Rock Creek War (part 2)

Peter O'Reilly, Gold Commissioner (BC Archives)

The dead man’s name was Frank Porter, an American from Oregon.  Gold commissioner, Peter O’Reilly was responsible for arresting those who broke the British Law.  How was he going to find the murderer amongst all these people?  They could hardly be described as cooperative.

He had just dragged the unfortunate miner off the trail and covered him with a cloth weighted down with some rocks, when he heard someone call his name.

“Are you Peter O’Reilly, the new gold commissioner?” the man called out.

“Yes? And who are you?” O’Reilly asked as he advanced a few steps.

“Jackson from the Portland Advertiser,” he said, shaking his hand. Could I ask you your opinion on the gold diggings?”

“Yes, it appears that things are going quite well for most of the miners. I hear some of them are making upwards of five dollars a day. What have miners been telling you?”

“Only five?” Jackson laughed. “Most of them must be making at least twenty. You should’ve met with George Dunbar, he packed off six thousand dollars in gold dust to Fort Hope just yesterday.”

“Six thousand dollars?!” O’Reilly shook his head.  “One would think that the miners would have more than enough to pay their mining licence.”

“Are you planning on setting up a customs office here?”

“Not yet. In the future perhaps, but for now I must approach the miners individually.”

“That sounds like a daunting task. Have you considered putting up a notice?”

After the reporter went on his way, and O’Reilly had recorded the death of Frank Porter.  If Jackson had been from the Victoria Gazette or the British Columbian, he would’ve considered telling him about the death of Frank Porter. But he was sensitive to the fact how senseless crimes could escalate into international incidents.

He mulled over the idea of a notice over breakfast, then inquired with a couple of the merchants if they had anything on which he could write a message. Removing a piece of paper from his government issued blotter was unthinkable.

In the end, he found a piece of smooth bark and wrote out a notice requesting payment from miners.  After tacking it to a tree, O’Reilly mounted his horse and rode to Black Rock Bar where he had collected the fee from Porter.  He slowed down when he encountered a train of twenty mules loaded with supplies.

One of the riders tipped his hat as an expression of thanks.

“From Fort Colville?” O’Reilly asked as he glanced over the lumbering mules, their necks straining forward under the weight of the crates and bags.

“The Dalles. Twenty days out on the trail, we’ve been.”

“Bringing supplies?”

“Flour, whisky, sugar and beans mostly. I hear the miners are willing to pay good prices at any rate.  Just passed a group of miners heading south with bags of gold dust.  Word about the diggings is getting around.”

O’Reilly thought about that as he headed further along the river. There wasn’t much point in telling him at this point, he’d have to pay a fee for bringing in the liquor.

At one of the gulches, he saw a few miners, some with pans and some with rockers.

“Hullo! Could you show me your mining licences?”

One of them reached into his coat and pulled out a piece of paper.  “I paid on the Fraser,” he said as he handed it over.

“It has expired. You have to pay another five dollars.”

O’Reilly asked the other two but they refused to answer him.  Feeling agitated, he carried on, asking miners for their licences and getting nowhere.

Finally reaching Black Rock Bar, he got off his horse and began approaching each miner as they continued to work.  There were about twenty of them spread out along the bar.  He asked each one about Frank Porter while at the same time demanding to see mining licences.

There were one or two people who remembered Porter and while he was speaking to each of them, he made abbreviated notes in his own shorthand.

As it turned out Porter had been having an argument over a claim he had held jointly with a man named David Barr. Barr had threatened to shoot Porter.

“He was yelling around, saying Porter took his gold dust.”

“Do you know where Mr. Barr can be found?”

The man scratched his arm as if giving it some thought. “Probably went to Fort Hope with Dunbar’s express.”

O’Reilly knew it took about four or five days for George Dunbar’s Pony Express to make the trip. If he had left yesterday there wouldn’t be much point in trying to catch up to it. Besides, he had to lay down the law.

Just to be certain, he spoke with many more gold seekers and each of them confirmed what he had suspected. Barr was long gone on the trail to Fort Hope.

As he went further down the creek to some of the other bars, O’Reilly got the uncomfortable feeling that comes with unfriendly territory.

He was becoming used to the insults and the sullen stares that went with the miners but there was one incident that tipped him over the edge.

At Texas Bar several men blocked the trail down to the river’s edge. O’Reilly kept back a few paces and kept the reins firmly in one hand.

“Only miners are allowed past this point,” yelled one of the men.  “You’re not coming around here and demanding our money.”

Several jeers went up in the gathering crowd.

O’Reilly paused for a moment.  He could have turned around but didn’t. He stood straight in his saddle.

“I’m not going to leave this bar until each of you pays his due,” O’Reilly shouted.  “As gold commissioner for Rock Creek, I have the authority to halt your recovery.”

“You’re going to turn around and get off our bar!” shouted the man.  “And here’s your payment!”

With that remark he hurled a rock at O’Reilly just missing his hat.  Shielding his face, he felt an onslaught of rocks as he turned the horse around. It didn’t need any encouragement to break into a gallop towards the open field.  It was all he could do to hold on with both hands around its neck.

At this rate, he would catch up to David Barr in about three days.

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Peter O’Reilly came to British Columbia in 1858 from Ireland where he served with the Royal Irish Constabulary. He later went on to serve as a magistrate, judge and Indian Reserve Commissioner. O’Reilly and his family lived at Point Ellice House, now a heritage site in Victoria.