Molasses in the Gold Rush

Fort Langley - 1858

William Henry Bevis was the Revenue Officer at Fort Langley.  He was in charge of collecting fees for liquor, timber cutting and mining licences.

“I don’t see why I should be paying you money!” the man shouted.

William Bevis stood his ground. “I am the Revenue Officer here at Fort Langley and you will have to pay a fee for the timber you have cut.  These are the rules.”

“But whose rules are they?” the man challenged. “I don’t see a flag hanging above this shack.”

As the gold seeker stomped away, Bevis had to agree.  Other than his title, he had nothing to identify him as working for any government. There was no flag.  The shack the man referred to consisted of one room where he was to handle business, sleep and eat.  His wife Mattilda  didn’t complain much but the cramped quarters and lack of household amenities were taking its toll and her enigmatic smile had been replaced with a perpetual frown. Of course he did write to James Douglas in Fort Victoria, and his replies were not definitive.

There was a growing occupation of tents and lean-to shacks much like his own about a quarter-mile down river from Fort Langley.  Bevis had an idea that liquor and supplies were being sold, contravening all fees that were posted.

Most of the supplies were coming in from the Semiahmoo Trail up from Washington State.  While the Satellite and the Recovery patrolled the Fraser River, watching for contraband liquor and supplies, it was up to Bevis to watch the people coming up from the Semiahmoo Trail.

In addition to tracking people down and kindly asking if they would pay the custom tariffs, Bevis was also given the addition of Postmaster.

“Perhaps this would be a good way to intercept some of the smugglers,” Mattilda said.

Bevis raised one eyebrow. “Do you honestly think someone would be so daft to write to say that they were coming with a large shipment?”

“Why not?  It’s not like you can do much to stop them!”

Bevis gritted his teeth, “I suppose not. But I certainly am not going to waste time nosing about people’s letters either!”

“I will then.”

“You? Do you plan on reading through the mail?”

She sat up straighter and shook her head, “not every single letter of course, but just the ones I think are suspicious.”

Bevis considered it for a minute before he realized that his wife was smiling.  He agreed; he got paid out of the revenue collected and he received a commission based on the value of the goods seized and the licences issued.

As weeks past, nothing seemed to improve.  “The present state of Langley is getting worse. There are muggings, constant firing of guns and pistols, gambling and theft of boats,” Bevis wrote to Douglas.

There was a campsite about fifteen miles south of Fort Langley where most of the smugglers took their break.  When Bevis spotted them on horseback, they claimed that they were with the Boundary Commission and that they had every right to be on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“What are those boxes?” he asked, pointing to the wooden crates strapped to either side of the mule.

“Those are molasses,” said the man.

“Destination?”

“Yale.”

“Where are your custom papers?”

To Bevis’ surprise, the man pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket while at the same time showing the grip of a large gun he was carrying.

Sure enough, the much handled paper contained the signature of A. C. Anderson, the chief customs officer in Victoria.

Disappointed, Bevis let him pass.  He doubted the boxes contained molasses but being outnumbered and outgunned, he had no choice.

While he was manning the Semiahmoo Trail, Mattilda kept a watch outside their little hut and observed the new arrivals and the ones that had set up shop.

“I saw that box of so-called molasses,” she said one day after Bevis arrived back from a five-hour canoe trip.

He was in no mood to pursue the matter, but she insisted he do something and he had to agree.  After a meager meal of hard bread and watery tea, Bevis ventured out to the tent she indicated and discovered the box of molasses already pried open. He reached in and lifted a bottle of liquor.

“You’re wanting to make a deal, Mr. Bevis?”

Bevis turned around and found himself facing down the barrel of a gun. He looked at Baxter, the well-known liquor seller, who was smirking.

“I don’t make deals. I collect payments. If you don’t wish to pay, then I will have to confiscate your box of liquor.”

After several more minutes of talking, Bevis left empty-handed and with a headache.  He could have used some liquor to calm his own nerves.

The following day brought good news:  assistant Revenue Officer Charles Wylde arrived.

At first Bevis was enthralled by this well-connected man. He seemed genuinely concerned about the present state and was full of ideas as how to bring order to the situation.

Bevis showed Wylde his letters to Douglas regarding the need for patrols on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“I report directly to the Colonial Secretary,” Wylde told him. “I can make a difference.”

Following the meeting, Bevis noticed that Mattilda was frowning once again.  She said that she was concerned about him.  “He seems too full of ambition.  How much is he going to earn from the revenue? What will be your commission?”

Bevis didn’t have the answer to her questions and he didn’t think anything of them at first. He was just glad to have someone else to share the responsibilities of collecting revenue.

A few days after his arrival and Bevis began to hear rumours of Wylde already penning long rambling letters to Douglas’ office claiming he single-handedly stopped canoes full of liquor, sometimes wading out into water under the threat of gunfire.

Bevis occasionally asked Wylde how things were doing and Wylde insisted everything was fine. It wasn’t until one of the other Fort employees complained that Bevis realized he had a problem on his hands.

As was his habit, he brought the mail back to his outpost and let Mattilda go through it.  Surprisingly enough, there was a large amount of mail this time so it was taking longer to go through it all. She was sitting at their table  with the mail piled on top, when there was a knock on the door.

“Well, what was I supposed to do?” She told Bevis later.

“Wylde demanded to know what I was doing with the mail. I told him I was helping you with your postmaster duties.  He told me that I was breaking the law and I told him that on the contrary, I was being helpful and at least I wasn’t concocting stories!”

Bevis bent down and started retrieving some notes, most of which were tied with string or twine.  Some of them had been sealed.

“What do you suppose this is?”

Bevis looked at the paper and something trilled in his brain.  “It does look unusual. Why on earth –”

His own thoughts jumbled over each other in excitement.  “These are original customs papers being brought down from Fort Yale ready to be used again.  Clever!  Now I know why we can’t collect any revenue! ”

Bevis looked at the destination.  It read simply Baxter at Fort Langley.

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The American Boundary Commission, headed by Archibald Campbell as chief Commissioner, set up a camp on the Canadian side of Semiahmoo Bay in 1857.  This camp was there from 1857 to 1859.  The British conducted their own boundary survey.  To learn more about Camp Semiahmoo and the American Boundary Commission, see http://www.surreyhistory.ca/campsemi.html