It’s easy to romanticize the earliest settlement days of Vancouver Island’s pioneers.
But many of the 1,300 tales of death below the surface of Pioneer Square Park reveal a much bleaker time for Victoria’s first families.
Incomplete records derived from Roman Catholic and Anglican church dioceses show more than 300 children are buried beneath Pioneer Square, a sobering reminder of afflictions all but forgotten in modern society.
“The infant children of Rev. (Edward) Cridge are buried there, they all died very quickly of diphtheria within a few months of each other,” said local historian John Adams.
Cridge arrived in Victoria in 1855 and served as dean at Christ Church Cathedral, a much more modest structure at the time. He would have overseen more tragic funerals in a year than most modern clergymen witness in a decade.
“Lots of children died at that time, but there were lots of adults dying, too,” Adams said.
An online burial database compiled by the Old Cemeteries Society offers fascinating but sparse details on those former residents who make up the unmarked graves at Pioneer Square, including that of John Collins.
Collins, of unknown age from Iowa Hill, Calif., was “dangerously, if not mortally wounded by a pistol in the hands of a boatman called ‘Tip’ William Morris, alias Tipperary Bill,” reads an 1858 death notice.
Morris’ dubious past caught up with him a year later in San Francisco, where he was sentenced to hanging for subsequent murder.
Another tragic death is that of Victoria police Const. John Curry, who was shot by fellow reserve officer Thomas Barrett on Store Street in 1864. Barrett had just been badly beaten by two would-be thieves and mistook the “well principled and highly efficient officer” for a suspect, reads a Victoria Gazette article.
Prominent graves include that of John Helmcken, a physician who married the daughter of James Douglas and helped bring the province into confederation; David Cameron, chief justice of the Colony of Vancouver Island; and James Yale, a well-known Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader who has a small town in the Fraser Valley named after him.
Pioneer Square served as Victoria’s second city cemetery from 1858 to 1873. The City of Victoria is in the process of revamping the park after gravestones were unceremoniously cleared in 1908 by a misguided parks manager. Upgrades will include tombstone and gravemarker restoration, pathway lighting and landscaping. The park’s cenotaph is expected to be accessible in time for Remembrance Day ceremonies on Nov. 11.
For a complete burial list or to download a walking tour brochure of Pioneer Square Park, visit oldcem.bc.ca.