Category Archives: Gold Rush Notes

Brief history facts explained about the BC gold rush

The first sewing machine in the BC gold rush

In 1846, the sewing machine was invented. Isaac Singer made a series of other improvements in 1850 and 1851, making curved stitching possible and replacing the hand wheel with a treadle.

SewingMachBy the time of the BC gold rush, there was a demand for sewing machines. This ad for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines appeared in the British Colonist newspaper in 1859.

This would have a made a huge impact on the availability of clothing. That same year a “Ladies’ Benevolent Society” was formed “for relieving the sick and clothing the naked.” One can imagine what a difference these sewing machines would have made.

Trousers made of canvas or denim were essential for prospectors working the creeks. These could now be made by sewing machines. Most miners had to learn how to make their own repairs with a needle and thread themselves.

wwsewingmachine
Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine (credit McCord Museum)

In the meantime, young aboriginal women were taught the old ways of making clothing. At their Cowichan convent, the Sisters of Saint Ann taught “young female Indians and half-breeds” to card wool.

In the eariy 1860s it was proposed that the Songhees women of Victoria be put to work in a laundry, while others thought instruction in needlework would be better.

Mrs. Reynard and Mrs. Hills taught Aboriginal women to knit stockings in Victoria’s Humbolt Street mission in the late 186Os.

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The Kanakas of British Columbia

When Captain Cook came to the islands of Hawaii in 1778, he named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. Since that time, ships from Britain and France arrived at this new mid-ocean way station. Hawaiians, known as ‘Owyhees’, were recruited to work on the ships. They called themselves Kanakas, the Hawaiian word for ‘people’.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

By the 1820s, the practice of recruiting Kanakas for work on the Northwest coast was firmly established. When the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the merger meant that Kanakas were brought up north from Oregon Territory. As a result of a head tax on Sandwich Islanders that came into effect in 1845, there were few who wanted to stay behind. Many returned to Hawaii.

The Hudson’s Bay Company offered Kanakas three year contracts that included room and board and a wage of ten pounds a year. They worked at the Belle Vue Farm on San Juan Island where they looked after sheep under the direction of the foreman Charles Griffin and maintained a presence for the British. The Kanakas had a reputation as one that was willing to “fight the local Natives” and for this reason they were employed as guards. When a Washington Territory sheriff named Barnes was sent to San Juan with a group of assistants to seize some of HBC’s sheep for non-payment of taxes, “there was a whoop from the hill and Griffin, together with some twenty Kanakas brandishing knives were seen charging down toward them.” They retreated however, after Barnes and the others fired their revolvers.

In 1851, James Douglas, then the chief factor of Fort Victoria, set up a militia group comprised of “eleven Kanakas and two negroes” known as the Victoria Voltigeurs. It existed for 7 years as a rifle corps to guard the fort. Douglas relied on them frequently to apprehend Natives who threatened the HBC. He wrote of a case where the Voltigeurs chased a Cowichan Native into the woods, captured him and another and brought them back on board the Steamship Beaver. The two men were later hanged for the crimes.

During the mid-1850s the Voltigeurs were often used on more routine patrol duties on horseback “to visit the isolated settlements for their protection.” In 1856, eighteen Voltigeurs were sent a s part of a large expedition to Cowichan after the attempted murder of a white man by a Cowichan Native.

The Voltigeurs continued as a force until the gold rush began in 1858. The following year, the HBC’s monopoly on trade officially ended and many of the Kanakas left Victoria to join the gold rush in the Fraser Canyon. Kanaka Bar was one place where they left their mark. Many of them lived in Victoria on what was known as ‘Kanaka Row’ – a line of shacks at the head of Victoria harbour where the Empress Hotel is located.

There was a strong connection between Victoria and Hawaii (still referred to as the Sandwich Islands) in the early years of the gold rush. The Kanakas held onto their Hawaiian culture and customs. In 1862, it was noted that “A steady and increasing trade is carried on with S. Francisco, the Sandwich Islands, Oregon, Washington Territory and the coast of British Columbia.”

Russell Island near Salt Spring Island (visible from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal) was once owned by a Kanaka pioneer. Parks Canada operates a visitor centre on Russell Island in conjunction with the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.  Descendants share their family stories about life on Russell Island with visitors.

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Governor James Douglas and Native title to land

In September 1860, Governor James Douglas addressed a large crowd of Stl’atl’imx at Lillooet. They were to “be treated in all respects as Her Majesty’s other subjects” he said, which meant that they could become registered free miners, search and dig for gold, and hold mining claims like any other miners.

Douglas also stated that “the law will protect the Indian equally with the white man, and regard him in all respects as a fellow subject”.

Governor James Douglas

Governor James Douglas

What influences shaped Douglas’ views towards Natives? As the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver Island and senior member of the board of management of the Columbia Department, Douglas reported to the Colonial Office.

The Colonial Office in London, England was responsible for all the colonies of the British Empire.  A short walk from the Prime Minister’s office on Downing Street, a small work force copied correspondence by hand, kept maps and books for every colony except India. From this office, policies were formed which would leave a lasting effect.

Earl Grey was secretary of state for the colonies in 1849 when the Crown granted control of Vancouver Island to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Grey had been a leading advocate of free trade and the abolishment of tariffs on colonial goods. During Grey’s tenure as head of the Colonial Office, the widely held belief was that while the Crown would provide military defence if necessary, the colonies themselves should become self-sufficient as soon as possible. There was little political will to subsidize colonies.

Working under Grey was Herman Merivale, a former Oxford professor. In a series of lectures, Merivale expounded on the need for colonial administrators to protect of Natives from settlers. He suggested that government officials be appointed to act on behalf of Native people and keep authority over Natives with the Colonial Office and the Governor, but not at the legislative level which was controlled by settlers and where conflict would arise. Merivale held that reserves of land should be made at the beginning of colonization.

The Colonial Office had several economic theories regarding land, labour and capital in the colonies. Many were convinced by the theories of economist Edward Gibbon Wakefield who thought that by controlling land prices and the rate of immigration, the colonial capitalist would have access to relatively cheap labour and the labourer (over time) could become a property owner. Land would be neither so cheap that anyone could have it but at the same time not so expensive that the poor could never acquire it.

In 1851, James Douglas was named Governor of Vancouver Island. It was said he was a master of the colonial dispatch and he had the confidence of the senior management of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Colonial Office, both in London. Senior HBC officials, like their counterparts in the Colonial Office had differing opinions about Native rights and title when it came to acquiring land from the Natives but in the end, left it up to Douglas.

Beginning that year, Douglas set about purchasing parcels of land on Vancouver Island. Between 1851 and 1854, Douglas made a total of 14 purchases from Native tribes involving less than 3 percent of the land area of Vancouver Island. These included areas that the HBC later used for coal mining and agriculture as well as areas for colonial settlement. Tersely worded statements were drawn up and payments were made to chiefs in the form of blankets and other items. He allocated the first Indian reserve at the site of the present legislative buildings in Victoria harbour. In the spring of 1852, Douglas reported that Natives near Fort Victoria were starving, barely two years after they had signed the agreement.

When the gold rush came in 1858, Native title to land was no longer an issue for the Colonial Office. They did not pressure Douglas to make any more purchases. The new secretary of state E.B. Lytton forwarded a letter to Douglas from the Aborigines Protection Society about Native title with the remark that the society’s views on the matter were not necessarily his.

When the Royal Engineers arrived, Douglas told Colonel Moody to allocate reserve land “to the extent of several hundred acres round each village” before settlement. Some of that land he assumed, could be sold or leased by the government and the proceeds put in trust for the Natives. On the other hand, in the Fraser Canyon, Sapper Turnbull was instructed to mark out land for Indian reserves based on the decision of the gold commissioners. As a result, Turnbull’s reserves in the Fraser Canyon were tiny and out of all proportion to Douglas’ general instructions. This contrasted with the decision of William G. Cox, gold commissioner for Rock Creek, who marked out large reserves in the Okanagan, letting the Natives themselves select the location “and also pointing out to me where they Desired the boundary stakes to be placed.”

Just before his retirement in 1864, Governor Douglas was criticized for his Native policies which were considered by many settlers to be too generous.

Douglas told the legislative assembly that he based Indian reserve allocations on ten acres per family; a significant increase compared to the early days in Victoria harbour where the entire reserve was only ten acres. Douglas was criticized for this as well as his policy to allow Natives to pre-empt land like anyone else. As a result, Douglas introduced special legislation that made it so difficult for Natives to acquire land it was almost impossible.

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The history of Chinese gold miners

Chinese gold miners

Chinese gold miners

There were many Chinese gold miners who participated in the Fraser River gold rush. Many of them were experienced prospectors who had panned for gold in California. Just as many had panned for gold back home in China.

The Chinese were mining gold by 1300 BC. They had systematic ways to prospect for it. In the 7th century an official wrote, “If the upper soil contains cinnabar, the lower will contain gold.” They had also discovered that plants were a key indicator of what lay beneath the surface. “If in the mountain grow spring shallots, there will be silver under the ground; if leek in the mountain, gold.”

The Chinese also had interesting ways of clearing the gold from other debris. They panned for gold and washed as much debris away as they could, then they mixed what was left with chaff, and fed it to ducks. Later they collected the droppings, panned out the gold a second time, mixed the refined gold with another batch of chaff and fed it to the ducks. They did this process three times and then they fed the ducks a final batch of chaff to collect any gold bits left behind. This brings to mind the old saying, “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”.

At the beginning of the first millenium, China’s rulers owned gold reserves of 200 tons, about the same as the Roman Empire. Then the mining collapsed. When the Mongols came to power in 1300 AD they tried to turn the gold mines around. They ordered 4,000 households in Shandong to pan for gold. They supressed bandits and removed tyrants who were robbing the mines, and warned their own generals not to steal gold.

Wei Zhongxian, a former criminal and gambler, obtained a position in the imperial household, which was advantageous because creditors were not allowed to pursue him in the Forbidden City. When the crown prince became emperor Wei began his climb to power. He built shrines and statues to himself and adopted the title Nine Thousand Years. The emperor, known by custom as Ten Thousand Years, gave Wei the Linglong Mine in 1621.

According to legend, a river flowed into the sky from the peach orchard of the Grand Old Lady of the West to a peak in the Linglong hills. The river fed streams that flowed down the mountain and collected in a basin. One day a hunter discovered a pool teeming with gold fish. They leapt from the surface and spewed streams of golden liquid. When news of this pool reached the imperial court they sent an official to Shandong. The official was so overwhelmed at the sight of the gold fish that he dove into the pool and disappeared. A second emissary arrived and found the pool dry. Not wanting to return to the Forbidden City with bad news, he ordered 10,000 peasants to dig in the mountain for the fish. They found the Linglong gold.

Wei ran the Linlong mine for six years and the country’s gold production increased to 40,000 ounces a year. When the emperor died, Wei’s enemies killed him. Seventeen years later the dynasty collapsed and so did Linglong.

The new Manchu rulers believed that the gold veins were that of dragons’ and digging them up would disrupt spatial harmony. On a practical note, the Manchu feared that the gold could finance an insurrection amongst the people they had conquered. Subsequently, they decreed an end to gold mining and they executed those they caught digging for gold illegally.

The last gold bars left the Chinese treasury in 1842, in reparation payments to the foreign occupying powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. It was at that point the ruling Dowager Empress repealed the gold mining prohibition. In actual fact, the mining had never stopped.

During the time of the prohibition, a British colonial official stationed in Burma wrote “by far the larger portion of all the gold used [in Burma] is brought from China. It is imported in the form of thin leaves of gold made up into little packets, each packet weighing about one viss [3.6 pounds].” Gold had also leaked out of China along the Himalayan smuggling routes. When the gold mining prohibition ended, the gold simply headed back to the domestic market.

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A gold seeker’s diary May 1863

A gold seeker’s diary of his journey to William’s Creek in May 1863 was later published in a book by Matthew MacFie, “Vancouver Island and British Columbia: Their History, Resources and Prospects”. Here are a few entries from the time the gold seeker left Victoria and travelled up the Harrison-Lillooet trail from Port Douglas which was commonly known as ‘Douglas’.

May 8th. Left Victoria at 9 a.m. Arrived at New Westminster at 4.30 p.m. Had a pleasant passage, the day being warm and calm. Put up at the ‘Mansion House;’ slept in my own blankets on the floor in company with several others, free of charge.

Douglas, BC

Douglas, BC

Saturday, 9th. Left New Westminster for Douglas at 3.30 p.m. Anchored at dark, 40 miles up the river. Slept soundly on the saloon floor.

Sunday, 10th. Started early; got into Harrison River at 8 a.m. Great contrast between the two rivers – the Fraser very muddy- the Harrison as clear as glass… Arrived at Douglas at 3 p.m. Travelled 12 miles further on; pitched our tents in the bush.

Monday, 11th. Got up at daybreak; cooked breakfast, and started for the head of Lillooet Lake, distant 17 miles. Arrived there at 3.30 p.m. Could not sleep at night for the mosquitoes, the tent being full of them. The road from Douglas to the lake is one continued ‘gulch’ between two ranges of mountains, called the ‘Cascades.’…There are roadhouses every few miles, where meals can be had at a dollar (4s. 2d.) each…

Tuesday, 12th. Started on our journey along the Lillooet Lake at 7:30 am. Had to go in a barge for six miles before we got to the steamboat. Arrived at Pemberton at 2 pm. From the foot of Tenass (little) Lake to the head of Lilloet Lake is 25 1/2 miles…At Pemberton we took the waggon-road, and travelled 8 miles same day. About 20 of us slept on the floor of the 8-mile house in the usual style…

Wednesday, 13th. Started early. Arrived at Anderson Lake, distant 26 miles from Pemberton, in good time in the afternoon. We passed through…rich prairie called ‘the Meadows,’ 7 or 8 miles long, and from half a mile to a mile wide. Beyond the half-way house is a watershed, 1,482 feet above the level of the sea. From the road is seen a roaring cataract dashing from the snowy summits of the mountains…Made a tent of one of my blankets; could not sleep, the other being too short for me…

Thursday, 14th. On board the steamer at 8 am. Lake Anderson, 16 miles long…Arrived at Port Seaton [Seton] at 3pm. Lake Seaton, the last in the chain of lakes, is 14 miles long, lying west and east, and is only 1 1/2 miles from Lake Anderson. Scenery on both lakes is charming; the hills rising abruptly out of the water as clear and tranquil as I have ever seen. Travelled to Lilloet, distant 3 1/2 miles. In approaching it the hills recede. It is a pretty place; a flat surrounded by mountains. There are a few patches of arable land, but sand seems to prevail. All along from Douglas the country looks barren; hardly a blade of grass to be seen, or a spot level enough to pitch a tent on.

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The gold rush at Goldstream, BC

At the beginning of October 1863, a party of four miners were sent out by Governor James Douglas to prospect for gold in the Victoria area. Ten days later, they returned and reported that they had discovered diggings paying 4 or 5 cents to the pan at a stream flowing into Gold or Deadman’s Creek.

“A number of persons carrying packs and mining tools started for the scene of new excitement. The new “Douglas Diggings” at Goldstream presented the appearance of a thorough mining locality possessing every facility for working. The proximity of the location would tender the working expenses trifling; mining would be easy owing to excellent facilities for washing and the shallowness of the diggings; and, the road was accessible as a dray could be taken within four miles of the spot, whence packing was very easy on horse or foot.”

Goldstream

Goldstream

Goldseekers made their way to the stream that lay between the 12th and 13th mileposts on the five foot-wide Cowichan trail, about two or three miles from Langford’s Lake.

On October 20, 1863, one day after the discovery of gold was reported, the Colonist printed:

“One hundred people were headed for the diggings. A great many lost their way with some going down the trail to Sooke and others unable to follow the proper trail. Those who succeeded in reaching the mining grounds spoke in the highest terms of the appearance of the country as a gold-bearing region and expressed confidence in the ultimate results of efficient prospecting. A quantity of liquors and other things were sent out from town, and several applications for permission to sell the former were made.”

In just a few days, the population at Goldstream grew to over 300, including several Cariboo miners. Companies were formed and claims were staked. There was even talk of making the trail from Langford’s Lake to Goldstream a wagon road.

As the weeks went by, it became apparent that the gold was scattered through the quartz for some miles. Finding flecks of gold in a pan soon dwindled. Only with machinery was it possible to hit paydirt and the expense of reaching bedrock was greater than anticipated.

As interest in the area began to wane the following spring, there were a few companies said to have ore assessed which made their claims valuable.

In April, 1864, The Muir Company’s ore was assessed at $10,500 for gold and $24 for silver to the ton. “A great demand for shares in this company resulted with their value rising from $7 per share (of 15 feet) to $15.”

In response, W.A.G. Young, Colonial Secretary, rose in the House to request $4,000 for the purpose of constructing a road to Goldstream. Amor De Cosmos called the gentleman to order for he was not aware that Young represented the Governor any more than any other member of the house.

On July 17, 1864 the discovery of gold on the Leech River became known and the miners abandoned their claims at Goldstream.

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Free Grog for the Public Service

Grog was a common drink for gold rush miners. ‘Grog’ referred to second-rate rum or watered down rum. ‘Grog shops’ were nothing more than tents or shacks where grog was offered for sale.

wooden_barrelHow was grog made and how did it become so popular?

In the 1600s, there was a rush by the British to the ‘sugar islands’ in the Caribbean. The growth of the sugar industry encouraged local farmers to plant more sugar cane.  Cane juice was boiled down to a syrup, cooled and cured. The curing process involved storing the crystallizing sugar in clay pots with holes in their bases. What emerged was molasses. In the mid 17th century, there was no use for molasses and it was considered a nuisance. As time wore on, the growers found uses for molasses including a new alcoholic drink that became known as rum.

Demand for rum grew. By the early 18th century, the most popular West Indian destinations for merchant ships were Antigua or Barbados, since rum was most easily obtained in trade there. Watered down rum, known as grog, was given to sailors in the navy.

At Fort Victoria, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave 1 pint of molasses and 1/2 pint of rum to workers on December 25, 1848 in addition to their rations of beef, pork and flour.

The Lands & Works Department was run by the Royal Engineers until 1863. While they were stationed in British Columbia, sappers received liquor with their food rations.

The British Columbian published an article on June 29, 1864, titled ‘Free Grog for the Public Service':

We understand that a keg of brandy was admitted duty free last week on the ground that it was for the “public service,” being for the Surveyor-General’s department! Now, it appears to us that if those employed in the Surveyor-General’s department are entitled to free grog, why not to free “grub”? We look upon the principle as wrong, and the practice paltry. It is unusual for Government to furnish grog to those employed in the various departments. If those in this branch of the public service are so badly paid that they cannot afford the luxury of brandy let their pay be increased; or if Government must supply them let it be purchased here in the regular way, but do not let such a miserable, picayunish practise be carried on as bringing in brandy duty free for the civil service. Who ever heard of such a thing? There was too much of this under the old regime; but then there was rather more excuse for it in the Lands & Works Department, as it was filled by military vice, [who] were entitled to receive their grog as well as their rations. Now, however, the whole thing is changed, and one department is no more entitled to it than another. We hope to see all this sort of thing put a stop to.

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The Esquimalt by-election of 1861

During the gold rush years, elections in British Columbia were contentious affairs. The Esquimalt by-election of 1861 was a race between George Tomline Gordon and Amor De Cosmos.

Esquimalt

Esquimalt

Amor De Cosmos was also known legally as William Smith. Gordon’s allies raised the issue of Smith’s name and they argued that if William Smith ran as Amor De Cosmos his election would be contested. As a result, the official entry for Cosmos was “William Alexander Smith commonly known as Amor De Cosmos.”

“The day of polling arrived and great was the excitement in the little town of Esquimalt. The fences and walls were profusely decorated with placards and posters and the reds (Gordon) and the blues (De Cosmos) took possession of the village long before the polls opened at ten o’clock in the morning. The saloons were wide open, and horses, buggies, and express vans, and on one occasion a wheelbarrow, were used to take electors to the poll…from the amount of interest manifested one would have thought that the fate of the British Empire depended on the result of the election in that borough.”

As the day wore on it became evident that not all of the electors would vote. Several electors who had promised one side or the other failed to put in an appearance.

C.B. Young volunteered to bring James Moore down to the polling station. Moore was the chief clerk of Langley & Co., the pioneer chemists of Victoria, whose establishment stood on the corner of Boomerang alley and Yates Street.

Ten minutes before the voting was to close at four o’clock, Young and Moore arrived on horseback. Moore was led to the returning officer’s table, with Young on one side, and De Cosmos on the other. In those days, there were no paper ballots; electors stated the name of their chosen candidate.

The votes so far were at a tie:
George Tomline Gordon 10
William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos 10

“What is your name?” Moore was asked.
“James Moore.”
“Where do you reside?”
“In Victoria.”
“What is your qualification?”
[Moore was a property holder in Esquimalt and gave the address of the lot.]
“For whom do you vote?”
“Amor De Cosmos,” came the answer.

“A wild cheer burst from the Gordonites. Gordon himself…leaped up and down…in a state of frantic glee and excitement.” Gordon demanded that Sheriff Naylor put the vote down as being for ‘Amor De Cosmos’ and not ‘William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos’.

“No, no,” said Young. “He meant William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos,” didn’t you, Moore?”
“Yes,” said Moore.
“Too late,” said Sheriff Naylor. “The vote is recorded for Amor De Cosmos.”
At four o’clock the poll was closed and Naylor read the return as follows:

William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos…..10
George Tomline Gordon…10
Amor De Cosmos….1

“I declare a tie between Mr. Smith and Mr. Gordon and I cast my vote as returning officer in favour of Mr. Gordon whom I declare duly elected member for Esquimalt.”

George Tomline Gordon won the election by one vote.

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Pemmican and Berries in the BC gold rush

What did gold miners eat in the gold rush?  Many brought flour, salt pork and beans, but they soon saw value in the edible plants that were found growing near the trails such as ‘miner’s lettuce’. Vitamin-rich plants were often identified by names in the Chinook trading language. Here are just a few:

salmonberry

salmonberry

Olallie: salmonberry
Amote: wild strawberry
Camas: ‘sweet’ starchy bulb

Miners in the Cariboo gold rush would often stop to eat wild strawberries on their way to the gold diggings. Harry Jones recalled in his diary that he spent almost an afternoon eating his fill of strawberries while some others even became lost in their pursuit of the tasty berry.

Overlanders travelling through the Prairies would have purchased or traded for pemmican. The word ‘pemmican’ comes from the Cree language: pimii ‘fat’ + kan ‘prepared’.

Buffalo meat was dried and then braised over a fire. After, it was laid out on buffalo skin and pounded with stone mallets until it was tenderized. At this stage it was called ‘beat meat’. Bags made of buffalo skin, called taureaux or parflèches by fur traders, were sewn up and half-filled with ‘beat meat’ then buffalo fat was poured into the bag.  Dried berries such as chokecherries, saskatoonberries or golden currants were added.

Each bag was stirred before being sewn tight. Then it was rotated every so often to prevent the fat from settling to the bottom. Pemmican had a long shelf life and the bags even withstood being dumped overboard from a canoe.

‘Rubbaboo’ was a soup made by chopping pemmican, some wild onions, a few roots of prairie turnip and a chunk of salt pork. Some flour could have been added to make it the consistency of a stew.

The name ‘rubbaboo’ was derived from a combination of words from various languages: the Ojibwa and Cree words for soup, ‘nempup’ and ‘apu'; the Alongquin word for the meat that has been pounded (the first stage of the pemmican making process) ‘ruhiggan'; and finally a word from 18th Century naval slang, ‘burgoo’ which referred to oatmeal gruel eaten by sailors.

James Carnegie, who travelled across the Prairies in 1859 wrote about pemmican in his journal which was later published, “Saskatchewan and The Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel.”

Pemmican is most endurable when uncooked. My men used to fry it with grease, sometimes stirring in flour, and making a flabby mess, called ‘rubbaboo’ which I found most uneatable. Carefully made pemmican, such as that flavoured with the Saskootoom berries…or the sheep-pemmican given us by the Rocky Mountain hunters, is nearly good—but, in two senses, a little of it goes a long way.

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Alfred Waddington and the Bute Inlet route

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Bute Inlet

Bute Inlet

Major W. Downie and his partner Alex MacDonald were the first to officially explore the Bute Inlet. In June 1861 Downie travelled the Homathko River, that flows from the Chilcotin Plateau to the coast. Downie travelled the Homathko River by canoe and foot for a total of 33 miles when a steep canyon forced him back.

Alfred Waddington, a merchant and a promoter, was excited at the prospect of a possible new route to the gold fields. He convinced his fellow merchants in Victoria, who faced competition from New Westminster, to give Downie’s route along the Homathko River a chance.

Alfred Penderell Waddington was born in London, England in 1801 where he attended school. After his father died in 1818 Waddington moved to France where his brothers had business interests. In 1850, he set his sights on California and the gold rush there. Waddington sailed to San Francisco in May and set up a wholesale provision firm which was soon profitable. Upon hearing of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, Waddington came north to Victoria to set up another grocery firm.

Alfred Waddington

Alfred Waddington

By the end of the year, Waddington had published his observations in a book titled, The Fraser Mines Vindicated; Or, the History of Four Months. In his book, Waddington was optimistic about future gold prospects and wrote “it is beyond doubt that the other kind of dry diggings exist plentifully in the north…”

On September 19, 1861, Waddington left Victoria on the steamer Henrietta, visited the head of Bute Inlet, made friends with certain native people in Desolation Sound, navigated by steamer for 8 miles up the Homathko River and then by canoe for some distance beyond. He left five men to explore further while he returned to Victoria.The five returned to Victoria near the end of October.

Within a week, Waddington arranged for a second party. This included Robert Homfray, a surveyor who had worked for the Colonial Survey Office under J.D. Pemberton. Homfray was in charge of the group which consisted of three HBC voyageurs – Cote, Balthazzar, and Bourchier, along with Henry McNeill and two natives.

Homfray and his crew set out on October 31, 1861. Nine days later they reached the entrance to Bute Inlet. Here they were kidnapped. Fortunately, they were rescued by a chief of the Cla-oosh people whose village was in Desolation Sound. Homfray convinced the chief to guide them through the Homathko River valley.

Robert Homfray told of one log jam, twenty feet high and half-a-mile long, stretching right across the river. They proceeded up the rapids, manhandling the canoe over slippery log-jams, often up to their waists in water. He could look up and see the blue ice of glaciers above the steep walls of the river. The chief turned back. Then the weather turned bitterly cold and the ice froze on their clothes, their beards and hair. After almost losing their canoe when the tow rope broke, they decided to cache it, and proceeded on foot.

Just when they were coming to the end of their food, they encountered a tall Native, his body painted jet-black, and vermillion-colored rings around his eyes. He was pointing an arrow straight at them. They were able to convince the Native that they were friendly and they needed food. After giving them a dinner, they were told to return the way they had come. For Homfray and the others the trip back to the coast was worse than they could have imagined.

Their canoe was wrecked in a log jam, and most of their supplies lost. They salvaged some gear, including matches and two axes. It took them four days on a makeshift raft to reach the head of Bute Inlet and their buried provisions. They had to eat with their fingers and shared one empty baking-powder tin for drinking.

After riding half-way down Bute Inlet in a hollowed-out log, they were eventually rescued by the same Cla-oosh chief who brought them to his village. He later helped them return to Victoria. They had been away two months.

Waddington was more determined than ever to pursue the route. Before Homfray and his party returned, Waddington wrote a letter to Governor James Douglas and described  the Homathko as a “fine level valley, from two to four miles wide, and navigable for forty miles from the mouth for steamers of four or five feet draft . . . without a single rock or other serious impediment”.

Homathko River

Homathko River

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