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I Am Currently Fascinated by This: John Robert Giscome, Northern BC, and Black History Month

Posted on 2 February 2010

For Black History Month, I made the proposal that we do a story about John Robert Giscome. The extent to which I knew about him was this one-line sentence from the Citizen:

“Closer to home, John Robert Giscome is the first recorded black person to spend time (1862-63) in the Fort George area, and is the namesake for the community of Giscome.”

So I started looking around, and Giscome’s story is fascinating. He was Jamaican born and came to the Americas to work on the railroad near Panama. He then followed the Gold Rush to California, before joining in the black American migration to British Columbia at the invitation of Governor James Douglas (who is also a great study).

He and his partner, Henry Dame of the Bahamas, came up to north-central BC and with the help of local guides “discovered” the Giscome portage, then known as “Lhedesti” or, “the shortcut.”

The two were successful in their mining efforts, and Giscome retired to Victoria with the modern day equivalent of half a million dollars.

Aside from the interesting turns in this story, including an encounter with cannibalism,  it’s fascinating to hear a story of Canadian exploration not centered around a European (even if it does still result in a migrant to the area being credited with the ‘discovery’ of a route that had actually been in use for centuries). Here’s a guy who traveled across continents, started with very little, encountered the well-documented discrimination of the period, and still managed to settle down with $500,000 cash in modern terms.

A great coda to this story is that of Cecil Giscombe, an American poet who in the mid-90s traveled to Prince George and area to research a long-form poem/book about his potential relative and a wider exploration of the relationship between place and internal narrative, as well as the relationship between African-American thought and the abstract freedom sometimes symbolized (rightly or wrongly) by Canada.

Black History Month, an American-born event, can seem somewhat removed from the realities of northern BC, but through Giscome I’ve discovered a conduit into that narrative that I look forward to delving into over the coming month, and beyond.

*NOTE* The aforementioned Cecil Giscombe will be on the show tomorrow around 7:45 Pacific. He’s a fascinating talker, and I highly recommend a listen CBC Radio One in northern BC or online here.

Further reading: “John Robert Giscome” via the Huble Homestead/Giscome Portage Heritage Society

Filed under: Best Of, CBC, Prince George

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