Naturalist James George French with Russki in 1914.

Naturalist James George French

Elida Peers writes about the history of the Sooke region

The Sooke Region has always attracted a variety of incredibly talented and interesting people.

Among these is James George French, a naturalist who arrived on the island in the late 1800s from Bristol, England, where he had been a student of zoology and biology.

Some reports say that he arrived on the Atlantic coast and walked part of the way across Canada.  Sometimes early settlers were remittance men, and Mr. French may have been in this category.

At any rate, he loved animals, and one of the first places he set up was in Saanich, where he established a menagerie of circus animals, which he overwintered while they rested up from their circus circuit.  Among his tenants were a lion and an elephant, and his occupation drew a mixed reaction from his neighbours. This 1914 photo shows “Russki,” a bear that he kept in his Saanich pens.

In 1889 he married into one of our early families. His bride was Dora Jane, eldest daughter of pioneers John Goudie and Mary Ann Vautrin. He pre-empted Section 79 (Renfrew District) in Shirley, and for the next decades alternated his time between Saanich and Shirley.

The French children – Ivan, Hazel, Oscar, Wilfred and Daniel were all born in Saanich, though the sons chose to make their homes and earn their livelihoods in the woods industry throughout the Sooke/Otter/Shirley area.

Skilled in animal husbandry, Mr French also kept animals on his Section 79 property and family members recall a series of cougars that were housed there.  Children who grew up in the area recall that though fascinated by the animals, they felt somewhat intimidated by their keeper.

The family carved a place in history for themselves through their pioneering settlement on the western shores, and their descendants now make their homes in many places throughout BC.  James George French passed away in 1952.

In time, the French family chose to honour their patriarch by making the beautiful oceanfront property available to the government of British Columbia as a park.  French Beach Provincial Park, 145 acres of near-wilderness splendor, was dedicated on June 12, 1981.

 

 

Elida Peers,

Historian

Sooke Region Museum

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