Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
He was a man of many parts, born free but poor in Philadelphia, April 17, 1823. At a very early age, his mother was forced to put him into the service of a prominent Philadelphian. He was to go with the man in his buggy and hold the horse’s head while the man was transacting business.
At age 16, while learning the trade of a carpenter, he joined the Philadelphia Library Company, a group of black men who met to discuss the problems of race. He also spent every night in laborious reading, determined to acquire the fundamentals of an education. He toured with the renowned Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and from this experience learned public speaking.
Working as a carpenter, he saved enough money to get to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. There he went into business with a partner, Peter Lester. Their advertisement in a San Francisco paper read, “Lester & Gibbs, Importers of Fine Boots and Shoes from Philadelphia, London and Paris.” They prospered, but conditions in California made life difficult in many ways for Blacks. A Black person could not testify in court in a case involving a White person. There were no schools for Blacks above the elementary level, and Black students were barred from attending White schools. He attended meetings at the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, to discuss emigration, for the prospect of California’s seceding with the southern states was very much on the Black congregation’s mind. Gibbs listened to the reports from Victoria and came to a decision - he would join the emigration of 1858. In his autobiography, “Shadow and Light,” he writes:
“In June of that year, with a large invoice of miners’ outfits - flour, blankets, picks, shovels, etc., I took passage on the steamship ‘Republic’ for Victoria.”
Gibbs did not like the boisterous, brawling, unwashed mining camps of the Fraser River. He chose instead to advance his fortunes by seeking financial gain in an area with which he was familiar - merchandising. He sold all the goods he had brought to Victoria immediately for a handsome profit, and sent to San Francisco for more. His partner, Peter Lester, took great care to see that they got the best deals possible. Meanwhile he purchased a one-storey building near today’s corner of Government and Yates Streets, which in the tent city that then surrounded the Fort, may have seemed a veritable emporium.
Real Estate was another activity by which those who were eager to reap the benefits of the discovery of gold without having to resort to physical labour, could count on maximum gains from minimum risk. Gibbs outlined the situation with admirable clarity in a letter published by the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin on June 23, 1858. Writing to “Friend L” he says:
“You will now see that I have arrived at my point of destination. I came, however, rather late to make the most advantageous investments. The country is certainly a beautiful one - a country good enough for me - and I am sorry to be so far behind. If either of us had arrived here two months ago, worth $1,000, we could have been worth $10,000 today.”
After deciding to make Victoria his home, he had returned to the United States in 1859, and married Maria Anne Alexander, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. Though they lived comfortably, employed servants, and had three children during their years in Victoria, Mrs. Gibbs had never been truly accepted by the women who considered themselves the elite in society. She and the children soon returned to the United States.
Energetic, enterprising and extremely able, Gibbs took advantage of opportunities open to him as a British subject; opportunities that were denied him in the land of his birth. He was elected to the Victoria City Council, representing the fashionable James Bay District, where he had purchased land and built a house. He supported Confederation and represented Salt Spring Island at the Yale Convention in 1868, a gathering called to debate the question of joining the Federation of Canada or going for annexation to the United States. Gibbs was firmly on the side of staying with Canada.
Gibbs was both a director and a major shareholder in the Queen Charlotte Coal Company. In 1869, he resigned his directorship to tender a bid to construct a wharf and tramway for the company at Queen Charlotte Island. His bid was accepted, so he took a three-month leave of absence from the City Council. He expected to be back in Victoria for the opening of “Victoria House,” the largest and most modern mercantile building in the colony, which was under construction on one of his downtown lots. Instead, he stayed longer, and lost his seat on City Council.
In 1870 Gibbs liquidated all his assets except Victoria House and returned to the United States. In his autobiography, he has praise for British Columbia and reflects with fondness on the years he spent there. He is tactful in overlooking instances of prejudice, even those that verged on abuse.
In fairness, it must be said that British Columbia had been kind to Mifflin Gibbs in a number of ways. He became wealthy, he read law in the office of D.B. Ring, and he participated in the political scene and gained experience that was helpful in his future career. In the US, after taking a refresher course in law, he became a municipally elected judge in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was made State Registrar of Lands by President Harrison, and finally was appointed United States Consul to Madagascar, where he served for three years.
In 1907 he visited Victoria and was received as a distinguished former resident.
He died July 11, 1915, aged 92. A Black high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, was named in his honour.