Category Archives: Gold Rush Notes

Brief history facts explained about the BC gold rush

News Correspondents in the BC Gold Rush

During the gold rush, newspapers in the colonies of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island didn’t have their own reporters in the field to report on events. Instead, they encouraged ‘correspondents’ to write to them with news and information.

In its very first issue (February 13, 1861), the British Columbian newspaper put out a call for news correspondents:

As yet we have not had an opportunity of organizing our staff of agents and correspondents, and consequently are not in a position to give our readers that variety of colonial, and other information which we desire…give us your best thoughts upon every useful and important topic, either in the shape of short and pithy articles for publication, or facts and suggestions for our own use.

It is our desire to have one or more good correspondents in every locality of importance in British Columbia, in order that we may be kept thoroughly ‘posted’ in the wants and resources of the colony.

The newspaper was overwhelmed with a response from its readers.

…it will not be in our power to publish one-half of the communications now coming to hand…We shall always be glad to receive communications long or short…but our correspondents must not feel hurt if we should not always find it convenient to make room for their communications.

The British Colonist in Victoria had regular news correspondents and these people were given code names like ‘Argus’ or ‘Puss-in-the-corner’. Very rarely were they identified by their real names.

Reporting on the events in the Fraser River gold rush, ‘Puss-in-the-corner’ had some damning things to say about the Assistant Gold Commissioner Travaillot based in Lytton on June 6, 1859:

From miners arriving from Lytton city, we daily receive accounts of the outrageous conduct of Travailie [sic], the Crown Commissioner. If these accounts be correct, he is little better than a drunken sot, and otherwise totally unfit for the responsible position to which he has been elevated.

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The Fraudulent Postmaster of Vancouver Island

John D’Ewes was a scandalous figure in early Victoria history who in a few short years made  a mess of the postal system and defrauded the public and the government of their money.

He came to Victoria in 1859 and accepted the job of Postmaster of Vancouver Island. It is unclear who recommended him for the position or if anyone was aware of the fact that he had been dismissed from his previous post as a Police Magistrate in Ballarat, Australia because he accepted bribes,

Ironically, his salary was raised to £200 per year, the amount which the previous postmaster had requested and was denied. His charm may have played a role: David Higgins described him as ‘a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met sort of person, very polite and pleasant in his manners, and as jolly a companion as you would care to meet.’

D’ewes carried on his job without any oversight from the Treasurer, who himself was revealed to be a dubious character.

In the Spring of 1861, Michael and his brother Joseph saved up their money from working in the Nanaimo coal mines and deposited it with Postmaster D’ewes in Victoria. From there they left to seek their fortune in the Cariboo. As soon as they arrived however, Joseph became ill and returned to Victoria, leaving Michael to prospect for gold. Several weeks later Matthew wasn’t having any luck and decided it would be better for him to return to Victoria and join his brother with the intent that both could safely get through the winter on their combined savings of £100.

The only problem was, D’ewes had already left Victoria and with him went Heppel’s money. D’ewes had told everyone that he was taking a short leave of absence to go to the Columbia River for a ‘shooting trip’.

He never returned.

After several weeks, people began to make inquiries. Michael Heppel left Victoria to go look for him. Finally, in the fall of 1861, bits and pieces of the puzzle presented themselves and it was realized that D’ewes had up and left for good, taking with him untold amounts of money and leaving a long trail of personal debts. An auditor later discovered that D’ewes never kept any books and personally took the cash that people paid for their envelopes. Rarely did D’ewes use stamps; instead, he hand-stamped the envelopes with the Victoria Post Office seal and sent the letters on their way.

Our Postmaster Gone. We are pained this morning (Oct 17, 1861) to announce that Mr. John D’Ewes, Postmaster General of Vancouver Island is a defaulter to the Government, and that he has taken his departure from San Francisco for Panama, en route to England, as is supposed. Five weeks ago, Mr. D’ewes left here by the steamer Pacific, ostensibly on a shooting excursion to the Columbia River, but, as it now appears, really to avoid the payment of a large number of debts which he had incurred during his residence in this Colony, and also to escape a settlement of the accounts of his office with the Government…

After leaving San Francisco, D’ewes was next heard of in San Francisco where he told people that he was on business connected with the mail subsidy. The Alta newspaper, which printed the names of ship passengers, noted that D’ewes left on the steamship Uncle Sam, bound for Panama.

Heppel never returned to Victoria either and it was believed that he was so in despair at his situation that he took his own life. His family appealed to Governor Douglas to look into the matter, which he promised to do.

According to the ‘Writing on the Steamer’ blog, It was believed that D’ewes made his way to Homberg in Germany where he gambled his ill-gotten gains from the Victoria Post Office. There, he shot himself.

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The Flag at Murderer’s Bar

In 1858, W. Wymond Walkem and a group of his fellow Cornish goldseekers panned for gold at Murderer’s Bar, about six kilometres below Fort Hope on the Fraser River.

“…to show that we were British we started to make a Union Jack. For the white we used some flour sacks, for the blue we cut up some blue drilling overalls, and for the red we used some red undershirts. After completing the flag we cut out two letters to represent G.B. (Great Britain) and placed them in the center of the flag.

The flag at Murderer's Bar

The flag at Murderer’s Bar

You must understand that these Americans on account of being so close to the international boundary line, imagined that all land they saw belonged to Uncle Sam, and we were determined that if possible they should learn the opposite.

Well, I got a nice pole and fastened our flag to it and then climbed the highest tree at the back of our shack, and trimmed the top of the tree of all limbs and bark for a considerable distance. Then I fastened the pole with the flag attached to it to the top of the tree, where it flew as a landmark to show that our country was British and that Britons were there to defend it.”

It was around this time that there were disturbances at Yale and Governor Douglas passed by on the British gunboat, Satellite.

A few days later, Douglas returned and on his way back stopped at Murderers’ Bar where he made a speech.

“Gentlemen, when I was passing up the river the other day, I noticed your flag with the letters G.B. on it, which I supposed you meant Great Britain. I knew at once that Britons placed that flag there, and I was very pleased to see it…When I return to Victoria I will send back to you a proper flag.”

As a token of appreciation, the miners washed a few pans of dirt and then presented the Governor with ‘quite a little’ gold, which was then wrapped in a piece of cotton and presented to him and “he was highly pleased with it.” As he went away the Cornish miners gave him three hearty cheers.

In a few days, one of Douglas’ personal staff returned with an 18-foot Union Jack. Walkem went down to the river and found a log 80 feet in length. After barking the tree and obtaining a set of halliards and a pulley (probably provided by Douglas as well).

“We set up our pole and hoisted the magnificent flag presented by the Governor. That flag was hoisted every morning at 8 o’clock and lowered at sunset in true military style.”

Shortly afterward, Governor Douglas decreed that Murderer’s Bar would be re-named on official maps as Cornish Bar in homage to the Cornish miners who raised their handmade British flag.

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Transportation directly to the Cariboo: not as advertised


A series of letters written in the autumn and winter of 1861-2, by London Times correspondent Donald Fraser, created a somewhat rosy picture of travel to the Cariboo gold diggings. He spoke of stagecoaches on the proposed Cariboo Wagon Road, giving readers the impression that travel was easy.

Several thousand people who read Fraser’s accounts were excited to undertake the journey to British Columbia in the spring of 1862. Almost overnight, so-called transportation companies were formed and advertised their services.

Upon their arrival in Victoria, some prospective gold seekers from England  brought with them the notices which pictured the carriages that were to carry them from Yale. They had been lead to believe their tickets for transportation directly to the Cariboo, as advertised. They were in for a rude awakening. In 1862, there were only trails north of Yale; provisions had to be carried on one’s back for the length of the journey.

One of the fraudulent companies to take advantage of the situation was the British Columbia Overland Transportation Company which promised to carry passengers across the continent in ‘comfortable carriages’ for the moderate sum of 40 guineas per person (approximately $500 in today’s money).

A group of 30 Englishmen responded to the advertisement and travelled with an agent for the company, James Hayward, from England to St. Paul, Minnesota. There they were supposed to meet up with the company’s agent from Toronto, H.S. Hime. Not surprisingly, Hime wasn’t able to make the travel arrangements.

After waiting several days in St. Paul, several of the people in the group decided to return to England, Hayward included. Others in the group thought they could proceed to the Red River settlement and stay there until the following spring or go on to British Columbia if it wasn’t too late.

On October 10, 1862, the British Colonist printed a letter from one of the Overlanders dated June 1, 1862 sent from Fort Garry:

“I think we have now got things well arranged, and intend to start tomorrow. We have three [red river] carts and oxen between us. Each man has 150lbs. of flour, and about 70lbs. of pemmican, a great advantage on a long journey.

We expect to travel at the rate of 20 to 25 miles a day, and to be at Jasper’s House in about 40 or 50 days, and then cross the mountains to the Cariboo, about 20 days more; the time allowed, however, is three months…

There are over 100 fellows here waiting to go. About five companies of us have formed into a party numbering about 70. We are determined to go ‘through,’ calculating to go faster than if we all went separately, and by which we shall get besides more game on the way. We have hired for £20 sterling, a competent guide, a native of Edmonton, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts on our route…

To get along in this part one needs to know a little French. The governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company was at St. Paul’s when we arrived there….It was he who supplied us with the flour and pemmican, and has been doing everything he can to assist us through, giving us letters to the officers at all the Company’s posts on the way.

We have found the settlers all along a pleasant, hospitable set of people. Here they are divided into two settlements, Scotch and French, but the Scotch is by far the larger settlement.”

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Williams Creek: Windlass and Waterwheel

In his book, “Very Far West Indeed: A Few Rough Experiences on the North-West Pacific Coast”, Richard Byron Johnson recalled his travels to the Cariboo during the gold rush. In the chapter on Williams Creek, Johnson described the chaotic scene near Richfield.

“The unfortunate little stream had been treated in the most ignominious manner. A little above the town it flowed along silvery and clear as had been wont to do; but soon inroads were made upon its volume in the shape of ditches cut from it, and continued along the sides of the hills, to feed the huge over-shot waterwheels that appeared in all directions. Then its course became diverted into five or six different channels, which were varied every now and then as the miners sought to work the surface formerly covered by them.

At intervals dirty streams were poured forth by the sluices, in which the earth dug from beneath was being washed by the water; and here and there the stream was insulted by being shut up for a few hundred yards in a huge wooden trough, called a ‘flume.’

Across the breadth of the little valley was a strange heterogeneous gathering of smaller flumes, carrying water to the different diggings and supported at various heights from the ground by props, windlasses at the mouths of shafts, waterwheels, banks of ‘tailings’ (the refuse earth washed through the sluices), and miners’ log huts.

On the sides of the hills the primeval forests had been cleared for a short distance upwards, to provide timber for mining purposes, and logs for the huts. These abodes were more numerous on the hillsides than in the bottom of the valley, as being more safe from removal.

The town comprised the ordinary series of rough wooden shanties, stores, restaurants, grog shops, and gambling saloons; and, on a little eminence, the official residence, tenanted by the Gold Commissioner and his assistants and one policeman, with the British flag permanently displayed in front of it, looked over the whole.

In and out of this nest the human ants poured all day and night, for in wet-sinking the labour must be kept up without ceasing all through the twenty-four hours, Sundays included. It was a curious sight to look down the Creek at night, and see each shaft with its little fire, and its lantern, and the dim ghostly figures gliding about from darkness into light, like the demons at a Drury Lane pantomime, while an occasional hut was illuminated by some weary labourer returning from his nightly toil.



The word here seemed to be work, and nothing else; only round the bar-rooms and the gambling tables were a few loafers and gamblers to be seen. Idling was too expensive a luxury in a place where wages were from two to three pounds per day, and flour sold at six shillings a pound.

The mingling of noises was as curious as that of objects. From the hills came the perpetual cracking and thudding of axes, intermingling with the crash of falling trees, and the grating undertone of the saws, as they fashioned the logs into planks and boards.

From the bottom of the valley rose the splashing and creaking of waterwheels, the grating of shovels, the din of the blacksmith’s hammer sharpening pickaxes, and the shouts passed from the tops of the numerous shafts to the men below, as the emptied bucket was returned by the windlass.”

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The incredible yield of gold on Williams Creek

A letter written June 15, 1862 by Assistant Gold Commissioner Thomas Elwyn to the Colonial Secretary at Victoria gives some idea of the immense activity going in the Cariboo:

At Antler five hundred men are preparing to mine but only a few companies are actually at work. There will be, I am satisfied, over one thousand men employed on the creek, and the yield of gold for this season will nearly equal the yield of the whole of the Cariboo last summer. Claims have been taken up both on the creek and on the banks for a distance of two miles which will pay $40 to $100 a day to the hand.

I paid five shillings per pound for flour and six shillings per pound for bacon at the town of Antler (considered of very little importance last year)….

On my way from Antler to this place I passed within two and a half miles from the mouth of Grouse Creek, but my presence was so urgently required here [at Williams Creek] that fearing a delay of some days I did not go up this creek.

The yield of gold on Williams Creek is something almost incredible and the rich claims have risen to three times their market value of last winter. Only six companies are at present taking out gold but there are between five and six hundred men on the creek, sinking shafts and getting their claims into working order. Cunningham & Company have been working their claims for the past six weeks, and for the last thirty days have been taking out gold at the rate of three thousand dollars every twenty-four hours. In the tunnel owned by this company the average prospect is thirty-five ounces to the set. Messrs. Steele & Company have been engaged for the past ten days in making a flume but during the previous three weeks their claims yielded two hundred ounces a day.

These figures are so startling that I should be afraid to put them on paper in a report for His Excellency’s information were I not on the spot and know them to be the exact truth.

There is every possibility that before the end of this season there will be fifteen to twenty companies on this creek, the yield of whose claims will equal those above mentioned.

There are at present no provisions for sale here; but the prices hitherto have been about the same as at Antler Creek.

I expect to be detained here for five or six days settling mining disputes, after which I shall go to Lightning Creek…

A great many men, principally Canadians are returning below. They are as a rule entirely ignorant of mining and came up here with a few pounds of provisions on their backs and hardly any money.

Considering the exorbitant prices…I hope that His Excellency will give his consent to Mr. Hankis and my constable receiving some extra allowance, or an increase in salary.

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Judge Begbie hears from over taxed miners

Starting in the summer of 1859, Judge Begbie travelled to Langley, Fort Hope, Yale, and Port Douglas to hear from over taxed miners and merchants who gathered to voice their concerns and grievances.

When Begbie arrived in Langley on June 29th, he got an earful.

First, the people voiced their disapproval of land being sold by auction. This, they felt, was in favour of speculators who could afford to spend money on improvements. As a result, most settlers were forced to buy from speculators. It was required to wait until land could be surveyed first. In comparison, settlers south of the border could get land at five shillings per acre.

The over taxation of miners meant that many left the gold diggings altogether even though many of them were earning from $5 to $20 per day. Why? too many fees to pay. Miners had to pre-pay for their monthly licences, pay for registering mining claims, water rights and many other taxes.

To sum it up, the Grand Jury reported:

“We want a governor…who is unconnected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, or any other company, who will carry out the orders of the Home Government…”

At Fort Hope, Judge Begbie heard that their jail was insecure, that a bridge was needed across the Coquihalla River, and that few people had land of their own, with most of it in the hands of a few.

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The Pig War over the San Juan Islands

In 1859, a wandering pig on San Juan Island brought the United States and Britain to the brink of war.

HBC sheep farm on San Juan Island, September 1859

HBC sheep farm on San Juan Island, September 1859

The roots of the ‘Pig War’ go back to the Oregon Treaty of 1846 which drew a boundary between the American and British territory along the 49th parallel. Britain was allowed to keep Vancouver Island which dipped below this point, but ownership of the San Juan Islands was left unresolved.

The treaty makers in London failed to notice that the san Juan Islands bisect the Strait of Georgia into two channels—the Haro Strait running west of the islands, the Rosario Strait on the east. In a hurry to sign the treaty, the nations agreed to hold the islands “in dispute” until a boundary was decided upon that would be agreeable to both nations.

Hoping to establish possession, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up outposts on San Juan Island in 1849 and 1850. In 1853, Charles Griffin and 1,300 sheep were stationed there. The Americans threatened to seize the sheep because they were illegally imported into “American” territory. Two years later, a group of U.S. officials absconded with 34 sheep in lieu of taxes that the Hudson’s Bay Company had refused to pay.

Nothing serious developed until June 1859, when American settler Lyman Cutler got tired of a pig that was in the habit of rooting through his potato patch. Cutler took out his rifle and shot the pig dead. But this happened to be a HBC pig. Once Cutler realized his mistake, he offered to replace it, but Griffin demanded compensation of $100 and he wanted Cutler removed from the island.

HBC steamship Beaver arrived with Chief Factor Alexander Dallas who threatened to take Cutler to Victoria to stand trial for his crime. Cutler picked up his rifle and dared Dallas to try it.

The Americans sent in their steamer Massachusetts to safeguard their interests, while the Royal Navy (based in Esquimalt) sent in their 21 gun steam corvette Satellite. The Americans arrested Cutler before the British had a chance.

Tensions increased. Shortly afterward, Captain Pickett arrived with 60 American soldiers. Pickett posted a notice which proclaimed that the San Juan Island was United States territory and “no laws other than those of the United States will be recognized or allowed on the island.”

The British responded by sending in two warships, Tribune and Plumper and a force of 775 men. Commander Geoffrey Phipps Hornby had orders from Douglas to expel the Americans from San Juan Island, but he decided to hold back, knowing this conflict could start a war.

In the fall of 1859, it was agreed there would be joint occupancy of the islands. This remained until 1871 when the fate of the San Juan Islands was put to arbitration.

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The spread of gold fever from Fort Colvile

In 1855, gold was discovered near the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Colvile (HBC’s spelling) close to present day Kettle Falls, Washington. This was of some concern to James Douglas who had been keeping track of the Crimea War and its impact on the fur trade in addition to the gold rushes as they came closer to New Caledonia.

HBC Fort Colvile, Washington Territory 1860

HBC Fort Colvile, Washington Territory 1860

On September 10, 1855 Douglas wrote in a letter to HBC Chief factor Donald Manson based at Fort St. James, “I hope and trust that the gold fever so prevalent [in Colvile] will not come as far as New Caledonia, at least until next year, when you may expect trouble in abundance.”

On October 29, 1855 a letter was received by Douglas which read:
“Gold is abundant at Colville, and I suspect that many, if not all, of our men will be off in that direction before long. Mr. McDonald gives favourable accounts as to the richness of the mines, and says that people from all quarters and of all sorts were gathering to the diggings…”

In case the Hudson’s Bay Company’s employees should be tempted to abandon their posts for the more exciting and generally more lucrative occupation of gold mining, and to prevent the untimely breaking up of the little settlement he was planting near Fort Victoria, Governor James Douglas issued a proclamation declaring that all the gold in situ belonged to the Crown and forbid all persons to “dig or disturb the soil in search of gold until authorized in that behalf by Her Majesty’s colonial government.”

That authorization was granted on payment of ten shillings a month, and even then the right to exercise that privilege was subject to such impossible conditions that Douglas’s act was ultimately declared to be beyond his powers.

As a result, these stipulations served to restrict gold digging to the Native population who were given spoons at Fort Kamloops. Soon, the HBC clerks had to make a request for more spoons in their next shipment of supplies.

After accumulating a large amount of gold, the HBC were obliged to take it to the mint in San Francisco. The first lot of gold from what is now British Columbia was taken aboard the HBC steamer Otter in February 1858.

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John Keast Lord: Gold rush veterinarian

John Keast Lord

John Keast Lord (1818-1872)

John Keast Lord was a veterinarian, naturalist and author. He was born and raised in Devon, England and graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 1844.

After service as a veterinary surgeon during the Crimean War, Lord was appointed veterinary surgeon and assistant naturalist to the British North American Land Boundary Commission in 1858. The Boundary Commission, led by the Royal Engineers, marked the 49th parallel between the mainland of British Columbia and the United States.

For the next few years until the Commission ended in 1862, Lord travelled across the province. He witnessed the plight of many lame pack mules that had been left behind by goldseekers. Some of the mules he was able to help, but there were many he couldn’t assist other than to end their suffering. In the winter time, he stayed on Vancouver Island where he compiled his many notes on the birds and wildlife he saw and documented his collection of specimens.

One of his first duties for the Boundary Commission was to go to California and purchase 80 mules and pack saddles, known as aparejos.  Here is his story:

“When equipping the eighty mules I purchased in California for Her Majesty’s  Commission, I had immense difficulty to discover any aparejos which were for sale, as packing happened just at that time to be unusually brisk. I remember at Stockton, when casting about amongst the more probable localities, wherein I might by good fortune possibly alight upon the kind of packing-gear I was in search of, a Yankee merchant, who dealt in everything from toothpicks upwards, came rushing after me, having scented my business as readily as a raven or a vulture would have done a dead carcass.

He began at once in nasal drawl—’ Say, cap, you are just a foolin’ your time; bet your pants, thar ain’t narry aparejo down har, fit to pack squash on.’ ‘Well,’ I replied,’ how can I tell that unless I inquire?’ ‘Waal, I raither guess you want to buy, and I want to sell, so just let us two take an eye-opener, cap, and then make tracks straight a-head for my store, war I can show you sich a lot of aparejos as you ain’t ever seen afore in these parts; I ain’t showed em to none of the boys as yet, guess if I did they’d have the store down slick; give me fifty dollars a-piece for the aparejos, rigging and all, and walk right along with ‘em to the bluffs.’

Considering this rather good news, I did ‘liquor up’ with my new friend, and afterwards adjourned to the store, most anxious to secure what I imagined was a valuable prize. Picture my intense disgust when, on being conducted into a cellar, I saw a huge pile of packsaddles, such as had been sent to the Crimea and  returned, and which this speculative individual had picked up cheaply as a consignment from England.

I have already shown how utterly useless these trashy and badly made saddles were in the Crimea, an opinion fully confirmed by this somewhat singular discovery that in the very centre of the busiest ‘packing’ country, perhaps I may safely say in the world, not an individual packer could be found who would take them even as a gift.

The dealer, imagining he had for once in his life stumbled on a ‘ sucker,’ tried to palm them off on me as aparejos ‘that couldn’t be matched.’ It ‘took him down,’ though, when I winked wickedly, and, inventing a slight fiction for the occasion, said, ‘Why, these are the pack-saddles we sold off when the Crimean war ended; I know the lot right well; they are not worth that.’

I snapped my fingers, turned on my heel, and left my friend astonished, and two drinks (50 cents) out of pocket. So much for Crimean packsaddles. Two years afterwards I heard that the unfortunate dealer still possessed them.”

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