Nelson shoreline in flood, 1894. CPR lands in centre, under water. The future airport and dog walk on left. Photo courtesy of Touchstones Nelson

COLUMN: Story of Nelson’s first couple largely lost and forgotten

From columnist Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

In 1887, Arthur Bunting built a small cabin on the banks of Ward Creek, along uninhabited shoreline. Born in New Brunswick, Bunting was the first Canadian settler in Nelson’s native landscape. Cottonwood, Ward and Anderson Creeks passed freely then, through old growth forest, then a seasonal wetland with groves of cottonwood. Caribou ranged in the nearby mountains and fish filled the streams.

I recently stumbled across a reference to Bunting in the Shawn Lamb Archives at Touchstones museum. I had been leafing the pages of Mollie Cottingham’s 1947 master’s thesis on West Kootenay history, looking for something else. When the author identified Bunting as the son-in-law of Richard Fry, I stopped reading.

Bunting’s father-in-law Richard Fry was an American who had arrived in the region in the 1850s, just after the boundary was set. Fry married a full-blooded Sinixt woman named Justine Sust-eel, about 1860. Justine herself was entirely local, having grown up in a Sinixt settlement on the banks of the Columbia River, near present-day Waneta. Her father was village chief.

Bunting married Justine’s daughter Christina. Nether the thesis, nor the newspaper accounts it relies on, mention Mrs. Bunting by name, though we can be sure she was there. Her sister Julia married George T. Kane, a founder of Kaslo. It’s common for wives to be ignored by history, especially Indigenous wives. Most settler narratives rely on people whose voices are authoritative, even if those voices are also limited in their perspectives.

That year, Bunting paid a deposit to the B.C. government and filed papers to start a settlement on the banks of Ward Creek. Not long after, Gilbert Sproat, a Scottish immigrant and government-appointed gold commissioner, blustered into the area. In a letter to the Nelson Daily Miner seven years later, he recalls how he instantly envisioned a civilized city.

The wetland below the cabin Sproat described as a “basin” that he thought would make an ideal park for women and children, “God bless them.” He foresaw Fairview as the “residential district” beyond “a prominent bluff” (Gyro Park). Ward Creek, he thought, would make an ideal sewer system. Meadows near the west end of Baker Street would be a “town common.”

Sproat’s vision prevailed. He dismissed Bunting’s application and began to mark out the town. Many accounts of Nelson’s founding to this day cite Sproat, not Bunting, as founder. On Christmas Day 1888, Frank and Mary Jane Hanna hosted a Christmas dinner attended by a group of newly arrived citizens. In their cabin near the east end of Baker Street, cleared lots nibbled at the edges of the dense forest. Those purchasing lots on Victoria Street were also intimidated by old-growth shadows that loomed immediately behind them.

In 1894, one of the largest recorded floods in the upper Columbia Basin filled the “basin” below Vernon Street, where a new rail line had been perhaps too confidently developed. The region’s first lumber mill operating at Harrop on the West Arm, also flooded that year, with the log yard relocating temporarily to Nelson.

The Buntings could not have foreseen today’s city perched high and dry on a slope, protected from natural floods by a series of dams up and downstream. The wetlands and Indigenous root meadows are gone. The fish in the channeled waterways are few. The sounds of Ward Creek are muffled by city manholes. Tidy heritage homes replace mature forests.

Also largely lost and forgotten is the story of Nelson’s first couple, the daughter of a Sinixt woman Justine Sust-eel Fry and her Canadian husband.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes writes here once a month.

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