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How the Fraser River Gold War Changed Canada

Claiming the Land shows how an American invasion upended relations with Indigenous people.

Crawford Kilian 16 Nov

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of the Tyee.

If you ever studied British Columbia history before Confederation in school, you probably came away with a story like this. The Hudson’s Bay Company ran a huge fur-trading operation across the continent, all the way to Oregon. The HBC’s man on the Pacific Coast, James Douglas, was tough but respected by the Indigenous peoples who dealt with him. When Vancouver Island became a Crown colony, he soon became its governor, while continuing to run things in “New Caledonia” — what’s now the B.C. mainland.

In 1858 as many as a hundred thousand American miners moved north from San Francisco, looking for gold along the Fraser River. After some sputtering violence between the Indigenous peoples and the prospectors, everything settled down and the Americans eventually went home. A few years later, in 1871, B.C. joined Canada and our modern history began.

According to Daniel Marshall’s new book, it wasn’t quite that tidy. It was a mess, made by the Americans at the expense of the British and especially of the Indigenous peoples. What with endless quarrels about mining and pipeline projects, we are still living in that mess.

The HBC certainly had a monopoly on Indigenous trade, but they knew they were living on Indigenous land and treated their suppliers with respect. Douglas made almost no treaties with them, except for the land he built Victoria on. He didn’t need to because he had almost no settlers — just a handful of HBC employees.

The HBC had prospered under this policy, while watching the Americans prospering in a very different way. They swept west, driving Indigenous tribes off their land, carving off two-thirds of Mexico, and pushing the HBC out of Oregon and Washington. The 1849 California gold rush pulled thousands of Americans all the way to the Pacific.

By the time news of B.C. gold reached San Francisco in 1858, gold mining was already a thriving new Indigenous industry on the Fraser. Peoples like the Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamus were finding gold on the Fraser’s sand bars and selling it to the HBC.

Douglas knew the Americans were coming, and he wanted to control them under British law, but he lacked resources — a few Royal Navy vessels and Marines, but not much more.

Here is where Marshall’s book departs from the received story of B.C.’s gold rush era. Douglas might show the flag and try to bluff the Americans into behaving, but they ignored him. Hating the idea of paying for mining permits, they sneaked past the gunboats at the mouth of the Fraser, or walked to the river from Bellingham Bay.

Others went the long way around from eastern Washington to the Thompson River and Okanagan. Not only did they outflank Douglas, they came as well-armed private armies of prospectors who’d fought Indigenous peoples all the way from California. Their intent was to deter Indigenous resistance, or to wipe out the resisters.

Shooting their way to the Fraser

Having shot their way to the Fraser River, these armies continued with bitter skirmishes from Fort Hope to Yale. The Americans staked their claims and named them: Texas Bar, American Bar, Boston Bar, and so on.

Worse yet, they simply seized or destroyed Indigenous resources. Some prospectors formed companies, took over local streams and lakes,and diverted their water into flumes that could wash the gold out of the Fraser’s sand and gravel. In the process, they destroyed the salmon spawning grounds that Indigenous peoples had relied on for thousands of years.

James Douglas, after decades of experience with Indigenous peoples, understood their predicament, but could only appeal to the Colonial Office in London for more soldiers, marines and warships. London, in turn, advised him to appease the Americans. The last thing the British wanted was a war at the far side of the world where the Americans would have all the advantages.

Douglas did as he was told. He showed the flag and defused a couple of problems like Ned McGowan’s War. His dispatches to London carefully minimized the extent of carnage during the violent summer of 1858.

In one momentous step, Douglas created “anticipatory” Indigenous reserves that could be set up on lands the prospectors had no more interest in. Other Indigenous leaders later told Douglas that this American practice of expropriation was bitterly resented. Still, reserves became standard policy.

The transition was swift. By the time B.C. entered Confederation in 1871, land commissioner Joseph Trutch further reduced Indigenous reserves, claiming “the Indians really have no right to the lands they claim.” Maps of the Fraser River showed the miners’ names, not Indigenous names. The land that Indigenous peoples had once made their living from was now “wilderness,” open to anyone who wanted to “pre-empt” and develop it.

Before long the federal government would take charge of the Indigenous peoples who had been business partners of the HBC for two centuries, treating them as feckless incompetents who couldn’t even bring up their own children.

The 1858 Fraser River War and its long aftermath are not a pleasant story, but Marshall heavily documents his case. His book dramatically changes our perspective on B.C.’s origin, and on our history since then.

Our efforts toward reconciliation, seen from this perspective, still have very far to go. Claiming the land continues; now it is Indigenous peoples versus pipelines. The stakes are as high as they were in 1858.  [Tyee]

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