Deas Island

6240 River Road
Delta, BC

First Settled: 1871
 

Living in Delta likely means we drive by Deas Island often, if not on a daily basis via the George Massey Tunnel. On other occasions we access Deas Island for various recreational purposes.

Boundary Bay Airport Hangar - date unknown
click photo for more pictures
Deas Island Regional Park contains three significant heritage buildings (Burrvilla, Delta Agricultural Hall, and the Inverholme Schoolhouse) that are representative of Ladner's early lifestyles. In fact, Deas Island is no longer an island, per se. The original channel, part of the Fraser River, is now a slough, having been cut off from the main river, thus affording public access.

Without the construction of Highway 99 and the tunnel the person that originally "owned" the island likely would have faded from our daily jargon as have the names of the half dozen or so owners of vanished fish canneries on the Fraser delta.

The island is named after John Sullivan Deas, described as a mulatto, born in 1838 in South Carolina. As a teenager he was advertising himself as a tinsmith. Deas, and his brother Zephaniah, joined the migration to California on the gold rush trail.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1860, Deas plied his trade as a tinsmith. During this period in California the black community in pre-Civil War times was troubled with legislative uncertainty. The mood was such that an exodus of the California black community to the Fraser River gold fields occurred between 1858 and 1865.

The black community was choosing liberty under British law and was welcomed by B.C. Governor James Douglas.

The early settlers were able to purchase land and skilled trades were in demand. Deas arrived in Victoria in 1862 and married Fanny Harris with whom he had eight children. Deas spent time in the gold fields in Yale until approximately 1868 when he and family arrived back in Victoria to operate a hardware and stove business.

Deas started a fish canning operation in 1871 on the island named after him. He proceeded to erect a cannery and assorted buildings readying for the 1873 fishing season. It seems apparent Deas had backers in the canning business to allow him to pre-empt and purchase the 60-acre island.

Deas had an early start in what became a thriving business as one of two canneries on the lower Fraser. By 1878 there were eight canneries in operation. >p>Deas was becoming thoroughly frustrated by the competition above and below his location cutting off access to the returning salmon.

Deas applied to government for an exclusive lease of "drifts" near his cannery. This request was turned down by both federal and provincial lawmakers as "unjust to fishing interest as a whole."

After this setback Deas remained in the canning business for one more season and sold his interests in 1878. Deas and his family then moved to Portland, Oregon. On July 22, 1880, Deas passed away at age 42, leaving his wife Fanny and seven remaining children.

John Sullivan Deas spent approximately 15 years in BC, seven of those in Delta, marked by prosperity. He became a citizen of his adopted country and a provincial voter. Visitors to Deas Island will view a rusted boiler from the cannery that cooked tinned salmon and walk on dikes originally constructed by Deas.

Suffice to say, he was a man substantially ahead of his time.