June 10, 2001


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Tracking adventure in a family tree
Gonzales family traces 125 years of life on the North Shore

Deana Lancaster

ONCE upon a time, many years ago, a young man came to the New World on a ship, fell in love with an Indian princess and decided to stay.

It's a fitting beginning to an unfinished story, for the tale of Antonio Peter Gonzales -- and his descendants -- does sound like one written by the Brothers Grimm.

Valentine Bro knows the story -- Peter Gonzales was her grandfather. She has white hair, a ready smile and clear brown eyes that have seen many changes on the North Shore since she was born on the Squamish Nation's Mission reserve. She's one of only two elders left in the family that was started by Peter and his bride. She prefers to be called Val.

She keeps a stack of papers, folders and envelopes stuffed full of information: a record of her family's genealogy, certificates of baptisms and marriages, old newspaper clippings and obituaries.

She and her nephew, Ray Gonzales, are trying to explain their family tree. "Peter married Emma . . . they had five children . . . Amelia was my mother... "

The names of brothers and sisters, half-siblings, cousins and second cousins spill from their lips. It's overwhelming, and soon Val points to the photocopy of a newspaper article from 1942.

It's the obituary of Peter Gonzales, "the only white man to be accepted as a full-fledged member of the Squamish tribe . . . He was one of the oldest residents of the North Shore."

Gonzales was just 20 years old in 1875 when, according to the article, he arrived at Moodyville on a sailing vessel from Chile, which came to load a cargo of lumber at the mill site on the North Shore. "He liked the country so God-darned much he jumped ship," says Ray.

The article continues:

"As there were only a few white people in the district during those early days, Peter lived among the Squamish Indians on the North Shore Reserves. He married a Squamish princess and built a home on the Mission Indian Reserve."

Peter's wife was Idchatatoit, or Emma John. The couple had five children: Amelia, Sophie, Rita, Arthur and John.

The chiefs accepted Peter as a member of the band. He took part in tribal potlatches and festivities "and when he joined the Christian faith of the Squamish Indians, he complied with all of the duties imposed by the chiefs for the civilization of the Indians."

The family lived and worked hard on the reserves and throughout the traditional territory of the Squamish people. At one point, he and Emma lived with several of their grown children on Bowen Island, where he and his son-in-law, Roberto Rodriguez, ran a logging operation.

It was during that period that the family gained perhaps its greatest notoriety. This chapter in the story is contained in another newspaper clipping from The Vancouver Daily Province of November 23, 1904. It tells the story of how Amelia gave birth to twin boys after the schooner the family (Peter and Emma, Rita, Amelia and her husband Roberto) was on shipwrecked on the east side of Gambier Island.

"Twins Born To Castaway Woman," shouts the first headline, all in capital letters. "During Howling Gale," reads the second.

"Shipwrecked Crew Alternately Gladdened and Distressed by Additions to Their Number -- Remarkable Events Occurred on Gambier Island on Saturday," is the third, somewhat lengthy, headline.

The story follows: "In the early hours of Saturday morning while a stiff southeaster whipped the seatops into white spume and drove chills like keen-edged knives into the bodies of two men and three women who escaped death in a shipwreck only to stand drenched to the skin on the shores of Gambier Island, Howe Sound, a boy baby was born to one of the woman. Within the next forty-eight hours another child came to cheer the castaways. This second infant, also a boy, confirmed the feeling of grandparentage which had settled down over two members of the shipwrecked crew. "

Two days later, the family spotted a ship en route to Squamish. Peter and Roberto jumped in a canoe they had found and set out to intercept the boat, which turned out to be the Britannia, manned by Captain J.A. Cates. He delivered the entire family, apparently no worse for wear, to Eagle Harbour.

In gratitude, Amelia and Roberto decided to name their sons after boats owned by Captain Cates. Peter Defiance and Alfred Britannia led long lives on the North Shore, and each went on to have sons of their own. Ray is Alfred's son.

Amelia had 12 more children after the twin boys were born -- six of them with Roberto and six more with her second husband, Ole Bro. Val, born the day after Valentine's Day, is the youngest of these. She and her older brother Reggie are the oldest living members of the Gonzales clan, "the rest have all gone to heaven," says Val. They are also the only two who can remember Peter Gonzales.

"I used to go to his house to pick cherries. He was a nice man, always nice to me."

It was at her sister Myrtle's funeral, in October of last year, that the family members began to get a hint of how many generations Peter and Emma had borne.

"There were more than a hundred relatives there that didn't know each other," says Val. As well as the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and other parts of B.C. and Alberta they came from Washington, Oregon, even as far away as Florida.

The family members made a decision to stay in touch, to plan a family reunion, and to seek out any other descendants who might not realize what they are a part of.

The reunion is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 27 and 28 at the Squamish Nation recreation centre, and the local family members who are organizing the event say they are expecting up to 400 people.

"It's going to be quite a reunion," says Val with a grin.

Think you might be a long-lost relative of Peter and Emma and you want to get in on the fun? Write to Linda Stewart, 2002 Forest Dr., Nanaimo, B.C., V9S 2R5.