In March of 1852, Robert (Robie) Robertson from Yell Island in the Shetlands signed up for service with the Hudson’s Bay Company and sailed for Canada never to return to his homeland. In 1857 Robertson extended his five-year contract by two years ending his employment with the Company in 1859 at the age of about 28 years.
Labourers are almost invisible in the HBC records but we know that after an initial two years at Fort York, Robertson was employed in the New Caledonia district of the HBC that stretched from northern central BC to the Kamloops area. Where exactly he was stationed at any time is not known but he probably moved between different locations in the five years he stayed in the district.
Robertson’s duties may have brought him down to Fort Langley occasionally where some old timers remember having seen him, but the HBC records don’t show him as part of the labour force of Fort Langley. It is tempting to imagine Robert Robertson coming down the Fraser on one of the last annual trips of the bateaux to Fort Langley. There he could have met his future wife at a welcoming ball at the Fort where they danced to the sweet music of the violin.
Robert Roberson’s wife, Tselatsetenate, also known as Jane or Mary Jane, was a member of the Le’qa:mel First Nation. After his contract with the Company ended the couple settled on land to the west of the village of the band after which the location would later be named Whonnock. Robert was the first long-lasting non-Native settler in Whonnock.
Neither the Fraser River nor the Cariboo Gold Rush seem to have tempted Robertson to leave Whonnock. To earn a living Robert would have done such things as preparing firewood for the steamers and fishing but he was also a skilled carpenter, cabinet maker, and boat builder and he repaired, painted, and caulked boats.
It is said that he also used to work at the cooperage of Fort Langley but there are no HBC records confirming that. He may sometimes have assisted the cooper especially in the busy days of the salmon runs. The cooper, William Cromarty, and his family lived in Glen Valley across the Fraser from Whonnock.
Robertson was best known for his services as “boatman.” He rowed people and freight up and down and across the Fraser. In 1875, the Rev. Alexander Dunn was appointed minister to the districts on both sides of the Fraser River from the coast to Yale and Robertson rowed him all over this huge territory. Dunn relied on “my boatman, Robbie” for often harsh trips in cold and rainy weather. Robert continued working for him as long as he physically could.
Of the children of Robertson and his wife Tselatsetenate three boys and six girls reached maturity. The oldest did not get formal schooling although Robert probably taught them reading, writing and numbers. The Bible and Burns may well have been their main reading material.
At least a dozen children and grandchildren of Robert and Tselatsetenate are buried in a small plot of land off today’s Byrnes Road. Tselatsetenate, died of tuberculosis in 1886, about 45 years old. Robertson continued living in Whonnock until his death in 1912, at the age of eighty years. He was the last to be buried in the little family cemetery.
“A worthy man,” Dunn wrote after Robertson’s death. “In appearance and manner Robbie was rough, awkward, and brusque, but appearances notwithstanding, he was kindness personified.”
For more information from Fred Branches on Robert Robertson, see Whonnock Notes #7.