Vargas Island ranchers go to war

From February 15 - May 15 2019, the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum is exploring British Columbia's experiences in the First World War and looking into the local story of Vargas Island "ranchers" at home and at war.

Post by guest curator Stephanie Ann Warner

Photograph courtesy of Stephanie Ann Warner.
A group of Vargas Island "ranchers" enjoy a picnic circa 1913. Most of these men would enlist and serve overseas in WWI.

The Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum will host a travelling exhibit from the Royal BC Museum, British Columbia’s War, 1914–1918. To complement this exhibit, our museum will look into one of Clayoquot Sound's "war stories", that of Vargas Island.

In the years leading up to the First World War, Vargas Island was home to a group of "ranchers" who hoped to clear and farm the cedar-filled rainforest. The realities of life on an isolated west coast island and the coming of war intervened.

Our exhibit and talk Vargas Island ranchers at home and at war will introduce Vargas Island as it appeared before the war, and will discuss the men who enlisted and the women who stayed at home.

Harold Monks - accountant to rancher

I am excited to collaborate with the museum to explore this story because it has a personal connection. When my grandpa Harold Monks Sr enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary force in 1917, he gave his address as "Port Gillam, Vargas Island" and his occupation as "rancher."


Stephanie Ann Warner CollectionsHarold Monks' wartime notebook with his Vargas Island address. Image from Harold Monks collection.

 Harold Monks in outrigger canoe. Harold Monks Collection. Courtesy of Warner family. Harold Monks, former Lancashire accountant, in his outrigger canoe off Vargas Island, 1914. Image from Harold Monks collection.

Harold Monks had been an accounting clerk in an industrial town in Northern England. He wanted to emigrate to the "colonies" to get a better life for himself. He started corresponding with his "Canadian cousin" Harry Hilton, who lived on Vargas Island. Harold's parents would not let him leave until he was 21. In April 1914, aged 21 and a half, Harold sailed to Canada, took the train across the country and the boat up the coast to Clayoquot Sound.

Harold stood waiting on the dock at Tofino for his relatives to arrive. He heard someone say "How's the boy?" and he turned around, looking for the "boy" -- he didn't realize it was him! Harold was small and slight and young looking for his age and his grammar school report card had said he needed to develop "manly qualities."

In the next 3 years, Harold certainly developed the "manly qualities" he needed to be a Vargas Island rancher. Harold took out a pre-emption of land from the BC Government. He cleared the land by chopping trees and blasting stumps and slashing and burning the boggy ground. Harold's experiences were shared by other men on the island, such as Ted Abraham, who recalled lying in a tent for several weeks nursing a badly cut foot -- his axe had missed when he was chopping a tree!

While Harold was clearing his land, he stayed with his cousins. He later recalled in an oral history interview: "I stayed at Harry Hilton’s, that’s the one I was corresponding with before I came out….they were all mother’s side. I stayed with him part of the time, and with Fred Hopkins. It wasn’t far away.  Fred Hopkins had property on the beach. Harry’s was inland from the beach, you see, and we had a trail running between them. It didn’t take very long to get from one place to another. Harry Hilton and Fred Hopkins’ wife were brother and sister. And living next to Harry Hilton on the beach was Billy Hilton, a brother."

A picnic in the woods of the North End of Vargas Island with the Hilton and Hopkins families, summer 1914. Image from Harold Monks collection.

When Harold started to build his shack, he ordered lumber, shakes and shingles from the Port Alberni Lumber Company. A letter from another Vargas Island settler "Jock" Cleland shows an order for "40 lbs shingle nails and 20 lbs 6 in spikes and 6 sheets zinc for window flashing. And a small water pump."

How did these "ranchers" get money to pay for the building supplies? There was nothing to work at on Vargas. The men had to find a job off the island. Ted Abraham built a road and worked winter crew on the Lifeboat. Bill Forsythe worked at the Dominion Fisheries hatchery at Kennedy Lake. Jerry Lane worked at Kalappa Mine. Harry Hilton built a wharf. Bill Longworth was a logger. Harold Monks got a job at "Brewster's Cannery" at Kenn Falls.

No doubt these physical work experiences would prove useful to the men when they served overseas (in fact, many of the Vargas men served with Pioneer battalions responsible for non-combattant tasks like road and trench building).

Warner Family's Harold Monks CollectionHarold Monks practices with his gas mask at Witley Camp, January 1918. Image from Harold Monks collection. 

Vargas Men enlist

"Thirteen of us enlisted …. none of us went back...Some were killed…. The others all scattered.   --- Harold Monks, 1973

My review of pre-emption records and war service records shows that approximately seventeen Vargas Island ranchers enlisted in the military between August 1914 and October 1917.

Arthur and Ted Abraham, who had arrived on Vargas in summer 1911, enlisted as soon as war was declared. Arthur wrote to his mother: "You won't probably see us back now till the end of the war, whether we go or not of course. I shall be horribly sick if we don't go at all, but we had to take a sporting chance."  

He and Ted did go -- a few months later they were training on Salisbury Plain in England and by spring 1915 were in France, where Arthur was gassed but returned to duty. By 1917, both brothers had become junior officers in the British army. Captain Arthur Thomas Abraham was awarded the military cross in summer 1917 and died in the mud of Flanders on October 22 1917.

Two other ranchers were lost in the War: Syd Price, who died of infection after an amputation in May 1917, and Don Forsythe, who was killed in action at Hill 70 in August 1917.

And what about Harold Monks? After 3 years of ranching and fishing for the cannery, Harold went down to Victoria in April 1917 and joined the artillery. He training on the "big guns" at Camp Petawawa and learned signalling skills like morse code at Witley Camp in England. Harold went on active service to France in April 1918. He participated in decisive battles of Canada's 100 days to victory -- the Battle of Amiens and the Battle of Valenciennes.

Harold Monks kept all of his wartime memorabilia. We are excited to be able to share Harold's war experience through these personal items -- medals, pamphlets, a photo album with comical snapshots and wartime notebook with cartoons of "ladies" and a Vargas Island oxen!


Harold Monks Collection from Warner FamilyHarold Monks' wartime notebook had a sketch of a Vargas Island oxen! Image from Harold Monks collection.

Vargas Men return

After the war, a few of the Vargas Island ranchers returned. Ted Abraham brought his "war bride" Dorothy, who was shocked at the primitive life she encountered. She later wrote about her experiences in Lone Cone. It's important to point out that Dorothy Abraham arrived on a much depopulated Vargas Island. There had been about 40 ranchers on the island in 1914 -- by the 1921 census there were only 5 left. Life may have been much more appealing for Dorothy had she been there with the various women and families before the war.

After a year back on Vargas Island, Ted Abraham moved to Tofino where he became the customs officer and magistrate. Other former Vargas Island men also had government jobs: Ted's uncle George Anderson worked for the Clayoquot Sound Livesaving Service, as did Harold Monks. Bill Forsythe was the manager of the Dominion Government Hatchery at Kennedy Lake. All these men were also active comrades in the Great War Veterans Association / Canadian Legion, Clayoquot Sound Branch.  

By the 1930s, the last remaining original "ranchers" on Vargas Island had left. Harold Monks kept paying taxes on his lot on Vargas until the mid 1930s, when it reverted to the government. His shack on Vargas remained standing for several years, but by 1974 when Harold's family went to see the shack, all that was remaining was broken down boards in the middle of the rainforest.

A historic evening and talk

Thanks to Stephanie and everyone who came out to the talk March 21, 2019!

If you missed this talk, drop by the museum to see the printed version, or read about it in this Westerly article. 

To read a summary of the exhibition and talk head to the article The War is Over.


The Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12:30 to 4:30.