“Prehistoric Cairns of Vancouver Island”: notes for a lecture given in 1901

Frank Sylvester Burial Cairns Manuscript, Page One. Source: UVic Special Collections: http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

Frank Sylvester Burial Cairns Manuscript, Page One. Source: UVic Special Collections: http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

There’s an interesting manuscript digitized in the University of Victoria’s special collections library, entitled “Prehistoric Cairns of Vancouver Island.”  The accession notes read:

“Handwritten manuscript, on ruled paper with red-lined margin. Pages hand-numbered 1-20. Signed and dated: Frank Sylvester, Victoria, B.C., June 10, 1901. Appears to be notes for a talk that Frank Sylvester gave, concerning burial cairns on Vancouver Island, his method of excavation of the cairns, and his theories as to the meaning of the cairns and the ancestry of the people buried there.”

It’s a curious document, a mixture of interesting observation, shameless plunder and racial theorizing.  It’s also one of the more complete descriptions I’ve seen of the burial cairn excavation activities of the Victoria Natural History Society.  I don’t recall seeing it cited in the literature, so it’s possible others haven’t come across it either.  In the interests of broad circulation and easy reading,  I’ve transcribed it (PDF), and I also put a version on google docs if anyone cares to improve that transcription.

Portrait of Frank Sylvester, ca. 1880.  Source: UVIC http://goo.gl/AonN8H

Portrait of Frank Sylvester, ca. 1880. Source: UVIC http://goo.gl/AonN8H

There’s a brief biography of Frank Sylvester here.  I don’t know much about him, but I assume he was a member of the Victoria Natural History Society, a group including antiquarians which took it upon itself in the late 19th century to “open” a large number of burial cairns in the Capital area.  James Deans was a prominent member of this society and wrote several newspaper articles, including one on the Cadboro Bay “City of the Dead“.  So Sylvester was by no means the first to indulge in this unsavoury pastime, but coming as it does in 1901, his lecture perhaps represents the culmination of popular thinking on this topic.

Cyst in Cairn No.2, Cadboro Bay,nearVictoria,B.C. Smith and Fowke 1901.

Opened Cyst from within in Cairn No.2, Cadboro Bay,nearVictoria,  B.C. Source: Smith and Fowke 1901.

Archaeologists were also interested: Harlan I. Smith and Gerard Fowkes published the Cairns of British Columbia and Washington (downloadable!), also in 1901, one of the volumes stemming from the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (overview, free book) and Smith’s involvement in that.   Interestingly, Sylvester makes no mention of Smith or this publication. It’s nice to have another document telling tales of this time when archaeologists earned the reputation as grave-robbers we are still, on occasion, trying to shake.

Legends to suit any occasion" Sylvester MS page 16. http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

Legends to suit the occasion. Sylvester MS page 16. http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

Sylvester’s attitude towards the local First Nations can’t be varnished.  He saw oral tradition as stemming from ‘legend factories” where “legends are manufactured by the yard, and cut off in lengths to suit the occasion”.  He therefore rejects any Indigenous knowledge of these places, not that he was very likely to have had access to much in any case. He continues, on Page 17-18, with,

The oldest and most accomplished Liars amongst the various Indian tribes, have been repeatedly questioned, and in spite of their most frantic efforts to invent some plausible theory as to their origin, the invariable result of the interview has been to elicit from the terse but euphonious answer Halo Cumtux which in crude, crystallized English means “I’m blessed if I know.”

I’m not really going to try to redeem Sylvester, he was of his times certainly, but all the same I wouldn’t want to go out of my way to note there is interesting information on the contents of these burial cairns, layers of clean charcoal for example – you can read the transcript for that.  Actually, one of the most interesting incidents in his lecture is the day they discovered a complete skeleton, while having a certain German Professor along with them.

Sylvester MS,  German Professor excerpt. http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

Sylvester MS, German Professor excerpt. http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

He writes, pages 7-8,

We had on the occasion invited as our guest, Professor Carl von der Stien [?sic, probably Stein], an eminent German Scientist, promising him a skeleton, if we found one and being fortunately successful, we gave him the skeleton, and it is now in a museum in Germany. Since that time, 1897, we have been unable to find another one.

You know, it would actually be a worthwhile project to try to track down this particular skeleton, originally from Cadboro Bay, and now languishing in who knows what obscure German museum, and repatriate it.

The UVIC library does a good job of digitizing this manuscript, though only one page can be seen at a time and though the images are awkwardly tiled, they are extremely crisp. For BC history buffs, there are other Sylvester manuscripts probably with a lot of interest in them, for example:

  • a 24 page manuscript written by Frank Sylvester describing a journey along the Old Brigade Trail in 1859.
  • a 21 page manuscript written by Frank Sylvester describing Fort Alexander and the surrounding country around the Fraser River and Lillooet. Describes life after gold was discovered in the Fraser River.
  • Frank Sylvester’s description of various methods of travel in BC ca. 1850-1870. Describes land and water routes, used previous to 1858, and then describes the building of the “Douglas Route” in 1858-1859 which provided a route for the gold miners….
  • a 36 page manuscript in two parts (A and B) written by Frank Sylvester about the influx of miners to BC during the Gold Rush of 1858. Describes life in Victoria in the 1850s. Part B is titled Old time reminiscences of British Columbia.
  • a manuscript of lecture notes, on ruled paper, hand-numbered in upper right corners 1 to 18. Consists of an account of Frank Sylvester’s travel to the Fork of the Quesnel River in 1860 and 1864, and the changes that gold mining caused….
  • Commonplace book (scrapbook) kept by Frank Sylvester from 1874 to 1907. Consists of newspaper clippings, random facts, ships in port, recipes, drawings, etc. Entries are not dated. ca. 633 p.[!!] of entries on ruled and numbered pages…
Smith & Fowke Plate I: Cairn No.18, Cadboro Bay, Victoria, B.C. (1898), partly covered with earth.

Smith & Fowke Plate I: Cairn No.18, Cadboro Bay, Victoria, B.C. (1898), partly covered with earth.





13 responses to ““Prehistoric Cairns of Vancouver Island”: notes for a lecture given in 1901

  1. I think it likely that the German professor is probably Karl von den Steinen – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_von_den_Steinen. I see he was travelling constantly to do anthropological research. His last name appropriately translates as “of the stones”, which is at first confusing when reading the German wikipedia in translation on google chrome (the German entry is far more detailed than the English one).
    He seems to have been affiliated with several institutions over his career. In the early 1900s: “1900 Universitätslehrer an der Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität zu Berlin und Direktor am Ethnologischen Museum für die Sammlungen Südamerikas (1904).” while in the early 1890s: “1891 an der Philipps-Universität zu Marburg Extraordinarius”, both from http://www.muelheim-ruhr.de/cms/karl_von_den_steinen.html

    There is lots more out there, but I don’t have the time to look around more than this right now.

    It does seems likely that there is enough information to pretty easily identify the most likely repository(s) of the skeleton.


    • Wow, great find. That has to be him. Wikipedia says he was in San Francisco in 1897, the year Sylvester puts him in Victoria.


      • I can’t help myself. Another source suggests he went to the Marquesas in 1897 on behalf of the Berlin Ethnographic Museum. Just poking around there now, but man, do they have astonishing Ethnographic collections from the NWC.


      • I did find one object, an Opetchisaht mask, collected by von den Steinan in 1897. So, this is the most likely institution to hold the skeleton I would think. http://www.smb-digital.de/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=collection&objectId=819712&viewType=detailView


        • From blog post to mystery (likely) solved, in 60 minutes!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Mystery likely solved, but it will take a lot longer for someone to track down whether they hold the skeleton, and much longer than that for the Songhees to negotiate repatriation. It seems clear from Sylvester’s notes that there was no consent from the Songhees to dig in the cairns. I wonder if it was an illegal activity at that time. There Colonial government statute “An ordinance to prevent the violation of Indian graves” was enacted in 1867 and was not explicitly repealed when BC joined confederation a few years later. It is not clear if that means it was still in effect, or was overridden by some other part of the confederation process. This is the statute: http://bit.ly/1Ae1VWn. It is clear from this statute that it was not permissable (without the sanction of government) to loot graves, nor to buy grave goods. Furthermore, it is asserted that they are crown property, which probably means they are also protected by way of some statute protecting crown property (there is always one, and probably with stronger penalties). So, the big question would be did government give the natural history society permission to do this kind of thing? I think this is all pertinent, because repatriation is probably more likely to occur if it can be clearly demonstrated that removal of the skeleton was illegal under the existing laws of 1897.


  2. Quentin: You might ask the UVic Libraries to see if they have some time to post your page transcriptions within ContentDM beside each journal entry. The transcriptions will have to be .txt docs. .. one .txt per page. And the journal pages will have to be tiffs.


    • Hi FoUP, Yeah, good idea, if only I knew a UVIC librarian…..

      A txt file would be easy to get from the googledoc once everyone has had a chance at it. It occurs to me it could be a fun project for readers of this blog to transcribe the other Sylvester documents as well. If every reader did one page then we’d have nine pages done, at least. But seriously it’d be easy to set up a google doc for each of those and the NWC Archaeology Posse could chip away at them.


  3. ehpem – good point about the statute. I’m not sure if it would make a difference or not if it was legal. I mean, it’d be interesting and persuasive in some circles if it wasn’t but then there’s statutes of limitations and so forth. The transcendent issue is the right of return of human skeletons. I think most successful repatriations start with a bit of relationship building and keep the hammer for the end. Based on what I know of the climate of European museums, admittedly not much, if the institution could be identified and they held the skeleton, I think the chances are actually very good they would return the individual without too much fuss, if approached by a local First Nation.


    • I was thinking that museums would be more convinced about repatriation if they understood that something was illegally obtained in the first place. This is perhaps especially true in Germany where there is great concern about provenance of materials that might have been Nazi loot. That concern is likely to raise sensitivity about the way other materials came into the collections.

      It is interesting that this museum has a full time position for researching provenance related to collections that may have been made by Nazis http://www.smb.museum/en/research/provenance-research-restitution.html

      However, I agree with you that the main issue is the return of human skeletons, and probably if this skeleton survives in the collection, and the Songhees established a relationship with the museum that it would be possible to repatriate regardless of legalities.


  4. On the Frank Sylvester front – the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC have a lot of Sylvester family photos: http://www.jewishmuseum.ca/search/node/sylvester. There are several of the family on outings in the woods, and one of several people sitting on a very large rock. It would be interesting if some of these photos were related to expeditions to “open” burial cairns.

    Sylvester seems to have had a store called the Sylvester Feed Company. There are pictures of the store, and of the company wagon, and even a picture of their catalogue http://www.jewishmuseum.ca/node/8428 which gives an address of 87-89 Yates Street and shows a building (other photos show different buildings). Downtown street numbering was changed in the early 1900s and that is is more likely to be in the 500 to 700 block of Yates. Street view does not show a surviving early building that looks the same, so it is probably gone, or deeply buried in a renovation.

    There is one photo captioned Francis Joseph Sylvester, first recorded Jewish arrival in Victoria, 17 July 1858. Not sure if this is Frank, all other photo captions refer to Frank.

    Another source has a picture of the Sylvester Block, at 709 and 711 Yates Street. The building at that address is much changed, but could well be the same one, and is old enough. http://contentdm.library.uvic.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/veh/id/37/rec/1. UVic’s intro to the Sylvester collections says: “Frank Sylvester was an early Jewish settler to Victoria, involved in the Fire Department and the negotiation of Labour Contracts.” The UVic collections also have a description of the 204 acre Sylvester Farm at Shawnigan Lake.

    Now, enough of this entertaining diversion – back to what I am supposed to be doing this evening.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Damn Labour Organizers – always up to no good. . . .shades of Hrdlicka up my way.


  6. By coincidence, I ran across the Daily Colonist’s next day (June 11, 1901) news report on the cairns talk given by Sylvester:


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