Local History Advent Calendar 2019 – Day 2 – William H. H. Johnson

Last year I took on the challenge of the first-ever Local History Advent Calendar! For 24 days in a row I presented random historical tidbits I’d collected over the previous year and presented them in the form of “treats” for my 2018 Local History Advent Calendar. This year, the “Heart of Mount Pleasant” was number 1 on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Watch List for 2019.  So I decided to choose Mount Pleasant as the theme for the Vanalogue Local History Advent Calendar for 2019.  Each day you can “open” a new historical treat. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder – 24 facts about Mount Pleasant history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

Day 2: Mount Pleasant’s William H.H. Johnson – varnish maker by day, author by night …


Like many Mount Pleasant creatives today, William H.H. Johnson (1839 – 1905?) supported his art with a day job. Johnson was not only a varnish maker, he was also a writer. He wrote the first slave narrative published by a British Columbian.

Johnson wrote  ‘The Horrors of Slavery‘ and ‘The Life of Wm. H.H. Johnson from 1839-1900, and the New Race‘ while living in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood from around 1901 to 1904.

1901 City Directory listing for 352 East 14th Avenue, Vancouver.

The 1901 Canada Census and the 1901 City Directories lists him as a 61-year-old widower living in Mount Pleasant and working as a varnish manufacturer.

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 11.06.08 PM
Portion of Goads 1897 (revised to 1901) Fire Insurance Plan showing Johnson’s residence at 352 E 14th and a varnish works building beside it.

Johnson lived in a house at 352 East 14th along with Henry Harvey (66), a drayman, and Henry’s wife Pheby (63). According to the 1901 census, all three were Canadian citizens born in the United States. Like Johnson, it is possible that the Harvey’s emigrated to Canada to escape slavery.

I learned about Johnson from author Wayde Compton who recently wrote the afterward to a new reprinting of William H. H. Johnson’s The New Race.

“In his memoir, Johnson writes an account of his mother’s flight from Kentucky to Indiana while pregnant with him. During his youth, his family were “station masters” of the Underground Railroad in various towns in Indiana, helping blacks escape to freedom in Canada. Although Indiana was ostensibly a free state, the law allowed bounty hunters to recapture those who had freed themselves. Johnson’s family ultimately fled to Ontario. Johnson migrated west to British Columbia, where he worked as a varnish maker in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant. There he wrote his life story. Johnson also wrote a tract called The Horrors of Slavery. Both works are included in this volume.”

Description of The New Race, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2019.

Original copies of both ‘The life of Wm. H.H. Johnson from 1839 to 1900, and the new race‘ (Bolam & Hornett, printers and publishers, 1904) and ‘The horrors of slavery‘ can be found at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

4 thoughts on “Local History Advent Calendar 2019 – Day 2 – William H. H. Johnson

  1. I love how you somehow manage to unearth these hidden gems…under represented/invisible history makers and mid-wife them into the 21st century. The revelation of Mr. Johnson’s Mt. Pleasant home serves to uncover and affirm the broadly based diversity of earliest Vancouver through present day. Thank you for this.

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