Tom Thornhill

A Princess led him to the Skeena

By Les Watmough

The following tale of Tom Thornhill was compiled by Thornhill Regional District Director Les Watmough. The community was 101 years old that year (1993) and a monument to Tom Thornhill - located under the new bridge off Queensway - was be dedicated Friday at 7 p.m.  The Monument Commemoration to Tom and Eliza Thornhill was on July 30, 1993.

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For the world outside, the Skeena River of the early 1800's was a little known land.

Yet it was well known by the original inhabitants. By the middle of the century the Europeans were coming but the original people still controlled the river. As late as 1860, travel on the river was by permission only and all trade on the river was controlled by the Kitselas people of the Tsimshian nation. Occupation of the canyon that still bears their name gave them power to control the river.

Perhaps the last of the great Chiefs of the Kitselas was Walter Wright and Walter had a sister named Eliza.

In those days, there were great migrations of the north coast people to the places were jobs and money were to be had. The great Fraser Valley offered many opportunities. Eliza Wright travelled there, met and married an Englishman and became Mrs. Thomas Job Thornhill.

Tom Thornhill was born in Kent, England, in 1855. His parents brought him to the new, great land of Canada when he was three and settled in Victoria. Canada was then a land of mystery as much of Tom's life is today.                                                                               

We know his father was deeply involved in church affairs in Victoria and that he had two younger brothers. We assume that his trade was a blacksmith, and from that trade he developed some sort of lung disorder.

Theirs was a family of some means, as it appears that Tom travelled the Lower Mainland freely, and they were well known in the upper circles. Tolmie, father of a premier of BC, was included in that circle.

During one of Tom's trips to the Fraser Valley, he met a member of the Kitselas "royal family", Eliza Wright. He must have been smitten immediately. Here was a man, educated, well-connected, travelled, handsome, marrying a native girl - true, a royal - but remember and see through the eyes of those days. And so the mystery starts.

After the marriage, Tom and Eliza did not stay on Vancouver Island but set out to the north, to Eliza's land. Tom left behind all that he had. He was not a pioneer, one that sets out with high dreams of a new land and a fortune to be made. If not that, then what? An escapee? A dreamer? Frustrated by the society of his day? Or just totally in love with this Princess Eliza?

They set out for a land, in that day, of primitive wilderness - the end of the world to Tom's family and friends, unknown to Tom, but a complete and comfortable home to Eliza. She was the Chief's sister; in any land, that had deep meaning.

They arrived at the Skeena's mouth the first and experimental year of the commercial steamboat trade. We are not told if they travelled on one of those boats, or if they came back with her brothers and sisters in the traditional way, the cedar dugout canoe.

The honeymooners did arrive at their home site in the summer of 1892 and located, as her royal lines allowed, on one of the best fishing sites on the lower river (below the Big Canyon). Fishing sites were all important to the people of that day; the sites were importance, power, and riches. So Eliza came home to the property and position that her blood lines claimed. But Tom came too and settled below the little canyon, becoming the first white man to settle here.

There were many others who passed through - explorers, gold seekers, missionaries and fur traders. But their eyes were always up the river. Their passage was made possible by the permission of the Kitselas Chiefs.

In 1893, the Tshimshian monopoly on the river was broken. 1892 was the year it was proven that steamboats could reach Hazelton and that there was a reason to travel there - gold, minerals, and fur. And land was available for settlement.
Many have been searching to find the spot where
Tom Thornhill was buried, but without success.

Tom and Eliza had their empire. A cabin by the Skeena on the best fishing site, and unclaimed land of fur for Eliza and a flat bench of good agricultural land for Tom. So they stayed to welcome the newcomers on the boats, to hunt and fish, for Eliza to trap and for Tom to farm the little place and to provide in his way for the riverboat travellers.

So much is a mystery, but they were here until they died - Eliza in 1907 and Tom in 1910. He is buried in Garden Island Cemetery July 20 1910. (Old Prince Rupert Cemetery located across the harbour from Prince Rupert at the mouth of Metlakalta Pass.) He would not go back south and did not mention his brothers in his will. That will left the 186 acres that Tom claimed under the Homestead Act in 1906 to three people: R.F. Tomlie of Victoria, Charles W.B. Clifford and John W. Patterson. In 1912, Clifford and Patterson sold the north half of this parcel to Tolmie for $2,500.

So Tom and Eliza passed, loving each other and the land not knowing (or perhaps not caring) that the land was worth a fortune.

We are sorry, but a picture of Eliza cannot be found.  Maybe you can help?

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