In 1866, English settler Michael Phillipps married a Ktunaxa woman, Rowena David, in the recently claimed British colony of British Columbia. While Phillipps maintained relationships with his family of origin in England for five decades, he never told them about his Indigenous family. Instead, he used distance and epistolary silence to sustain two families that otherwise seemed irreconcilable between colony and metropole. Two years after the David-Phillipps marriage, Samuel and Sarah Friar Greer arrived in British Columbia. On the surface, they proceeded to do what colonial politicians hoped white settlers like them would do: they established a farm and bore children. In practice, however, the Greers lived independently from one another, spending only minimal time together and always apart from at least one of their children before the dramatic end of their marriage in 1875. Both families, in other words, were far from fulfilling colonial ideals of white, monogamous, permanent marriages and cohabiting nuclear families, imagined as the foundation and future of nascent settler colonies like British Columbia.
This paper takes these two stories as a launchpad for a larger history of familial secrecy, separation, and settler colonialism. Drawing from personal and political correspondence, newspapers, and legal cases, it traces the multiple ways that silence and separation operated as central components of colonial families in early settler British Columbia (ca. 1850s-1910s). It illuminates a proliferation of dissolving settler marriages, long-distance relationships, and enduring but (partially) secret mixed-race families in this context. Far from aberrations posing fundamental challenges to colonial rule, however, the paper argues that these family forms worked to buttress the settler order even as they contradicted its ideals. Through this argument, the paper interrogates and reorients intimacy as a central concept in the scholarship on colonial families, underscoring the critical importance of intimacy’s strategic limits as well.