A River Runs Through It: The Cowichan River Circa 1850


This Valley is named after the Cowichan River which flows from the lake of the same name to the north-west. The name is an anglicized version of the native name for the lower valley that loosely translated means “the warm land”. And rightly so, as the Valley is the most temperate spot in Canada, on average.


Little known is that settlement of Europeans came relatively late, by Eastern standards, to the Valley. No real permanent settlements by outsiders was recorded prior to about 1850 when parties started to make their way from the fairly new Fort Victoria. Most of the early action centred around Cowichan Bay as the trip by boat from Victoria was relatively quick and easy compared to trying to travel over the Malahat. It wasn’t long before the Colony of Vancouver Island, and Douglas, its’ first Governor, cast their sights north of Victoria.


The original journals and documents of these early visitors give a good sense of what was here at the time, even though their language may sound callous or inappropriate in certain passages.


Surveyor General Pemberton of Vancouver Island travelled to the Cowichan in 1857. His instructions were to cross Vancouver Island from Cowichan harbour to Nitinat, with the goal of reporting on natural resources, the terrain, the natives, and areas suitable for settlement. Nine men left Cowichan harbour in early September 1857 and 15 days later reached Nitinat on the west coast of Vancouver Island Pemberton’s report includes the following description:


“After passing the Somenos plains the Cowichan River becomes more rapid, and the country covered by pines of different kinds; between the Somenos plains and the large lake [Cowichan Lake], several tracts of country eligible for settlement will be found, but they will require to be cleared.

The situations alluded to will have all the advantages of a fertile soil, good water,game and fish, variety of timber,the appearance of the  surrounding country being generally pretty and cheerful, often grand. The same remark will apply to the land in many places bordering upon the large lake.

In the valleys Douglas pines twenty-three feet to twenty-eight feet in circumference are not uncommon. Indians occasionally hunt and fish on the border of the large lake and the stumps of huge cedars cut down at its Western extremity show that they once manufactured their largest canoes there.”

Source: John F.T. Saywell, KAATZA: The Chronicles of Cowichan Lake. [Cowichan Lake]: The Cowichan Lake District Centennial Committee, 1967, p. 2-3:


He reported that the party encountered no natives between Somenos Village and the Nitinat, or as he described, ‘the South river’.


Pemberton was able to only do a compass sketch of the area because his survey instruments were damaged at the start of the expedition so, two years later, he sent Oliver Wells to do a thorough survey and map the districts of Shawnigan, Cowichan, Comiaken, Quamicham and Somenos. His report to Pemberton, which was later published by the [British] Government Emigration Board, states:


“The valley may be fairly considered as about 15 miles wide upon the sea coast, but narrows rapidly as we ascend the river, in so much that upon the westerly limit of the survey (11 miles from the coast) it has only a width of about six miles. It is well watered by the Cowichan River and its numerous tributaries. The whole area of the tract surveyed is 57,658 acres,of which about 45,000 acres of plain and prairie lands may be set down as superior agricultural districts, the remaining 12,600 acres being either open or thickly wooded land, partly arable; will likewise ultimately be chiefly occupied. There is thence a sufficient extent of good land laid out in this valley to provide farms for a population of from 500 to 600 families, at an average of about 100 acres each. Along the rivers there are nine Indian villages, as follows: – three Clemclemaluts, two Comiaken, oneTaitka., one Quamicham, one Somenos, and one Kokesailah. The number of families, after careful investigation, has been set down at 250, and the whole population at about 1,000 to 1,100 souls. The Indians have shown throughout a perfectly friendly disposition,and a strong desire to see the white men settle among them”

Source: Survey of the Districts of Nanaimo and Cowichan Valley. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1859, p. 10-14. Copy on file at the National Archives of Canada, RG10, Volume 3609, File3316-1. Another version of this paper, titled “General Report on the Cowichan Valley,” is on file at the National Library of Canada.


Much has happened since those days but the river, inexorable, still flows from the big lake at the top of the valley and flows into the bay at its foot.


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