These days, it may be a sleepy suburb of Greater Vancouver, but New Westminster has been the centre of pivotal events in British Columbia’s history. From the Gold Rush to Confederation to anxiety about American annexation, the city has been at the heart of some of the province’s most dramatic historical moments.
The land on which New West sits was originally home to the Qayqayt First Nation. In 1858, Richard Clement Moody was sent to the region to “found a second England on the shores of the Pacific.” Despite the distinct lack of similarity between New Westminster’s surrounding landscape and that of most of England, Moody gave it his best effort, and he founded the city in 1859. New Westminster became the capital of the colony of British Columbia.
Chosen in part for its beautiful natural surroundings (which, presumably, were meant to echo England’s greatness), the land on which the city was built was convenient because it lay next to the Fraser River, thereby providing ample access to waterways. Its proximity to the American border was also desirable. At this time, Gold Rush fever was reaching levels of insanity, and people flocked to and through the city by any means available, be it steamship or canoe.
Initially, in an attempt to impress Queen Victoria by making a nod to her, Moody dubbed the city “Queensborough.” Sadly for Moody, the queen was unimpressed by this title, and she renamed it New Westminster after the seat of royal authority in London. Thus, New Westminster’s nickname, “The Royal City,” was born.
Big changes came in 1866, when the two neighbouring colonies of British Columbia (on the mainland) and Vancouver Island were joined in the colony of British Columbia. Although New West had been the capital of the colony of British Columbia, it was thrown over for Victoria, which had been the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island. This was a contentious move, fairly unpopular on the mainland, but it had strong political motivations, namely the fear of annexation by the United States led to the transfer.
This fear was not unfounded. Since 1777, various American political figures had pre-approved Canada’s annexation into the United States. In the nineteenth century, British Columbia was essentially a satellite of San Francisco (where most of the fortune-hunting Americans had come from during the Gold Rush), to the extent that all mail coming from British Columbia passed through San Francisco. In 1866, Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts prepared an Annexation Bill that offered voluntary annexation of British North America, offering to pay British Columbia’s $2 million debt in the wake of the Gold Rush’s decline.
As the southernmost tip of British Columbia, and therefore the closest to the United States, it therefore made sense to transfer the colony’s capital to Victoria. Of course, in 1867 came Canadian Confederation, and in 1871, British Columbia merged with Canada, becoming the country’s sixth province.