Category Archives: Gold Rush Notes

Brief history facts explained about the BC gold rush

Smallpox epidemic of 1862

The smallpox epidemic of 1862 was devastating for First Nations in BC; over 20,000 perished from the disease.

On March 12, 1862, the steamship Brother Jonathan arrived in Victoria carrying 60 tons of freight and about 350 passengers, mostly gold seekers. One of those passengers was infected with smallpox.

On March 24, another steamer from San Francisco, the Oregon, arrived at Victoria carrying at least one passenger infected with smallpox.

Within a few short weeks, smallpox spread amongst natives who were camped near Victoria. The small hospital situated on the Songhees Reserve was quickly overwhelmed with patients infected with the disease.

Many times, doctors and missionaries attempted to inoculate a person by taking a  pustule or scab from a smallpox sufferer and injecting this into the superficial layers of the skin, commonly on the upper arm of a healthy person. Not surprisingly, many people were adverse to this type of preventative treatment.

Eventually, the colonial government used gunboats to enforce the evacuation of almost all Natives from Victoria during the smallpox epidemic. As a result, smallpox soon found its way around the province.

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Arthur Thomas Bushby: music maker and policy maker

Arthur Thomas Bushby - musician and politician

Arthur Thomas Bushby – musician and politician

Arthur Thomas Bushby was born in London on March 2, 1835, the son of Joseph and Anne. His father was a well-respected merchant and his mother was a linguist, who could speak several languages including Danish and Spanish. As a young man, Bushby studied music both in England and in Europe.

Upon hearing of the Fraser River gold rush, Bushby left for Victoria in November 1858 and arrived on Christmas Day on board the Panama.

“Robert Burnaby and I went to church, a neat little conventicle—heard a rather decent bass voice in the choir—it was Begbie whom I had met coming out of church; he did not recognize me at first owing to my rough dress and beard and moustache.”

The following Tuesday, Bushby presented his letter of introduction to Governor James Douglas, who invited him to dine that evening with his family, Begbie, and Captain Gossett. There he met for the first time Agnes Douglas, who was seventeen. From that time on, he became a frequent visitor to the Douglas home where he played the piano and sang.

Bushby was appointed private secretary to Judge Begbie in February 1859, and accompanied Begbie on his first circuit of the interior. Working for Begbie was probably not without its challenges and Bushby revealed in his diary that he was most happiest singing and playing music. He even considered “rushing head long into the musical profession, go to San Francisco and have a try.”

A few months later, Bushby was appointed registrar of the Supreme Court. He continued to keep himself busy with musical productions in Victoria, especially with the Victoria Philharmonic Society, of which he was a founding member. In February 1861 he was given the post of registrar-general of deeds for the mainland Colony of British Columbia.

In May, 1862, Bushby married Agnes Douglas and the couple moved to New Westminster where he became involved in civic affairs as well as music and drama. He held a number of government posts which required him to travel to various parts of the province including Wild Horse Creek and the Cariboo. He was a member of the Legislative Council from 1868 to 1870.

Bushby died suddenly on May 18, 1875 at 40 years old. He left behind his wife and four children.

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Custom Fees in British Columbia 1865

In 1865, the Colony of British Columbia was looking for new ways to raise money. It raised the gold export tax to three percent; a significant increase from what it was before. A short time later, the government decided to amend the Customs Act and increase custom fees. Charges would be applied to “all goods, wares, merchandise and things imported into and landed in British Columbia.”

The list of items affected was printed in the British Columbian newspaper February 18, 1865:

Custom Fees in British Columbia - 1865

Custom Fees in British Columbia - 1865

Custom Fees in British Columbia – 1865

This was a significant change from before and there was an immediate reaction from the Cariboo district and a petition was sent to Governor Seymour:

…it largely increases the cost of living in the Colony, at a time when the mining and trading interests of the country can least afford to bear such an increase. The past season was in every sense an unprofitable one. The miner’s  labour was to a great extent spent in preparing for future operations, and his profits were consequently small. The trader shared the small profits of the miner. This has produced a general feeling of distrust and depression in the country. The increased taxation only tends to add to this feeling, and thus deter both men and capital from going into the country.

The problem with the gold rush was that it caused inflation, attracted promoters, speculators, and similar unstable elements. Both the Colony of British Columbia and the Colony of Vancouver Island were importing just about everything. Just over a year later, both colonies became bankrupt and decided to join together.

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Writing letters to family in the BC gold rush

The importance of letters in the gold rush

The importance of letters in the gold rush

Writing letters to family members was vitally important during the gold rush era; gold miners went out of their way to buy notepaper and obtain pen and ink. This is why stationery stores like Hibben & Carswell were so successful.

Although some miners might have a supply of standard notepaper, it might have been necessary to use unconventional supplies such as pencils or foolscap paper. Miners wrote on the move or while camped in tents; often times they made apologies for the state of their writing as a result.

Some gold miners wrote letters just before the stagecoach left with the mail, while others wrote throughout the week, adding a couple of sentences or a paragraph each day. In other cases, individuals kept a diary over a much longer period, which they later shared with family either as excerpts or a complete document.

Most correspondents recorded the date and place at the top of the letter. Salutations and signatures varied slightly, but were generally addressed with some variation of ‘My Dearest [first name or relation],’ and closed with some variation of ‘Ever yours most affectionately, Your loving [typically the writer’s full name, although occasionally a family nickname or their relationship to the recipient].’

The opening paragraph usually concerned the correspondence itself: what letters had been received, what had been sent. These discussions allowed writers and readers to track the course of a correspondence.

One typical example can be found in John Brough’s  March 18, 1862 letter to his sister from New Westminster. In his opening paragraph, Brough noted that a January 1st letter from Scotland had arrived on the 13th of March. Before that, he had not received anything from his family since May 1861. Brough suggested that perhaps some of their letters had been ‘in some way or other mismanaged in their transmission to this quarter of Her Majesty’s dominions.’ He also noted that his relatives had not indicated which letters they had received from him, so he listed what he had sent so that they could account for each.

If there was an unusually long lapse when no one had received a letter, worried relatives wrote to mutual acquaintances or placed notices in the newspapers.

Families with multiple relatives living outside of Britain sometimes even expected letters to be passed around the empire, too. Some were also published in newspapers, with or against the writer’s will. If a letter-writer wanted the content to remain private, on the other hand, he or she had to specify this in writing.

Sometimes, miners enclosed small items found nearby such as flowers, ferns and other pressed plants, seeds, and even ‘specimens of very big mosquitoes’ and  ‘some chips which the beavers cut out of the trees’. Larger parcels were also arranged and discussed through letters.

When sent from Britain, these items were usually picked from home gardens or neighbourhood places. Phemie Beveridge, for example, sent her brother Henry a dried spring flower: an anemone from Finchley Wood picked by the family ‘all together… Papa helped me, so maybe he pulled the one I send to you.’

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John Bagnall: Victoria’s first pianoforte maker

1860's piano made in Canada

1860′s piano made in Canada

A piano or ‘pianoforte’ as it was also known, was a popular musical instrument during the BC gold rush era.

Many gold rush miners went to great lengths to have their musical instruments brought to their camps.

In 1863, a piano was carried from Quesnel to Barkerville. This same piano survived the Great Fire of Barkerville five years later. It was later purchased by the Kellys who made arrangements for the piano to be brought to Victoria where they retired.

The Canadian piano and organ industry started to gain momentum in the 1850s and was helped by advertisements in newspapers. Pioneering Canadian piano maker John Morgan Thomas was in operation in Montreal and Toronto from 1832 until his death in 1875. He was credited with the invention of the metallic frame which he and Alexander Smith patented in Toronto in 1840. In May 1866, Theodore Heintzman opened his own factory in Toronto and founded one of Canada’s most successful and longest-running piano-making firms.

Born in Staffordshire, England, John Bagnall arrived in Canada in 1862 from London where he worked at Collard and Collard, a piano manufacturing firm. He arrived In Victoria in early 1863, and advertised his services as a pianoforte maker and cabinet maker at a store on Fort Street. In addition to building pianos, Bagnall tuned and repaired pianos and harmoniums. He also sold music and lent instruments. His business prospered and just over a year later, Bagnall announced the opening of his piano factory. In 1881, Bagnall expanded his business by building organs.

Bagnall continued to work until shortly before his death in 1885 and advertised his company was “Sole Importers of English, French, German and American Pianos, Organs, and all kinds of Musical Instruments….”

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Volkert Vedder and the trail to Hope

Volkert Vedder - one of the first pioneers of the Fraser Valley

Volkert Vedder – one of the first pioneers of the Fraser Valley

Volkert Vedder was one of the first pioneers in the Fraser Valley. The Vedder River and Vedder Mountain are both named in his honour.

Vedder was born in Schenectady, New York in 1808. Around 1830, he married Agnes Swart.  After his wife’s death in 1852, Vedder left New York for California. In 1856, Vedder came to the Fraser Valley with his two sons where he pre-empted 160 acres of land on the Vedder River, immediately north of the present settlement of Yarrow.  He later added to these holdings.

In 1860 he helped finance a pack bridge over the Coquihalla River near Hope. This bridge gave  access to the old (1849) brigade trail to Fort Colville and Kamloops, and to the newer (1858) east bank  trail up the Fraser River to Hills Bar and Yale; and a third trail up the Coquihalla and Boston Bar rivers  to Boston Bar.

In late December 1860, Vedder and two partners proposed to open the trail from Fort Hope to Chilliwack by “removing logs and other impediments so it is passable for animals for consideration of one hundred dollars.”

Assistant Gold Commissioner Peter O’Reilly approved the contract and the work was completed.

Four months later, on May 6, 1861, O’Reilly reported to the Colonial Secretary in Victoria:

“I have inspected the trail from the Chilwahook to Hope, which has recently been repaired by Mr.  Vedder. The trail is very wet and muddy caused by the passage of a number of mule trains from Sumas to Hope during the recent heavy rains, and in consequence of its sheltered position.”

A year later on May 31, Reilly again wrote to the Colonial Secretary:

“435 head of horses and mules have arrived at Hope via the Chilweyhook trail in the last month and have paid their [customs] duties here. The trail from Hope to Yale is in much need of repair. The steamer Moody arrived again this morning at  Hope, but could not proceed further.”

This trail was eventually used for the Collins Overland Telegraph.

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Gold Rush Trails and Pack Mules

Before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, gold miners had to rely on narrow trails to the interior of British Columbia. In 1858, only two trails led from the lower Fraser River. One was the abandoned trail of the Hudson’s Bay Company which went from Fort Yale to Fort Kamloops and the other was an existing trail from Fort Kamloops to Fort Hope.

The old HBC trail went from Fort Yale to Spuzzum where it crossed and followed the left bank of the Fraser River to Chapman’s Bar, before climbing 2000 feet and descending to Anderson River. It followed that river to the source and, continuing at a great height reached the Coldwater River and northeast across the Nicola to Fort Kamloops.

The trail from Fort Hope climbed up the Coquihalla, crossed Manson’s mountain to the “Campement du Chevreuil” on the Similkameen and then went in a northerly direction by the “Campement des Femmes” to Nicola Lake and Kamloops.

From 1821 until 1846 traders for the Hudsons’ Bay Company took their packhorses with supplies and goods for trade along the Okanagan Brigade Trail between Fort Okanagan (near present-day Brewster, Washington) and Kamloops.

pack muleAll of the aforementioned trails were used by gold miners on their journeys to the Fraser River or the Cariboo. Sure-footed mules were chosen to carry provisions. In the early days, a miner could easily pack flour, bacon and whatever tools were necessary. As the gold rush boom progressed, hotels were built and other, more awkward items had to be packed.

Mexican packers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company knew that the best saddle for a pack mule was the aparajo, a Spanish pack saddle with a willow frame covered in canvas and stuffed with moss, dry hay, or grass. It protected the mule’s back from the rubbing of the load and equalized the weight of the pack on the animals. Underneath the aparajo was a sweat blanket that sat directly on the back of the mule. A crupper and breast-strap with a strong girth kept the bundle in position.

The average load for a pack mule was from 275 to 300 pounds but in many cases where the objects could not be divided, a mule carried hundreds of pounds more. Pack mules were well aware of the load they were carrying and if it were loose, it would step out of procession and wait for a carcadore (cargo packer) to come and tighten it.

The mules carried everything from fragile items such as champagne and live chickens, to equipment and supplies of all kinds.

Recalled one gold rush miner:

“It was astonishing what they would put on those mules’
backs. Iron safes, billiard tables in sections, large barrels set on
top of the aparajos. G. B. Wright had the machinery of his steamer
packed in sections from Fort Yale on mules’ backs to Soda Creek
on the Fraser River.”

When it came time to cross a river, pack animals were unloaded, their packs and aparejos were ferried across on a raft and lined up on the opposite shore. The boat or raft then returned for the bell mare and swam her across behind it. The rest of the mules would swim after the mare. Once across, each animal found its own aparejo and stood by it to be reloaded.

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Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush

Fort Victoria in 1860

Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush

It may be hard to believe but at one time the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Victoria was surrounded by farmland and most of the buildings were stables and barns.  Here are the recollections of an early pioneer, Mr. J.R. Anderson:

“First of all, the Fort with its buildings. On the site of the present Arcade Block there were two buildings 25 feet long; the northern one was a bakery and the southern one Governor Blanshard’s residence. Then between View and Yates a small fort was erected in 1851, and Mr. Douglas occupied it as an official residence and office. The stockade was about 50 yards square. At the junction of Douglas and Johnson Streets at the ravine there was a little cemetery.

Between the present post-office and Bastion Street were two log houses about 20 feet long, used by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  On the left of Fort Street, just above Douglas, were the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stables and barns, consisting of two buildings, one about 60 by 40 feet, the other 40 by 25 feet.  The area contained within the present Fort, Vancouver, Courtney, and Broad Streets was cultivated area.

There was a house in the vicinity of Burdette and Douglas, where a man named Gullion and his wife lived.  Dr. Kennedy lived in a house on Burnside Road, where it crosses the Colquitz.  Also on Burdette, near Vancouver Street, there was a dairy and cow-stables.  It will be noted that there were very few houses, most of the ground being occupied as farm lands. Among these was Beckley Farm in James Bay, within the area bounded by Government, Superior, Oswego Streets, and Dallas Road.  North Dairy Farm was on Quadra, at the Cedar Hill cross-roads. Staines’s Farm was on some flat ground facing Shelbourne Street.  John Tod had a farm at the Willows.”

In a few words, Alfred Waddington described Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush as a quiet hamlet with “streets grown over with grass” inhabited mainly by ‘Scotchmen’ employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Contrast that with Edward Mallandaine’s account of Fort Victoria in 1860:

“A number of wharves have been constructed this past season; a new timber bridge across the James Bay has been built, giving access to the newly-erected government offices for public lands and the Government House, all in brick and of an ornamental character; streets leading to the bridge have been new graded; several of the leading streets have been metalled over, and are passable at all times. A temporary want of funds alone prevents more being done in this way, as also the completion of two embankments (in lieu of bridges) in a ravine severing two of our streets.

Wooden buildings have ceased to be the order of the day, thus diminishing the constant dread of fire…Some public spirited citizens taking the lead, a hook and ladder company has been organized, and subscriptions, to a considerable amount, made to defray the necessary outlay of building, hook and ladder, engine, etc…

We have a police barracks (which important building holds also the Supreme Court and the Police Court), an extensive warehouse (a large bookstore and dwelling) of two stories, at least two hotels of considerable dimensions, and several houses, all erected in brickwork with stone fronts and some pretensions.

The Hudson’s Bay Company are at this moment erecting a warehouse, of portentous dimensions, of stone, which they take the trouble too import from a distance not exceeding forty miles; and a new bank, the Bank of British North America, …has also, in the same spirited style, built itself an architectural home of rubble-stone faced with squared granite masonry.”

You can see a link to the plan of Victoria in 1860.

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The Telegraph Project in British Columbia: 1865-1866

In the 1860s, the race was on to lay telegraphic cable which would connect North America with Europe.  The invention of the electromagnetic telegraph by Samuel Morse was seen as the technological breakthrough which would allow communication between continents. Cyrus Field planned to lay telegraph cable on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, while American entrepreneur Perry Collins proposed an overland route from British Columbia to Siberia with an underwater cable in the Bering Sea to connect Europe and North America. Western Union Telegraph Company agreed to back Collins.

Under the command of U.S. Army Colonel Charles Bulkley, the Collins Overland Telegraph project was a trail blazing effort on a massive scale. The telegraph line was to be built in separate stages; some would work north while others would work south.

Edmund Conway, in charge of the telegraph project in British Columbia, visited Victoria and New Westminster in November 1864 and met with Governor Seymour who expressed his enthusiasm for the project. When it was evident that Western Union wanted to bring their own supplies, Seymour held them to their original promise: provisions and supplies were to be purchased in the colony, and in turn, the Legislature agreed to admit all telegraph materials free from the usual duties and toll charges.

Harper’s Weekly described the route in their edition of August 12, 1865:

“The wires of the California have during the past winter, been extended through Oregon and Washington Territory as far as New Westminster, the capital of British Columbia and are now in operation to that point. At New Westminster, the Collins Overland Telegraph proper commences, and will extend up Frazer River nearly to its source, and thence nearly parallel with the coast, following the general direction of the valley between the Rocky Mountains and the Coast Range to a point at or near Behring Strait which will be crossed by a submarine cable. The line will thence extend through the eastern portion of Siberia until it meets the telegraph nearly completed by the Russian Government…”

Terminal Station of Collins Overland Telegraph at New Westminster

Terminal Station of Collins Overland Telegraph at New Westminster (sketched by Major Franklin L. Pope, 1865)

The telegraph reached New Westminster from San Francisco on April 11, 1865, and passed through Yale September 19, 1865. Hundreds of workers at a time were tasked with blazing trails and clearing bush to build a right-of-way. They in turn were followed by groups who built telegraph stations, sunk poles and strung wire.

Western Union Telegraph Company, had agreed to finance the project but they weren’t prepared to spend more than they thought what was necessary.  The terrain was more challenging than anyone thought. Construction of the Cariboo Road had not been done in many places and finding a route took many tries. Exploration groups north of Quesnel surveyed various routes which proved impassible. Conway was asked to take over and decided on another route from Fort Fraser to a point on the Skeena River near Hagwilet, a small Indian village.

Conway, a former military colleague of Bulkley, almost quit halfway through the project. His inability to pay enough to workers, and his own salary had proven inadequate because he had “spent a large part of it getting those Legislative grants through.” One man, he continued, could not “explore, construct, organize and manage” a telegraph line. Bulkley gave a raise in salary and Conway withdrew his resignation, but his view remained dismal.

“…one encounters nothing but heavy timber, rum mills, broken miners, plug operators, English aristocrats, loafers and swindlers, all of which tends to drive a man crazy. Banishment in Siberia is a paradise in comparison to this place.”

Conway wrote of their progress:

“We constructed the Telegraph Road, and line to latitude 55.42 N. and longitude 128.15 W. The distance from Quesnel, by the road, is computed at 440 miles, and by the wire 378 miles. There are fifteen stations built, a log house, with chimney, doors and windows 25 miles apart. We built bridges over all small streams, that were not fordable, corduroyed swamps. All hillsides too steep for animals to travel over, were graded, from 3 to 5 feet wide. The average width of clearing the wood for the wire, is, in standing timber, 20 feet, and in fallen timber, 12 feet.”

The telegraph line was originally supposed to have been built up to Fort Yukon where it would meet up with the Russian-American line, but that never happened.

On June 27, 1866, Cyrus Field’s Atlantic cable arrived in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland and successful communication was made to Europe the following day.

Construction of the telegraph line continued until it was obvious to Western Union that the Atlantic cable was functioning well and fine. Construction was abandoned near Fort Stager (Kispiox) in the winter of 1866. The telegraph line served as far as Quesnel. It proved to be an enormous help to the colonial police force; the murderer of Charles Blessing was caught because a telegraph operator at Soda Creek was able to tap out a message that was received by the police in Yale.

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1858: Victoria’s First Land Speculators

Before the gold rush, Fort Victoria was sparsely inhabited by Hudson’s Bay Company employees. As Alfred Waddington wrote, “there was no noise, no bustle, no gamblers or speculators…as to business, there was none.”

All of that changed when word got out about the Fraser River gold rush. So many gold seekers arrived at once from San Francisco that many had to spend their nights sleeping in the bush or makeshift tents. The town also crowded with Haidas, Bella Bellas, Tsimshians, Kwakiutl, Coast Salish and others.

By June 1858, the Colony had established a Land Office and was selling lots near the Fort for $50 at a rate faster than they could be surveyed. Within a week, the price went up to $100. Not surprisingly, this attracted land speculators who bought many of these lots and were selling them for up to $5,000.

Because the government only sold parcels of land of 20 acres each, town lots were sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company and private owners.

According to Alfred Waddington:

“One half a fifty dollar corner lot, the whole of which had been offered successively for $250, $500, and $1000 and finally sold for $1,100, was resold a fortnight afterwards, that is to say the half of it, for $5000. Old town lots, well situated, brought any price, and [retail] frontages of 20 and 50 feet, by 60 deep, rented from $250 to $400 a month.”

Wrote a correspondent from the Times of San Francisco: “(Victoria) is the San Francisco of 1849 reproduced…The same hurry-scurry, hurley burley, dust, inconvenience, bad living, cheating, and lying. The sudden metamorphosis of a quiet little hamlet of scarcely 400 souls to a huge hive of 6000 or 7000 brigands…”

The ensuing building boom also brought demands from the public for improvements and infrastructure.

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