Reverend Alexander Dunn: Pioneer Preacher and Keeper of Settler History

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Stephenie “Effy” Orton graduated from SFU in the Fall of 2017 with a major in English and minor in History. Her love of analysis and writing led her to pursue English, but her love of culture and interest in what shaped people and communities, led her to the study of History.

In 1875, the Church of Scotland sent out four missionaries to re-establish the Church of Scotland in British Columbia. One of these men was Alexander Dunn. Dunn was born on March 30, 1843 to Peter Dunn and Jean Ritchie in Leochel Cushnie, Aberdeenshire. He received his education at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh[1] and on June 9, 1875, Dunn was licensed by the Presbytery of Glasgow and assigned to his first missionary posting in British Columbia. On August 31, 1875, Dunn arrived in Victoria. The following day at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Dunn was ordained as a minister, and with this, the Church of Scotland Presbytery of British Columbia was formed.[2]

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Fig. 1 Rev. Alexander Dunn and his wife, Annie (Kern) Dunn. Photo courtesy of Donald E. Waite.

Dunn’s first assignment was a massive undertaking. He was sent to the “Fraser Valley district,” a one hundred mile long and almost thirty mile wide area of heavy forest. The settlements under his charge were Upper Sumas, Matsqui, Mud Bay, South Arm (Ladner), North Arm (Richmond), Maple Ridge, Fort Langley, Langley Prairie, Aldergrove, Jones Landing, Mount Lehman, St. Mary’s Mission, and Johnson’s Landing.[3] Before Dunn’s arrival, the Fraser Valley area had been overseen by Rev. Robert Jamieson, the founder of the first Presbyterian church on the mainland, St. Andrew’s Church in New Westminster.[4] Unfortunately, the Rev. Jamieson had fallen ill and could no longer fulfill his duties in the area, so Dunn was sent as a replacement.

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Figure 2 St. Andrew’s Church, New Westminster, B.C. courtesy New Westminster Archives.

In his memoirs, Dunn recalls the feeling of isolation that came over him when he first arrived in the province. The “overwhelming stillness and solitude” of the dense forest struck him forcibly and drew a stark contrast to his busy, noisy and lively city home of Glasgow.[5] However, Dunn did not let the reality of his new life detract from his mission. Over the course of ten years, Dunn oversaw the erection of three churches in the Fraser Valley,[6] and played a central part placing the congregations in debtless positions.[7] However, it was not all smooth sailing for Dunn in the Fraser Valley. The dense forests, heavy rains, and poor road conditions (when there were roads) made Dunn’s constant traveling from settlement to settlement difficult and physically taxing. In 1882, the reverend went to Ontario and married Annie Kern. A year later, Dunn and his bride returned to the Fraser Valley and served the community for another three years.[8] After ten faithful years, the work and land that needed to be covered became too much for the minister, and in April 1886, the Rev. and Mrs. Dunn left the Fraser Valley mission field and went to Ontario for a few months of rest and recuperation.[9]

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Fig. 3 St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Fort Langley, one of the three churches Rev. Dunn built in the Fraser Valley. Photo courtesy of Donald E. Waite.

During the Dunn’s time in Ontario, there was a shift in church leadership. The churches in the Fraser Valley that had been under the covering of the Church of Scotland had been absorbed into the Presbytery of British Columbia. In his memoirs, Dunn notes “[in] April I left British Columbia as a Minister of the Church of Scotland. In November I returned a Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.”[10] Dunn was in favor of this transition because it made better geographical sense; communication and oversight were much easier to accomplish on a national scale and as the province and country grew, the Presbyterian Church of Canada became better established.[11]

Dunn’s next posting was in Alberni on Vancouver Island. The Alberni settlement was smaller in size and more suited to the abilities of the aging minister. Unfortunately, the settlement was struggling financially, and after two years neither the community nor Dunn could afford to have him and his wife stay. This fact, however, did not lessen the influence the minister had on the Alberni settlement. Over a short period of time, the settlers had come to revere the minister and his wife; their appreciation is evident through the community’s efforts to keep him for as long as they did. Throughout his stay, the Presbytery tried to relocate Dunn twice, and on both of these occasions the community petitioned against the transfer. When the day of departure did finally come, Dunn and his wife were fully aware of their value in the lives and hearts of the Alberni settlers.[12]

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Fig 4 view of Johnston Street, Alberni, B.C. Courtesy the Alberni District Historical Society and Community Archives.

In 1889, Dunn agreed to transfer back onto the mainland and minister to Mount Lehman and Whonnock. He acquired a piece of land from former HBC employee Robert Robertson and resided and ministered in Whonnock and the surrounding areas until his retirement in 1905.[13] Upon retirement, Dunn and his wife moved to New Westminster, and, in 1925, the beloved Reverend passed away.[14]

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Fig. 5 St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church manse, the home of Rev. Alexander Dunn. Langley Centennial Museum Photo #0132

Although Dunn’s ecclesiastical work is noteworthy, it does not fully capture the historical value of this man’s life. In September 1913, Dunn was awarded with an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree at Westminster Hall in Vancouver.[15] This award was given to acknowledge the minister’s “outstanding work over his thirty years of service in British Columbia.”[16] In the same year, his written work, Experiences in Langley and Memoirs of Prominent Pioneers, was published. It must be mentioned that Dunn’s writing reveals the cultural and social biases of the day. There is little record of Indigenous and settler interactions throughout his work, the only references being an incident between a “half-cast” and a Fort Langley Reeve, and canoe trips.[17] There is also little information given regarding his wife and their marriage. Her name is not mentioned once in the entire work. However, much can be said about Dunn’s efforts in documenting the histories of many Scottish settlers in British Columbia. In a section entitled, “Memoirs of Pioneers: Brief Sketches,” Dunn recalls the lives of twenty nine individuals, twelve of which emigrated from Scotland or had Scottish heritage. These biographical sketches are speeches Dunn gave at the funeral of each individual. On many of these occasions, he was asked to provide accounts of prominent pioneers of the Fraser Valley. Dunn saved and featured many of these articles in his work, along with various letters, sermons, sermon notes, and obituaries. Not only did his writing recall the life and characters of these pioneers, but it also recorded and preserved accounts of what settler life actually looked like for individuals throughout the province.[18]

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Fig. 6 Front page of Rev. Dunn’s published memoirs. Image courtesy of the University of Calgary.

In his book Dunn noted that: “[f]or a number of years [he] had intended to write some account of the work of laying the foundations of Presbyterianism in British Columbia, and had been collecting and preserving material for that purpose.”[19] In other words, Dunn’s efforts converted his mission into a historical record, and this record has become a primary source in the study of the spread of Presbyterianism and Scottish settlement in the Fraser Valley from 1875 – 1905.

–Stephenie Orton

 

 


Bibliography:

Dunn, Alexander. Experiences in Langley and Memoirs of Prominent Pioneers. Jackson Printing Co.: New Westminster, BC, 1919. PDF e-book. Accessed November 10, 2017.

“Object Description: 0132.” Langley Centennial Museum. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://collections.museum.tol.ca/LangleyCentennialMuseum/Portal.aspx?lang=en-US&p _AAAF=tab9.

Orr, Brian J. Bones of Empire. LULU Enterprises: Raleigh, NC, 2013. Book Preview. Accessed November 10, 2017.

“Rev. Alex. Dunn Receives Degree,” New Westminster News, (New Westminster, BC), Sept. 27, 1913, accessed November 10, 2017, https://newspaperarchive.com/new-westminster-news-sep-27-1913-p-4/.

“St. Andrew’s was First on Mainland.” Daily News (New Westminster, BC), Mar. 11, 1912. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://newspaperarchive.com/new-westminster-daily-news-mar-11-1912-p-1/.

“The Weekly Colonist: Presbyterian Churches.” Victoria Daily British Colonist (Victoria, BC), Apr. 3, 1885. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://newspaperarchive.com/victoria-daily-british-colonist-apr-03-1885-p-3/.

Waite, Donald E. The Langley Stories Illustrated: An Early History of the Municipality of Langley/ Donald E. Waite. Waite: Maple Ridge, BC, 2000). HTML e-book. Accessed November 10, 2017. http://www.fortlangley.ca/langley/langley.html.

Images:

Fig. 1 William John Larmon, Reverend and Mrs. Alexander Dunn. Source: Donald E. Waite, The Langley Stories Illustrated: An Early History of the Municipality of Langley/ Donald E, Waite. 2000, Digital image. Available from: The Langley Story Illustrated, http://www.fortlangley.ca/langley/dunn.html (accessed November 10, 2017).

Fig. 2 St. Andrew’s Church, New Westminster, BC. New Westminster Archives.

Fig. 3 Waite Air Photos Inc., St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Fort Langley. Source: Donald E. Waite, The Langley Stories Illustrated: An Early History of the Municipality of Langley/ Donald E, Waite. 2000, Digital image. Available from: The Langley Story Illustrated, http://www.fortlangley.ca/langley/standy.html (accessed November 10, 2017).

Fig 4 view of Johnston Street, Alberni, B.C. Courtesy the Alberni District Historical Society and Community Archives.

Fig. 5 Photograph of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church manse, the home of Rev. Alexander Dunn, April 1968, 0132, Langley Centennial Museum, Fort Langley, British Columbia, Canada, accessed November 10, 2017, https://collections.museum.tol.ca/LangleyCentennialMuseum/Portal.aspx?lang=en-US&p_AAAF=tab9.

Fig. 6 Dunn, Alexander. “Cover Page.” Print, 1919. University of Calgary. From: Alexander Dunn, Experiences in Langley and Memoirs of Prominent Pioneers. Jackson Printing Co.: New Westminster, BC, 1919. HTML e-book. Accessed November 10, 2017. http://ourroots.ca/toc.aspx?id=1258&qryID=dceeaa7d-c0ff-4bcd-821c-2d6e9c4aec1 1.

Sources:

[1] Brian J. Orr, Bones of Empire, (LULU Enterprises: Raleigh, NC, 2013), 237-238.

[2] Alexander Dunn, Experiences in Langley and Memoirs of Prominent Pioneers (Jackson Printing Co.: New Westminster, BC, 1919), 68.

[3] Ibid, 84-85.

[4] “St. Andrew’s Was First on Mainland,” The Daily News, (New Westminster, BC), Mar. 11, 1912, accessed Nov. 10, 2017, https://newspaperarchive.com/new-westminster-daily-news-mar-11-1912-p-1/.

[5] Dunn, Experiences in Langley, 4-5.

[6] Dunn, Experiences in Langley, 68.

[7] “The Weekly Colonist: Presbyterian Churches,” Victoria Daily British Colonist, (Victoria, BC), April 3, 1885, accessed Nov. 10, 2017, https://newspaperarchive.com/victoria-daily-british-colonist-apr-03-1885-p-3/.

[8] “Object Description: 0132,” Langley Centennial Museum, accessed November 10, 2017. https://collections.museum.tol.ca/LangleyCentennialMuseum/Portal.aspx?lang=en-US&p_AAAF=tab9.

[9] Dunn, Experiences in Langley, 83.

[10] Ibid, 84.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Experiences in Langley, 94-95.

[13] Donald E. Waite, The Langley Stories Illustrated: An Early History of the Municipality of Langley/ Donald E, Waite, (Waite: Maple Ridge, BC, 2000), 117.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Rev. Alex. Dunn Receives Degree,” New Westminster News, (New Westminster, BC), Sept. 27, 1913, accessed November 10, 2017, https://newspaperarchive.com/new-westminster-news-sep-27-1913-p-4/.

[16] Waite, The Langley Stories, 117.

[17] Ibid, 10.

[18] Dunn, Experiences in Langley, 60.

[19] Ibid, 65.

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