“Grudge not the poor miner his food”: Rebecca Gibbs, Barkerville Laundress and Poet
Written and researched by Bailey Garden, BCLHC Project Manager
Much of the colonial history of this province has centered the perspectives of white male settlers who came in search of gold and glory. While gold miners tended to work on their own claims, some of the earliest labour organizing in British Columbia was among the coal miners; dangerous conditions, exploitative bosses and long hours prompted these workers to fight back many times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is not that women of the time were non-existent – their involvement is well documented – but it is rare that we hear a woman’s perspective of what they witnessed and felt as community members regarding the miserable working conditions early labourers endured, much less the perspective of a woman of colour. Poetry by Rebecca Gibbs, resident of Barkerville and one of Canada’s first Black female poets, provides us with a window into settler life in the central interior of BC.
Rebecca Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1808. Very little is known about her early life story. After the founding of Pennsylvania in 1682, the colony became the region’s main port for the import of slaves; in 1780, the Gradual Emancipation Act began a very slow process of ending slavery in the state. By the time that Rebecca was born, slavery was largely absent in the capital city of Philadelphia but lingered in the state of Pennsylvania overall until mid-century. Whether Rebecca or her parents were born into slavery, or why she came to Canada is unknown. Her birth year of 1808 was the same year the US officially abolished the transatlantic slave trade, following the same abolition by Great Britain in 1807.
Life in Canada
More than 50 years later, Rebecca Gibbs is listed in the Victoria Real Estate Directory of 1864 as owning property on Fort Street. Sources suggest she was a sister-in-law to Mifflin Gibbs, the first Black person to hold an elected position in British Columbia and the second in Canada overall. It is believed Rebecca was married to one of his brothers, Isaac or Richard Gibbs, but records are not conclusive. We do know that 1868, Rebecca had made her way to what was then the brand-new, booming town of Barkerville – named for the working-class English prospector William Barker who struck gold in the area just 6 years prior.
The find brought people of all backgrounds to the area, and Barkerville quickly became the largest settlement north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. A significant number of the thousands who sought gold were Chinese immigrants, who established BC’s first Chinatown on the outskirts of the settlement. Local Indigenous people panned for gold or were hired to help white miners work their claims, skillfully packing in goods through the harsh terrain by horseback.
Like so many others in the heart of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Rebecca Gibbs worked hard and wore many hats. She opened a laundry in Barkerville and published poems in the local paper, the Cariboo Sentinel. Isaac P. Gibbs (b. 1827), Mifflin’s younger brother, is known to have lived in Barkerville with a wife and was noted as having lost his barbershop in the fire that devastated the town on Sept. 16th, 1868. Given that he was nearly 20 years younger than Rebecca, it is unlikely he was her husband; ancestry records list Rebecca’s husband as Richard, but again, there is no solid evidence of this relationship. She was recorded as both Rebecca Gibbs and Mrs. R. Gibbs by the Cariboo Sentinel, which may have stood for Richard or Rebecca but indicates that Gibbs was a married name.
Rising “Pheonix like” From the Ashes
“Mrs. R. Gibbs saved her things, but lost her house”, noted the Sentinel. “Ere the smoke of the old town has died away, a new town, Pheonix like, has sprung from the ashes thereof. Already are there over thirty houses standing in symmetrical order on the old site, and the foundation of several others laid and many more would yet have been in the course of erection were it possible to obtain carpenters and tools.” Rebecca Gibbs is listed among those who rebuilt. Her first poem published in the local paper was about the fire.
Rebecca’s most notable poem, etched on her grave marker, is “The Old Red Shirt” (1869). Her words paint a picture of a man who brings a threadbare shirt to the laundress to repair, leading her to reflect on wealth, work, miners, and their mothers.
It was republished in Sawney’s Letters and Cariboo Rhymes (Toronto: W.S. Johnson & Co., 1895), that Early Canadiana Online (ECO) has digitized.
Rebecca also published a poem in commemoration of Judge Chartres Brew, a “just and fair” community local who died in May 1870. She was recorded in the Sentinel as a witness in a local court case, but little else is known about her life in Barkerville.
Rebecca Gibbs passed away Nov. 14, 1873 in Victoria, BC at the age of 66 from bronchitis, and was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. The Victoria Black Peoples Society & the Old Cemeteries Society erected a headstone for her which lists nurse among her other occupations of poet and laundress. The engraving reads, “One of many black people who came to British Columbia to escape discrimination before the US Civil War. On the reverse side is the poem, “The Old Red Shirt”.
For the working people of BC, the gold rush established roads, steamship services and thriving settlements throughout the Interior of the province; but it also launched the province into an economy based on the exploitation of natural resources and the sweat and struggle of industrial labour. In the words of Rebecca Gibbs: “Have pity on men who earn your wealth, Grudge not the poor miner his food.” In the years following her death, miners and other industrial workers around the province began organizing into unions to improve their collective conditions.
BC Black History Awareness Society. “BC’s Black Pioneers”. Community Stories virtual exhibit, Digital Museums Canada, 2021. https://www.communitystories.ca/v2/bc-black-pioneers_les-pionniers-noirs-de-la-cb/story/one-of-canadas-first-black-female-poets-rebecca-gibbs/
British Columbia Death Index: 1872-1990. http://search-collections.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Genealogy/BasicSearch.
Karyn Huenemann. ‘On the Death of Judge Brew,” by Rebecca Gibbs. 19 Mar. 2018, https://ceww.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/on-the-death-of-judge-brew-by-rebecca-gibbs/.
Kilian, C. Go Do Some Great Thing, op.cit., 1st edition pp. 95; 2nd edition pp. 79-80.
Library Company of Philadelphia. “Black founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic”. 2011. https://librarycompany.org/blackfounders/section4.htm#:~:text=In%201780%20there%20were%20about,numbers%20up%20to%20about%201847
Mickleburgh, Rod. On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement. BC Labour Heritage Centre Society, Harbour Publishing, Vancouver. 2018.
[Unknown]. (1868, September 29). The Cariboo Sentinel [N]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0171526