of its employees, who included Methodists, Catholics, Anglicans, Iroquois and Kanaka.[1] Business dealings extended to personal relationships, and marriages between First Nations and HBC employees, though not the norm, occurred. The HBC was a successful private enterprise, so commercial relationships needed to be conflict-free. It seems likely that this concept of tolerance was not entirely grounded on moral or ethical foundations but was rather a practical approach to business.

In 1843, the HBC Pacific headquarters relocated to Fort Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This location was just north of 49th parallel, the newly formed U.S. border, and was selected in a strategic effort to secure the sovereignty of Canadian land. Aside from political strategy, the fort was constructed to house daily commercial operations. It housed living quarters for HBC employees, served as a trade centre for First Nations merchants, included warehouses for collected furs, was a point of departure for shipping goods along the coast and overseas, provided entertainment and encompassed farms (outside of its walls). The fort would become a centre of commerce and socialization for the region.

By 1849, the British government had created the Colony of Vancouver Island in order to maintain its sovereignty in the West. Richard Blanchard was appointed its governor (1849–1851) and the HBC its manager. For a ten-year term, the HBC would manage the fort with the proviso that it settle British colonists on the land.

Map of fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, from Barman p.xvi
Map of fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, from Barman p.xvi


James Douglas, a long-time HBC employee, moved from Fort Vancouver to take charge of the operations. Douglas had a characteristically colourful and adventuresome background, as did so many pioneers at the time. Although we have come to know him as Sir James Douglas, first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia, he started from the humblest of beginnings.

Douglas was born in British Guiana in 1803 to a Scottish father and black mother. At the age of sixteen, he joined the North West Company and headed to North America for the fur trade. He landed in Montreal but slowly moved west as he moved up the company’s ranks and in 1825 was put in charge of the Fort Vermillion trading post (in what is now northern Alberta). With the HBC amalgamated, Douglas moved from post to post, rising in reputation. In 1828, he married Amelia Connolly, daughter of a Cree mother and of William Connolly, chief factor of New Caledonia, thereby securing his status within the company.

Shortly after the marriage, the couple headed west, travelling to wherever the HBC needed Douglas: to Fort St. James, to Fort Vancouver, to California and eventually to Fort Victoria. His meteoric ascent in the ranks was notable. Starting out as a merchant, then becoming an accountant, he quickly found success and was appointed chief trader, then chief factor of the HBC and, eventually, to what he is best remembered as today: Sir James Douglas, second Governor of Vancouver Island.

In his role as colonial governor, Douglas proved a political pioneer. A key figure in B.C.’s history, he is remembered for his resourcefulness and tenacity at a time of struggle and change. His remarkable leadership is evident not only in his successful career with the HBC but also in his political achievements as governor. He forged policies on land, mining and water rights, secured British law and justice in the region and implemented immigration policies that would bring order to chaos during rapid expansion.

James and Amelia Douglas, image (a-01230) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
Map of Victoria and Puget Sound Districts 1851, Sheet No. 1 Victoria to Oak Bay, Joseph D. Pemberton (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Map 312A, G1/133)
Map of Victoria and Puget Sound Districts 1851, Sheet No. 1 Victoria to Oak Bay, Joseph D. Pemberton (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Map 312A, G1/133)

Douglas had his work cut out for him. In a letter written on May 8, 1858 to Henry Labouchere, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, he confides his fears of a society comprised of a ragtag bunch of transients and the “dregs of society” (right).

Douglas’s past involvement with the burgeoning fur trade and gold mining centres in America had prepared him to deal with the peculiarities of a frontier town. The strength of his professional experience allowed him to deal effectively with political, economic and social tensions. Working for the HBC, he was witness to the American habit of overtaking claims to lands from the British and indigenous peoples. He was all too cognizant of the risks of ineffective diplomacy.

“They are represented as being, with some exceptions, a specimen of the worst of the population of San Francisco; the very dregs, in fact, of society. Their conduct while here would have led me to form a very different conclusion; as our little town, though crowded to excess with this sudden influx of people, and though there was a temporary scarcity of food, and dearth of housing accommodation, the police few in number, and many temptations to express in the way of drink, yet quiet and order prevailed, and there was not a single committal for rioting, drunkenness, or other offences during their stay here.”

A shrewd businessman and respected politician, Douglas was also a humanitarian. Uncharacteristically among leaders of the time, he sympathized with the struggles of disenfranchised black slaves [2] and First Nations peoples. He was a principled man of strong character at a time of opportunism and speculation. Perhaps his distinctive family heritage, extensive travel and diverse work experience had enabled him to formulate a broad perspective on the human condition (right).

These ethics of tolerance, cooperation and equality helped Douglas shape attitudes and polices that would become the foundation of and impetus for emergent communities and civic engagement.

“With the Natives, I have hitherto endeavoured to discourage the practice [of slavery] by the exertion of moral influence alone,” he informed the company in London. “Against our own people I took a more active part, and denounced slavery as a state contrary to law; tendering to all unfortunate persons held as slaves, by British subjects, the fullest protection in the enjoyment of their natural rights”

(Ormsby, 1976)

Chasing the Golden Butterfly

SS Pacific, July 1858, brought 1,200 passengers from San Francisco to Victoria
The SS Pacific, July 1858, brought 1,200 passengers from San Francisco to Victoria (L.00483)

In 1857, the population of B.C. reached nearly 500 colonials and 70,000 indigenous people, with Victoria as the principal community. Besides the occasional conflict between traders or with local indigenous groups, Victoria’s population enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence, far removed from the excitement of the California gold rush south of the border. This would all change seemingly overnight.

Rumours of gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands began to swirl in the early 1850s. A number of finds sparked the interest of American prospectors from the exhausted mines of the California Gold Rush of 1849. Amid shipwrecks, hardships and clashes with First Nations miners, the Queen Charlotte discoveries were episodic and short-lived. Yet in February 1857, word was let loose when the HBC shipped 22 kilograms of gold (traded by the First Nations near Fort Kamloops) to the San Francisco mint (Forsythe & Dickson, 2007). The possibility of another wave of gold had hopefuls scrambling for the next ship out of San Francisco harbour.

With no established railroad yet, the only route to the epicentre of the B.C. gold rushes in the Fraser Valley was by ocean from San Francisco to the port of Victoria, then by riverboat and mountain trail to the mainland [4]. This made Victoria a very busy centre, in fact the hub of all activity. The formerly sleepy outpost became a bustling town seemingly overnight.

Letter written by James Douglas
Letter written by James Douglas. From The colonial despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871 (http://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/). It reads: “Boats, canoes, and every species of small craft, are continually employed in pouring their cargoes of human beings into Fraser’s River, and it is supposed that not less than one thousand whites are already at work, and on the way to the gold districts.”

The first ship of gold seekers arrived from San Francisco via the Merchants’ Accommodation Line in 1858. On April 25, 1858 the Commodore from San Francisco brought some 450 passengers, doubling Victoria’s population. Within days, 2,000 new miners would arrive and by year’s end some 30,000 more, all with the intention of striking it rich on the Fraser River. The promise of wealth and adventure brought with it a diverse array of migrants. Although the majority comprised seasoned American miners fleeing the depleted stores of California, there were also others interested in the indirect benefits of another gold rush.

Victoria’s atmosphere was frenzied both with excitement and with disorder. Douglas had foreseen in early 1851 the implications of gold discoveries in the region. He later wrote of the bedlam (right).

Douglas did manage to control the influx of gold prospectors and steer the sustainable development of the town of Victoria. Desire for a prosperous region and a cohesive community living in harmony was his guiding principle. A colony secure from American invasion meant maintaining strong ties to Britain while implementing strict policies regarding trade, immigration and land and water rights. His initiatives would ensure that trade and commerce in the region remained under British control and out of American reach, thereby paving the way for Canada’s western expansion.

Standing in the way of American incursion, moderating and managing inundation by gold miners, and maintaining law, Douglas would be responsible for taming the bedlam. In the wake of the gold rush of 1858, the population of Victoria was bursting. New buildings and houses were mushrooming across the harbour, including the first hospital, bank and government buildings. Amid this rapid pace of expansion nothing conformed to any sort of cohesive style, let alone conventions of safety. The political atmosphere, population and aesthetics of Victoria were pandemonium.

As a result of this unprecedented population boom, a second Crown colony, named British Columbia, was created, and Douglas was given total control. Taking the reins, he introduced key legislation that would shape immigration, commerce, land purchasing and settlement on the island, namely the Aliens Act (1859), the Gold Fields Act (1859) and the Pre-emption Amendment Act (1861) (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). His legislation and leadership would make headway toward civic harmony.

Newcomers were afforded a unique opportunity at this time of rapid growth. While many worked the front lines, mining the landscape and panning the rivers, others settled into roles that would support these enterprises. First Nations bred horses in addition to mining; black slaves fleeing the U.S. became policemen, militia members and barbers; Chinese immigrants were farmers, merchants, domestic helpers and labourers in mines and on railways; Kanaka were labourers for the HBC and road-builders along the gold rush trail; Dutch women provided entertainment; Londoners took up journalism; and Jewish migrants were merchants and politicians (Forsythe & Dickson, 2007).

There was a sort of unity among this assorted lot. Although from different backgrounds, all shared the motivation of finding a better life, one filled with the possibilities of prosperity, adventure and freedom. Not all would realize these dreams; only the most patient and resourceful would prevail.

Judah P. Davies, circa 1862 (L.00185)
Judah P. Davies, circa 1862 (L.00185)


Advertisement for JP Davies Auctioneers (L.00050)
Advertisement for J.P. Davies & Co. Auctioneers (L.00050)

The merchants of Victoria comprised a wide range of characters, yet they shared similar stories of fleeing Europe or migrating northward from below the 49th parallel. Those coming from San Francisco were at an advantage as they were already familiar with the cadence of frontier life, with experience in supporting an otherwise volatile industry during their time spent in America. Merchants had found a niche far more reliable and transferable than on the front lines panning and mining for gold. The transition to life in the B.C. gold rush was arguably smoother for those coming with connections to established businesses in California. They had specialized skills and experience and had access to stock and capital that enabled them to hit the ground running.

One subset that would realize success at a time of speculation was the Jewish merchant class. Typically, the Jews had not arrived as refugees from their original homes in Europe but rather were economic migrants travelling north from San Francisco. But, they arrived as individuals rather than a community; they had Jewish ties that were loose at best, coming only with business connections. In a sense, the Jewish merchant was but one of many in a group of disparate immigrants whose shared characteristic was difference: soon-to-be-pioneers, engaging in the same struggle for similar reasons.

Advertisement for Kady Gambitz's store (L.00430)
Advertisement for Kady Gambitz’s store (L.00430)
Advertisement for Abraham Hoffman's store (L.00434).
Advertisement for Abraham Hoffman’s store (L.00434)

One such migrant was Frank Sylvester, whose arrival to Victoria is among the first recorded among the Jews[6]. He disembarked July 17, 1858, arriving from San Francisco after having lived in New York. He struggled to find his niche in the frontier town, first opening a small store, and then moving on to gold mining. His travel journals reveal challenges common to many prospectors of the time. Although the landscape was majestic and bountiful, it was harsh and unforgiving in comparison to California’s temperate climate and industrialized centers. There must have been a difficult period of adjustment and acclimatization mixed with the excitement of building a new life.

Yet Sylvester found friendship and is said to have been a popular character within a heterogeneous group of friends and business associates (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). While he identified as Jewish, his orthodoxy was necessarily loosened by circumstances. Observances like Shabbat and the law of kashrut were impractical. Survival meant a pragmatic relaxation of Jewish tradition. In his journals, Sylvester reveals how far he had strayed as he describes his meals of pork and beans, which he enjoyed three times a day (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

Unidentified man outside Sylvester's store (L.18529).
Unidentified man outside Sylvester’s store (L.18529)
Frank Sylvester (L.24812)
Frank Sylvester (L.24812)

Eventually Sylvester would settle into a more stable and reliable profession than prospecting: accounting. He returned from the gold fields and took up office with businessman Judah Philip Davies, developing marketable skills as an accountant at JP Davies and Co. Auctioneers. From numbers to romance, his work there brought him many successes. Sylvester was introduced to outgoing socialite Cecelia Davies, the daughter of his boss (nearly twelve years his junior) and they fell in love. They would later marry and together launch a profitable business, the Sylvester Feed Co.

Introductory page to Sylvester Feed Co. catalogue (A.2012.002.004.page 2)
Introductory page to Sylvester Feed Co. catalogue (A.2012.002.004.page 2)
A page from the Sylvester Feed Co. catalogue (A.2012.002.004.page 12)
A page from the Sylvester Feed Co. catalogue (A.2012.002.004.page 12)
Cecelia Davies (L.24839)
Cecelia Davies (L.24839)

The family of Cecelia Davies had originated in England, where her father Judah had met and married her mother Maria. Not satisfied with an ordinary life there, the couple had travelled to Australia where they had started a family. Their hunger for adventure had persisted, and now with three children in tow, they had moved to California with news of the Gold Rush of 1849. There the Davieses had opened a grocery business where they had enjoyed success until being defrauded of a large sum of money had forced them to move north in pursuit of a new adventure (Sturman, 2005). Once in Victoria they founded another business, this time a land-auctioning house that they went on to operate for 40 years.


A segment of merchants continued to work as fur traders, engaging in business with local First Nations. William and Amelia Copperman and Lewis Levy all self-identified as “Indian traders” and maintained successful business and social relationships with indigenous people. William Copperman, a hardworking and staunch businessman, became fluent in Chinook trade jargon, enabling his company to flourish. The Coppermans continued to maintain good relationships with the Cowichans, trading with them, employing them and inviting a number of them to live on their property (Leonoff in Sturman, 2005) .

Others took more traditional routes of commerce in Victoria. Many new shops and services sprang up in 1858, notably Kady Gambitz’s first dry goods and drapery shop, Alexander Aaron Phillips’s Pioneer, Soda & Cider Works, Simon Leiser’s  grocery store, Abraham Hoffman’s wholesale and retail shop and Joseph Boscowitz’s fur store and later tobacco shop, to name a few.

Advertisement for Phillips Pioneer Syrup, Soda & Cider Works (L.00059).
Advertisement for Phillips Pioneer Syrup, Soda & Cider Works (L.00059)
Simon Leiser's store in Victoria (A.05924)
Simon Leiser’s store in Victoria (A.05924)
Simon Leiser (L.08496)
Simon Leiser (L.08496)

Newcomers continued to descend upon the harbour well into the second gold rush in the Cariboo in 1862. People came and went at unpredictable rates, but the waves of migration would continue, making clear census data hard to quantify accurately.

Whether opportunistically or pragmatically, Governor Douglas restricted the numbers of immigrants to the region, admitting them with the proviso that they land in the port of Victoria first before heading to the mainland to prospect for gold. This attempt would encourage development of Victoria and, it was hoped, permanent settlement in and around the area.

Having a peripatetic population was not conducive to the creation of strong community foundations. For prosperity and permanence, Victoria needed committed citizens with shared goals and values. A settled population would enable it to grow from an ad hoc commercial hub into a stable and respectable metropolis. To do this, Victoria needed social institutions: schools, religious edifices, political involvement, expression of the arts and social events.

Historian David Rome lists the first Jewish pioneers to Victoria in his book The First Two Years. This initial wave of immigrants includes the following names:


Eugene Dennery; Isaac Rosenbaum; W. Kiersky; Frank Sylvester; Kady Gambitz; Josephus Barnet Joseph; Lionel Barnet Joseph; Lewis Lewis; Simon Reinhardt; A. J. Brunn; Emile Sutro; Gustave Sutro; Jules David; A. A. Guild; Samuel Hyman Cohen; Abraham Blackman; Jacob Ehrenbacher; David, Charles, Meyer, Isaac and Godfrey Oppenheimer; P. M. Edder; A. Friedlander; Henry Meiss; Samuel Bloom; Morris Harris; Herman Schultz; Jules Rueff; Harris Lewin; Lewis Wolff; William Zelner; Henry Moses Cohen; Morris Sporborg; William Copperman; Selim Franklin; Lumley Franklin; Charles Davis; J. Goldsmith; Alexander Aaron Phillips; and others with surnames Belasco, Boscowitz, David, Davy, Elsasser, Hart, Hyams, Isaacs, Kaufman, Kayser, Levy, Mark, Myers, Price, Sherman and Tashe

LINK to census data

From Sojourn to Settlement

Members of the Sylvester family (L.24834)

Lasting from 1849 until confederation in 1871, the colonial period in B.C. saw a mix of transient miners, marginalized First Nations, HBC men, peddlers, labourers and gritty adventurers. Gold-rush fever had taken its toll both on the people and on the landscape. Most packed their bags and continued to the east or back south to California as quantities of gold diminished and original enthusiasms waned. Migrants who chose to stay shared the perseverance and drive to succeed in the budding town. For business to prosper, everyone needed to be flexible and cooperative.

Finding themselves in a pluralistic and growing society, the Jews of Victoria themselves were markedly varied, coming from English, Austrian, Polish, Russian and American backgrounds. Although religious nuances and cultural idiosyncrasies distinguished them, before long they coordinated themselves to form a network based on family acquaintances and business relationships forged in California.

Despite their independence both from one another and from the Gentile population, they shared a recognition of commercial opportunity and a genuine desire to create something long-lasting. In its state of rapid expansion, Victoria offered attractive commercial potential. Many Jews had initially fled to America to find better lives unhindered by legal constraint. Laws in Europe had restricted Jews from owning land. This experience of adversity, ironically, became the impetus for a class of urban merchants and traders.

Education and apprenticeship had become cultural necessities in equipping young people with the skills and experience essential for life without land ownership. The Jews of Europe had developed an entrepreneurial spirit and found a niche in local economies. Their businesses tended to be highly liquid in nature, allowing them to assume roles such as lenders as well as merchants, furriers and other specialties. These types of occupations were very stable as their services were always in demand in any economy. With its tight commercial community, the Jewish population over the years had formed a network based on friendships, business relationships and religious congregation. Allegiance to the larger group would extend nationalistic boarders, transcending overseas. The Jews who migrated to the West would soon find themselves part of a larger community with the resources to band together.

Sylvester delivery horses. (L.18497)
Sylvester delivery horses (L.18497)
Frank Sylvester (L.18505)
Frank Sylvester (L.18505)

The Jews of Victoria were acquainted with British and American cultural norms and understood the economic expectations for a developing liberal society. They were equipped to deal with life on the frontier, having the skills, aptitudes and experience necessary (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). Eventually they would congregate to build the foundations of a durable and enduring community.

The merchant class encompassed petty traders, shopkeepers and saloon proprietors to large-scale wholesalers, land agents, auctioneers and business elite. From Alexander Aaron Phillips and his modest Pioneer, Soda & Cider Works to upper-crust businessmen such as J. P. Davies, the Oppenheimer and Franklin brothers, socioeconomic hierarchy did not seem to deter social unity in the Jewish population. Rather, a strong sense of community derived from overlapping family, religious and business ties (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

As companies became more established, many of Victoria’s people began to aspire to something greater. No longer challenged with mere survival, the early arrivals began to participate more in social life. Civic engagement, so characteristic of the pioneer spirit, meant volunteer activities and grassroots political organization. Clubs, fraternities, benevolent societies and formal gatherings became havens for community-building (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). An air of flexibility and harmony with an emphasis on getting along, already encouraged by the HBC for monetary reasons, prevailed as well among Jews, who desired to fit in, find support and thrive as a group. They did this with fervour both within and outside the Jewish community.

Men sent back to Europe or America for their families, while others found partners in the community around them. Not all married within religious boundaries, and tradition and practice relaxed as men, out of loneliness or propinquity, found local brides. In 1862, the SS Tynemouth, known as the bride ship, carried a number of eligible young women, each on her own adventure. From the turmoil of the gold rush emerged a newfound stability and normality in everyday life on the Northwest coast.

Arriving from Stockton, California, Abraham Blackman was an ironmonger and stove dealer by trade. In Stockton, he had been vice-president of the local synagogue and very active in the Jewish men’s group. He and his brother Morris had expanded their business to the Northwest, and they corresponded regularly on both business and family matters: “…as regards to grumbling, one had no such intentions, it was my self ‘your Brother’ who take it upon my self to give you a brotherly advice, and will so same again when ever I think proper, on less you as my brother (half of my age) will say to me don’t give me any advice and will also say that you know better – I will then stop and say no more.” The Blackman letters illustrate how life had settled into the mundane. The pace of pioneer priorities had shifted back to the familiar: settling family squabbles, mediating disagreements, negotiating family responsibilities and delivering local gossip.

Letter from Abraham Blackman to his brother Morris (A.2012.017)
Letter from Abraham Blackman to his brother Morris. (A.2012.017)

The Jews were successfully acclimatizing to Victoria’s dominant society. Adapting to the prevailing nineteenth-century, Christian values was not a far stretch. In fact, Lillooet Nördlinger McDonnell argues in her book Raincoast Jews that the community’s success can be attributed to this ability to integrate, both internally and with the greater society. Jews attended and hosted balls, tea parties, musical events and parties: all familiar events for those who had a similar bourgeois upbringing. They instituted benevolent societies, cemeteries, day schools and eventually a synagogue. This integration unified the Jewish people, regardless of class (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

Members of the Sylvester family. (L.18506)
Members of the Sylvester family (L.18506)
Celia Sylvester (L.24841)
Cecelia Sylvester (L.24841)

Cyril Leonoff points out that Jews were already acculturated to the American ways of business, society and language. Although they originated from Polish and German backgrounds, they were in fact coming from America where they had already become versed with frontier life and the process of starting businesses. While they had become acclimatized to American culture to some extent, they were also heirs to the ways of life in Europe. The European Jews honoured the British Victorian values of charity, education, modesty and sociability (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014), many of these aligning with Christianity. Jewish tradition proved malleable as cultural practices were adapted to the North American context. In many cases, orthodoxy diminished in religious practice, social customs, familial relationships and cultural expression.

However, this type of flexibility and adaptability present in the Jewish pioneer was not shared by all ethnic groups. Some groups were not as well equipped to navigate the social, economic and political skein than others. Why were the Jewish people able to integrate into the predominantly American and British population of Victoria while many were not? It is clear that the Jews of Victoria were motivated to succeed in a monetary-based economy. They also, for the most part, were recognized and accepted by the population at large. Victoria’s Jews were educated in the British system, had familiar religious institutions and, perhaps most importantly, were willing and enthused to participate in an Anglo-Saxon construct of society. Jews in the time of the gold rushes were trusted, as one prospector author wrote, “Jewish assayers were so smart that they could study a pouch of gold and state exactly from which mine it had been dug.” (JMAW, n.d.) They had the reputation of being honest and knowledgeable; in brief, they played by the rules and were good for business.


Map of colonial BC, from Barman p. xvii
Map of colonial BC, from Barman p. xvii

While Aboriginal groups at first were amenable to business relationships during the early days of the fur trade, and later tolerated institutionalized business, namely the HBC, they became marginalized and suffered the effects of racism as the waves of drifters descended on the once bucolic outpost. The lofty colonial goals of economic progress and commercial development eventually pushed First Nations groups aside with dire consequence for business relations. Although trade with First Nations groups was not totally abandoned, there remained a mere 30 individuals who regularly engaged in business transaction. Of those 30 “Indian Traders” two thirds are reported to have been Jewish. These Jewish merchants remained willing and eager despite its lack of popularity (Leonoff in Sturman, 2005).

Laying Organizational Foundations

Original subscription list. (A.2012.004)
Original subscription list. Handwritten header reads “We the undersigned hereby agree to pay to the Congregation Emanu-El of Victoria V.I. for the purpose of erecting a brick synagogue the sums sett [sic] opposite to our respective names…” Donation amounts range from $5 to $50 (A.2012.004)

With businesses firmly ensconced and alliances fortified, the Jews of Victoria turned their attention to the familiar: re-establishing traditions and cultural identity. It did not take long for them to organize into a grassroots congregation. In fact, very soon after their arrival, on August, 29, 1858, they met informally to discuss the High Holy Days. The first order of business for the committee [7] was to find a space more suitable than Kady Gambitz’s dry goods shop, where meetings had typically been held (Leonoff in Ramsay, 2012).

Gambitz, an enthusiastic newcomer from California, had experience in community organization. In Nevada City he had been president of the local Jewish Benevolent Society and actively involved in other groups. He had extended charitable support to Victoria’s community by offering up his shop as a meeting place in the interim.

In September 1858, the first High Holy Day services in the Pacific Northwest were held, celebrating Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). News of the services was picked up by the press and reported in the New York Jewish Messenger, the San Francisco Gleaner and the Victoria Gazette (Tessler, 2008). Celebration of the High Holy Days marked an important moment for the Jewish community and was applauded across the continent.The Philadelphia Occident had predicted that a “prosperous congregation would soon spring up [in Victoria],” and indeed one did just months later, in December 1858.

By 1859, the community had fully operationalized the basic tenets of Jewish tradition: burying the dead, educating the young, taking care of the unfortunate. The Victoria Hebrew Benevolent Society, presided over by Abraham Blackman, was officially founded in June 1859 after several months of work: the earliest Jewish organization in Western Canada (Sturman, 2005). Shortly after its inauguration, the society held its first ball to raise funds necessary for operations and charitable works.

Raising, managing and dispersing resources are essential elements of a benevolent society. Through the Hebrew Benevolent Society’s decision-making we see a kind of community stewardship emerge. Comprised solely of men, the society assigned official Jewish leadership roles to males. Men found themselves building both friendships as well as social structures and, in effect, assuming responsibility for the administration of the Jewish community as a whole (Sturman, 2005). While the Hebrew Benevolent Society and organizations like it functioned primarily to meet community needs, they were also places for fostering male camaraderie.

One of the society’s first duties was to consecrate a burial ground. A portion of land was purchased from Roderick Finlayson, HBC chief factor of Victoria, at the edge of town on Cedar Hill Road, and a commemorative ceremony took place in February 1860. The land is said to have been donated by Lewis Lewis[8], a local grocer (Leonoff, 1978). The society’s more than 40 members gathered in the town centre and proceeded to the cemetery where they dedicated the ground. Proving newsworthy, the ceremony was reported in the local paper, which observed that the proceedings “seemed to be characterized by the same feelings, which activated the patriarch Abraham to purchase the cave of Machpelah to bury his dead”. (British Colonist, February 11, 1860: 2)

Thus was founded the first Jewish cemetery in Western Canada (Leonoff in Tessler, 2008). The first interment there was in May 1861, when the body of Morris Price, a Freemason murdered by “Indians at Cayoosh” was buried with traditional Jewish rites of passage (Leonoff, 1978).

Women’s “auxiliary groups” would soon develop to complement the men’s work. At a time when civic infrastructure was all but non-existent and social conditions were typically deplorable, these types of female-led voluntary organizations filled a necessary social niche. With rates of malnutrition, poverty and illness running high, it fell within the purview of the benevolent societies to fulfil community needs both religious and secular (Sturman, 2005), independent of the government.

Jewish women’s organizations were very hands-on affairs. Women helped to build schools, charities and community projects and instilled Jewish tradition in the domestic sphere (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). The Ladies’ Benevolent Society in Victoria was one such group that did the heavy lifting to ensure a solid religious foundation.

Cecelia Davies was an instrumental figure in early Victoria, acting through many different charitable organizations. At only seventeen, she organized a fundraiser for the synagogue that garnered substantial monetary success. Over her lifetime, she worked both at St. Joseph’s French Pioneer Hospital and at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, was a founding member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and was a contributing member of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Tuberculosis Veterans’ Association, the Order of the Eastern Star (Esquimalt Chapter) and the Women’s Canadian Club. As women like Davies emerged as community leaders, they helped elevate the status of women in the area.

Such quick organization of communal and religious life would soon lead to the formation of a formal congregation. After a failed attempt in 1861, the first official meeting of Congregation Emanu-El was held at Lewis Davis’s Star and Garter Hotel in August 1862 and chaired by David Shirpser, president. The first officers included Abraham Hoffman (appointed pro tempore secretary), the three Shirpser brothers and Samuel Hoffman [9].

Advertisement for the fundraising ball, hosted by the Benevolent Society (L.01437).
Advertisement for the fundraising ball, hosted by the Benevolent Society (L.01437)

During this meeting, the committee on subscriptions (fundraising committee) reported that it had purchased a piece of land in downtown Victoria “suitable in all respects for $730” for a future synagogue (Leonoff, 1978). A few months later the congregation board elected a building committee “whose duty [it would be] to have a place of worship erected according to the wishes of the congregation” (Leonoff, 1978). The building committee was instructed to purchase for $350 a parcel of land adjoining the synagogue site for purposes of future expansion[10] (Sturman, 2005).

Given the Jewish population of about 100, assembling a group, raising money, purchasing land and setting the wheels in motion for a major undertaking such as the construction of a synagogue served as testament to their remarkable will and organization. Nearly everyone contributed to the effort, financially or with elbow grease. Abraham Blackman, synagogue treasurer, established the congregation as a legal entity under the Incorporation Act, Meyer Malowanski was appointed to the building committee and John Malowanski named president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. In the ensuing months, regular meetings were held to organize the congregation. By-laws were drafted, officers elected, purchases approved and requests for financial support issued.

Brothers Selim Franklin and Lumley Franklin donated $100 to the building fund. Originally from Liverpool, they had arrived in Victoria by way of San Francisco and emerged as among the most prominent citizens in town (Ramsay, 2012). In 1859, Selim established a real-estate business and was appointed government auctioneer. The Franklins assumed leadership roles within the Jewish community, Victoria’s Philharmonic society and local government. Selim would become a member of the legislative assembly in Victoria from 1860 to 1866 and Lumley the second mayor of Victoria in 1866. Among the early Jews of Victoria, the Franklins embodied the aspirations to philanthropy, cultural elevation, social advocacy and political leadership.

Selim Franklin and Lumley Franklin (L.00538)

Excellent and Beautiful and in Every Way Suitable

The contract for architectural services for the construction of Emanu-El was awarded to Scottish-born architect John Wright. With an extensive portfolio in San Francisco, including residences in Nob Hill, Wright & Sanders designed, in their words, “a plan for the synagogue which was very excellent and beautiful and in every [way] suitable for our purposes” (Ramsay, 2012). The façade would be brick, which was uncharacteristic of local construction at the time. Perhaps this was a conceptually driven decision as it communicated confidence in the permanence of both the structure and its purpose (Leonoff in Tessler, 2008). Construction cost $9,196.60, with 70% of the funds donated by non-Jews while the Jewish portion was donated by not only the Victoria contingent, but also from communities in San Francisco and as far away as Britain (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

Architect John Wright, image (a-02546) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
Site plan of synagogue (L.00582).
Site plan of synagogue (L.00582)

Permits secured and architect engaged, the ceremony for the laying of two cornerstones, held on June 2, 1863, was a gala attended by the community at large, including some very distinguished guests: HMS Topaze band and the Germania Sing Verein (choral society), the French Benevolent and St. Andrew’s societies, the Masonic Lodge, Mayor Thomas Harris and Chief Justice David Cameron. Led by the band, and by president David Shirpser and vice-president Samuel Hoffman, the procession included special guests along with the members of Emanu-El. The march proceeded from the Star and Garter Hotel to the Masonic Hall where the congregation leaders received the “Fraternity of Ancient and Honourable Order of Freemasons of Victoria and Vancouver [Island] Lodges, led by Right Worshipful master Robert Burnaby” (Leonoff in Tessler, 2008). Each society present wore its own extravagant costuming. The procession of delegates, congregation and citizens convened at the site for speeches, prayers and the laying of the cornerstones. The site had three platforms: one for the masons, one for the congregations and societies and one for the ladies (Ramsay, 2012).

One of the cornerstones was laid by the Freemasons and the other by the congregation[10].

Meyer Malowanski was master of ceremonies, and Samuel Hoffman delivered an address both sentimental and aspirational in its description of the accomplishments of the Jewish people (right).

Hoffman refers to the struggles of the pioneer and the hardships of being far from families and the familiarity of birthplaces. Hopeful for the future in this new home, he expresses goodwill and a desire for continued civic harmony.

With construction of Emanu-El completed, consecration was scheduled for Sunday, September 13, 1863. The name itself was borrowed from that of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the first Reform synagogue in that city. With many different backgrounds, cultural traditions and degrees of orthodoxy, the congregation needed to integrate under a common religious identity reflective of their region. At the time the synagogue was built, it was led by Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Morris R. Cohen from Sacramento, recruited by Abraham Blackman. After officiating at the synagogue’s consecration, he had ongoing responsibility for conducting High Holy Day services, leading prayers on Shabbat and holidays, providing religious education to children, supervising the kosher slaughter of cattle and fowl for members, giving lectures and generally being at the call of the board at all times (Ramsay, 2012).

“Who would have thought that, in the short space of five years, we should have a temple erected where then the aborigines were the lords of the domain? Who would have dreamt that in this isolated part of the globe, where, ere now, the foot of white men had hardly trod, there should spring up a comparatively large city, studded with magnificent edifices, and inhabited by a large concourse of intelligent people? Who would not have ridiculed the idea that that where, ere now, nought but the hunter’s step and wild beasts’ roar ever disturbed the wilderness, should, at this early day, be erected a synagogue by the scattered tribes of Israel? With feelings amounting almost to envy, have we beheld the erection in this city of churches of almost every denomination extant; but what could we, a handful of people, do to gain a similar edifice?”

Receipt for box of cigars for Topaze band (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 2).
Receipt for box of cigars for Topaze band (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 2)


Receipt for horse rental for ceremony (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 1).
Receipt for horse rental for ceremony (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 1)

Because the majority of the congregation was of Polish origin and followed traditional Ashkenazi Judaism, there was an inclination to practice in a more Orthodox fashion, although there would be debate and disagreement coming from the Americanized German Reform minority that had come of age in California (Leonoff in Tessler, 2008). While the desire to move away from strict orthodoxy toward more relaxed reformism may have been influenced by experiences and lifestyles enjoyed in the U.S., wanting to be labelled as Reform was another matter. Even though they may have strayed from some traditions, altered some customs and had wanted mixed seating in shul, maintaining a traditionalist Orthodox identity was most important (Nördlinger McDonnell, personal communication, November 2015). Over the years, Emanu-El has evolved and changed and has worshipped under Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Conservative rabbis (Leonoff in Tessler, 2008).

Receipt for advertisement of cornerstone laying ceremonies in the British Colonist (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 3).
Receipt for advertisement of cornerstone laying ceremonies in the British Colonist (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 3)
Handwritten record of the cost of synagogue (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 9).
Handwritten record of the cost of synagogue (A.2015.009, box 1 file 3 letter 9)

In colonial times on the West Coast, the absence of educated Jewish religious leaders meant that non-secular behaviour was shaped by prevailing social attitudes with emphasis on personal choice rather than communal control (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). Many leaders were not rabbis themselves; some not even considering themselves particularly religious. Rather, they were merchants and businessmen with different priorities. Consequently, a more pragmatic approach was taken to religion (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). Foundational Jewish practices, however, remained constant: gmilot-khesed (acts of loving-kindness), tsedakah (righteousness, justice, charity) and mitzvah (religious obligation). Hoffman in his speech conveys these tenets as he stresses the idea of unity (right).

“… there is, however, one essential thing which I would most particularly impress upon the minds of my fellow members: it is the good doctrine of union and harmony. If peace and harmony be your guiding star, let it be the motto.”

The role of religious institutions in the Northwest at this time was not to control but rather to unite (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). To establish their identity, the Jews found it necessary to contend with the dominant Christian establishment. Having their own formal institution would allow them to perpetuate their cultural tradition. The synagogue became a facilitator in establishing Jewish culture through schools, religious education, charitable societies and other community organizations (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014). The religious institution extended beyond the bricks and mortar – the synagogue became a symbol of and an agency for building sustainable and permanent communities in the west.

Emanu-El (L.06630)
Emanu-El (L.06630)

Inter-Cultural Relations

Although Governor Douglas’s policies promoted equality, acceptance and flexibility, they proved disadvantageous for those unable or unwilling to integrate. “British Columbia was to be the England of the Pacific and a white man’s province” (Edmonds, 2010), and this left little room for those with different world views. For First Nations groups, for example, transition to colony life was not easy or altogether accepted. We see how these groups became marginalized and suffered as a result.

For Jewish merchants on Johnson Street, barter with First Nations traders was viewed as an opportunity. Johnson Street was the unofficial boundary of Victoria’s business district, in effect, the edge of the city. Beyond this line was First Nations territory, into which Jewish merchants, the “Indian traders,” would regularly venture. Having maintained marketing networks in San Francisco and themselves familiar with the fur trade, these merchants welcomed the chance to compete with the HBC as independent traders (Sturman, 2005). These enterprises were not, however, popular with everyone in Victoria.

Opposition to what he saw as indiscriminate dealings with “the Natives” was voiced by Major George Foster, who went so far as to accuse Jewish merchants of influencing the attorney general’s decision to tax rural lands. In an inflammatory outburst published in the British Colonist, he referred to these merchants as “the little Jews on Johnson Street” (September 5, 1860). William Copperman, himself an “Indian trader,”[11] took particular offense and embarked on a public campaign to end this type of ignorant and boorish attitude. With the help of Nathan Koshland and David Shirpser, and with the support of the Jewish community, Copperman delivered a response to both local newspapers. The Gazette and the British Colonist published the letter as well as the dramatic backstory of the imbroglio. While sensational, the story is in fact an indication of life returning to normal, as priorities had scaled from mere sustenance to loftier pursuits of social justice.

Was Foster’s sentiment shared by the rest of the population, was it an overt anti-Semitic statement or was it merely an impulsive personal attack on the likes of “Indian traders” such as Copperman? Foster’s frustration seems to have been with the First Nations and with government policy on rural taxations. Perhaps he was frustrated with Jewish entrepreneurship when many at the time were still struggling. In his speech at the laying of the cornerstone of Emanu-El, Hoffman reflected on the common hardships of the pioneer but concluded with a sentiment of hope and a sense of relief moving forward (right).

“Though our past life may have been a very rugged one – though pangs and dismay may have shot through our hearts – though dismal clouds may often have obscured the rays of our happiness, circumstances may have bid us thus to leave relatives, friends, and home behind us to wander forth to a strange land, and there to gain the wherewithal of life; yet, as I behold this scene before me, hope shines more serenely bright, and soft eyed.”

The press shared the sentiment of goodwill and social cohesion on the occasion of the ceremony: “The greatest decorum was observed by the spectators throughout the entire proceedings, and not a single incident occurred to mar the harmony which prevailed.”

The coverage illustrates the significance of the event not only for the Jewish people but also for Victoria as a whole. The laying of the cornerstones seems to have been a major step forward in building the foundations to a thriving Jewish community as well as solidifying comradery amongst all citizens as Douglas had envisioned.

The fact that the ceremony was so well-attended and that much of the monetary support for the construction of the synagogue was garnered from a non-Jewish demographic suggests a considerable level of acceptance and amicability toward the Jewish people.



“Thus terminated an eventful day in the history of the Jews in Vancouver Island and it must ever be a source of infinite gratification to that body, that the ceremonies of this day, partaking as they did of an exclusively denominational character, were participated in by all classes of our community, with a hearty good will and brotherly feeling, evidencing in acts more powerful than words, the high estimation in which they are held by their fellow townsmen of the city of Victoria.”

Douglas’s principles of equality were not fully realized for the Jewish people right away, however. To become a naturalized citizen, a migrant must have lived in the colony for three years, then swear an oath ending with “I make this declaration upon the faith of a true Christian, so help me God” (Rome, 1942). This statement was problematic for Victoria’s Jews, including Selim Franklin, who had political aspirations[12]. In 1860, this evidence of political exclusion was brought to the attention of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, and the act requiring the declaration was accordingly revised to allow citizens to swear an oath of allegiance instead. The introduction of a “solemn oath” at this time illustrates the progressive nature of B.C. politics (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

Evidence of anti-Semitism at the time seems to be anecdotal. Measuring prevailing attitudes towards Jews outside of Europe by looking at language used in historic references is difficult and potentially misleading as much of the lexicon could be characterized as racialized. Over two hundred years we see a shift in language that renders many historic colloquialisms derogatory by today’s measure. In the 1800s, travel and exposure to other cultures were privileges enjoyed by only the wealthiest or most adventurous, and occasions to interact outside one’s own insular or tradition-bound ethnic group were limited for the most part to business dealings.

While Victoria was not altogether immune from some of these sentiments it seems that the Jewish population was not subject to the same discrimination as in Europe. Diversity combined with an ad hoc civic structure and a rapidly expanding commercial sector meant unparalleled opportunities for migrating pioneers, Jewish or other, regardless of provenance. Victoria, at this time in history, found herself in a unique sociopolitical situation and for many, it was the impetus to finding a niche and integrate into greater society.


Arial view of Victoria 1878, image (pdp00223) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

A community held together with the singular purpose of making it work would, for Douglas, be a mark of success. A unified Victoria would, in effect, eliminate the possibility of U.S. invasion, thereby developing into an independent and viable municipality. The diverse and rapid influx of migrants and a governor with Douglas’s heritage, sensitivities and political policies were the catalysts for cultural interaction and cooperation.

For Jewish pioneers, this unique socio-political-economic circumstance would prove pivotal in building a strong and lasting foundation. Their unparalleled success as a community would pave the way to building a rich cultural and political legacy for the Jewish community, the city of Victoria and the province of B.C. for generations to follow.

Members of the Sylvester family
Members of the Sylvester family at a social gathering. Ruby, daughter of Cecelia and Frank front right, circa 1900 (A.2012.004; A.2015.009-022-14-39)
Members of the Sylvester family out for a sail near Victoria, circa 1900 (L.18528)

The following is a poem written by Adele Vernon in honour of the 150th anniversary of Emanu-El. It characterizes both the struggles and the successes of the early Jewish pioneer of Victoria.


by Adele Vernon


I’m only one drop among

The flood of immigrants here.

We have come, over the years

From everywhere and nowhere.

Family names intact or changed

At the border entry posts.

Sometimes using an alias

Escaping a troubled past.

Only a small percentage

Were the children of Israel,

Becoming businesspeople

And trading with the Natives,

Useful metal tools or knives

For the precious beaver furs

Going through San Francisco

For European top hats.

Then setting up trading posts

Following the gold rush route.

Supplying the prospectors

With coffee, beans and shovels,

Sacks of flour, long underwear.

While the ones who stayed behind

Became lawyers and judges,

Politicians and teachers,

Social activists as well.

Building in Victoria

A Jewish cemetery

Holding our history.

Afterwards a Synagogue

Still open for services

And the first time I entered

I felt embraced by prayers

Soaked into the wood and bricks

For more than a hundred years.

This new land, this paradise,

Weaving our nomadic strains

Into a whole tapestry,

Binding tightly together

Differences, languages

Colours and distinct cultures.

Our unique heritages

Are all celebrated here.

(from The Scribe, volume XXXII, 2012)


I would like to thank the Board of Directors and staff at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia for their guidance and support during this project.

A special thanks is also extended to archivist Alysa Routtenberg for her image sourcing assistance, Naomi Wittes Reichstein for her editing services, Dr. Lillooet Nördlinger McDonnell for her insights and clarifications and Dr. John Lutz of the University of Victoria for his guidance on the context of B.C., pre-colonization.

This exhibit was researched and curated by Erika Balcombe with direction provided by Michael Schwartz.



[1] Kanaka was a term to describe workers from the Pacific Islands employed in the British colonies. The term is also a derogatory name for indigenous Hawaiians.
[2] Historians believe that black settlers from San Francisco came to Victoria at the specific invitation of Douglas. His views on the abolition of slavery was attractive not only to the black migrants, but to all those fleeing their homelands in search of freedom and opportunity. This history, however, is not unblemished, each group surviving its own experience of hardship, discrimination and loss. The struggle of the pioneer on the landscape of B.C. was wrought with both anguish and purpose.
[3] The phrase “Chasing the Golden Butterfly” comes from the book The Mystic Spring, and Other Stories of Western Life, written by D. W. Higgins (1904), which tells the stories of gold seekers from the 1858 rush.
[4] Queen Charlotte gold rush 1850, Fraser River (Hope to Lillooet) gold rush 1858, Cariboo gold rush 1860.
[5]J. P. Davies was also instrumental in shaping the community. Like his daughter Cecelia, he was involved in many organizations:He co-founded the Odd Fellows and served as a congregation board member; a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen; a member of the Olympic Baseball Club, Sing Verein and the Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges; a board member of the Tiger Company and the local fire brigade; and a secretary to the British Columbia Historical Society. In 1878, he ran for the House of Commons as a liberal-conservative candidate for the Victoria riding, although he did not succeed. His entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropy and enthusiasm helped to propel Jewish society.
[6] Some Jews inhabited the region even before the gold rush, engaged in the fur trade. Adolph Friedman is credited with being one of the first known Jewish residents of the Northwest coast, arriving in what is now Washington State in 1845. After a five-year journey over the Atlantic from Latvia on a Scandinavian sailing ship, with many stopovers, Friedman settled in Tacoma and established the Friedman Addition homestead (later converted into Fort Lewis). There are some accounts of other Jewish people inhabiting the area even earlier.
[7] The committee was comprised of Charles Davis (chairman pro tempore), Abraham Blackman (secretary) and J. Goldman (treasurer).
[8] Originally from Poland, Lewis had arrived in Yale, B.C. with his wife in 1858 by way of California.
[9] Mayer Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore would later be elected honorary members, in all likelihood for the purposes of eliciting financial support (Ramsay, 2012).
[10] This parcel of land would eventually be home to the Hebrew Ladies’ Hall and later the synagogue school (Ramsay, 2012).
[11] Although the Victoria Lodge, organized in 1860, was a non-Jewish organization, six of the twenty-one members were Jews, two of whom held office. Since the Orthodox faction of the congregation took exception to the laying of a cornerstone by non-Jews, a compromise was struck by which it was decided that two cornerstones would be laid (Ramsay, 2012).
[12] Selim Franklin would vie for a seat in the legislative assembly, winning against Amor de Cosmos, owner of the Gazette (Nördlinger McDonnell, 2014).

Feature image: View of Victoria, Vancouver Island, July, 1858 (L.00282)


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