Of all the
beautiful lakes on Vancouver Island, one of the most spectacular is
Buttle Lake. Named after the explorer John Buttle, this lake is 32
kilometres long and is found nestled within the confines of
Strathcona Provincial Park. This was the first provincial park in
British Columbia and was established on March 1, 1911, by the
Premier Sir Richard McBride.
England, John James Taylor Buttle (1838-1908) came to British
Columbia in 1858 with a party of Royal Engineers when Vancouver
Island was still a Crown Colony. Corporal Buttle worked for the
Oregon Boundary Commission from the spring of 1858 to the spring of
1862, and in 1863 was employed by Alfred Waddington on his proposed
route from Bute Inlet, up the Homathco River and into the Cariboo
gold-fields. In 1864, John Buttle became a member of the first
Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition which explored the southern
part and west coast of the island.
In 1861 the
Pre-emption Proclamation had stimulated agricultural settlement at
Cowichan and Comox, since by this procedure settlers might take up
unsurveyed land prior to arranging payment to the government. In
1863, Governor James Douglas, in an address to the Colonial
Legislature, spoke of "the great importance of providing a
Geological Survey of the Colony." The government was interested
in knowing just how much land was available as the amount of land
either sold or pre-empted in 1862 was almost double that in 1861.
The discovery of gold in the Fraser Valley in 1858 and the Cariboo
in 1863, had also sparked interest in the possibility of there being
gold on the island.
sufficient reasons for launching an exploring expedition in the
mid-1860's, but what was required was an official sponsor and this
arrived when Arthur Edward Kennedy became governor in March 1864.
Upon visiting the gold diggings at Goldstream near Victoria, Kennedy
pledged official support for an expedition by a government
contribution of two dollars for every dollar contributed by the
general public. A committee was formed by some of Victoria's leading
citizens to organize an expedition and to arouse interest and
financial support the committee then arranged a public meeting.
the opportunity to command the expedition, were two scientists newly
arrived to the West Coast. Dr. Robert Brown , a young twenty-two
year old Scotsman, arrived on Vancouver Island in 1863 for the
purpose of collecting seeds, roots and plants for the Botanical
Association of Edinburgh. Brown wasn't satisfied with being a mere
'seed collector' as he was a trained botanist, so he applied to
command the expedition. The other scientist, Dr. David Walker, was a
member of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Walker had also
arrived in Victoria in 1863 following an expedition in search of Sir
John Franklin in the high Arctic, and upon hearing of the proposed
expedition, applied to be its leader. However, on June 1 1864, the
committee appointed Brown as the commander of the Vancouver Island
Exploring Expedition (VIEE).
was very successful for Robert Brown and the VIEE but unfortunately
it was due to his contract with the Botanical Association that led
him to relinquish the command of the second Exploring Expedition in
1865. He suggested that the leadership be handed over to John Buttle.
committee accepted Brown's recommendation that Buttle become the new
commander and Buttle's first job was to select a base for a more
ambitious expedition to explore the west coast. After a seventeen
day reconnaissance, Buttle recommended that the main exploration
should begin at Clayoquot Sound approximately where Robert Brown's
party had finished the year before and should continue to Nimpkish
via Nootka Sound and the Tahsis Inlet.
essential as the summer was fast approaching and the party had to be
organized. Supplies were accumulated and the other members were
chosen, seven in total including Buttle. The party comprised of
Magin Hancock, an ex-Cariboo miner, Thomas Forgie who had mined on
the Columbia for two years, Francis McCausland, an old Australian
miner, Thomas Laughton, an interpreter, and two halfbreed native
guides, Tomo Antonie and Timothy O'Brien. It was obvious by the
men's occupations that there was a strong tendency towards mineral
exploration, but all these men were well versed in the outdoors and
were capable of carrying out the exploration of the area that was
required of them.
On June 19,
the Navy's H.M.S. Forward, left Esquimalt and landed Buttle's party
in Clayoquot Sound two days later, where they commenced to set up a
base camp before proceeding to explore the surrounding area. For the
next five weeks Buttle and his men explored the various arms and
inlets of Clayoquot Sound until on July 28 they arrived at a point
two miles up the Bear (Bedwell) River. At this point the Bear River
forked and the party split into two. Buttle, with McCausland,
Antoine and two other natives who joined the expedition from
Oinimitis, the native village at the mouth of the Bear River,
explored the right branch (now called the Ursus River), while
Hancock and the rest proceeded up the left branch (Bedwell River).
Both parties took with them ten days' provisions and started out on
the morning of July 29 on their respective journeys.
periodic reports to the Daily British Colonist newspaper in Victoria
and on August 12, 1865, they printed:
ascended one of the mountains arising from our camp, accompanied
by Tomo and the two Indians. At about 4000 feet we came to snow;
this continued in various depths till we arrived at the summit, an
altitude of about 6000 feet above the level of the sea. From the
summit I got a good view in the direction of Comox; and in what I
should judge to be the centre of the Island, I saw a very large
body of water - I should suppose twenty miles long. It is either a
chain of lakes, or else one very large lake with islands in it.
Buttle's personal diary of the trip dated August 2, he wrote:
"…more in the centere (sic) of the Island I saw a beautiful
sheet of water at the very least twenty miles long it appears to be
a chain of lakes averageing (sic) about two miles in width and
surrounded by low hills …"
ascending the mountain Buttle returned to camp believing he had
discovered a large body of water previously unseen. Upon reuniting
with Magin Hancock and his party, who claimed to have found gold in
payable quantities up the left fork, the party continued with the
exploration of the west coast arriving at Nootka Sound and then
travelling as far as Conuma (Woss) Lake via Tahsis Inlet. Buttle was
hoping to get to Nimpkish, but illness and bad weather forced him to
turn back to Victoria. There John Buttle and his party had to deal
with angry prospectors who had rushed to the Bear River upon hearing
of gold, only to be disillusioned by the quantities. The miners
complained long and loud saying Hancock and Forgie were
"irresponsible", and Buttle "wasn't fit to command
the cook's galley". They believed they had been hoaxed and the
government was to blame for allowing the reports to be published.
for the Bear River fiasco, Buttle moved on to California and was
rarely heard of again on Vancouver Island.
twenty-seven years before any European was to again see the lake
Buttle believed he saw. In 1892 the B.C. Government employed William
Ralph to survey the western boundary of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E
& N) Railway Company Land Grant from Otter Point near Sooke to
the foot of Crown Mountain. Ralph travelled in a straight line
taking bearings as he went. On June 25, 1892, Ralph wrote:
117.5 miles, height 7,000 feet, Buttle's Lake is visible ahead. We
now descend very steep to Buttle's Lake at 123 mile, height 800
feet. Buttle's Lake is 18 miles long and from 20 to 30 chains
wide; it runs nearly north and south, is surrounded by high
mountains, and its outlet is Campbell River.
Ralph was able to confirm that indeed there was a large lake and
that in all probability it was the lake John Buttle had seen. Four
years later the exploring rector William Bolton visited Buttle's
Lake while on his north/south traverse of Vancouver Island. Bolton
wrote in his dairy on August 5, 1896:
so far as the writer's knowledge extends, the peer of all the
Islands lakes in its scenic beauty. Banked on both sides by high
mountains, snowcapped and rugged.
There is no
doubt that Buttle Lake is the jewel of Strathcona Park and its name
is befitting of the early explorer but the question must be asked,
'Did John Buttle really see the lake that now bears his name.'
years a number of people who have spent many of their free summer
days exploring Strathcona Park have questioned Buttle's account and
sighting of the large body of water. They have just said Buttle's
sense of direction seems slightly in error, but it is probable that
the body of water he saw was indeed Buttle's Lake. It was never
questioned any further. From Buttle's report to the newspaper we
have to wonder why he said it was: "…either a chain of lakes
or one very large lake with islands in it," and yet in his
diary: "…it appears to be a chain of lakes," not one big
lake. Was there some doubt in his mind when it came to writing his
report. Maybe this was brought about by the weather not being clear
on the summit day; perhaps there was an inversion in the weather
happening. An inversion is a common occurrence on the island and is
when a thick cloud layer lingers in the valley bottoms but above, on
the mountain tops, it is clear. As the day draws on this cloud layer
will usually start to break up and eventually disperse. Maybe while
Buttle was on the summit of the mountain the clouds were beginning
to disperse below and he could see the occasional glimmer of water
and assumed that there was a large body of water below.
Buttle's map we are able to identify which summit he was standing
on, and as mountaineers we know that it is impossible to see Buttle
Lake from this point. The Buttle Lake is still twenty kilometres
away to the north as the crow flies. There are mountains in between
that are taller by 400 metres (1300 feet) such as Big Interior
Mountain and Nine Peaks and we also know that even from these
summits you can't see Buttle Lake. The only lakes that can be seen
from where Buttle was are Leader Lake at the head of McBride Creek
which was just slightly to the north of east, McBride Lake and Great
Central Lake which McBride Creek drains into eight kilometres from
Leader Lake. The other lake that Buttle could see would be Sproat
Lake in the distance. At the head of the Ursus River, not far from
where Buttle stood, is a pass and on the other side of that is the
Taylor River. The Taylor River flows into Sproat Lake and it is
possible that Buttle mistook this as Great Central Lake as it is a
long similar looking lake.
mentions that the lake/lakes appear to be surrounded by low hills.
The mountains surrounding Buttle Lake are anything but low as
Ralph's account states that it is surrounded by high mountains up to
7000 feet. It would be more reasonable to assume that it was Leader,
McBride and Great Central Lakes that John Buttle saw from the top of
the mountain. With clouds down in the valley it is plausible to
think that this could be one large lake or a chain of lakes, which
it in fact is.
what, we are only speculating but nowadays on our side we do have
accurate maps available and better knowledge of the area in
question. Whether John Buttle ever saw the lake that bears his name
we shall never know for certain but it is a fitting name for one of
the most beautiful lakes on Vancouver Island.
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