Cortes Connection

Blog post by Beth Boyce, Curator at the Museum at Campbell River

I love the North Island Region.  I love its people, its geography, and I love the islands that dot the seascape to the east. One of my favourites is Cortes Island where, when I was a child, I would go to visit my great-great-aunt in her tiny cabin at Smelt Bay.  My aunt, Peggy Newsham, was the Queen of Cortes. She was tiny, at under five feet tall, but she was a feisty Irish lady, more than making up for her diminutive size with a big personality. I remember she had a driver’s license that that was only legal on Cortes Island. When visiting the island recently, I was told that islanders would see her barrelling down the road in her VW bug and pull over to get out of her way.

I find that in my work at the Museum, my thoughts often turn to Cortes Island and the colourful characters who have shaped its history alongside my aunt. It has been the homeland of the Klahoose First Nation for thousands of years, their deep history carved into the landscape. The much younger settler community got its start in the late 1880s with the arrival of the Manson brothers. Cortes’ largest settlement, Manson’s Landing was named for the brothers from Shetland, Michael and John, who became the first Europeans to pre-empt land on the Island. Both had large families and many still living on Cortes can claim descent from one of these two men.

I was recently talking with the photographer David Ellingsen, whose exhibition The Last Stand is currently on display at the Museum, about his Cortes connections. David is descended from Michael Manson who was his great-great-grandfather. He is also descended from another notable Cortes family, the Ellingsens, his grandparents May and Elmer settling there in the 1940s.  Sigurd Ellingsen, Elmer’s father, developed and patented the design for a jack for hand loggers working on the coast to compete with the famous Gilchrist Jack. The Ellingsen Jack was lighter and had a gear system giving it more torque to shift heavy logs out of the dense undergrowth of the pacific rain forest. The Museum has an Ellingsen Jack on permanent display in our galleries.

There were other loggers scattered through David’s family tree, “George Freeman, and George’s son Wilf (David’s great-grandfather and great-uncle), felled the trees whose stumps are seen in the photographs of The Last Stand. On the family’s land on the south end of Cortes, they cut the old growth forest by hand with the crosscut saw – also known as the ‘misery whip’.”

When describing his exhibition David notes, “from falling old growth trees to creating local sustainable harvest initiatives, five generations of my family have been involved in the forest industry here in BC… It was in this familial context, filtered through contemporary environmental issues and thoughts of my own responsibilities, that the seeds of this series were sown.”

In the course of our conversation, I discovered that while my aunt was the Queen of Cortes, David’s great-grandmother, Eva Freeman, envied the title. A friendly rivalry between my aunt and Eva gave a smile to many on the island. Eva’s annual “Fatima” dance at the local community hall, with a stuffed snake, added fuel to the fire but could not dislodge the crown.

The Last Stand will be on display at the Museum from June 21st to November 10th.  A memorial to my great-great-aunt can be found in the garden at the Cortes Island Museum which reads “Dedicated to Peggy Newsham Queen of Cortes Island.”

The Last Stand exhibit at the Museum at Campbell River