Salmon and the Gold Rush

Thousands of eager men came from all points on the globe to the Fraser River in search of gold. They overturned boulders and dug trenches to find the gold nuggets that they had all read and heard about.

Meanwhile, perched on the rocks above the Fraser River were empty drying racks – branches tied together at regular intervals – waiting for the annual migration of salmon up the river and the large numbers of First Nations fishers who would be there to catch them.

Every summer from the beginning of July to the end of August, native fishers lowered long poles with nets tied at the ends into the Fraser River as Coho and Spring Salmon swam in their annual migration up the river.

At every point along the Fraser Canyon, before the railroad was built, a drying rack could be seen. Some of these racks were hundreds of years old.

Salmon was an integral part of the diet and trade for the members of the Interior Salish tribes who inhabited the Fraser Canyon. There was no big game in this area and what fish could be caught would be used for sustenance or trade with other tribes and the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley.

By the late 1840s, salmon had surpassed furs as its most important trade item for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the west. By the time the Fraser River gold rush was declared in 1858, large quantities of salted salmon were being shipped from Fort Langley.

The annual salmon migration was at the heart of the conflict that arose between First Nations and gold seekers that escalated into the “Canyon War” in the summer of 1858.

C.P. Lyons, in his book “Milestones on the Mighty Fraser” published in 1950, recalled watching these traditional techniques. One of the fishers, Mr. Lorenzetto, explained that the fishing racks they used were passed down from generation to generation and for good reason. People risked their lives to build them! Lorenzetto’s grandfather slipped on the precipitous rocks and fell to his death trying to re-build one of the racks.

Salmon Drying Racks

Salmon Drying Racks – Fraser Canyon (from Milestones on the Mighty Fraser)

Fish heads were cut off and placed in a bucket for drying while the body of the fish was placed on an angle so the blood would drain off. After the fish was cleaned, and the roe was collected, the backbone was split from the flesh down to the tail of the fish, but not separated.

The fish was spread flat on a board and slit into strips by a series of cuts one inch apart. This way, the fish dried more quickly and uniformly than a solid piece. Sharpened twigs were then threaded through the flesh to keep it spread open in a platter shape while drying.

The final step was to hang the fish up in rows on the poles under the roof for three weeks.

The fish heads were dried and kept for soup. Broth from boiled fish heads was used for colds and other ailments. Roe hung on thin poles and dried for later use, when it was fried or roasted.

Salmon Cache Trees

Surplus dried salmon was once stored in pits or suitable trees such as Douglas fir.  They favoured trees with many low branches that made for easy climbing. Old poles and rough boards were laid from limb to limb like a platform. Food was piled on this platform and covered with bark or cedar boards, but sometimes huge boxes were made.

Salmon cache near Yale, BC (BC Archives)

Conflict:

The Upper St’át’imc whose territory was invaded by thousands of miners seeking gold in Lillooet district and beyond, were faced with hunger and starvation. Their dependence on salmon, for trade and sustenance was impeded by the influx of miners who disturbed important spawning grounds. Salmon runs which had failed for the year prior, failed again that year and then the next.  Hundreds of their people died of starvation during the winter of 1858 and again in 1859.

Captain Donellan, former chief of San Francisco police force, recalled his experiences during the Fraser River gold rush, including a pact reached at Washington Bar.

There was at this point a rancheria or a village of natives, who lived principally upon the salmon caught in the river; and it was reported that these natives would allow no miners to stop or congregate in their neighbourhood….The natives, for a while, were surly; but in a short time an amicable understanding was entered into, by which the miners agreed to…not disturb them in their fisheries. These fisheries were carried on with scoop or dip nets in the early mornings, and in the evenings from about 4 o’clock till dark…It was for fear that the miners would work in the water and disturb their fisheries that the natives looked with disfavour upon their approach; but upon the agreement that during fishing hours the miners would kep away from the river, everything was arranged to the satisfaction of both parties – and the pact was kept.