The Strange but True Story of William Alexander Smith

Born in Windsor in 1825, William Smith lived a life of travel and adventure on the West Coast that few of us can dream of. Along the way, he changed his name to Amor deCosmos (“over of the world”). Following is an article printed in the Victoria Daily Colonist at the time of his death.


July 4 1897 page 6
The Pioneer Journalist and Political Leader Passes Peacefully Away. He Had Played an Important Part in the Making of Provincial History.
Brief Resume of a Busy and Eventful Career of Usefulness.

The Hon. Amor de Cosmos, founder of the British Colonist, and for many years the acknowledged leader in the political as well as the journalistic affairs of British Columbia, died at his house in this city on Sunday morning last, in the 72nd year of his age. He had been incapacitated for more than a year past from participation in public events, his failing mental and physical health during the twelvemonth having made it unhappily certain that he could not long remain with those for whose public rights he had so bravely battled in the early days of the colony, and who in return had signally recognized his efforts in their behalf by confiding to his care the most honorable and responsible offices in their gift.

It was in Windsor, Hants County, Nova Scotia, that Mr. De Cosmos was born, on the 20th of August, 1825, and it was there that he received his education. At fifteen his school days terminated, and on the removal of his family to Halifax he commenced the battle of life as a clerk in the wholesale grocery firm of Charles Whitman & Co. At the same time his ambition to secure an education such as would enable him to make his mark in the world induced him to take the fullest advantage of the facilities afforded by an excellent night school over which Mr. John S. Thompson, father of the late Canadian premier, presided, and it is a certain fact that the wholesome advice and intelligent counsel of his instructor in these impressionable days of boyhood materially affected his subsequent useful and distinguished career.

The opinion that a newer and broader country offered to him greater opportunities for advancement than did his native Nova Scotia, induced him in 1851 to take the exodus to California where the gold discoveries of a few years before were leading an indomitable and energetic army of workers from all parts of the East. There were no railways in those days bringing Atlantic and Pacific into close companionship, and so, the steamer having landed the adventurous young Canadian in New York city, he started thence on the tiresome and apparently interminable tramp across the continent. His journeying to St. Jo., then the rallying point for the west-bound caravans of white-hooded wagons, was devoid of special incident or importance. At this breathing place on the border of the unknown he fell in with a number of equally ambitious emigrants, and with them he made the passage to the golden land of promise, the laborious crossing of the prairies being made anything but monotonous by several skirmishes with predatory bands of Indians and one pitched battle with the redskins in which two men and one of the women of the little party lost their lives.

On two other occasions the company were obliged to give up a great portion of their slender stock of provisions to conciliate the none-too-friendly reds, and thus it was that their original plans were sadly disturbed, and when the green fields of Utah were reached a halt was called perforce, and not until the following spring was it possible to again take up the march California-ward. The golden state was reached some eight months later, further uninvited and undesired meetings with the natives of the West having greatly increased both the length and the hazard of the trip to the Coast.

At Sacramento the little party that had been as one big family on the dreary passage of the plains, disbanded and while some went to the agricultural lands of the Santa Clara valley, the young Nova Scotian, with the determination to learn for himself the full value of the gold mines that had tempted him westward, passed on to the diggings in which he spent four years of varying fortune crowded with adventure and profitable experience. Realizing that profits were to made from miners as well as from mines, Mr. De Cosmos – or Smith, for that was the name of his parents, although to gratify his craving for a less commonplace patronymic a convenient legislature enacted that it should be DeCosmos – during his residence in the California gold diggings embarked in business as a general trader, at the same time engaging from time to time in various speculations in which he displayed a sagacity that was alternately designated as luck, intuition or common sense according to the tastes and dispositions of his critics and fellow citizens.

All were however compelled to admit that his fortunes steadily prospered, and that De Cosmos’ views on public affairs were as sound as the basis upon which he built up his business success. Politics, whether national or bounded merely by the necessities and actions of a mining camp, he entered into naturally and with enthusiasm, so that even those who disliked the man – for he was too strong opinioned to invite universal friendship – were compelled to admit his power as a leader of men. To what place in the making of California history he might have aspired no one can guess. His residence in the land of the Argonauts was too quickly terminated for this to be determined, and with a long-cherished desire to be once again under the old flag, he was one of the first to turn his eyes to Vancouver Island when the stream of god-seekers began to flow in this direction.

It was in ’58 that Mr. De Cosmos landed in Victoria, then a city of tents and transient fortune-seekers on the out-skirts of an inhospitable forest. He at once cast himself with that restless energy that was his most marked characteristic into the making of history for the new town and colony carrying out the project that even before he left California had been taking practical form in his busy brain, and presenting to the public shortly afterwards, a pioneer newspaper of the Canadian far west – the British Colonist.

It was vigorous and direct – a newspaper symbolic of the times and people, and consequently it grew in popularity and in influence. Popular government was not then in the hands of the people of this section, and this offered a theme which the editor of the British Colonist was ever ready to discuss. Naturally, he spoke to an appreciative audience, and when in April of 1859 Governor Douglas took a step in the direction of restricting the liberty of the press, or rather with the object of crushing out of existence the local representative of the world of publications, it was found that Victorians as a unit were with the editor. The proclamation of the Governor on this important and interesting occasion will be read with special interest in these days of free speech and unrestricted discussion. As printed in the British Colonist of the 9th April it was as follows:

Whereas the laws of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, regulating the privilege and publishing of pamphlets and newspapers, are the laws regulating the same and in force in this Her Majesty’s colony of Vancouver’s Island, except in so far as the said laws impose any stamp duties on newspapers and duties on advertisements published therein;

And whereas there is reason to believe that infractions of these laws have been committed by persons in ignorance thereof; and it is expedient to declare and make known the same to prevent infractions in future, and that none of her Majesty’s loyal subjects, nor any other persons, may incur the penalties prescribed for their violation Now, therefore, in consideration of the premises, I, James Douglas, governor of Her Majesty’s said colony of Vancouver’s Island, do hereby declare and make known that, with the exception aforesaid, the statutes 60, George III, cap. 9-11 George IV and IV William IV, cap. 75, and the 6th and 7th William IV., cap. 76, are the statutes regulating the printing and publishing of pamphlets and newspapers in this colony.

And I further make known that the declarations required by the statute 6 and 7 William IV may be declared before the Colonial Secretary, or person acting in that capacity for the time being, in lieu of a commissioner of stamps, and filed in his office; and the recognizance required to be entered into by the said statues of 60 George II, cap. 9, 11 George IV and 4 William IV, cap 75, may be entered into before the Chief Justice of Vancouver’s Island in lieu of a Baron of Exchequer.

Given under my hand and the seal of the Colony of Vancouver’s Island, at Government House, Victoria this 30th day of March, 1859, and in the 22nd year of Her Majesty’s reign.

This proclamation was the cause of a meeting being convened of the inhabitants of Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, held at the Assembly Hall, Broad street, at 7 ½ o’clock p.m. of Monday evening, April 4th, 1859, at which were present a large assemblage of people, crowding the hall in every part. Mr. H. J. Holbrook was chairman and Mr. John Copland secretary, and the business of the evening was introduced by the reading of the notice of which the meeting was the result. This was to the following effect:

To take into consideration the best means of carrying out the law, declared so to be by His Excellency the Governor of the Colony, as regards the Independent Press of this Colony.

There were several addresses, notably one by Mr. G. I. Wight, a barrister, who explained the law at some length, and a resolution was finally passed unanimously:

That, with reference to the proclamation read by the chairman of this meeting, and appreciating the hardships it entails on the Independent Press of Victoria, more particularly the proprietor of the British Colonist, upon whom the said proclamation more directly bears, and with a full determination to obey the law which His Excellency the Governor has, by his proclamation, stated has extended to this colony, this meeting, with a view of supporting the liberty of the Independent Press, and appreciating the efforts made by the editor, Mr. Amor De Cosmos, of the British Colonist, for the advancement of the public interest of this colony, is of opinion that Mr. Amor De Cosmos be requested to again issue his paper, which has been stopped by said proclamation for want of sureties, and for that purpose that a list of those who are willing to subscribe toward the guarantee of those who may be selected or be willing to become sureties out of said list, thus enable him to comply with the requisitions of the law as laid down by the proclamation of His Excellency the Governor.

This resolution being adopted unanimously , and it being evident that any desired amount would be forthcoming, a second resolution was passed restricting the subscription list to £ 800, the sum required by the law for sureties. Finally it was agreed that bonds would be preferable to cash, and Messrs. Yates, Homer, Bayley and Wight having been named a committee to provide the bonds, the meeting adjourned, after ordering copies of the proceedings to be sent for publication to the London Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily News.

And so the first pitched battle for the liberty of the press in this new country was ended in victory.

A Victorian and a Canadian first, last and all the time, Mr. De Cosmos was one of the first to espouse the cause of confederation, and government by the people, and although the unity of the provinces was ultimately accomplished upon a basis other than that which he had originally championed, he was one of the most sincere in the rejoicing at the accomplishment of the natural destiny of the British North American possessions. Fearless and outspoken in his discussion of public questions, both with pen and voice, it was natural that he should have been selected less than five years after his arrival in the colony – in 1863 – as a member of the colonial legislature; or that he should have continued as a representative in that body, of the people whose interests he had so much at heart until the amalgamation of the Island with British Columbia, as the mainland was then termed, under Governor Strong. New Westminster was at this time the capital, but Mr. De Cosmos concluded that Victoria by reason of its greater population and important commerce was the more suitable place from which to direct provincial affairs. He therefore entered with zeal into a campaign for the transfer of the capital, in which he was ultimately successful. Victorians have, therefore, to thank the pioneer statesman whose demise yesterday brings his career into prominence, for the position which their city occupies to-day as the executive centre of Canada’s most western province.

In 1866 his persistent demand for popular government led to the summoning of the Yale convention, which formulated a bill of rights and called for the extension of self-government to the people of British Columbia. Success was not immediately achieved, but the convention was nevertheless not without its practical and important bearing in the accomplishment of its desired aim.

In 1868 Mr. De Cosmos paid an important visit to the Eastern provinces, his mission being nothing less than to advocate the confederation of the provinces from the Atlantic to Pacific, and returning to his home in the West he bent his every energy to the tremendous scheme of building up a united nation. In 1870 his formulated project was laid before the local legislature, the government scheme for the accomplishment of the same great object under other conditions, being at the same time considered. The government plan prevailed, and in July 1871 the province became a part of the Dominion.

Three years after this Mr. De Cosmos was chosen premier of the province and president (without salary) of the executive council – this being upon the resignation of the government led by Premier (now Justice) McCreight. At the same time he was the representative of Victoria in the Canadian House of Commons, his capacity for work appearing to have no bounds, and his attention to the needs and opportunities of his constituents being generally admitted as unassailable. Upon the abolition of dual representation, Mr. De Cosmos chose to represent his constituency in the Dominion house, and accordingly resigned the premiership and threw himself with augmented enthusiasm in national affairs. During his representation at Ottawa of the city whose interests he made his own, he persistently urged the desirability and necessity of providing a first-class graying dock at Esquimalt, and upon his efforts in this direction being rewarded in by the vote in 1881 of a sum of $250,000 by the Dominion government, in lieu of the guarantee stipulated in the terms of union, he promptly followed up the advantage gained by visiting London and prevailing upon the Imperial authorities to contribute a similar amount toward the accomplishment of the important public work in question. Before his retirement from federal affairs in 1882 when he was declared —– of the constituency, he had the satisfaction of seeing that his work on behalf the dock had been successful.

During the past fourteen years Mr. De Cosmos had drifted away from the public with whom he had been so closely in touch, taking after the suspension of the Standard – an evening paper with which he was identified practically until it cease publication some seven years ago – but a small part in public affairs. His iron constitution had stood the strain well of long years of arduous mental labor, but it was not to be expected that with advancing age it could be taxed as in the years of vigorous manhood.

The advocacy of the railway ferry project to Westminster was in reality the last question upon which the old war horse came before the people of Victoria, and the failure of the public to accept this scheme as he saw it occasioned him no little annoyance and disappointment. It was in the hope of carrying through this pet project of his declining years that he offered himself as a candidate for the Dominion House little more than two years ago, but his brief candidature on that occasion only demonstrated emphatically that his day was over. Subsequently his decline in strength was rapid, and with the failure of his mental powers and the necessary appointment of guardians as a result, came the close of his brilliant, remarkable and unquestionably useful career.

He had never married, and four sisters and a brother, the latter, Mr. C. McK. Smith, of this city, compose the family more directly bereaved by his decease.

Of the part he played in the making of British Columbia’s history much might be said. He was not always right, nor was he at all times ready to concede that those who differed from him in opinion were actuated by the same honest motives which, to his credit, undoubtedly actuated him. He was a strong, positive writer, and an equally emphatic speaker, making up for what he lacked in oratorical power, in precision of statement and fertility of argument – and these, with his immense fund of information on every public question, constituting him a powerful opponent in any debate. Conscientious, persistent, industrious, he was a man whose individuality would have forced him to the fore in any community. That he was a power for great good to British Columbia none will for a moment question or deny.
One of the ablest men in British Columbia and the ablest man the province has ever had in the Dominion house. I knew him well soliloquized Mr. Alexander Wilson, when told of Mr. De Cosmos’ death yesterday. He was a peculiarly tempered man to any one not knowing him well, and to understand the man one had to be well acquainted with him. He always fought for Victoria’s interests and if all were told that he has done it would fill a book of many pages. On almost every subject he was well informed, and if he was not conversant with it he could refer to his splendidly equipped library wherein the desired information could be found. Electricity was something he seemed to always regard as dangerous and I frequently have endeavored to induce him to have it in his house, but on each occasion I was met with arguments against it that were almost convincing. So adverse was he to the use of electricity that until the very last day of his life he never rode in a street car. Through his efforts while occupying the editorial chair of the Colonist a committee of the British House of Commons representatives was appointed to investigate the claims of the Hudson Bay Company against Vancouver island. He was largely instrumental in bringing about the union of the Island and Mainland while acting as a member of the House of Assembly, and making Victoria the seat of government for the province. It was due to him also that Victoria as a free port was abolished, and that the tariff applicable to Mainland ports was here adopted also, it was due to him also in a great measure that Confederation was brought about. His last fight was for the Victoria-New Westminster railway.

He was a very intelligent man, said Mr. E. B. Marvin. He took a great interest in the affairs of British Columbia, and in many cases had his views been carried out Vancouver Island would be in a better position to-day than it really is. The C.P.R. instead of having its terminus in Vancouver would have had it in Esquimalt. Being of an arbitrary disposition, however, he could not get along very well with his colleagues at Ottawa, and therefore could not carry as many points as a more politic but less capable man. I knew the late Mr. De Cosmos before he entered political life; he was born in the same town as I, in Windsor, N.S. In that province his sisters who are all married to men now holding prominent positions, still reside.

Sheriff McMillan, another pioneer familiar with the life of the deceased in Victoria, said of the late Mr. De Cosmos that he was very eccentric, but straightward and honest in all his dealings. As a politician everybody knew him and as an editor he was very able. In fact his political history began with his taking the editorship of the COLONIST; he was a terror to evil politicians. In matters of religion he was inclined to be skeptical.

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