The Barter

Thomas Hibben leaves San Francisco

Thomas Hibben, a stationer from San Francisco, came north for the gold rush never thinking he would be relying on his tried and true negotiating skills.

Hibben, like so many others before him, thought he would strike it rich on the banks of the Fraser River but by the time he got word of the gold rush, the steamers were packed with gold seekers. He had packed up his belongings in a hurry and dissolved his partnership in the Noisy Carriers’ Book and Stationery Company. There was no turning back.

The unfortunate thing was he had gambled every last cent on finding gold nuggets or at least some fine grains. Would his luck hold out until then? He was running out of money. He figured merchants would need experienced men like him to help get their consigned goods to the gold fields.  He told one of them about his stationery store in San Francisco and was quite surprised when he discovered that there was no such thing in Fort Victoria.

As he travelled with his pack and gold pan, Hibben made notes on the Chinook jargon and the scenery, adding places to his roughly sketched map. He might as well make the most of his trip, he figured.

At the foot of Kamloops Lake, he ran into a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee named François Savona.  He seemed like a no-nonsense man, emphasized by his downturned moustache.

“I can get you across here for two bits,” Savona said. “There are some spots farther up you can try but the best is on the other side.  The Bonaparte River I hear is good too.”

Hibben nodded.  “I’ll pay you when I arrive on the other side.”  He climbed on board the raft and held the rudder steady while Savona pulled on the cable and the raft inched its way to the other side.

Once they were safely across and Savona was catching his breath, Hibben went through his pockets. All he had were just a few American coins and a silver token he had picked up from a card game he had won.

Savona held the token by the tips of his rough fingers, and turned it over. He was apprehensive about taking it but Hibben convinced there was enough silver in there to make it worth something.

Relieved, Hibben carried on his way.  Why couldn’t he find any gold like the others?  He’d been so foolish to leave the store like that.

In due course, he encountered a bearded fellow who was sitting in a field gathering strawberries.

“This is worth more than gold,” the miner said holding up a strawberry.

Hibben popped a strawberry into his mouth and his eyebrows shot up. “This is just what I needed!  What flavour.”

“Aye, I need these bad. My legs have gone all rheumy and I’ve got gout, my feet hurt.  Too many days of hard tack, pork, and beans.  What I would do for a piece of bread!”

“That sounds dreadful. I’ll tell you what; I’ll use my frying pan and gather up some strawberries for you.”

The man sat down on the ground and Hibben, true to his word, nearly filled his frying pan with strawberries.

As the miner was listing all his aches and pains, Hibben couldn’t help but notice a cylinder shaped rock that had fallen into the long grass.

Hibben picked it up, surprised it was polished bone, and very light weight.  He could hear something rattle inside.

Elk horn purse with string of dentalium shells

“That was some elk horn trinket someone gave me.”

There was a slit in the middle, just wide enough for Hibben to insert his finger and pull out a string with unusual shaped stones on it.

“How about if I made some pancakes in exchange for this?” Hibben asked.

The miner agreed. After they were sitting around eating pancakes, Hibben asked him about the best gold panning sites. “Probably the Bonaparte, near Lacache.”

“Is that far from here?”

He took some tobacco out of a tin case and stuffed it in his cheek.

“It’ll take you a few days.  I was heading back when I ran into some of those Royal Engineers so I thought better pack it in before one of them sticks a gun up my nose and demands another licence.  Nothing like the old ’49 rush.”

Hibben cheerfully waved goodbye just as the miner started listing his aches and pains.

Over the next few days, Hibben hiked on, through the arid scrub, grateful for the food from the last miner. He was feeling cheerful and optimistic about his prospects at Lacache Creek. “Look for the big canyon,” the miner had told him.

Sure enough, in the distance, he could see large mountains.

Eventually, he came across two men who were setting up an interesting piece of equipment. Curious, Hibben stopped and asked what they were doing.

“Surveying a route from Fort Kamloops to Pavilion,” said the man with the long beard. Later he found out he was Lieutenant Mayne and the other fellow was Jean Baptiste Lolo.

They talked about telescopes and the hikes so far. Hibben told them about his adventures so far.

“Interesting.  And you say that you ran a stationery store in San Francisco? You should set one up in Fort Victoria. I can assure you that a great many of us Royal Engineers are most keen to write home on a decent piece of paper.  Speaking of which, you don’t happen to have any paper with you?”

Hibben riffled through his pack and found several pieces of paper.  He also pulled out his own map. “How much farther to Lacache Creek?”

“Baptiste? What do you think?”

Baptiste frowned as he looked at the paper and then turned it around.  “Pavilion Mountain is northwest of Lacache.  You’ll want to follow the Bonaparte River, then you’ll come to Lacache.”

As he was speaking, Hibben noticed he held the paper to a tattoo on the inside of his forearm.  It was a single line with marks at various intervals.

“It comes in handy sometimes now and then. Originally I got it when I was younger and I was counting out money.” Baptiste described in detail, small shells which were threaded onto a string. Each one was worth something.

Hibben showed him the elk horn pouch and pulled out the string of tiny shells. He watched Baptiste’s eyes light up as he measured the length of it against his tattoo.

Lieutenant Mayne inspected the shells under a magnifying glass. “If there’s anything you want to know about trade goods, our interpreter and guide, Baptiste knows everything.”

Hibben followed them along the trail for the next day, often losing sight of them as they kept up a blistering pace.  He was so used to seeing low lying sagebrush and bunch grass he didn’t really notice the trees until they rounded the corner and he was standing at the edge of a limestone canyon with bands of colour painted across its length. Tucked in at the bottom was a narrow lake. On the opposite side was a wall of green evergreens.

Baptiste shouted and gestured for Hibben to come down to their camp below. The aroma of fish edged him on down the slope.  Mayne was smoking his pipe while chopping more firewood. There was plenty of fish and large berries.  They ate and told some stories until Mayne fell asleep. Baptiste asked him some questions every now and then about the string of shells. As the last embers of the campfire had gone out Baptiste offered him a deal.

Hibben was doubtful at first but Baptiste’s enthusiasm won him over. In exchange for the shells, Baptiste would help him compile the first Chinook dictionary.

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Thomas N. Hibben established the first stationery store in Victoria and in 1862 he published the “Dictionary of Indian Tongues, Containing Most of the Words and Terms Used in the Tshimpsean, Hydah, & Chinook, With Their Meaning or Equivalent in the English Language.”

Jean-Baptiste Lolo (Leolo) was an HBC employee, trader, and interpreter. Born in 1798 of Iroquois and French parents, he entered the fur trade and was listed as working at many forts around New Caledonia. He was as an unofficial liaison officer between the company and the Indians of all the interior Salish tribes. Respected by both, Lolo helped maintain the balance of power between them with remarkable dexterity. He was also given the honorific title of “Chief” by the HBC and others called him “St. Paul.” His restored house still survives as part of the Kamloops Museum.

In 1856 Lieutenant Richard Mayne was attached to the Nautical Survey of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Later, he was assigned the exploration and mapping of hitherto unknown parts of the colony. Mayne Island in the Gulf Islands is named after him. He returned to England in 1860.

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