Located on an island on the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, is the Deas Island Regional Park with its cottonwood trees and calm waters. The park has over the years been a great place for a walk, a picnic, hiking, fishing, biking, birdwatching, and sightseeing. What many do not know is that the park took its name from John Sullivan Deas, a founder of the salmon canning industry in British Columbia.
Indeed, more than 140 years ago, the island was the site of Deas’ cannery. A tinsmith by trade, Deas is believed to have pioneered the salmon canning industry in British Columbia, becoming the leading canner on the Fraser River in the 1870s. He was among many immigrants who came from around the world to British Columbia and became one of the most prosperous Black men there, earning fame in a fishing industry that would come to define the economy of British Columbia.
Born in 1838 in South Carolina among some groups of Black people freed from slavery, Deas was a trained tinsmith by the time he was in his teens. In 1860, he left the South to seek a better life in California but soon found out that things were no better there. The state was unwelcoming to Blacks and did not even allow them to vote. Deas lived there for some time, doing his work as a tinsmith while making business contacts that helped him get to Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 1862.
He subsequently got married to a woman from Hamilton (Ontario) known as Fanny Harris and they gave birth to eight children. While starting a family, Deas worked in Yale, running a hardware store in downtown Victoria. There was the Gold Rush, but Deas believed that there was another way he could succeed, and that was through fish canning.
Historians have described the 1870s also as the Salmon Rush as anyone with ample capital could open a cannery. Deas knew how to make cans, so salmon canning was an ideal business idea. He started working with English ship captain and entrepreneur Edward Stamp, who had already expressed interest in the fish canning business. In 1871, Deas started making the cans for the salmon business while Stamp provided capital. They worked together during the first season but Stamp suddenly passed away in England after he went there to raise more capital.
Some three investors who acted as agents for Stamp took over his operations and continued the business with Deas. They began operating at Cooperville, not far from what is currently Deas Island. Montecristo Magazine reports that soon, that location wasn’t suitable for the business as the shallow water of the shore made it difficult for ships coming in to load cans.
“Then, in 1873, Deas realized that the deep water surrounding the island near their operation would eliminate those issues. Through the process of pre-emption, a term used to describe a settler’s rights to purchase public land by developing it, Deas acquired the island and quickly set up a large-scale project,” the magazine writes.
The project came with the construction of outbuildings, warehouses, a wharf, and living quarters. Soon, Deas started leading the business, owning the land and buildings and getting his name on the cans of salmon he exported. The salmon was mostly shipped to England. By 1877, he had the leading commercial salmon cannery.
But in a short while that year, he started facing serious competition. Other canneries opened and he got involved in legal battles over fish runs and land. His sales also dropped and so he sold his business, bought a home in Portland, and went back to the U.S. with his family.
A pioneer of the salmon fishing industry on the west coast of Canada, Deas passed away on July 22, 1880, aged 42. The tunnel under the south arm of the Fraser River once bore his name and now what remains of his cannery is a historical plaque and the graves of two of his children, according to Vancouver Sun.