Tag Archives: Fraser River

Quicksilver: Trapping gold with mercury

How did goldseekers wash out the gravel from their pans without losing any specks of gold? The answer is liquid mercury, known in the 1800s as quicksilver.

quicksilver

ad for Quicksilver July 28, 1860

Imagine a gold miner at the water’s edge filling a gold pan with water and then shaking it around in a circular motion. It takes several dips of the pan to get the gravel out. Then the smaller pebbles have to be picked out by hand until all that’s left is black sand (iron ore).  With some more water added to the pan there might be some yellow ‘colour’ in the pan. How to quickly retrieve most of the gold? To solve that problem miners would pour a few ounces of quicksilver (liquid mercury) into the pan before they started. In a few minutes the ‘quicksilver’ would engulf all the fine gold fragments and form a solid mixture (amalgam).

How much quicksilver was used?

How much quicksilver was used during the Fraser River gold rush or the Cariboo gold rush? No one knows for sure. It was easy to use but extremely dangerous to handle.

Quicksilver was poured along the riffles in rocker boxes and sluice boxes. The high density of mercury allowed gold and gold-mercury amalgam to sink while sand and gravel passed over the mercury and through the sluice. Large volumes of turbulent water flowing through the sluice caused many of the finer gold and mercury particles to wash through and out of the sluice before they could settle.

Gravel and rocks that entered the sluice at high speed caused the mercury to break into tiny particles. These tiny mercury particles became airborne. In the meantime, more mercury would be added to the sluice boxes. The bottoms of some sluice boxes eventually became coated with mercury.

Working a claim at Emory Bar

Some mercury was lost from the sluice, either by leaking into underlying soils and bedrock or being transported downstream with the placer tailings. If it was too cold, the mercury was ineffective.

The Daily Colonist published a letter February 12, 1859 from a miner working a claim on Emory Bar who wrote “…the coldness of the water thickens the quicksilver so much as to prevent a full half of the fine gold from being taken up or amalgamated as it would when the weather is warm.”

Dissolving the mercury

Some miners would take their amalgam down to Victoria where an assayer would dissolve the mercury under intense heat.


Did you know? Mercury is made by  roasting crushed cinnabar ore (HgS) in a furnace. Cinnabar  is mined in only a few places in the world. The New Idria Quicksilver Mining Company in central California started operation in 1854 and closed in 1972; the town of Idria was abandoned as a result.

Fort Langley feeds the gold seekers

What food did the Hudson’s Bay Company sell to the Fraser River gold rush miners?

The Farm at Fort Langley

Every Hudson’s Bay Company post was encouraged to be self-sufficient. The sites of HBC forts were chosen to include the most fertile land as well as to be near a transportation route. When the first site for Fort Langley was chosen in 1832, a handful of cows were brought over. Seven years later, it was decided to move Fort Langley further up the Fraser River. Another group of livestock was delivered and sent out to graze on the Langley Prairie about 11 km away.

Spanish Longhorns

Spanish longhorns

Spanish longhorns

Among the animals that stepped off the Beaver (HBC steamer) were a bunch of “Wild California Cows.” These Spanish longhorns were a tough and wild breed descended from a group that had been brought to Mexico in the 1600s.

In Oregon, cattle were bred by the HBC subsidiary,  Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC). Its original mandate was to provide beef to the Russian-American Fur Company.  PSAC raised a mix Spanish longhorns and British short-horns. The British breeds had been bred from cattle that had made the long journey along the Oregon Trail from the eastern United States. These cattle were much larger than the Spanish and more docile.

In a few short years, Fort Langley was growing a variety of crops, and raising herds of beef cattle for export. In addition, the fort took advantage of its location to trade for salmon and cranberries with the tribes that gathered to fish on the Fraser River.

Fort Langley Beef

Fort Langley Corned Beef

Fort Langley Corned Beef – ad in the New Westminster Times

Some historians have said that the farm at Fort Langley faltered during the Fraser River gold rush for lack of leadership. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the HBC’s future was in question and that for so long they never had any competition. Nevertheless, the farm kept producing. This advertisement was printed in the New Westminster Times January 21, 1860. “For Sale. 100 Barrels of British Columbia Fresh CORNED BEEF, first quality (grown on the Company’s Farm), and preserved with great care. To be delivered at Langley. Apply to F.V. Lee, Hotel de France.”

The Meat Tariff

As more miners were heading up to the Cariboo in 1859, Governor James Douglas established a 10% tariff on meat imports, based on the purchase cost. Douglas thought that this tax would provide revenue to the colony but not everyone paid their dues. Victoria had been declared a ‘free port’ meaning that American livestock coming there weren’t subject to the 10% tariff.

Despite the cost the overland route to the BC Interior was increasingly used by packers and drovers as the gold seekers went further north. Considering the vast profits to be made, many packers paid their dues, but many did not and slipped over the border unnoticed.

Under public pressure, James Douglas abandoned the 10% tariff the following year, and instead applied heavier customs duties on all goods and animals entering British territory through the Southern Interior.

Urgent need for beef

Six thousand cattle entered the mainland colony in 1861-1862, but that still wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand. It was reported in June 1861 that bacon was selling for 40 cents a pound at Lillooet and 75 cents a pound at Keithley Creek.

By 1862, the need for American meat at the Cariboo mines had become so urgent that the governor directed the Gold Commissioner at Rock Creek to encourage the importation of 2,000 to 3,000 live cattle duty free.

Captain John and the Alexandra Bridge

If it weren’t for Captain John Swalis, the Alexandra Bridge would have never been built.

‘Captain John’ as he was known, was an enterprising Stó:lō from the Fraser Valley. Having spent his summers on the gravel bars and islands in the Fraser River, Captain John was familiar with the area. So, he set up his own ferry service helping gold seekers cross the Fraser River at Yale.

At first he didn’t accept money as payment and instead asked for a hat or a shirt. Captain John began to see that money could allow him to purchase the things he needed, so he adapted to this new economy and started accepting coins and gold as payment.

The missing link on the Cariboo Wagon Road

By the end of 1862, the Cariboo Wagon Road through the Fraser Canyon was almost complete, running from Yale to Spuzzum on the west bank of the canyon, and from a point almost opposite on the east bank, up the river as far as Lytton. There remained now the important task of linking the two sections with a bridge two miles above Spuzzum.

On February 2, 1863, Joseph Trutch agreed to take on the bridge project and in return he would collect tolls on the bridge for the next five years. Considering the volume of people going back and forth, it was a lucrative deal.

Alexandra Bridge

Alexandra Bridge

Halliday & Company of San Francisco was given the job of building the suspension bridge with a span of a little over three hundred feet using two suspending cables. Spools of cable were carried by mules up the road but how to get the spools of cable across to the other side of the Fraser River?

Captain John told Trutch that he could get the cables across the Fraser River, and Trutch awarded him a subcontract. Captain John assembled a group of his relatives and they unwound cable from each spool and carried it on their shoulders as they made their way along the precipitous cliffs and slippery rocks. Each cable was four inches wide.

There isn’t a description of the event, but to bring back the words of Simon Fraser:

“In these places we were under the necessity of trusting all our things to the Indians, even our guns…Yet they thought nothing of these difficulties, but went up and down these wild places with the same agility as sailors do on a ship.”

What’s the hold up?

The Alexandra Bridge was completed by September 1, 1863. Trutch invited prominent dignitaries for the official opening planned for the following week. In the meantime, Admiral Kingcome of the Royal Navy made a special trip by steamer to Yale just to ride up the Cariboo Road and see the new bridge. Governor Douglas was not eager to see Alexandra Bridge, however, and the official opening was delayed several weeks until finally near the end of September, Douglas made the trip to Yale with Colonel Moody. On Friday, September 25, 1863, Alexandra Bridge was officially proclaimed open by Colonel Moody—Douglas stayed behind in Yale.

Captain John rose to prominence among his people and gained the name ‘Swalis’ which meant “getting rich”. At one point he was earning more than double the annual salary of Governor James Douglas. When Trutch became  Commissioner of Lands and Works, Captain John was elected as the Chief of Soowahlie.

In later years Captain John ran a ferry across the Vedder River (Th’ewálmel) to Cultus Lake and across to Vedder Crossing. In 1891, he helped with the construction of the Vedder Bridge.

Searching for Gold in the New El Dorado

When gold was ‘discovered’ in the Fraser River, a promotional machine kicked in and British Columbia was touted as the “New El Dorado” (after the El Dorado of South America). Soon, all the newspapers began referring to British Columbia as the New El Dorado.

Gold rushes wherever they occurred were almost always promoted. Books were immediately printed, articles were published and even in the case of the Australian gold rush, a board game called ‘Race to the gold diggings’ was created to get young people excited about seeking gold.

Searching for Gold

Herman Reinhart - American prospector

Herman Reinhart – American prospector

Timing was everything, as Californian miner Herman Reinhart remembered. In July 1858, after months of travelling on foot, Reinhart arrived when the Fraser River was high:

“…boats got swamped and whole boat-loads of men were drowned, and many never knew what became of them.”

At Fort Hope he ran into an old friend James Daniels who had just sold his claim at Hill’s Bar and was leaving for San Francisco after having made $3,500.

“He left Sucker Creek in March, only two months ahead of me; he went by water to Victoria, and a little steamer clear to where he now was, and no hardships or danger like me…”

By the time Reinhart arrived at Yale, he didn’t bother going to Hill’s Bar:

“We saw some old acquaintances at Yale, but we were anxious to get down to Victoria, so we did not look around much. We were in a hurry to get back to California before we would get broke or out of money, so we did not go over to Hill’s Bar to see it.”

At Victoria, Reinhart met many gold seekers he knew from California and Oregon who were in a similar situation:

“…Many had no money and made application to our consul (agent for British Columbia) Edward Nugent. He said he would try and make some arrangements with the company of the steamer Pacific to take a lot of American subjects to San Francisco, who had not the money to pay their own fare. It was the duty of the government to take its people to their homes if they were in a destitute condition on a foreign shore or land, and there were over one thousand men in that condition.

“Just when the Californian newspapers were reporting the Fraser River gold diggings were ‘humbug’, in November 1858, Alfred Waddington published a book called “The Fraser Mines Vindicated” which spoke of the gold diggings in glowing terms.

Strapped gold seekers in Victoria

“The perils of searching for gold” – a lecture given January 29, 1860

When 1860 rolled around, the Fraser River gold rush was all but over. Yet young men, many of whom were well-educated, were still arriving in Victoria. Amor De Cosmos, the fiery publisher of the Daily Colonist, sounded the alarm on January 28th of that year:

“From exaggerated and too sanguine accounts they were led to believe that they had only to get here, to begin coining of money without delay. Almost their little all was spent in accomplishing a long and expensive voyage. And so it has come to pass, that some of these enterprising young men have found themselves “strapped.” Instances have occurred in which they have resorted to teaming, carpentering, and even baking bread…”

One can imagine Mr. Cosmos’ reaction when he read the London Times newspaper of January 30, 1860, which included the following report from their correspondent who was said to be in Victoria:

All accounts agree that the individual earnings of the miners are much larger than in California or Australia. It is very common to light upon a man going to San Francisco with several thousand dollars…

In March 1860 a handbook to British Columbia was published to lure Welsh men to leave for the goldfields. Emigration agents in Liverpool were kept busy—by July it was estimated that one in three of the working population in Wales was willing to emigrate.


Note: I have noticed a few maps that show Yale and Hill’s Bar on the same side of the Fraser River, however, I have since verified that Hill’s Bar was approximately a mile and a half south of Yale and on the other side of the river. The Fraser River gold rush historian, Daniel Marshall, mapped out the location of the gold rush bars in his recently published book, Claiming the Land.

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory

After weeks of paddling and rock climbing down the Fraser River, Simon Fraser reached Musqueam territory. Musqueam means People of the River Grass. The grass (pronounced m-uh-th-kwi) was found at the mouth of the Fraser River. At the bottom panel (A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush) you can see some of this river grass. Simon Fraser passed by the impressive longhouses painted with designs in black, red ochre, and white.

Most likely, Simon Fraser passed by c̓əsnaʔəm (ts-suss-naam) the largest Musqueam village that dates back about 5,000 years.

One can almost imagine the shouts of relief and joy (and the occasional musket blast) as the crew finally reached what they had hoped would be the mouth of the Columbia River. But, their joy was short-lived when Simon Fraser realized, according to his compass, that they were much further north. In fact, they had reached the Strait of Georgia. Simon Fraser didn’t realize that they weren’t far from the open ocean.

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory (A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush)

Food of the Fraser Canyon: Salmon Oil and Saskatoon Berries

During their epic journey in 1808, Simon Fraser and his Northwest Company crew were treated to the food of the Fraser Canyon,  including salmon oil and salmon eggs.

Salmon was a major source of fats and oils. How did they extract the salmon oil? This was done by pounding out a rock to form a large hollow. Next, the hollow was heated with hot rocks from a fire. When the hollow was hot enough to boil water, the rocks were removed and replaced with salmon heads. The salmon heads boiled there for a day and then it was allowed to cool down. A yellowish layer formed on top, similar to cream on a milk pan. This was skimmed off. Below that was the salmon oil which was then scooped into salmon skin bottles. All the bones that were left were soft enough to chew. The oil was stored for winter use.

Children would snack on the soft salmon bones from the hole after they had been cooked down.

Simon Fraser also enjoyed salmon eggs, which was considered a delicacy. People buried salmon eggs in the ground in birch bark baskets. They were kept in the ground until early Spring after the ground had thawed. These were often served with dried Saskatoon berries, noted for their sweet flavour.

Dried salmon was sometimes stored in underground cache pits. These cache pits were dug within their winter homes (dome shaped structures with roof entrances) and lined with grass and pine needles. In other places, dried salmon was kept in wooden boxes on raised platforms or in a tree. The boxes had spaces to allow for the wind to circulate around the fish.

Here is a page from my graphic novel in progress: A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush:

Food of the Fraser Canyon

Food of the Fraser Canyon – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

Coast Salish Villages on the Fraser River

On his trip down the Fraser River, Northwest Company explorer Simon Fraser encountered many Coast Salish villages with longhouses. There was a longhouse in the central Fraser Valley which was over 200 metres long. Simon Fraser also noted another longhouse at Musqueam behind a palisade that was over half a kilometre long.

Coast Salish villages often consisted of a series of interconnected longhouses, forming what appeared as a single structure sometimes for hundreds of metres long. Within these longhouses, place and space were divided according to a family’s status. The most prestigious occupied the largest and most defensible quarters.

House posts were carved with the family’s spirit helpers or the heroic deeds of prominent ancestors. A change in the family’s status meant usually meant that the house post would move too. Moving a house post was not an easy thing to do, but not uncommon when families split up and moved on.

The Sto:lo population consisted of about 3,500 people in the early 1800s. The natives lived in a clearly regulated environment, with the river dictating their life cycle. The river people consisted of numerous tribes, including the Katzie, Coquitlam, Whonnock, Nicomen, Pilalt, and Tait; the largest tribes, however, were the Musqueam, Kwantlen, and Chilliwack.

This is a page from my upcoming graphic novel I’m working on, Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush.

Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush

Simon Fraser’s trip – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

1808: Mutiny on Simon Fraser’s expedition

Simon Fraser’s expedition nearly dissolved into mutiny. It wasn’t long before the voyageurs came to the conclusion that this route wasn’t the best one after all. The river was so treacherous that their birchbark canoes were falling apart.

The voyageurs weren’t pleased at the prospect of carrying everything on their backs and borrowing canoes from the Native tribes they encountered along the way.

As Fraser’s expedition progressed down the river the Carrier and Secwapmec people warned him that the river he was following could not be navigated by canoe. Fraser, however, did not believe them.

If Fraser had listened to them, he would have learned that the best way to the coast was to follow Seton and Anderson Lakes from the junction of the Fraser River and Seton River, to the portage at Pemberton and then to follow the Lillooet and Harrison Rivers south to the coast. This route was the one that the Stat’imc had used to trade with coastal Ucwalmicw for centuries.

But Simon Fraser pressed on to a village called Camchin, at the confluence of two great rivers. This was the site of the future gold rush town of Lytton.

Below is the second page from my graphic novel that I’m working on, Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush.

Mutiny on the Fraser River

Mutiny on the Fraser River – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

Simon Fraser discovers the Fraser River

I am working on my graphic novel, A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush. I thought that a good place to start was Simon Fraser and the river he discovered. Fraser’s goal was to find the Columbia River which emptied into the Pacific Ocean (Astoria, Oregon). The mouth of the Columbia River had been located by this time but the rest of the river was unknown to European fur traders who saw this potential route as the key to getting their furs to market.

Fraser River - from my Fishing for Gold graphic novel

Simon Fraser looks for the Columbia: A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

The North West Company and the route to gold

The name ‘Fraser’s River’ or ‘Frazer’s River’ would be tied to the gold rush that changed the course of British Columbia history, repeated in bold headlines from California to Australia.

What’s in a name?

Simon Fraser - North West Company explorer

Simon Fraser – North West Company explorer

One day while farming in Upper Canada, Simon Fraser was told that there were thousands of foolhardy goldseekers trying to make their way up the same river he had explored fifty years earlier in 1808.

Back then, Simon Fraser was an explorer with the North West Company; the first fur trade company to establish forts west of the Rockies. Fraser named this vast area New Caledonia. He established Fort George in 1807 (present day Prince George).

Simon Fraser was determined to find a river route to Oregon. The Dakelh told him that the wide river that flowed by the fort, Ltha-Koh-Cho, emptied into the coast. Could this river be the Columbia River?

This river becomes too treacherous to paddle the whole way, the Natives told him. There were easier alternative routes to the coast.

After the ice melted and the ground had thawed in May 1808, Simon Fraser and two Native guides, 19 voyageurs and 2 clerks set out on their journey.

Simon Fraser concluded the Natives had been right after all. This river was not a good way to travel! Fraser returned to Fort George after the nail-biting trip with a diary full of stories of climbing sheer bluffs, hanging onto rock walls with bare hands and abandoning their canoes. At one point the voyageurs, exhausted, injured and disheartened, turned mutinous. Fraser talked them out of it.

Later, his friend David Thompson named the river after Fraser.

Note: My drawing is an interpretation of what Simon Fraser looked like during his journey back to Fort George. According to Kwantlen oral history, the fur traders were a bearded, ‘fierce-looking’ lot.