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New findings about Ainsworth’s oldest grave

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

In 2008, I wrote a story for Route 3 magazine about the Thomas (or Tomas) Higstrim grave at Ainsworth Hot Springs, which dates to 1891 and is West Kootenay’s oldest marked grave in situ.

There are certainly many older, unmarked First Nations graves. There are also older sets of remains that were re-interred in Nelson Memorial Park and the Sinixt burial ground at Vallican. But Higstrim’s posthumous distinction is that he’s been in the same marked grave longer than anyone else in our area. Seen below in 2007, it has a fence around it and a wooden headboard that reads: “Tomas Higstrim/A native of/Australia/Died/April 14th, 1891.”

(However, this marker is not the oldest surviving one in West Kootenay; Thomas Hammill’s original wooden tombstone, dated 1885, is in the Touchstones Nelson permanent exhibit. It has been replaced with a bronze plaque at Riondel that doesn’t actually denote the spot where he was buried.)

This week, I finally learned who Higstrim’s family was, although it didn’t give me a great deal of additional insight into the man himself. To begin with, though, the circumstances of his death were reported in the Nelson Miner on April 25, 1891, along with an outline of his travels:

Who supplied the information for the obituary? It’s surprisingly detailed for the era, especially given that he had no family in the area.

He was not buried in the present Ainsworth cemetery, but on a knoll closer to town, off Hanson Road. The GPS co-ordinates are 49°43.73 min N, 116°54.67 min W, Elev. 624 m. It’s not clear why this location was chosen, nor why a different spot was chosen for later burials.

The newspaper story says the grave was originally marked with a “neat cross,” so the existing marker was not the original one, although I don’t know when it was added. The late Mavis Stainer tended to it, including repainting the marker bright white, and shaving a bit of rotting wood off the bottom, resulting in its paddle shape. Twin trees lie at the foot of the grave.

Mavis told me a neighbouring property owner wanted to dig the grave up and get rid of the bones, but she contacted the government’s cemeteries division, and he was told that he could not tamper with it.

Ted Affleck, in High Grade & Hot Springs: A History of the Ainsworth Camp (2001) recounted the flu epidemic that struck Ainsworth and Higstrim’s death, based on what Stainer told him:

The first life threatened by the flu was that of Tomas Higstrim, a native of Australia, who was working on his Coffee Creek claim in April 1891 when he took ill. Some Indians found him and carried him in a canoe to the Ainsworth townsite, but he died en route. Higstrim was interred in a burial plot on the Bonita mining claim. This site was actually the second of Ainsworth’s burial places, the first being located under a private dwelling. A wooden marker on the Bonita claim marks the burial of Higstrim, and there is another unmarked grave in the vicinity, but thereafter burials were made in the cemetery located up the road to the Highland mine.

Stainer told me she heard about the second grave, next to Higstrim’s, from Andy Jardine, but he didn’t know whose it was. She also said the first burial place alluded to above was on a bluff on the north end of Ainsworth, and belonged to an infant.

Higstrim died without a will. The following ad ran in the Nelson Miner on May 9, 1891 and in subsequent editions:

I was intrigued by the reference in Higstrim’s obituary to Ruby City, a ghost town with an obscure cemetery. According to,

Ruby City, Washington was founded around 1888 in Okanogan County by prospectors and miners who had flocked there in large numbers, due in large part, to rich discoveries of silver ore. Within a brief period, Ruby, also known as the Queen City of the Okanogan County mining boom had become one of the liveliest and best-known mining camps in the Northwest.
The price of silver fell in the fall of 1892. Continuing to work the mines on Ruby Hill would have been unprofitable, so the prospectors and miners closed down the mining camps for good. As a result of people having moved away, vacant houses were left unprotected, and the once flourishing boomtown of Ruby bit the dust.
Since then, very little has been recorded about Ruby. In 2004, no one was left to offer creditable information about the lost and forgotten pioneer site of Ruby Cemetery.
Historians from nearby historical societies and museums had searched for years in hopes of locating the elusive Ruby Cemetery but without any luck. Fire swept through the area a few years after the downfall of Ruby consuming any wooden grave markers or wooden fence lines that may have marked the existence of the Ruby Cemetery site.

Only three burials were verified between 1891 and 1908. In 2004, a group armed with GPS devices went searching for the cemetery, and had some success. They were able to pinpoint the exact spot where the cemetery was, but as expected, there was no trace of any markers or fences. What they did find using metal detectors were 35 square nails which took as proof they were in the right place.

The December 1968 issue of the Australian magazine Walkabout contained the following item:

I imagine Mrs. Peet’s information about the “friendly Indian” also came from Mavis Stainer.

On May 14, 1997, this ad appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

So far as I know, there were no replies.

However, this week I found the following item in the Sydney Daily Telegraph of June 23, 1891, which reveals that it took two months for news of Thomas’ death to reach Australia. It also contained a significant clue that led me to other online sources and helped unravel his family tree. Unfortunately, Thomas was not the only Higstrim to die young.

Thomas (I think that’s the correct spelling) was the son of Nels Wilheim (aka Nelson William) Higstrim and Ann Sullivan. William, a tailor, was born in Sweden between 1805 and 1811. I am guessing he was probably a Hagström at birth and the spelling changed, for he appears to be the progenitor of all the world’s Higstrims.

Ann was born in St. James, Middesex, England in 1817 to John and Ann Sullivan. The couple married in 1834 in London, and their first child, William Jr., was born the following year at St. James. Their second child, Jessy, was born in 1836 at St. Luke, Chelsea, Middlesex, but died in infancy.

On the 1841 census, they appear in Chelsea as William and Ann “Hegstrom.” The 1851 English census found the family still at Chelsea with a two-month-old daughter named Eleanor (or Elinor) Kate. Curiously, Eleanor’s birth was registered at both Chelsea and Sydney, yet the family does not appear to have immigrated to Australia until 1853; I don’t know what prompted them to do so. Nor do I know what became of Eleanor.

As mentioned above in his death notice, Thomas was born in the delightfully named Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo. (The name is presumably derived from an aboriginal word, but there’s debate over which one.)

I’m not sure why there was a 15-year gap between the first two children and the last two and wonder if there might have been a few others in between who died in infancy or childhood.

Their mother Ann died in 1870 and William Sr. in 1876; his age was given as 70 or 71.

William Jr. was a storekeeper, tobacconist, auctioneer, and prominent Freemason in Sydney. He married Catherine Maria (Kate) Carter in 1861 and they had five children, none of whom lived to see 50: Annie Beatrice (1862-99), William George Thomas (1864-1911), Mary Eleanor (1870-1915), Frederick Charles (1873-1913), and Albert Sydney (1879).

William Jr.’s family lived at 46 Kent St., Millers Point in North Sydney. Known as Chelsea House, the three level, five-bedroom home was built for them around 1872. I found this story in the Sydney Evening News of Aug. 8, 1892, about a birthday party they held there for Frederick, although their surname was misspelled.

In early 2016, Chelsea House sold for $2.525 million Australian ($2.47 million Cdn).

After William Jr. died in 1905, age 70, his wife Kate and daughter Mary moved into a mansion on Mary Street, Glebe Point, known as Edsburg, which they renamed Chelsea. Kate died in 1907, but Mary remained until 1911, when she married engineer Charles John Hill and the couple took the surname Higstrim-Hill. Sadly, Mary died only four years later.

Of the other siblings, Albert appears to have been stillborn or died in infancy; neither Annie nor William G.T. ever married; Frederick married Clara Eveline White (1882-1970) in 1906, and they had one son, William Thomas Gilkes (1908-fl. 1958). William T.G., alias Gilkes Halsenberg, was a curious character who spent time in prison. The Sydney Sun on Dec. 7, 1932 reported:

However, Gilkes also served as a gunner with the Australian army from 1941-47. He married Joyce Ashley Cunningham (1909-85) in 1952, but they divorced five or six years later and don’t appear to have had any children. Wherever and whenever Gilkes died, the Higstrim lineage ended.

At least seven Higstrims (Albert, Ann, Annie, Catherine, William Sr., William Jr., and William G.T.) are buried at Pioneers Memorial Park at Leichhardt, New South Wales — nearly 13,000 km from Thomas’ grave at Ainsworth.

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