Photo Credit: Karen Alexander Hoshal | Times Colonist

How Well Do You Know Your Family’s Roots?

Black colonists existed, and thrived.

Descendant of the Islands first black pioneers tells a forgotten history

It’s crazy how quickly we can forget history.

If you dig, you’ll often be wowed by what you find.

This was the case for Karen Alexander Hoshal. She got curious about her family’s history after her young children asked why their grandfather’s skin was darker than theirs.

Karen realized she didn’t have an answer, and started looking for one.

When it comes to the histories of early Island pioneers, their lives are not always well documented, but their deaths often are.

“I hung out in a lot of cemeteries and read a lot of headstones,” Hoshal said in a Times Colonist story.

Sifting through funeral parlour records for the names of her great grandparents, Nancy and Charles Alexander, started to paint a rich family history Hoshal had never known.

The names could easily blend into a list of early pioneers, but they spent their lives standing out.

The Alexanders were among the first to answer a call to action from then-Governor Sir James Douglas in San Francisco.

Douglas, who was mixed race, could feel racial animosity increasing in California, and felt a move for many black citizens was warranted.

He worked to convince people to colonize what was then a tent city in Victoria.

The Alexanders were some of the first to get on a boat.

When they first arrived in 1858, Charles scouted the Fraser River for gold, and was fairly successful.

Amongst almost entirely white settlers of the Island, they made their claim to a chunk of land in Saanich, and began to write the Island’s black history through their lives.

Together, they ran a successful farm and had 12 children together.

Charles, a carpenter by trade, built the first school in South Sannich along with the Shady Creek Church (it operates today as the Central Saanich United Church.)

He became one of its first preachers.

Nancy was one of the first women to join the Lakehill Women’s Institute, a chapter of a national group which helped teach local women cooking, ceramics, weaving and other skills.

Life was full of ups and downs. They faced prejudice, and suffered the deaths of four of their children.

Unwavering, they persevered, lived fully and became very well respected.

By the end of their lives, they had helped build a thriving community for all. They moved to the Swan Lake district, and later changed to the Lake Hill district.

Their home was called “Rockabella Gardens,” where they celebrated their Golden (1899) wedding anniversary with many friends and families. They also celebrated their Diamond (1909) anniversary there.

Their surviving children went off to live rich lives.

Another of their descendants, Doug Hudlin, affectionately known as “Gentleman Umpire” inducted Canadian Baseball Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, was a founding member of the BC Black History Awareness Society.

Image Courtesy of Barbara Hudlin

Horshal, created a full Family Tree for the Alexanders, and they have over 400 direct descendants on the Island.

She is glad her children, who are of mixed descent, have gotten to hear their story.

Black history is often characterized by struggle and suffering through unfair circumstances.

The prosperity and peace achieved by the Alexanders are a reminder of how much black colonists achieved. And how many thrived against the odds.

“I wanted to explain it to them [her children]… that’s the reason I started telling this history.”