DEAS, JOHN SULLIVAN, tinsmith and salmon canner; b. c. 1838 in South Carolina; m. 4 Sept. 1862 at Victoria, Vancouver Island, to Fanny Harris by whom he had at least eight children; d. 22 July 1880 in Portland, Ore.
John Sullivan Deas, described as a mulatto, was a tinsmith in Charleston and San Francisco before moving to Victoria, Vancouver Island, probably in 1861 or 1862. He may have come to Vancouver Island to work for Martin Prag, a hardware and tinware dealer, who had previously employed him in San Francisco. By 1866 Deas was a manufacturing tinsmith and hardware dealer in Yale, and from about September 1868 he was established in his trade in Victoria under the name Birmingham House.
In Victoria Deas joined a black community of several hundred, started in 1858 by organized migration from San Francisco. The black migrants were spurred by fear of attempts by the California legislature and judiciary to worsen their already unequal position in the state, and by the attraction of the Fraser River gold rush. In British territory they did not find the equality they sought, although discrimination was social rather than legal, private rather than official. Deas, for instance, was able to carry on several businesses, to buy property, and eventually to exercise the rights and privileges of a natural-born British subject, including obtaining a crown grant of land and becoming a registered voter. But he and his family were on one occasion held up to ridicule in a Victoria newspaper as stereotype members of their race.
Deas started in salmon canning in 1871 by making the tins for Captain Edward Stamp. In 1872, after Stamp’s death, Deas canned salmon on his own, leasing the saltery built in 1870 for Captain James Cooper. In 1873 he pre-empted near this site on what is now Deas Island. By 1874 his cannery on the island consisted of three substantial buildings, surrounded by a dyke which enclosed about seven acres, together with smaller buildings, a wharf, and sheds. Deas operated it until the end of the 1878 season, marketing the product under the label “Fresh Salmon, John S. Deas, Frazer [sic] River, British Columbia.” He then sold to his Victoria agents, commission merchants Findlay, Durham and Brodie, his interest in the plant which was shortly thereafter valued at between $13,000 and $15,000. After the sale, Deas settled in Portland, Oregon, where his wife had bought a rooming house in November 1877.
During the first years of his operation, Deas could claim to be the largest canner on the river. But in 1877 vigorous new competitors entered the business. Deas felt that the salmon potential of the Fraser was limited, as compared with that of the Columbia River, by irregular runs and the scarcity of good salmon “drifts” in the main channel. When another cannery was planned close to his plant, he applied for an exclusive lease of the drifts near Deas Island, thus provoking opposition in both the provincial and the federal legislatures. Yet his fear of competition seems justified; in 1878 the new cannery put up twice as many cases as Deas, whose pack in his last season was the smallest of the eight canneries operating on the Fraser River that year. Nevertheless, seven seasons in salmon canning during the first decade of continuous operation on the Fraser River entitle John Sullivan Deas to a prominent place among the founders of the canning industry in British Columbia.
Author of Article: H. Keith Ralston
Title of Article: DEAS, JOHN SULLIVAN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: January 18, 2016