Tag Archives: Cariboo gold rush

Freight Wagon drivers on the Cariboo Road

If you were on the Cariboo Road during the time of the gold rush, chances are you would have seen a few freight wagons and their crews of swampers and skinners.

Swampers were apprentices in the teaming business and they were responsible for looking after the horses, including rounding them up early in the morning. They did other chores as well to assist the freight driver, known as a teamster.

Teamsters, or ‘skinners’ as they were known, had the job of driving teams of horses. They wore a stiff-brimmed hat, similar to a cowboy hat, but with a narrower brim. Their boots were high-topped calfskin with low flat heels. Their pants were worn over their boots.

“If you drove two horses, you turned the bottoms of your pants up one roll, if you drove four horses you were entitled to two rolls…”

Teamsters would often drive teams of six horses. In this case a “jerk-line” was used. This was a single line connected to the bridles of the lead horses. The leading horses would turn left or right according to the number of jerks on the line.

One of the most important pieces of equipment freight wagons carried was a single piece of board called a “jack”. It was used to help unload heavy objects and for getting wagons out of mudholes.

Freight wagons travelled north on the Cariboo Road as late as 1915, with Ashcroft serving as the supply depot.

G.B. Wright: Cariboo Wagon Road builder

G.B. Wright

G.B. Wright

Gustavus Blinn Wright (1830-1898) was a prominent figure during both the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush. After spending several years in California, Wright came to BC in 1858, just as the Fraser River gold rush was starting.

He realized from the onset that there was more to be made transporting miners and supplies. He started off as a packer, transporting goods along the Harrison-Lillooet trail. In 1861 he joined Jonathan Holten Scott and Uriah Nelson in purchasing shares in the sternwheeler Maggie Lauder (rechristened Union later that year). Wright and Scott also bought shares in the Flying Dutchman in 1862 to increase further the capacity of their transportation companies.

Wright was one of three contractors who were awarded contracts to build the Cariboo Wagon Road as planned by the Royal Engineers. Wright was assigned to build an 18 foot wide trail from Lillooet to Alexandria. He attempted to have the road built to Soda Creek where he launched the Enterprise, the first sternwheeler on the upper Fraser River.

Chinook Jargon: Sourdoughs and Cheechakos

'Sourdough' gold rush miner

‘Sourdough’ gold rush miner Bill Hayden

Chinook Jargon was extensively used during both the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush by both gold seekers and First Nations.

Victoria, or Biktoli as it was known in Chinook Jargon, was an important hub of business and native people from as far way as Alaska came to do business there.

“Lulu Island” (Richmond) as it was called in the early maps, could be a reference to the Chinook term for carry or load, pronounced as ‘lolo’. Mamook lolo kopa canim (to load into a canoe). First Nation tribes from Vancouver Island were known to settle on Lulu Island for the annual salmon run and to load their canoes with berries and other food supplies that they gathered or traded.

The Chinook Jargon word for New Westminster, Kunspaeli, is derived from the orginal European name of the area, Queenborough.

Cheechako was a common a word in the Chinook jargon meaning
‘newly arrived’ or ‘newcomer’. Chee means ‘lately’, or ‘just now’ while Chah’ko means ‘to come’.

What about the term ‘sourdough’? Sourdough is not a Chinook word but a popular term brought north by American gold seekers, especially during the time of the Klondike gold rush in the 1890s. Sourdough bread was a favourite food of American gold miners, some of whom carried sourdough starter wherever they travelled, so as to be assured of good bread later on. Sourdough bread had been very popular amongst gold seekers during the California gold rush and as a result, it became associated with the miners themselves.

Numerous Chinook jargon dictionaries were published at the time. For further reading, try “A dictionary of the Chinook jargon or Trade language of Oregon” by George Gibbs published in 1863.

Food speculation during the Cariboo gold rush

Gold miners in the Cariboo gold rush weren’t the only ones hoping to strike pay dirt. Merchants and entrepreneurs speculated on the supply and demand of food and provisions. As a result, gold miners were exposed to fluctuating costs in the price of food.

Another factor that contributed to the cost of food included freighting costs.

This excerpt from a letter from the Cariboo, printed in the British Columbian on April 4, 1865 says it all:

Flour speculation


flour speculation part 2

Flour Speculation in the Cariboo

Some merchants would go to great lengths to secure what they figured was a sure profit!


Stanley BC – Cariboo gold rush town

Stanley - Cariboo gold rush town

Stanley – Cariboo gold rush town

As the story goes, a group of gold seekers passed by a large creek during a wild storm and they called it ‘Lightning’ Creek. Shortly afterward, in July 1861, Ned Campbell and his partners discovered gold there and staked a claim.

Campbell and his partners had a challenging time of trying to sink a shaft to reach the bedrock. From the outset, they had trouble with the ‘Cariboo slum’ – a fine wet silt that was both heavy and gummy. They stuck at their task, however, and by October they reached gold. In the first three days of mining, they took out 1700 ounces of gold and in just three months, the total gold removed was $200,000.

Numerous claims were staked on Lightning Creek and on nearby tributaries. The town of Van Winkle soon sprung up. Van Winkle was the first town on Lightning Creek.

In 1869, there was another rush which led to the revival of Van Winkle and the founding of a new town called Stanley.

There were three hotels at Stanley: Lightning Hotel, the Stanley Hotel, and the Grand Hotel. Freight teams on their way from Barkerville to Quesnel would often stop overnight at Stanley to avoid travelling through Beaver Pass.

Stanley had a significant Chinese population and even had its own Chinatown. Also in the town were many stores and businesses, including four gambling houses and three saloons. There was also a dance hall, jail, post and telegraph office and BX agency.


Why did the pack trains have bells?

Before the Cariboo Road was completed and freight wagons plied the road, everyone relied on packers to bring their supplies up north.

The challenge of overseeing a pack train of twenty or thirty packhorses, each loaded down with two hundred pounds of food or provisions, cannot be underestimated.  Each horse had to have a balanced load.

One packer would lead the group and another would be at the end while other packers would be dispersed in between the packhorses.

Two or three horses had bells on them, including the lead horse which was referred to as the ‘bell mare’. The packers listened for the steady rhythm the bells made and any rapid change in tempo often meant that the horse was in distress; it could have slipped, or bumped its load. The horses were aware of any changes in the steady intonation of the bells and reacted accordingly.

The bells also served the purpose of letting bears and moose know of their arrival, and as a result there were very few recorded encounters.

Harry Jones and Dr. Spruce

Harry Jones

Harry Jones – adventurer, gold miner and politician

In his diary, Harry Jones describes the challenges he and his fellow Welshmen faced when they came to the Cariboo looking for gold under the employment of Captain Evans.

After choosing to make camp two miles below Van Winkle, the men built a large log house and dug drainage ditches to bring water to power a water wheel.

Despite their hard work, they encountered many difficulties trying to sink a shaft, place timbers in the mine or deal with the infamous “cariboo slum” (a thick silt porridge, too thin to dig and too thick to pump).

They were unprepared for the high cost of provisions in 1864. Food was so sought after that it wasn’t uncommon for some of it to go missing as freight changed hands along the trails, before it arrived at their camp.

The Bean Strike
By the end of October, most of the men in the group were suffering under Captain Evans’ who decided to cut down expenses. This meant for breakfast, lunch and supper they had only beans, meat and tea.

The men held a meeting and decided to tell Mr. Evans that they could no longer work for him under such rules. Mr. Evans promised to buy some flour and the men hoped that the situation would improve.

A few months later in January, several of the men complained of pains in their legs and were unable to work. Evans sent for some medicine, but this was of no help.

Doctor Spruce
One day, a sourdough (old prospector) named Pharker Maclenan showed up and asked why so many were lame. Captain Evans told him that the men had rheumatism and that the medicine had not worked. Maclenan disagreed and told him that the men had scurvy and that if Evans didn’t do something he wouldn’t have any one left within a month.

Maclenan pointed at a spruce tree just feet from their camp and told them to boil some branches in clean water for an hour and drink it every day for the next ten days.

“You can’t drink too much of it,” he said. He drunk the first cup himself to prove it was alright.

According to Harry Jones, they drank not less than one dozen cups a day of ‘spruce tea’ and they all recovered, thanks to “Dr. Spruce in honor of the great medicine spruce tea which saved us from a lot of suffering and death…”

Chinese names in the BC gold rush

One of the interesting discoveries I’ve made while researching both the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush, is the Chinese names of the miners. In particular, I was struck by the number of Chinese men with the name “Ah.”

Here are some names I found:

  • Ah Fatt
  • Ah Hoy
  • Ah Sam
  • Ah Shing
  • Ah Yett

Apparently, it was common in the 1800s that Cantonese would use “Ah” as a prefix before their last name. In the Cantonese tradition, “Ah” was normally used before a familiar person’s name. For example, “ah-po” is the name for a maternal grandmother.

It was not uncommon for Chinese gold miners to have different versions of their name depending if the person recording their name understood Cantonese or some other Chinese dialect. For example a person by the name of Wu Bai-feng was also recorded as Ung Fong and as Eng Fong. To add to the confusion, there are many acceptable English spellings for the same Chinese symbols.

Interesting Trivia: Loo Chuk Fan, Chang Tsoo, and Kong Hop Tong were merchants who owned most of the lots in Victoria Chinatown in 1859.

Here is a site on Chinese Geneology with a focus on an area of Guangdong Province known as Siyi.

Dying for Gold

Here is a poem I wrote after reading Bill Gallaher’s book on John “Cariboo” Cameron and the trip he took to fulfill his wife’s last request, who had died of typhoid, to be buried at home in Ontario. One of the things that struck me when reading the book based on the diary of Cameron’s friend, Robert Stephenson, was his account of seeing the snow graves. During the Cariboo gold rush, between 1862-64, the smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of over 20,000 First Nations.

Dying for Gold

Sophia Cameron died
left in a frozen cabin
in the bruised landscape
her husband
went back to crank the windlass
for days on end
digging until they hit bedrock
and found a vein of gold

Billy Barker saw it
and loaned him a poke full of gold
enough to take Sophia home, away from the Cariboo

Icy snow stung their faces as they pulled
her casket on a sleigh
she could kill them all
with a wrong turn
the gold sat on top, untouched
by chilled fingers
one by one the miners turned back
to Richfield

At the mouth of Keithley Creek was a house and store
Mrs. Lawless said
Smallpox on the rampage
from the Forks to Port Douglas
French Joe and Indian Jim turned back

At Beaver Lake
just Cameron and Stephenson remained and
a white undulating field of death
small mounds, all snow graves
maybe more

one bewildered old man

At Williams Lake, 120 bodies covered by blankets of snow
only three Indians alive

At Lac La Hache
a few feet from the door of the roadhouse
two snow graves
an Indian from smallpox
a white man over a game of cards

too many snow graves to count

Rattlesnake Grade
up that slippery, narrow trail
they hugged the mountainside
the horse strained lifting its legs in the snow
pulling the weight of the casket made uneven by the gold
six sweeping turns up the flank of Pavilion Mountain
without falling
then it died

Cameron and Stephenson met a third man
who carried the gold on his back
another horse pulled the sleigh

at Port Douglas
were Indians with smallpox
some so far gone that their skin had turned black
the stink of the dead and the dying
made them hide their faces in the crooks of their arms
afraid of the air

they boarded the sternwheeler Henrietta
the casket supported by poles
and they drank brandy
they promised to come back
to their claim
by another route

Elizabeth Roddy’s half claim

If they had access to capital, women could carve a niche for themselves in the Cariboo gold rush. This was not done without its challenges as the case of Roddy v. Orr relates:

Richard Cameron purchased a half interest in a mining claim on behalf of his wife’s sister, Elizabeth Roddy on September 14, 1862 from a gold miner named Perry for $1,500, of which sum Cameron paid $10 to bind the bargain. A bill of sale was prepared from Perry to Elizabeth Roddy.

On the same day Greenwood offered Roddy $300 for her half claim, which she refused.

Perry had Roddy destroy the first bill of sale and drew up a new joint note for $1,000. This new joint note was signed by Roddy and a miner named Greenwood who agreed to pay Perry $500.

Cameron took this latest bill of sale to the office of the Gold Commissioner to be recorded and saw that the register showed that on that day a claim to one half interest in the Caledonia Company was recorded in  favor of Elizabeth Roddy and the name of Greenwood was omitted, owing to the fact that he did not know the number of Greenwood’s mining certificate.

Greenwood deposed that on the day in question he was drunk at Cameron’s Saloon and claimed he had no recollection of what took place, until he found the bill of sale in his pocket the next day.

He went to Elizabeth Roddy and said he didn’t want the joint arrangement and instead offered to buy the half claim outright or for her to buy his share. She refused.

Greenwood went to Parry, paid him $1,500 and obtained a bill of sale of the half interest to him and then sold it to Orr for the same amount. Orr had no knowledge of the previous deal between Perry, Greenwood and Roddy.

This last bill of sale was the only one produced; the others being lost or destroyed. The gold commissioner ruled in favour of Orr.

Roddy appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Civil Justice, British Columbia.

Mr. Cary, for the apellant, Roddy, contended that the record of the half interest in the name of Elizabeth Roddy was a sufficient record of the bill of sale to her and Greenwood. He also said that the recording officer at the gold commissioner’s office should have recorded the claim as a transfer.

The lawyer for Orr argued that the Gold Fields Act declared that titles should be recognized according to priority of registration.

Judge Begbie said Roddy was without the legal documents to establish her title. He also acknowledged that Orr was a bona-fide purchaser without notice of adverse claims at the time of his purchase. Begbie ruled that possession is of itself a prima facie title – sufficient  until a better legal title is shown.

At the Richfield Courthouse on July 3, 1863, “His honor therefore held that the Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed, and the register could not under the circumstances be so reformed as to affect the respondent’s title.”

Elizabeth Roddy was not discouraged, however, and went on to form a partnership in another company, the New Richfield Company.