Fifty years before the gold rush, Simon Fraser and his group of voyageurs packed their canoes with dried salmon and trade goods at Fort George. Ahead of them was ‘Ltha Koh’ – the big mouth river. Could this be the Columbia River? The quest to find the fabled trade route to Oregon weighed heavily on his mind.
Their pitch covered canoes that had brought them all the way from Montreal were almost worn out. Around every turn they faced unforeseen rocks and eddys that threatened to capsize their precious gear. News of Fraser’s voyage spread and by the time they reached the village called Saƛ, (Lillooet) the Upper St̓át̓imc chiefs were waiting. They dined on “different kinds of roots, wild onions formed into syrup, excellent dried salmon, and some berries.”
At every opportunity Fraser asked about the mighty river that lay ahead. He was told it was only ten days journey down the Sat̓atqwa7 (sha-ta-qua) to the ocean but the trip would be nearly impossible with their canoes. They were warned that they would have to carry their belongings. Fraser and his men cached bales of dried salmon to lighten the load and so they would have something to eat on their return trip.
Fraser and his voyageurs came to another village called Camchin (Lytton) at the confluence of the Sat̓átqwa7 and another large river they called Sheowk’tm. Fraser named this river the Thompson River, after fellow Nor’Wester David Thompson. Here Fraser and his men enjoyed a feast of salmon, wild dogs, berries, nuts and salmon roe. They ate many types of roots including balsamroot, bitterroot, and sweetroot. Some of the roots had been baked in earth ovens. Other roots were boiled.
Perched on the rocks nearby were empty drying racks made from branches tied together. Soon these would be filled with rows of sockeye salmon split in half with the backbone intact. As the salmon swam in their annual migration up the river, men with long poles speared or netted their catch and baskets of fish were handed over to women who cleaned and prepared the salmon. Every year, salmon fishing began in the early spring with the arrival of the March run of spring salmon, and finished with the dog salmon caught in November. The making of nets from Indian hemp fibre, fishing and curing of salmon brought the whole community together. It reminded Fraser of the buffalo hunt on the prairies and the making of pemmican.
His battered canoes were in dire need of repair so Fraser made the decision to cache them. The Nor’westers would have to rely on Fraser’s ability to barter for canoes as they were needed. As it turned out there were many days when the only choice was to carry their load across areas of loose rocks on cliffs, and along narrow ridges with scarcely room enough to put one foot in front of the other.
Just above Yale, Fraser met the Tait people who spoke Upriver Halkomelem. They called the mighty river Sto:lo.
Below Hell’s Gate, Fraser wrote in his diary of a deep canyon where “the ascent was perfectly perpendicular, one of the Indians climbed to the summit, and with a long pole drew us up, one after another. This took three hours.”
Beyond that they made their way between precipices by walking along ladders reinforced with tough fibre woven from stems. Every step was taken with care as they looked down between the rungs to the rushing water below.
They were rewarded with a delicious meal of freshly caught salmon. Near the place where the river splits around a huge monolith (Lady Franklin Rock), they enjoyed another well-cooked meal of salmon served in wooden dishes which he hadn’t seen before.
It became increasingly difficult to barter for a canoe the farther they went. The Natives were more impressed with the strength of his voyageurs than they were with the copper kettles he had left. He wasted little time admiring the open ocean before he turned back, disappointed. It was way north of the latitude that marked the mouth of the Columbia River and it was too wild to be considered as a possible trade route for the fur trade, he wrote in his diary.
For the next fifty years life along the river remained unchanged. David Thompson named it Fraser’s River and the Hudson’s Bay Company kept the name of New Caledonia on its maps of the region. It was little consolation to Simon Fraser who left the fur trade to begin the life of a farmer in Upper Canada.
Then one day Fraser was told there were thousands of foolhardy gold seekers making their way up this same river with rafts and scows. It was hard for him to believe.
The name Fraser would be tied to the gold rush that changed the course of British Columbia history, repeated in bold headlines from California to Australia.