Tag Archives: Fraser River Gold Rush

HMS Plumper and the Rowdies of Victoria

In 1857, Captain George Richards of the British Navy sailed to Vancouver Island on his ship the HMS Plumper. Richards was given instructions to chart the international water boundary as well as the coastline and nearby islands of Vancouver Island. Plumper carried a scientific library with reference books on botany and natural history. The ship’s surgeon was in charge of collecting and preserving specimens. There was also a team of navigation and surveying specialists.

HMS Plumper

HMS Plumper (on the right)

It wasn’t the sort of ship that was supposed to take part when a crisis arose, but there was at least one occasion when Captain Richards and the crew of the Plumper were called upon to help diffuse a situation. This was especially true in the early days of the Fraser River gold rush when Fort Victoria was overwhelmed with gold seekers.

In its August 9, 1858 issue, the Daily Alta California printed a letter from Victoria with the title “The Rowdies In Victoria”

Some excitement has been created here in consequence of a most daring outrage having been committed, by a band of rowdies, in rescuing a prisoner from the police, and rather roughly handling the Sheriff. At least three thousand persons were collected, and the police force being small in number, were compelled for the time being to let their prisoner slide. The circumstances being reported to the Governor, a dispatch was immediately sent off to the man-of-war.

At midnight, H. M. S. Plumper entered Victoria harbor, from Esquimalt, and landed one hundred men. On the following morning the Plumper anchored within two cables length of the town, prepared to give practical demonstration if any resistance was offered. A small police force re- arrested the man, who is now awaiting examination.

The proceedings on the part of the Government exhibited the fact—that will go far to preserve order for the future—that they are not only determined to put down rowdyism, but that they have sufficient strength to command obedience to the laws. The conduct of the Government in this instance has been cordially responded to by the entire community.

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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 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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General Joel Palmer: gold rush trader and packer

General Joel Palmer

General Joel Palmer – gold rush trader and packer

General Joel Palmer was famous for guiding wagon trains along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, and later for his role as Indian Superintendent in Oregon. Perhaps one of his most important contributions to Canadian history is the role he played as one of the earliest American traders and packers in the Cariboo from 1858 to 1861.

Palmer was born on October 4, 1810 in Canada West (Ontario) to an American family who moved back to the United States after war broke out in 1812. As a child, Palmer lived in New York, Pennsylvania and later Indiana.

In 1845, Palmer travelled from Indiana to the Willamette Valley to find out if the area was suitable for permanent settlement. While on his trip, Palmer kept a detailed diary which he later published as a guide for emigrants.

In 1858, as soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush, Palmer took a wagon train from Priest Rapids north through Oregon and Washington to the gold diggings of Okanagan, Similkameen, Rock Creek, and Upper Columbia River to the Fraser River via the HBC brigade route all the way to Fort Thompson (Kamloops).

Where there were miners, meat was sure to follow. The following year he made two trips, one to the Fraser River, and the second to Fort Alexandria.  In the early spring of 1860, Palmer set about equipping more pack trains for a return to Fort Alexandria, contracting for 37,660 pounds of freight and hiring 14 men to help with the packing at $40 a month.

This endeavour is all the more impressive when one considers that this trip took place several years before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built. In June 1860, Palmer took cattle and several small pack trains from Mud Lake to Quesnel Forks, over “the worst trail possible to conceive” and stopped at Beaver Valley where they spent one afternoon cutting out logs and detours. Palmer and his men had to walk the last ten miles to the South Fork River to spare their horses.

Only miners who were finding large amounts of gold could afford the high cost of provisions. At Quesnel Forks, Palmer set the rate for flour at 55 cents a pound but other merchants undercut his price to 35 cents. Despite this, Palmer still made a good profit.  During July and August, Palmer took 62 pack mules to Lillooet for more merchandise.  He returned to Quesnel Forks in mid-September when he sold out to business partners David Kelley and W.H. Wright for $4,249.65.

Palmer returned via Lillooet, New Westminster and took a steamship from Victoria to his home in Oregon to prepare for another trip to the Cariboo. He continued to bring pack trains north for a few more years until 1862.

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From Hope to Lytton City in the Fraser River gold rush

Here is a 1860 census from Mr. Batterton of Ballou’s Express who provided delivery services to  gold seekers from Hope to Lytton City during the Fraser River gold rush.

Cornish Bar     30
Hope     150
on the bars between Hope and Yale  150
Yale                200
Yale to Boston Bar   80
Boston Bar to Lytton  80
Lytton City         60
Total population 750

He also provided a table of distances:

Hope to Yale in small boats     16 miles
from Yale, situated on the west side of the Fraser River, via mule trail to Spuzzum,
to the Ferry on Fraser            13 miles
to Chapman’s Bar, after crossing river       5 miles
The trail leaves the river here and passes over mountains via Lake House to Boston Bar. Three miles after leaving Lake House the trail strikes Anderson river, where the Hope and Yale trails unite  23 miles
to Paul’s Flat, east side, Yankee Flat, opposite a noted place      4 miles
Ensley’s Flat      7
Fargo’s Bar        1
Half-way House     8
Jackass Mountain   7
Lytton City        12
Total distance   96 miles

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Yale to Lytton City vs Douglas-Lillooet route

Yale to Lytton

Yale to Lytton passenger service (Sept 12, 1861)

A rough mule train was built from Yale to Lytton by the gold miners themselves in 1858, at the height of the Fraser River gold rush.

Pack trains and passenger ‘trains’ such as Jersey & Blackhawk’s used the Yale to Lytton trail daily. (Lytton was referred to as ‘Lytton City’ and Lillooet was still called ‘Cayoosh’).

Despite the desire for a wagon road north of Yale, Governor Douglas gave preference to the Douglas-Lillooet route.

In 1860, Douglas gave orders to the Royal Engineers to deepen the channel of the Harrison River to enable steamboats to reach Port Douglas in all stages of high or low water levels. In addition, they were tasked with the responsibility of improving and widening the Douglas-Lillooet trail to accommodate wagons.  They built the road as far as Lillooet Lake. From there, Colquhoun and Company and Joseph Trutch were awarded a contract to build the road for a distance of 24 miles from Lillooet and Anderson Lakes.

The mile and a half between Anderson and Seton Lakes was serviced by a tramway. The four miles of road from Seton Lake to the town of Lillooet were built by Watson in 1860. Steamships such as Lady of the Lake and the Champion carried freight and passengers over Anderson and Seton Lakes.

Because of the time and inconvenience it took to offload freight and passengers from wagon to steamship to tramway and so on that it never became popular with gold seekers.

In June 1860, Douglas relented and awarded a road building contract to Frank Way and J.C. Beedy to build a trail from Yale to Spuzzum. At the same time, work on a trail from Spuzzum to Boston Bar was started by contractors Powers and McRoberts.

By the fall of 1860, news of the discovery of gold in the Cariboo reached the coast and gold seekers were determined to build trails north. From Boston Bar a trail was cut north to Anderson River and went past Yankee Flat, Fargo’s Bar and over Jackass Mountain to Lytton City.

Newspapers reported that the rate of packing from Yale to Lytton was considerably less than from Port Douglas to Cayoosh (Lillooet):

A comparison of the prices now prevailing at Lytton and Cayoosh, show that a saving of $4 or $5 per 100lbs can by made by purchasing at Lytton.
Lytton: flour – $24; Beans – $24; Bacon – 50cents; Sugar – 40cents
Cayoosh: flour – $28, Beans – $28; Bacon – 55 cents; Sugar – 40 cents

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Hugh Nelson – Fraser River gold rush entrepreneur and politician

Hugh Nelson

Hugh Nelson, Fraser River gold rush entrepreneur

Born and raised in Ireland, Hugh Nelson emigrated to California in 1854 before arriving on Vancouver Island in June 1858 as soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush.

Trained as an accountant, Nelson worked for the Yale Steam Navigation Company, and eventually he partnered with George Dietz to buy William T. Ballou’s Pioneer Fraser River Express.

Their express company known as “Dietz & Nelson’s” connected with Barnard’s Express to bring mail and supplies to  Victoria.

In 1867, Dietz and Nelson sold their express business to Barnard. Then they entered into a partnership with Sewell Moody to operate a sawmill.

A proponent of Confederation, Nelson entered politics in 1870. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly for New Westminster and later served his constituents as a member of the House of Commons.


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Edward Stout – Fraser River gold rush pioneer

Edward Stout

Edward Stout – Fraser gold rush prospector

Edward Stout, known as “Ned”, was one of the few people who lived to tell the story of the Canyon War.

A gold miner in California, Stout came north as soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush.

Stout and a few others came by schooner to Bellingham Bay at which point they built two flat-bottomed scows with oars and sails. They reached Fort Yale on May 20, 1858.

That same summer, a battle erupted between Nlaka’pamux people, who lived along the Fraser River, and the gold prospectors.

Stout and twenty-six others waged a battle for several days. When it was over, only four were still alive including Stout who had suffered seven arrow wounds.

Stout recovered and ventured north to the Cariboo in 1861, and was one of the first miners to set foot on Williams Creek. Stout’s Gulch is named after him.

Despite his experiences, Yale must’ve made an impression on Stout. After the Cariboo gold rush, he returned to Yale and lived there until he died in 1924, aged 99.

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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.

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The Gold Fields Act

In September 1858, just a month after the mainland colony was formed, Governor James Douglas issued the first Gold Fields Act.  This was done in order to bring order to the Fraser River gold rush. The Gold Fields Act was tweaked and changed as time progressed. Here are some rules from the Gold Fields Act of 1859.

  1. “The ordinary claims on any bench diggings shall be registered by the gold commissioner and can be either one hundred feet square or else a strip of land twenty-five feet deep at the edge of the cliff next to the river, and bounded by two straight lines carried as nearly as possible in each case perpendicular to the general direction of such cliff across the level bench up to and not beyond the foot of the descent in the rear; and in such last mentioned case, the space included between such two boundary lines when produced over the face of the cliff in front as far as the foot of such cliff and no farther, and all mines in the space so included shall also form a part of such claim.
  2. The gold commissioner shall have authority in cases where the benches are narrow, to mark the claims in such manner as he shall think fit, so as to include an adequate claim. And shall also have power to decide on the cliffs, which, in his opinion, form the natural boundaries of benches.
  3. The gold commissioner may…allow any free miner to register two claims in his own name, and allow such period as he may think proper for non-working either one of such claims. A discoverer’s claim shall…be reckoned as one ordinary claim.
  4. All claims shall be subject to the public rights of way and water…as the gold commissioner shall from time to time direct…
  5. The water taken into a ditch shall be measured at the ditch head…[by way of] a trough…not more than 17 inches below the surface of the water in the reservoir, all measurements being taken inside the trough and in the low-water or dry season.”

The Gold Fields Act also was the drive behind the judicial system and regulations for gold mining in British Columbia.

An Assistant Gold Commissioner presided over locally based Gold Commissioner’s or Mining Courts. He had jurisdiction to hear all mining or mining-related disputes and to deal with them as he saw fit. By doing so, the Gold Commissioner’s Court allowed suitors to avoid the costly delays associated with Supreme Court actions and jury trials.

A locally elected Mining Board replaced the Californian-style Miners’ Meetings. During the California gold rush, miners made their own rules which governed behaviour and settled disputes. In British Columbia, the decisions of the Mining Board could be overturned by the Assistant Gold Commissioner, who also possessed the power to dissolve the board at his pleasure.

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