Local History Advent Calendar 2022 – Day 23 – William H. H. Johnson

It’s back! I has been 3 years since I published my last Local History Advent Calendar! So much has happened since that last time—including the publication of my first book, Mount Pleasant Stories—that I figured it was about time to dust off the Local History Advent Calendar once again. Similar to a regular advent calendar but instead of chocolate treats, each day you “open” a new historical treat. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder– 24 facts or stories about local history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

William H. H. Johnson (1839-1905?)  was an early Black settler in Mount Pleasant; who is notable for writing the first slave narrative published by a British Columbian. Johnson wrote –‘The Horrors of Slavery‘ (1901) and ‘The Life of Wm. H.H. Johnson from 1839-1900, and the New Race‘  (1904) – while living in Mount Pleasant.

Born in Indiana, Johnson was the son of a fugitive slave mother and a free father. During his youth, his family were “station masters”of the Underground Railroad in Indiana, helping Blacks escape to freedom in Canada. Fearing for their own safety, Johnson’s family ultimately fled to Ontario. Johnson writes, “I was born a slave in a free state, but was never one in practice; while we were very young my father brought his wife and children to Canada to prevent that.”

Johnson arrived in Vancouver with his wife Fannie in September 1890:

Shortly after my arrival in this city I secured a location, on which to build a house, on 14th Avenue, Mount Pleasant which was then comparatively a wilderness, though in every other way a charming location. My wife was well pleased with the change, especially as regards the climate, the winters here being much milder than in Ontario. We found the people in Vancouver very friendly, and in fact I cannot say that I have ever lived among a more sociable set than in this city… After clearing a couple of lots I erected a shop and started the manufacture of varnish.”  – The Life of Wm. H.H. Johnson from 1839-1900, and the New Race  (1904) 

1896 Vancouver City Directory listing for William H H Johnson, varnish maker
Portion of Goads 1897 (revised to 1901) Fire Insurance Plan showing Johnson’s Varnish Works.

After Johnson’s wife Fannie died in 1897, he invited Henry Harvey, an expressman for the CPR, and his wife Pheby to live with him in his house on East 14th.  Also living with Johnson, for a time, are Caribbean-born varnish maker Charles R. Greenway and his wife Florence. 

Mysteriously, William H.H. Johnson disappears from all records by 1905; it is believed that he died that year.

You can read this and other Mount Pleasant stories in my walking tour book, Mount Pleasant Stories. Copies are available for purchase in Mount Pleasant at Pulpfiction Books – 2422 Main Street and in Chinatown at Massy Books – 229 E Georgia St. It makes a great gift or stocking stuffer for your favourite local history buff!

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