John Freemont Smith was a pioneer of the North Thompson Valley. (Archive photo)

John Fremont Smith: Local pioneer

John Fremont Smith found coal in Chu Chua in 1890. He organized the Kamloops Coal Company and they subsequently shipped several loads of coal down the river on the S.S. Peerless. The quality was good and the market strong, but the cost of transportation proved prohibitive.

Who was John Fremont Smith? An amazing man. He was one of the first Black aldermen in Canada, and was elected to the 1905 Kamloops Council. His story is far more intriguing than that of most municipal politicians. His adventures and ambitions spanned half the world and dozens of occupations.

Smith was born in 1850 in Frederickstedt, Island of St. Croix, which was then the Danish West Indies. Early motivation, coupled with an obviously keen mind was the springboard to a life of adventure. He won a scholarship as a teenager to a school in Copenhagen, and then won another scholarship to study at a Jesuit College in Liverpool, England. As well as academic studies, the young man learned the trade of boot-making, a trade that was to serve him well in later life. When his schooling was finished he began the traditional ‘grand tour’ of Europe, but with a difference – he earned his way as a cobbler.

Once he had seen all he wanted of the ‘Old World’, he set out for the ‘New’. At the age of 22 he decided to see what foreign shores were like, and sailed to Peru, intending to settle there. Instead he returned to Liverpool and shortly thereafter boarded a ship bound for San Francisco via the famous Cape Horn. He stopped briefly in San Francisco, but the stories of the gold fields further north lured him to Victoria, B.C. He arrived in Victoria almost one year after leaving Liverpool.

Knowing that miners couldn’t mine in bare feet he opened a shoe store and gained an excellent reputation as a boot-maker. Soon his wandering urge got the best of him and he spent one season away at the gold fields, returning to marry his sweetheart, Mary Anastasia Miller, in 1877. Ever restless, the Smiths moved to New Westminster in 1881, and soon on to Lytton. Lytton at that time was the centre for Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R) surveying and construction, and was a much more important centre than it is today.

An interesting sidelight to Smith’s career is that several times he served as juror at trials presided over by the famous judge of B.C., Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, erroneously called, “The Hanging Judge”.

In Lytton, Smith became acquainted with James B. Leighton who ran a freight line from Savona to Lytton. Leighton advised Smith to move to Kamloops. In 1884, Smith took his advice, as Kamloops had become the C.P.R. centre. The Smiths traveled to Kamloops by Scuito’s stage to Savona, and then by steamer to Spallumcheen.

Smith bought land in Kamloops and built a house and a small cabin for a shoe store. But his interests were too wide ranging for this to be his only activity, and so he also preempted land at Louis Creek, and moved there in 1886. The mining fever which gripped much of the province obviously had its hold on Smith and he satisfied his prospecting urges by discovering gold at Dunn Lake. Any of his travels would have been on foot or horseback since C.N. didn’t lay tracks through this part of the country until 1912.

Ever the entrepreneur, Smith opened the first store in Louis Creek in 1886. He continued to prospect and collect mineral samples from lakes and creeks. Apparently unable to find enough to do to fill his 24 hour days, he began a long career as a prolific freelancer. He made frequent contributions to the Cincinnati Tribune, the Plaindealer, the Detroit Times and the Vancouver World, as well as the Kamloops’ Inland Sentinel. He was a good writer, with his work appealing to American readership in cities which had so recently been carved from the frontier.

For the princely sum of $25 per annum Smith also became the first postmaster at Louis Creek.

In 1886 Smith also led an expedition to the upper reaches of the North Thompson to investigate the possibilities of the fur trade. He was accompanied by the head of the Kamloops Shuswap Band, Chief Louis, and some other members of the band.

What Smith saw apparently intrigued him beyond fur bearing animals, as he returned in 1891 to prospect. He found mica at Tete Jaune Cache and established a mine. Once again he was faced with the problem of transportation and he was unable to bring his high grade ore to market. Smith was years ahead of his time. – the population was too sparse and the methods of transportation too slow and uncertain.

The energetic Smith, also was a strong advocate for a route to the Yukon gold fields through the North Thompson. To aid this cause he cut a trail from Mt. Olie to Bridge Lake in 1897, which was a trek of approximately 48 miles.

In 1898 the Smith’s Louis Creek home burned down. The family, with seven children, moved to Kamloops where he became very active in civic affairs. He was largely responsible for the organization of the Agricultural Association in 1895, the Conservative Association in 1898, the Board of Trade in 1902, and the Rifle Association, Moral Reform Association, Children’s Aid, and the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Animals. He was elected in 1902 as the first Black Alderman in Kamloops, appointed City Assessor in 1908, acted as Indian Agent for the District from 1912 to 1923. and was the president of the first Bull Sale which became a long standing annual event.

John Fremont Smith lived in Kamloops until his death in 1934 at the age of 83..

His obituary stated, “One of Mr. Smith’s proudest pasts was that he was the first pioneer of the North Thompson Valley.”

The Freemont Block building in Kamloops is named for John Freemont Smith.

Sources: An article by C. Heather Allen, Barriere Bulletin, February 4, 1981

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