James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, carefully examined the shoreline of southern Vancouver Island in the spring of 1842, searching for the best location for a British settlement. Three sites, each with a good harbour, appeared suitable for a fort: Sooke, Esquimalt and Victoria.
The vast open meadows and grasslands of the Beacon Hill area were an impressive sight. Lush green native grasses grew tall over a six square mile area, colourfully mixed with Blue Camas and other native flowers, including Golden Paintbrush, Satin Flowers, Death Camas, White Fawn Lilies, Chocolate Lilies, Balsamroot, Lupins, Buttercups and Violets. Millions of butterflies--at least 40 abundant species--filled the air in May.
Open spaces of verdant meadow were a welcome contrast to thick dark forest on other parts of the coast. In a letter to James Hargrave, Douglas described the scene: “The place itself appears a perfect ‘Eden’ in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the North...one might be pardoned for supposing it had dropped from the clouds into its present position.” (James Douglas to James Hargrave, February 5, 1843, G. P. de T. Glazebrook, ed. The Hargrave Correspondence, p. 420)
James Douglas landed east of what is now called Beacon Hill Park, naming the spot Clover Point for the red clover covering it “most luxuriantly.” In a July 12, 1842 report to HBC Chief Factor John McLoughlin, Douglas said, “In two places particularly, we saw several acres of clover growing with a luxuriance and compactness more resembling the close sward of a well-managed lea than the produce of an uncultivated waste.” (Report printed in “The Founding of Victoria,” The Beaver, Outfit 273, March, 1943, p. 6)
Douglas wrote to Hargrave, “I was...delighted in ranging over fields knee deep in clover, tall grasses and ferns reaching above our heads, at these unequivocal proofs of fertility.” (The Hargrave Correspondence, p. 421)
Though the Sooke and Esquimalt harbours were superior, Douglas chose Victoria (then called Camosack) as the site of the fort because of the extensive grassland. In the July, 1842 report, Douglas explained:
“[the other two harbours are] surrounded by rocks and forests, which it will require ages to level and adapt extensively to the purpose of agriculture, whereas at Camosack there is a range of plains nearly six miles square, containing a great extent of valuable tillage and pasture land equally well adapted for the plough or for feeding stock. It was this advantage...which led me to choose a site for the establishment of the place...” (“Founding of Victoria,” p. 4)
Establishing farms on open prairie would be far easier than first clearing land of dense forest. Elsewhere, he said, there was an “Absence of any tract of clear land sufficiently extensive for the tillage and pasture of a large agricultural establishment...” (“The Founding of Victoria,” p. 5)
Douglas believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that the lush meadow growth and pleasant countryside reminiscent of England meant it was good for growing European crops. He reported: “Being pretty well assured of the capabilities of the soil as respects the purposes of agriculture, the climate being also mild and pleasant, we ought to be able to grow every kind of grain raised in England.” (“Founding of Victoria,” p. 6)
Visiting in the spring when vegetation was green skewed his assessment. Douglas assumed there would be adequate rainfall for growing crops through the summer months. That had certainly been his experience at Hudson's Bay Company posts at Fort Vancouver (Columbia River), Fort Nisqually (Puget Sound) and other areas of British Columbia. Victoria, however, is located in a distinctive near-Mediterranean climatic zone, a region of moderate climate with very dry summers. Because it is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, the area receives considerably less rain than other regions of southern British Columbia. Douglas soon realized the problems of dry summers. In a private letter to Sir George Simpson, dated November 16, 1843 (HBC Archives), James Douglas said, “no rain fell...between the 10th of June and 8th September at Fort Victoria," though Fort Vancouver and Nisqually had rain. Those in Victoria were “at times badly off for water,” as the stream near the Fort went dry and men were forced to haul water from one and a half miles away.(Lamb, BCHQ 7, P.84)
Another observation also misled Douglas. The aboriginal people of the area, the Lekwungen, grew fine looking potatoes. Douglas assumed other agricultural crops would be as successful. The potatoes he saw were planted in lower elevation areas with moist soil, however, not on the exposed prairies with rapidly draining soil. As he would discover later, the best farming soils in the area were in the moist bottom lands. (Dr. John Lutz, “Preparing Eden”, p. 26-27)
It was the aboriginal inhabitants' bad fortune to have created in their ancestral territory a landscape valued by and attractive to the British. Not only did the open meadow habitat look suitable for agriculture, it also matched the British 19th century ideal of the perfect “picturesque” countryside. As University of Victoria historian Dr. John Lutz explains, the ideal English landscape in vogue at that time was a particular “park” setting of open grassland and wildflowers dotted with groups of oaks or other trees and with a background of forest, hills or water. English paintings of the period illustrate this scenic ideal. (“Preparing Eden,” p. 9) Anyone with an English background was culturally trained to find such a landscape attractive. Explorer Captain George Vancouver earlier described the same prairies “as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds of England...” HBC Governor George Simpson, in 1844, said the region was "a perfect Elysium in point of climate and scenery.” Naturalist Berthold Seemann, in 1846, said the area near Fort Victoria was “a natural park...One could hardly believe that this was not the work of art.”
Douglas was not ready to begin the construction of Fort Victoria in 1842. The site selected and mapped, Douglas sailed away to return the following year fully prepared to build the fort and begin farming operations. He would bring livestock, seeds, tools, goods, weapons and men to establish “the first European settlement larger than a fort in British Columbia." The Lekwungen Nation would be "the first aboriginal people deprived of their land base.” (Lutz, “Preparing Eden,” p. 25) One year remained before the new culture would begin transforming the landscape according to their goals.
To fully appreciate the impact of white culture on the landscape through the next 160 years, it is essential to understand the landscape as it was in 1842. The key element is the fundamental connection between Lekwungen land management practices and the open prairies. The grasslands admired by the British had been actively created and shaped by the Lekwungen people for hundreds--perhaps thousands--of years as they worked to promote the growth of native plant crops. 1842 was the final year of their control and traditional use of the land.
Unfortunately, our knowledge of aboriginal culture is limited to the “ethnographic moments” when whites visited the area and recorded their descriptions. Our ideas are largely frozen in time instead of reflecting the changes of a dynamic culture over thousands of years. An even greater problem in presenting aboriginal history is that all written accounts are from the point of view of the colonizer. We must turn to oral accounts of First Peoples, archaeological findings and environmental history in an effort to find hints of another perspective. As Dr. Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology at the Royal B.C. Museum sadly observed, “I must present most of this history through the eyes of culturally biased observers.” (Songhees Pictorial, 2003)
In 1842, about 700 indigenous people--known as “Lekwungen” (or “Lukungun” as it was spelled in earlier years)--occupied and used the overall territory where Douglas planned to establish a European settlement. Their descendants are today's Songhees First Nation and Esquimalt First Nation.
The Lekwungen were a subgroup of the major Coast Salish linguistic group which covers a huge area including the north shores of Juan de Fuca, the south shores of Georgia Strait, the lower Fraser, Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Anthropologist Wayne Suttles states, “It appears at the time of white settlement the whole area formed a social continuum.”(Coast Salish Essays, p. 110) The aboriginal population had already been drastically reduced by epidemics spread by contact with early white explorers and fur traders (Spanish, Russian, American and British). The introduction of guns apparently increased warfare between aboriginal groups and seemed to promote a greater population concentration in fortified villages.
The Coast Salish lived in permanent houses, sometimes in large villages of more than a thousand. They had elaborate social ceremonies, including the potlatch. There was a social structure hierarchy, with an upper class (“siem”), low-class (“stesem”) and slaves (“skeyes”) and a rich heritage of craft, art, music and advanced canoe, tool and house building. (Wayne Suttles, Coast Salish Essays, p. 177) That hierarchical system is sometimes downplayed by modern Lekwungen (Songhees) and others who fear this historical fact could be misunderstood and/or used to negatively portray early culture. It was, however, quite similar to European hierarchies of the time. After all, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and the United States had their own histories of buying, selling and working slaves. In the new Colony of Vancouver Island, the British government directed James Douglas to promote the English class structure and sent indentured servants to work Island land for gentlemen owners.
In 1842, the Lekwungen lived in two ocean-side villages near the site of Victoria, in Esquimalt Harbour and Cadboro Bay. The countryside in between was divided, owned and used by many extended upper class families. There were no villages in the Beacon Hill Park area that year, but there was considerable evidence of previous occupation, including three defensive locations along the waterfront. According to Dr. Grant Keddie, there was one defensive location on Finlayson Point directly in front of Beacon Hill, another on Holland Point near the southwest corner of the Park and a third was located on the bluff at the northwest corner of Clover Point. Archaeologists who examined the midden at Finlayson Point determined the defensive site was first occupied about 1000 years ago (approximate date 950 AD). (Grant Keddie, “Native Indian Use of Beacon Hill Park,” RBCM Notes, Note #14/88, ISSN 0838-598x)
Aboriginal burial cairns, prominent features on Beacon Hill, were further evidence of long time occupation and use. Keddie described the cairns: “They extended from the top of Beacon Hill down the south-east slope. The cairns were of different shapes and sizes, but in general were circles of large boulders with a mound in the middle.” In 1858, the largest cairn, which was located near the base of the present flagpole, was excavated to reveal human remains wrapped in a cedar bark mat. James Deans, who Keddie calls “Victoria’s first notable archaeological enthusiast,” counted twenty three cairns on the sides and the summit of Beacon Hill in 1871. Deans stated the cairns were visible until 1877, but when he revisited the “ancient cemetery” in 1897, many of the surface boulders of the cairns were moved or completely gone. White immigrants had moved the boulders.
In 1986, after uninformed Parks staff moved the remaining cairn boulders to facilitate grass mowing, Dr. Keddie directed a reconstruction of four cairns on Beacon Hill. The exact placement was arbitrary, Keddie explained, but the "cairn reconstructions resemble some of those observed in the 19th century. The bases of some partially intact cairns can still be seen close to the reconstructed ones.” (Grant Keddie, “Native Indian Use of Beacon Hill Park") [See Chapter Sixteen, 1986, for more on aboriginal burial cairns, including more quotes from Keddie, a “beneath-the surface view” of an excavated cairn and photos of the Beacon Hill site. See Chapter 22, 2007, for an overview of recent cairn research by Darcy Mathews and his comments about Beacon Hill Park cairns.]
It is often reported that aboriginals called the hill “Meeacan,” meaning belly, because in profile the bare hill looked like the fat stomach of a person lying on his back. A different version is attributed to Lekwungen elder Jimmy Fraser, who said “Meegan” (some write it Meeqan or Meecan) means “warmed by the sun” and that the open meadow in Beacon Hill Park is “where the people sat to have their bellies warmed in summer.” Anthropologist Wilson Duff presents that version. His informants also told him the area of the hill was a “‘playing field’ for the shinny-like game called qoqwialls, which is played with oak sticks hollowed spoon-fashion at the end, a ball which was propelled along the ground and goals at each end of the field.” (Duff, “The Fort Victoria Treaties,” p. 45)
Salmon was the primary food of all Coast Salish peoples. The prime areas for Lekwungen reef nets were on the west side of San Juan Island. They paddled canoes to fishing locations at appropriate times to catch, dry and smoke the salmon for winter consumption. They caught halibut, cod, herring, crab and harvested clams, oysters and mussels. Dr. Keddie adds, “All First Nations peoples living along the Coast ate octopus, which are high in protein.” They also hunted deer, elk and birds.
Lekwungen families owned the rights to certain clam beds, reef-net sites and camas fields. Suttles explained how families cared for their clam and Camas property:
“In Camas beds they kept the ground loosened up so as to make digging easier, and one informant spoke of burning off the bed after digging. In clam beds they sometimes took out the bigger rocks; one old Samish woman supervised the digging in her horseclam bed, not allowing anyone to leave broken shells in the sand. Such beds and patches were the property of upper-class families. Ownership was through inheritance, but I suspect that an investment of labor helped maintain it.” (Wayne Suttles, Coast Salish Essays, p. 147)
Grant Keddie wrote: “Household groups owned important areas for plant collecting, hunting, fishing and specific house locations, and they shared other common areas of their territories.” (Songhees Pictorial, p. 13)
The claim by Capt. Walbran that Beacon Hill was a productive site for Lekwungen duck nets is false, according to Keddie. Walbran wrote: “The Indians used to erect large poles here...by which nets were spread to catch the wild fowl as they flew across the open ground of the hill to or from the marshes beyond.” (Capt. John T. Walbran, British Columbia Coast Names 1592-1966, p. 39) Keddie explains: "At a time when the stones cairns were not known to be burials, it was assumed that they were the bases of bird nets - this was based on the observation of piles of rocks supporting large posts for nets at Sooke's Wiffin's spit and near Port Townsend in the 1790s. There are no First Nations stories of nets on Beacon Hill and no European observations of any at Beacon Hill." (March 8, 2005 email communication)
To supplement a mainly animal diet, the Lekwungen harvested a wide variety of edible native plants. The following partial list of plants consumed by local aboriginal peoples comes from Dr. Nancy Turner’s comprehensive and well illustrated book, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. According to Turner, local Coast Salish people used shoots of Horsetail, Lady Ferns and Bracken Fern rhizomes, Arrowgrass leafstalks, the bulbs of Chocolate Lily and Tiger Lily, Eelgrass rhizomes and leaf-bases, sprouts of Cow Parsnip (“most coastal First Peoples call it Indian Celery,” p. 58), Oregon Grape, Blue Elderberry, High-bush Cranberry, Kinnikinnick berries, Salal berries (“without doubt the most plentiful and widely used fruit on the coast” p. 77), Alaska blueberries, Bog cranberries, Red huckleberries, Bog blueberries, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Black raspberry, Trailing wild blackberry, wild crabapple, wild strawberry, gooseberry, the slimy cambium tissue of Red Alder, and fireweed shoots. (Nancy Turner, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples)
The rhizomes of the clover Douglas admired at Clover Point were also “...a valued food of First Nations and undoubtedly used by...peoples who used the area around Ross Bay and Beacon Hill Park,” Dr. Nancy Turner wrote in “Where Has All the Clover Gone?”
Even this incomplete list of native plant foods serves to illustrate how intimately First Peoples knew their land and its vegetation. They could identify each plant, remember where it grew best, and the best time to gather it. Turner wrote: “...families would travel from place to place within the territory of the village group, stop at one spot for two weeks and another for a month or more...” (Turner, p. 16) Anthropologist Wayne Suttles explained:
“The Coast Salish people maintained permanent dwellings in which extended families lived during half the year and which served as bases for food-gathering expeditions the other half. Their habitat was rich enough in natural foods and their preserving techniques were good enough to allow some members of the group to stay at home at any time if need be. And their means of transportation was fast enough that few expeditions took them more than a day’s journey from home base. Thus women were able to return to the same root-patches, year after year, not only at digging time but at other times as well if they chose to. Concepts of ownership and simple tending of the plants could exist and did.” (Wayne Suttles, Coast Salish Essays, p. 147)
The Lekwungen were successful “hunters and gatherers” but they also carried on a type of agriculture. Their most important plant crop was the bulb of two types of Camas: Common Camas (Camassia quamash) and Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii). To improve the growth of Camas bulbs, as well as other native plants, the Lekwungen cultivated the land for hundreds of years before white contact.
“Among the Vancouver Island Coast Salish, aboriginal harvesting and crop maintenance practices for Camas can be termed semi-agricultural,” according to Dr. Nancy J. Turner, Ethnobotanist and Professor of Environment Studies at the University of Victoria. Dr. John Lutz, History Professor at the University of Victoria, states: “Camas production was aboriginal agriculture.”
Aboriginal agricultural labour profoundly changed and shaped the landscape. What British newcomers assumed was “natural” had been “culturally modified” by the Lekwungen over hundreds of years. Even today, it is not generally understood how Lekwungen people’s work created and maintained the park-like open meadows. Carved into the granite monument at the summit of Beacon Hill is the same wrong assumption made by the British so long ago: “...in 1843, this was a natural park.”
In the Victoria region, Lekwungen women and families harvested the edible bulbs of these blue-flowered Camas in May and June. They paddled canoes to the shores of Beacon Hill or nearby to set up temporary working camps near their Camas patches. Gilbert Malcolm Sproat wrote, “The gathering of the gammass [Camas] is the most picturesque of all Indian employments. One could hardly wish...for a pleasanter dwelling than the little bush camps which the natives form in the gammass districts..” (Sproat, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, 1868, p. 54)
Dr. Turner describes the harvest:
“Large areas around Victoria, such as the grasslands of Beacon Hill Park...were frequented each year by the Saanich and Songhees peoples. They divided the Camas beds into individually owned plots, passed from generation to generation. Each season the families cleared their plots of stones, weeds and brush, often by controlled burning. Harvesting took several days, with entire families participating. The harvesters systematically lifted out the soil in small sections, removed the larger bulbs and replaced the sod. Even in this century, families would collect four to five potato-sacks full at a time.” (Nancy J. Turner, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, p. 43)
Digging loosened and aerated the soil. The workers separated and replanted small bulbs and carefully weeded out the deadly poisonous white-flowered Death Camas (zigadenus venenosus), visible in the photo on the left. Fall burning, an effective land management practice, promoted the growth of preferred plant species and also dramatically shaped the landscape by eliminating all shrubs. (Burning and its many consequences will be discussed in more detail in the next section.)
Aboriginal women harvested bulbs that looked like small onions and measured two to three inches across. The bulbs were steamed in large pits for a day and a half until they were “soft, brownish and sweet.” One white settler compared the taste to “baked pear.” Dr. Turner says, “Contrary to popular belief, the bulbs do not contain starch, but a complex sugar known as inulin.” (Nancy J. Turner, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, p. 43) Consuming large quantities of inulin, which is present in many other fruits and vegetables as well, causes flatulence, a consequence remarked upon by several white settlers in relation to aboriginal consumption of Camas.
The Victoria area “was one of the most productive Camas territories on Vancouver Island,” according to John Lutz. It was productive enough that local people traded large quantities of surplus bulbs, especially with the Nuu-chah-nulth people on the west coast. Sproat comments on trade as well: “[Camas] is taken...as an article of traffic from the south of the island, particularly from the neighbourhood of Victoria, where there are excellent gammass districts.” (Sproat, p. 55) The importance of Camas to the people went beyond food and trade. Harvesting was a seasonal social and cultural activity, too, a time of reunion as small camps were set up near family fields.
The open meadows described by Douglas as “a perfect Eden” and desired by white settlers for grazing and farming were the very same meadows valued by the Lekwungen as prime Camas fields. Blue Camas--merely pretty blue flowers to the British--was the most important native plant in the Beacon Hill area to the aboriginal people and the bulb was their staple root vegetable. “The Lekwungen...created a landscape with specific economic and social goals in mind,” Lutz explains. “Ironically, it was the open Camas prairies, maintained by the Lekwungen’s regular burning that attracted European settlement to their territory.” (Lutz, p. 24)
Lekwungen prime Camas fields were soon lost as white settlers ploughed and grazed livestock on the meadows. Sproat observed, “One of the bitterest regrets of the natives is that the encroachment of the whites is rapidly depriving them of their crops of this useful and almost necessary plant.” (Sproat, p. 55)
The flowering Blue Camas we see today on Beacon Hill and in other areas of the Park are probably much smaller in size and less vigorous than those in the same fields in 1842 because, for 160 years, the fields have not received the care provided in the past by the Lekwungen. Instead, the ground has been compacted by crowds and maintenance trucks. The grazing cattle and sheep of early settlers were followed by mowing machines.
In a five year demographic study of the ethno-ecology of Camas and Oak-Camas parklands, Brenda Beckwith, a PhD student at University of Victoria, demonstrated that bulbs of the Great Camas can grow to a very large size and divide intensively when grown in a nursery environment. A few bulbs in this environment weighed over 100 grams and were the size of tangerines. It is probable that these growing conditions better mimic indigenous harvesting beds than today’s neglected wild Camas habitats.
Beckwith also cultivated small experimental patches of naturally-occurring Camas populations for four years in three regional parks. In randomly-selected treatment plots, she attempted to replicate the care aboriginal women gave to their Camas fields; she weeded, loosened the soil by digging and set late-summer fires to burn off vegetation. She compared the responses of the plants to these different treatments, focusing on both species of Camas as well as other vegetation categories, including exotic plants and nonvascular species. Her dissertation was to be completed in 2004.
Though many descriptions of digging the bulbs are available, none mentions how workers might have disposed of the poisonous Death Camas they weeded out. The current distribution of Death Camas populations may provide a clue. In areas which were known harvesting sites for the edible Blue Camas, such as Beacon Hill Park, the toxic species is often found growing in clumps. Ms. Beckwith speculates that these clumped populations could have been where aboriginal women deposited the Death Camas bulbs in the past or could be areas which were not targeted for harvesting for some unknown reason. (Information from a September, 2003 interview and a January 7, 2004 communication with Ms. Beckwith)
Lekwungen land use practices were not a style of management and ownership the British understood. The local people had no official land deeds on paper, no fences and no plows. The fur traders and later white settlers did not understand how aboriginals encouraged the growth of selected native plants or appreciate that valuable crops were being harvested. In the British view, any land without a dwelling or planted in crops in the European fashion was “waste” available for appropriation and use.
The Lekwungen did grow potatoes. This, at least, was a kind of agriculture Europeans could recognize. That First Peoples farmed potatoes before a white settlement was established in the area seems at first surprising, but, in fact, most Pacific coastal peoples from Alaska to California grew potatoes in the 1840's. Possible sources for these potatoes stretch back to early Russian and Spanish fur traders. Dr. Nancy Turner wrote the potato "was sometimes planted by [European sailors] as a future food source, or was given to the aboriginal people with instructions on how to plant and harvest it. By the mid 1800's, it had become a staple food and a valuable trading item for almost all coastal aboriginal groups.” (Nancy J. Turner, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, p. 135)]
Possible sources for the potatoes growing in the Beacon Hill-Victoria area are the European fur company garden in Astoria, established in 1811, and the Hudson’s Bay Company garden in Fort Vancouver, established in 1825. However, the most likely source of Lekwungen and other Coast Salish peoples potatoes, according to Anthropologist Wayne Suttles, is the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Langley garden begun in 1827. (Wayne Suttles, Coast Salish Essays, “The Early Diffusion of the Potato among the Coast Salish,” p. 139)
Suttles, writing about Coast Salish people in Puget Sound, Olympic Peninsula, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait, said “Potato patches were usually on the natural clearings called ‘prairies.’” (Suttles, p. 144) John Lutz believes that in the drier Victoria area, First Peoples chose low moist soils for planting potatoes. Suttles states women did the planting and harvesting, “using the traditional digging stick that woman used for roots and clams.” (Suttles, p. 144).
Setting fire to dry grasses was a key aboriginal land management practice carried out in late summer or fall. Burning benefitted the growth of Camas and promoted the growth of native grasses and other edible plant species. Burning also increased browse for deer and elk at the edges of the forest. Until white settlers intervened to stop the practice, regular burning prevented bushes and shrubs from growing in the meadows. This was and is a key to maintaining open meadow grasslands.
Fires burned quickly and less intensely than they would now because there was no long term build up of vegetation. The quick low-fuel load fires burned dry grasses, oak seedlings and shrubs, but older oaks were protected by their thick bark. Fires benefitted the soil by releasing minerals, an annual fertilizing, according to Dr. Lutz. (“Preparing Eden,” p. 23)
A B.C. Conservation Data Centre booklet titled "Garry Oak Ecosystems" (1993) explains how fire affects the entire ecosystem:
“We can view the Garry oak vegetation complex as one that was conditioned by and adapted to a frequent fire cycle. Fire seems to be an important factor in permitting oaks to occupy deeper soils, where Garry oak vegetation might otherwise be out-competed by conifers. Oaks are favoured over conifers, and herbaceous vegetation is favoured over shrubs by this fire regime. It is known that aboriginal people burned the vegetation throughout the range of the Garry oak to help hunting and maintain open prairie. The resulting oak woodlands and open prairies were important to the aboriginal people for their bounty of usable plants.”
Brenda Beckwith explained how fire plays an essential role in generating new Garry oaks. Garry oaks do not renew themselves well from acorns. Garry oaks need the stimulation of fire damage to spur new growth. Fire damage signals Garry oaks to send out new shoots. When we see a circle of Garry oaks, Beckwith explains, it was probably formed when a mature central oak tree sent out shoots which grew into separate trees while the mature tree eventually died and disappeared.
Regular late summer or fall burning is the reason Beacon Hill and the surrounding area was bare and open in 1842. It wasn’t “natural,” as Douglas assumed, but was the direct result of the Lekwungen setting fires. The 1842 landscape featured an upper oak tree layer, a low grass and flowers layer but no shrub layer in between. The shrub layer was eradicated by fires. 19th century photographs show no shrubs and only a few scattered clumps of Garry oak trees on Beacon Hill and the surrounding fields, a dramatic contrast to the present situation in the Park. Today there is a very extensive and growing shrub layer encroaching on grassland and wildflower fields. As well, the number of trees in the Park has exploded. Many planted exotic species block long views and break up open spaces.
James Douglas carefully mapped the vegetation as it existed in the Victoria area in 1842. His map shows the vast open prairies, the forest borders and some of the wetlands and streams. The main native plant community he described matches what we now call Garry oak ecosystems.
Though the meadows-grasslands zone was a major focus of both aboriginals and white settlers in the 19th Century, present-day biologists identify eight vegetation zones in Beacon Hill Park. These are: Meadows-grassland; Garry oak woods with grassy ground cover; Garry oak woods with shrubby ground cover; Douglas-fir woods; Black cottonwood semi-swamp forest; moist deciduous groves; seaward slopes scrub; spray zone and beachhead. (“State of the Environment,” City of Victoria, July 2001, pp. 7-16
Garry oak is the most significant native tree in Beacon Hill Park. These oaks grow in only the few areas of the world which have a distinctive near-Mediterranean climatic zone of moderate climate and dry summers. Garry oak ecosystems occur in a limited number of favourable areas from southwestern British Columbia to California. Victoria is one of the few areas on Earth where the climate is right for this tree.
The Garry oak tree (Quercus garryana), a key feature of the ecosystems, was named to honour Nicholas Garry of the Hudson’s Bay Company, though the tree is known as “Oregon Oak” in the United States. This oak species loses its leaves in winter. Garry oaks can live over 400 years; several individual trees in Beacon Hill Park are probably that old today.
These oaks have long drought-resistant tap roots. “Their ability to survive on rapidly draining soils, on steep south and western facing slopes, and on sites with exposed bedrock, subject to periodic fires, accounts for their present distribution in today’s Mediterranean type climate,” according to the B.C. Conservation Data Centre booklet "Garry Oak Ecosystems."
The booklet noted: “Fire suppression has allowed Douglas-Fir to invade areas once dominated by Garry oak.” As well, the grazing of livestock on the meadows from 1843-1889 “caused non-native plant species to become dominant.”
The Data Centre explained that the native Black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk “helped maintain the open character of the Garry oak landscape by the suppression of some oak regeneration. Oak seedlings are repeatedly browsed and sometimes killed.”
“The largest continuous occurrence of Garry oak woodlands was formerly in the urban development centre of Greater Victoria, a region that is now almost completely developed.” This is the area described by Douglas in 1842. Beacon Hill Park contains one of the larger pieces of that remaining habitat. The booklet warns, “Parkland and meadows, once common in this area, are in extreme peril.”
This diagram illustrates the cumulative negative impacts on Garry oak communities. In 2005, Beacon Hill Park’s Garry oak meadows fit at or below the lowest threshold line on this graphic. (Ussery, Joel, "Managing Garry Oak Communities for Conservation." Garry Oak Meadow Colloquium Victoria 1993 Proceedings, edited by Richard J. Hebda and Fran Aitkens. Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society, 1993, p. 66.)
A map, table and description compiled by the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team compares the 1800 and 1997 distribution of Garry oak ecosystems in the Victoria area. Included were areas “where Garry oak (Quercus garryana) was believed to be the dominant tree cover, or co-dominant cover with Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) or Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii).” They concluded that “less than 5 percent of the original Garry oak ecosystems persevere in a near-natural condition” in the region today (this includes the Saanich Peninsula and western communities). “Most of the remnants are in isolated, fragmented communities...”
In the year 1800, Garry oak ecosystems covered 1460 hectares in what is now Victoria. This is strikingly close to the estimate made by James Douglas in 1842. He guessed there were about six square miles (1554 hectares) of open meadow (or “prairie”) with oaks. By 1997, Garry oak ecosystems in Victoria covered 21 hectares, only 1.4% remains of the 1800 total. Beacon Hill Park is one of the last places where it is still possible, with a concerted effort, to preserve some of this rare habitat.
The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team explained:
“Originally, two major types of ecosystems occurred in the Garry oak areas: those on deep soils, known as parkland Garry oak communities, and scrub oak ecosystems, found on shallow soils. A mosaic of shrubs, trees, and meadows of flowers and grasses are typical of deep soil sites. Almost all of the deep soil parkland sites in the Victoria region were cleared for agriculture and urban development. Many large Garry oak trees remain, but most have lawns, roads, agricultural fields, golf courses or blacktop beneath them, rather than native plant communities. More of the scrub oak shallow soil sites exist, as many of these rocky areas are difficult to develop. Spring flowers, grasses and mosses originally dominated the under-storey of these rock outcrop communities. Many of these native plant communities have been invaded by weedy species such as Scotch Broom, daphne, and agronomic grasses. As a result of these and other factors, nearly 100 species associated with Garry oak ecosystems are currently on the BC Species at Risk list.”
Because Garry oak ecosystems are rare and fast disappearing, some people advocate designating and protecting the remaining pockets as “Heritage Habitat.” A program similar to one supported by the City of Victoria to preserve heritage homes could be adopted to preserve Garry oak ecosystems.