Helmcken House

Now known as the Helmcken House Historic Site the Helmcken house, which was originally built and owned by John Helmcken, is the oldest house in Victoria.  The house is considered to be significant for two reasons the first being its illustrious first inhabitant John Sebastian Helmcken and the second being its proviing an excellent example of the evolution of wooden houses in the British Columbia of the late 1800’s.

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

As discussed in Tuesday’s post, John Helmcken was a British-born physician who travelled to Vancouver Island in the late 1800’s as an employee of the HBC where he eventually setled in Victoria and went on to be a major player in both the establishment of British Columbia as a province of the Canadian Confederacy as well as the establishment of many of B.C.’s longest serving medical institutions.

When Helmcken liven in this house, between the years of 1853 and 1920, it was a one story squared-log house covered in shingles and it remains one of the few surviving samples of piece-sur-piece building in the province.  Piece sur piece construction is the method of building small houses which are made of heavy rectangulas shaped timbers where each timber is laided horizontally with a dovetail notch at both ends in order to form an interlocking grid.

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Somewhere around 1856 the building’s dining room was added on which is clad in cedar shingles and provides an excellent example of vernacular post and beam construction.  This building method is unique in that it uses heavy timbers rather than a type of dimensional lumber (such as 2”x4”) and was typically used in situations where a structure is constructed out of logs or tree trunks without the avaliablity of high tech saws.

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Another addition added in 1889 saw the building further modified for the youngest daughter of John Helmcken with the construction of a two-story frame complete with the home’s front verandah.  Unlike the pervious aspects of this building, this latest addition was built professionally out of mass produced drop siding.

 

At the time of its original construction, the home was built directly next to Helmcken’s in-laws and while James Douglas’ home has since been demolished these two homes were important as they were some of the first to be built outside of the HBC’s Fort Victoria and marked the beginning of the area of James Bay as Victorias’s earliest residential area.

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from www.flickr.com

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from http://www.flickr.com

Helmcken House was bought by the provincial government of British Columbia in 1939 marking it as the first provincially owned historical site in B.C.

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Why More Artifacts Don’t Necessarily Mean More History.

If you have a lot of time to sift through Google images or Wikipedia pages, entering ‘history’ into an internet search bar will provide you with more examples of the remains of humans in the past then anyone could possibly look through, even with multiple lifetimes.  It will also make me incredibly jealous of your free time and we will have to discuss how I can be more like you.

Even with considerations given to the size of relevant landmasses and the duration of human habituation given to various parts of the world there is a lot less evidence of the human past in a region like British Columbia than there is in other parts of the world.  Does this mean that there is less history or that the people in this area were less skilled or adapted to their environment?

Short answer no.

A modern made seaweed basket.  An example of one type of material commonly used in the Pacific North West region.

A modern made seaweed basket. An example of one type of material commonly used in the Pacific North West region.

Longer answer:

The ability for an artifact to survive is impacted by two main qualities of its environment:

1) The material an item is made out of.

Things which are made out of stone, ceramic, or other sturdy materials are far more likely to survive than things made of cloth, wood, or paper.

2) The climate of the region.

Dry environments are far more effective for the preservation of archaeological remains that an area with a wet or humid climate which accelerates the disintegration of materials.

A good dry environment in Egypt (Winter 2008/9).

A good dry environment in Egypt (Winter 2008/9).

A much, damper, environment on the B.C. coast (Spring 2014).

A much, damper, environment on the B.C. coast (Spring 2014).

Anyone who has been to Canada or, really, has spoken to anyone from the country, knows that we are not blessed with an arid, dry climate.  We get a lot of rain (and snow if you happen to be east of the Rockies), and we will share this information with everyone and anyone whenever the opportunity arises.  This means that we are pretty much completely out of luck for the second quality needed for good preservation.  Combine this with the fact that much of the material culture of the early human inhabitants of North America was constructed from wood, bark, and animal remains and you have one of the least ideal situations for preserving the past.

However, we are extremely fortunate in that there are still First Nations people in British Columbia (and across Canada) who can help to shed light on the practices and traditions of their people which is an advantageous look into the past that doesn’t exist for many of the cultures and civilizations connected to archaeological artifacts.