Dying for Gold

Here is a poem I wrote after reading Bill Gallaher’s book on John “Cariboo” Cameron and the trip he took to fulfill his wife’s last request, who had died of typhoid, to be buried at home in Ontario. One of the things that struck me when reading the book based on the diary of Cameron’s friend, Robert Stephenson, was his account of seeing the snow graves. During the Cariboo gold rush, between 1862-64, the smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of over 20,000 First Nations.

Dying for Gold

Sophia Cameron died
left in a frozen cabin
in the bruised landscape
her husband
went back to crank the windlass
for days on end
digging until they hit bedrock
and found a vein of gold

Billy Barker saw it
and loaned him a poke full of gold
enough to take Sophia home, away from the Cariboo

Icy snow stung their faces as they pulled
her casket on a sleigh
she could kill them all
with a wrong turn
the gold sat on top, untouched
by chilled fingers
one by one the miners turned back
to Richfield

At the mouth of Keithley Creek was a house and store
Mrs. Lawless said
Smallpox on the rampage
from the Forks to Port Douglas
French Joe and Indian Jim turned back

At Beaver Lake
just Cameron and Stephenson remained and
a white undulating field of death
small mounds, all snow graves
90
maybe more

one bewildered old man

At Williams Lake, 120 bodies covered by blankets of snow
only three Indians alive

At Lac La Hache
a few feet from the door of the roadhouse
two snow graves
an Indian from smallpox
a white man over a game of cards

too many snow graves to count

Rattlesnake Grade
up that slippery, narrow trail
they hugged the mountainside
the horse strained lifting its legs in the snow
pulling the weight of the casket made uneven by the gold
six sweeping turns up the flank of Pavilion Mountain
without falling
then it died

Cameron and Stephenson met a third man
who carried the gold on his back
another horse pulled the sleigh

at Port Douglas
were Indians with smallpox
some so far gone that their skin had turned black
decay
the stink of the dead and the dying
made them hide their faces in the crooks of their arms
afraid of the air

they boarded the sternwheeler Henrietta
the casket supported by poles
and they drank brandy
they promised to come back
to their claim
by another route