Dunsmuir, Robert
b. 1825-08-31
d. 1898-04-12
Robert Dunsmuir was born 31 August, 1825 in Hurlford, Ayrshire, Scotland. Arriving in British Columbia in 1851 with his family, Dunsmuir began work as a coal miner for the Hudson Bay Company. Dunsmuir would later sit as an elected member for Nanaimo and become a notorious coal baron -- making him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the province.1 Dunsmuir was 16 years old when he entered the coal mining business in Scotland under his uncle and guardian, Boyd Gilmour.2 In December of 1850, Dunsmuir was given 24 hours to decide if he wanted to sign a three-year contract with the HBC and travel to Vancouver Island to mine coal.3 After agreeing to sign the contract, Dunsmuir, his pregnant wife, two children, and Gilmour’s family traveled 191 days to Fort Vancouver’s wharf, landing on the 29 June 1851.4
Dunsmuir and Gilmour continued their journey to Fort Rupert where their formal HBC contracts began on 9 August 1851.5 One year later, Dunsmuir and the other miners at Fort Rupert moved to the Nanaimo area. In 1853, James Douglas gave Dunsmuir authority to drill into a portion of the coal seam independently, along with several Indigenous assistants.6 Once Dunsmuir’s initial contract with the HBC expired in 1854, he decided to stay in Nanaimo rather than to go back to Scotland; however, he did not sign a formal contract but instead offered to manage a specific coal seam -- The Douglas Seam and Pit.7 By 1860, Dunsmuir was promoted to the position of superintendent of the Douglas Pit.8 Amidst his mining work, Dunsmuir sat as Chairman of the Public Meeting in Nanaimo -- responsible for the output of letters to public officials such as the Governor.9
In April 1864, the Honourable Horace Douglas Lascelles and Dr. Alfred Benson asked Dunsmuir to join the Harewood Coal Company.10 Dunsmuir’s work with the Harewood Company was short lived and abandoned in 1869 due to its inability to find investments.11 In October 1869, Dunsmuir’s luck changed when he was fishing at a trout pond in the Wellington District of Nanaimo and “stumbled” across an undiscovered coal seam.12
From this moment, Dunsmuir grew in wealth and power as the owner of his own coal company, and by 1883 Dunsmuir’s Wellington Colliery was worth at least $1,200.000.13 Accompanied with his growth as a businessman, in 1882 Dunsmuir became more involved in politics and accepted nomination and election as a member for Nanaimo in the upcoming provincial elections,14 the same year Dunsmuir became the president of the Nanaimo Hospital.15 His involvement extended to the construction of the Nanaimo and Esquimalt railway in 1883, Dunsmuir’s inclusion on this project lent to his expropriation of Indigenous lands in order to finish construction of the railway.16 The E and N land grant that was awarded to Dunsmuir took up 86% of Hul'qumi'num territory in which large portions of the land were sold by Dunsmuir to forest companies in order to fund his railway project -- this Indigenous group has still not been compensated.17
At the age of 61, Dunsmuir decided to show off his wealth by building a large mansion in Vancouver Island’s main city, Victoria. Between the years of 1887-1890 Craigdarroch, the Dunsmuir Castle, was built and became the largest and tallest building in Victoria at that time -- with its four floors and tall tower.18 Although Dunsmuir’s construction of the house was as a monument to his remarkable wealth, he died a year before it was finished on 12 April 1889 -- never seeing the finished product.19 At the time of his death, Dunsmuir was one of the wealthiest men in the province, simultaneously known as a man of ruthlessness.20 Dunsmuir’s disregard to his employees safety within the mines, his financial exploitation of Chinese immigrants, and expropriation of Indigenous lands, grants him the title of a ruthless employer.21
  • 1. Terry Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, (Douglas and McIntyre, 1991).
  • 2. Daniel T. Gallacher, Robert Dunsmuir Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
  • 3. Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, 8.
  • 4. Ibid., 9.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid., 13.
  • 7. Terry Reksten, The Story of Dunsmuir Castle, (Orca Book Publishers, 1987), 7.
  • 8. Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, 20.
  • 9. Seymour to Carnarvon, 11 January 1867, 1948, CO 60/27, 97.
  • 10. Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, 21-22.
  • 11. Ibid., 23.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Reksten, The Story of Dunsmuir Castle, 15.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Robert Taylor Williams The British Columbia Directory for the Years of 1882-1883, UBC Library Collections, (1882).
  • 16. Gallacher, Robert Dunsmuir.
  • 17. Mapping Contemporary Challenges to Island Hul'qumi'num People’s Territory, UVic ethnographic mapping lab.
  • 18. Craigdarroch Castle, The Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society.
  • 19. Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, 6.
  • 20. Gallacher, Robert Dunsmuir.
  • 21. Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, 3.
Mentions of this person in the documents
The Colonial Despatches Team. Dunsmuir, Robert. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/dunsmuir_r.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)