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The Year That Made and Broke BC

The 1858 gold rush brought sweeping change, and sealed a grim future for Indigenous people.

Crawford Kilian 15 Mar

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is the author of Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia (Harbour Publishing).

Gold, Grit, Guns is an extraordinary book that focuses on the lives of four prospectors and their mixed fortunes in the B.C. gold rush of 1858. Their diaries vividly describe the expense and hard work it took just to reach an unclaimed gravel bar, and then to find the flakes and nuggets of gold it might contain. In the process of getting rich, or more likely going broke, they also began the breaking of an ecosystem and an economy thousands of years old.

The year 1858 was a pivotal one for the western regions of British North America: it saw the transformation of “New Caledonia” into the Crown colony of British Columbia (soon to merge with the colony of Vancouver Island). It saw the end of Hudson’s Bay Co. rule and the start of more or less responsible government. And of course it saw the comings and goings of thousands of foreigners, whether they were gold prospectors or those seeking profits by selling goods to the prospectors.

The onset of a new economy, imported by thousands of outsiders, collided with a much older economy of Indigenous trade routes that extended thousands of kilometres from the coast. The Hudson’s Bay Co. had not so much taken over the old Indigenous networks as plugged itself into them. James Douglas, as a very effective Black and Scottish trader who ran the HBC in the Pacific Northwest, seems to have understood and respected his Indigenous trading partners, and generally maintained good relations with them.

But he could see trouble coming. The HBC by 1858 was on its way out as the ruling power. Gold had been found in B.C. rivers, and many Indigenous peoples were mining it as a new source of revenue. Eventually the news reached California, where the 1849 gold rush was fading. Douglas knew he would soon be swamped by American adventurers. They had recently taken over two-thirds of Mexico and Douglas reasoned that the Americans might well want B.C. up to the southern boundary of Russian America.

When the first prospectors arrived in April 1858, the shock was immediate. The Americans considered Victoria a sleepy village populated by HBC clerks; suddenly it was crammed with real-estate speculators, merchants and hungry young men eager to get across to the mainland and up the Fraser. Everything was exorbitantly expensive.

An expensive adventure

Alexander Globe is very good on the economics: the cost of passage to Victoria from San Francisco was $25 to $60 at a time when a typical year’s wages was $300. From New York via Panama, a first-class ticket was $300 to $600; steerage was $150. Travelling from Victoria across the Salish Sea and up the Fraser was expensive too, from the mining permit ($5 a month, often ignored) to the two-day steamer trip to Fort Hope ($40 to $60). Supplies for four men over six months (everything from shovels to brandy) cost $160, not counting transportation.

Globe builds the core of his book around three Americans and a Canadian whose diaries have survived.

George Slocumb, son of an Illinois judge, had failed in the California gold rush. On his way north, he overspent on travel and lodgings, then paused for a month in Port Townsend, Washington territory, where he was amazed by “the amount of ignorance displayed on all occasions by the settlers… rude and ungentlemanly to strangers.”

Hearing reports of violence between white people and Indigenous people, Slocumb sided with the whites: “The Governor is an old fogy… says foreigners coming into the country and making war with the Indians are traitors to the country. The protection guaranteed by the mining tax is all humbug. There is not a soldier in the mines, and the miners are doing their own fighting and doing it well.”

After six months, Slocumb finally reached the mines but was unable to stake a claim and lacked the money to buy one. Returning to California in November, he hired himself out to mining companies for day wages. After a trip back home to Illinois (and a shotgun marriage), he went back to San Francisco and a career speculating in mining stocks.

George Beam, living on Whidbey Island in Washington territory, slipped across the border without paying for a mining permit, and before long was working a claim near Fort Yale. Globe praises Beam’s diary as the most detailed surviving account of how gold miners operated in the early months of the gold rush.

Beam and his mining partners obtained mercury to catch the fine gold in their sluices, but got sick from the vapour when they boiled the mercury off. Still, he sold his claim in November 1858 and went home with a $1,000 profit. He served in the Washington Territorial legislature in 1863 and 1864, and died of tuberculosis in 1866, aged 34.

$200 for a mule

Otis Parsons took part in James Douglas’s first great infrastructure project, turning an Indigenous trail into a wagon road that would avoid the worst stretches of the Fraser River. Roadbuilding alternated between backbreaking toil and idleness as the workers waited for the colonial government to round up more mules ($200 each) to carry food and other supplies to the men. Local Indigenous peoples resisted the roadbuilding, knowing it would bring yet more white people into their land. Many workers returned to the Fraser for the winter; out of the “five or six hundred” who stayed north of Lytton, many died from “Lack of good shelter, scurvy, and starvation.”

Parsons, however, returned to Victoria and stocked up on miners’ supplies, which he sold in several locations on the road and elsewhere. After over a decade as a packer and trader, he spent the early 1870s running steamers up and down the Fraser. In 1875, aged 45, he retired to California with his wife and infant daughter, sailing on the steamer Pacific. It struck another ship and went down, taking the Parsons family with it.

The mysterious Canadian

The anonymous Canadian is the most intriguing of the gold-rush diarists. We have his diary and even his photograph as a confident young man. The diary eventually reached a friend or relative in Gananoque, Ontario, who added some entries and mentioned that the anonymous young man had drowned in 1859.

The man had likely done well in California before arriving early in the B.C. gold rush. The Indigenous people he met recognized him as a “King George man,” who treated them with respect. He also got along with the overwhelmed colonial officers trying to maintain order on the Fraser, and even worked a claim with one.

Despite a foot injury, the Canadian began making money from a claim, and in October he sold his claim for $400, having earned the impressive total of $1,115 since the summer. Sometime in the next few years, according to an almost illegible note in the diary added years later, he drowned in Cariboo country.

A landscape transformed

Globe blends the diarists’ texts into his own, giving them context. As we learn about their struggles, successes and failures, we see them in detail while also seeing how they and thousands more transformed the landscape.

“On the Fraser River,” Globe tells us, “beads of mercury can be found by digging a few feet into Emory’s Bar, south of Yale.” He also describes how the sheer volume of soil and rock washed into the Fraser actually changed its bed, making it unpredictably shallow in some places and deep in others.

The destruction of the summer run of salmon in 1858 was thanks to the mud discharged into the Fraser and its tributaries, wiping out a reliable Indigenous food source. Continued mining permanently ruined many spawning grounds in later years, making some Indigenous peoples dependent on government food supplies.

They also faced pressure from incoming white people who intended to stay. Reserves for the Indigenous peoples were inevitable, but Globe says Douglas wanted reserves large enough to sustain both farming and traditional Indigenous ways of gathering food: “Douglas proposed leasing unoccupied portions, with the proceeds ‘applied to the exclusive benefit of the Indians,’ including the building of schools that would prepare them for lives integrated with white settlers.” These would enable Indigenous children to learn within the context of their own ways of life.

It was not to be. In 1864, as Douglas was about to step down as governor, an Englishman named Joseph William Trutch was appointed chief commissioner for lands and works. As Globe describes it, “Shortly after Douglas resigned, [Trutch] swept aside treaty agreements made with Indigenous people as mere ‘verbal instructions.’ That falsehood was given to justify his reduction of Douglas’s reserves by 92 per cent, thus freeing 40,000 acres for white possession.”

So within six years of the start of the gold rush, B.C.’s greatest river and its ecosystem had been transformed, and the people who had lived on their own lands for thousands of years had been displaced and effectively imprisoned on tiny reserves run by white “Indian agents.”

Once they had been self-sufficient, trading goods along thousands of kilometres of trails. Now they lived largely on government rations. The residential schools were on their way, and so were a century and a half of social, political and environmental problems that we have still failed to solve.  [Tyee]

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