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.
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?
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.
In April 1851, Herman Francis Reinhart and his brother Charles left their parents’ home in the Midwest with a wagon pulled by a few oxen “for California or Oregon”. During that time, 30,000 people made the trek across the vast expanse of prairie to parts unknown. The mass emigration left behind animals, wheels, and sometimes entire wagons, to the dismay of the Native tribes along the “Oregon Trail” which passed through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada.
“We found lots of wagons left and in one place found 10 or 15 wagons, buggies, or carriages and trunks and boxes of books all strewn around, with all kinds of tools for mining and cooking utensils thrown away…”
The Reinhart brothers had been taught baking by their father and those skills served them well when they reached the west. In between prospecting for gold on the creeks, they worked as bakers and eventually even had their own Bakery Saloon complete with a bowling alley. Their fortunes came and went, however, and gambling for food was not uncommon. Here’s one of his stories:
“In Browntown at night George and I went to a large store, and a man named Barnes and a partner in whipsawing lumber wanted George and I to play them a four-hand game of Euchre for a pound of coffee, or $1.50 worth, whatever we wished to get in goods or groceries per game. I had but three or four dollars left, and George not a cent, but I was satisfied that Barnes and his partner played by signs, and I could post George to beat them, by the signs I could learn him. So I took George and spoke to him a while how to play and we went in and played and we beat them four games in succession at their own game…”
On May 10, 1858, Herman departed from Kerbyville in Oregon and set out for the Fraser River with some gold nuggets, clothing, a sack of flour and a five-gallon keg of East Boston syrup. Because of the flood of prospectors heading north from Washington and Oregon, hostilities broke out when the First Nations tried to slow down and in some cases stop the flow of the goldseekers gripped by the ‘Fraser River fever’. At the Dalles, miners were told they had to travel in ‘companies’ for protection. There were three known organized companies that set out overland from Oregon to the Fraser in 1858. They were captained by Joel Palmer, Archibald McKinlay, and David McLaughlin. Reinhart arrived at the Dalles in June (see “Okanagan Lake Massacre“).
It was rough going and Reinhart’s horse gave out. He got others in the group to carry the keg of syrup and they ended up consuming most of it. In late August, Herman Francis Reinhart and his fellow miners reached “The Fountain” on the Fraser River (a large high bar at the mouth of Fountain Creek about 14 miles above Lillooet).
“There was no flour or groceries of any kind at The Fountain, only what our train had brought in by our packtrain. Major Robertson and a Dalles merchant started a store of groceries, provisions and liquors. Flour sold for $1 to $1.20 per lb., sugar and coffee $1.50 per lb., bacon $2.50 per lb., brandy and whiskey 50 cents per drink or glass…”
“…after six days prospecting we were about a hundred miles from The Fountain, and were about out of provision, … we had to turn back and get to our camp at The Fountain as fast as possible, or we would have to starve, for there was no game to shoot, and in one place we found strawberries just in bloom (in September!). So you can judge the season. We were in about Latitude north 53 or 54th parallel, or about seven or eight degrees north of the forty-ninth parallel of the line between the United States and British Columbia…The first day of starting back toward The Fountain, we run out of provisions, and I traded an old saddlecloth (the half of an empty 50 lb. sack) to an Indian for two dried salmon. He used the old cloth for a legging…”
“…after prospecting a few days longer with no success, we came to the conclusion to strike back to California. I had left good $8 and $10 per day diggings on Sucker Creek, where my brother Charley and my Partner Schertz were working my claim in company with them. So I sold some shirts, drawers, and books such as I could not carry with me. Will Cochran had sold his only horse at The Fountain, so we were both left on foot…”
Reinhart still had his keg of East Boston Syrup which was now almost empty.
“I took out a quart bottle of it to take with us, and I sold the balance, about five quarts, with the keg, for $20 gold piece, my shirts from $3 to $4 apiece, some undershirts and socks and the books-in all, I had some $75 or $80 left. And my breastpin, ring, rifle, pistol and blankets. I bought one pound of bacon for $2.50 of Robertson Company’s store; we had three or four pounds of flour left, and the bottle of syrup. We started with some five or six others for Victoria, right down Fraser River…”
On the cover of the book, “Images from the Likeness House” is an unidentified picture of a chief from the interior of British Columbia. This picture is said to have been taken in 1897 which is after the death of Chief N’kwala, but it sure matches the description of him.
An American gold miner named Herman Francis Reinhart was among 300 miners who had been involved in the Okanagan Massacre in the summer of 1858. The miners arrived at Kamloops Lake in late August with two Natives they had captured. N’kwala, the head chief of the Okanagans confronted the group.
Here is Herman Reinhart’s description of Chief N’kwala which seems to match the above picture of the unidentified chief.
“Old Nicholas [sic] the head chief of the Indians around that country, came to see us about the two prisoners we had brought back from Lake Okanagan. He was an old man about 65 or 70 years old, wore a stove pipe hat and citizen’s clothes, and had a lot of medals of good character and official vouchers of good conduct for many years.
He was quite angry and said he was surprised to see 300 men take two Indian prisoners and bring them back two or three hundred miles because we thought they were spies, and it was mighty little in us and did not show great bravery. And about the Okanagan Lake massacre, that it was brutal, and he could not think much of the Bostons, or Americans, that would do the like.
He blamed us for butchering the Okanagan Indians in cold blood and the Okanagan Indians had sent some messengers to him to help avenge the death of his people, but he said he had better teaching from good men and priests, and good advice from Captain McLean head of the Hudson’s Bay Company [Chief Factor of Fort Thompson], and they advised him and his people to overlook the great crime but he had great trouble to quiet and calm down his young warriors, of which, with the Lake Okanagan tribe, he could have raised from 1800 to 2000 warriors, and could have surprised our command and cut them off to a man, utterly annihilating the whole of us, and taking all our animals and all our plunder. But he could not have told how it would have gone after, for he would have lost all control of his people, and the war chiefs would have usurped his power and carried on a general war against the whites, American and English. Being the massacre had taken place in British Columbia, it would be the duty of the English Queen Victoria to see justice done to her subjects, and he was right, no doubt.
Some of our boys were awful ashamed and some angry to hear an old man tell them so many truths, and some were mad enough to kill him for his boldness in his expressions to us all. But it was a fact none could deny, and Major Robertson let the two prisoners go. I think some of the men gave them some clothing and provisions, with some money to satisfy them for their loss of time and trouble.
Here is some more information about Chief N’kwala (Nicola) from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:
“Nicola was descended from a long line of Okanagan head chiefs and, according to legend, was born at the fortified encampment established by his father, Pelkamū’lôx (which means “rolls over the earth”), near the junction of the Similkameen and Okanagan rivers (Washington). When Nicola was still a young boy PElkamū’lôx took his people north to Fish Lake (B.C.), where he settled near the band of his brother Kwoli’la at Chapperon Lake.
During the early fur trade era in New Caledonia (B.C.), Nicola’s influence was much appreciated by the traders of the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and his generous welcome was largely responsible for the happy relationship between them and the Interior Salish people. In the late 1830s Chief Factor Samuel Black, in charge at Thompson’s River Post, lent him a plough so that he could grow potatoes and other vegetables at his summer camp on Nicola Lake; this first local effort at cultivation was soon imitated by other bands. Following the murder of Black by a young Shuswap warrior in 1841, Nicola calmed the HBC men, who feared a widespread uprising, by delivering a moving eulogy, reported by Archibald McKinlay, which called for the capture of the killer.”
There were many Chinese gold miners who participated in the Fraser River gold rush. Many of them were experienced prospectors who had panned for gold in California. Just as many had panned for gold back home in China.
The Chinese were mining gold by 1300 BC. They had systematic ways to prospect for it. In the 7th century an official wrote, “If the upper soil contains cinnabar, the lower will contain gold.” They had also discovered that plants were a key indicator of what lay beneath the surface. “If in the mountain grow spring shallots, there will be silver under the ground; if leek in the mountain, gold.”
The Chinese also had interesting ways of clearing the gold from other debris. They panned for gold and washed as much debris away as they could, then they mixed what was left with chaff, and fed it to ducks. Later they collected the droppings, panned out the gold a second time, mixed the refined gold with another batch of chaff and fed it to the ducks. They did this process three times and then they fed the ducks a final batch of chaff to collect any gold bits left behind. This brings to mind the old saying, “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”.
At the beginning of the first millenium, China’s rulers owned gold reserves of 200 tons, about the same as the Roman Empire. Then the mining collapsed. When the Mongols came to power in 1300 AD they tried to turn the gold mines around. They ordered 4,000 households in Shandong to pan for gold. They supressed bandits and removed tyrants who were robbing the mines, and warned their own generals not to steal gold.
Wei Zhongxian, a former criminal and gambler, obtained a position in the imperial household, which was advantageous because creditors were not allowed to pursue him in the Forbidden City. When the crown prince became emperor Wei began his climb to power. He built shrines and statues to himself and adopted the title Nine Thousand Years. The emperor, known by custom as Ten Thousand Years, gave Wei the Linglong Mine in 1621.
According to legend, a river flowed into the sky from the peach orchard of the Grand Old Lady of the West to a peak in the Linglong hills. The river fed streams that flowed down the mountain and collected in a basin. One day a hunter discovered a pool teeming with gold fish. They leapt from the surface and spewed streams of golden liquid. When news of this pool reached the imperial court they sent an official to Shandong. The official was so overwhelmed at the sight of the gold fish that he dove into the pool and disappeared. A second emissary arrived and found the pool dry. Not wanting to return to the Forbidden City with bad news, he ordered 10,000 peasants to dig in the mountain for the fish. They found the Linglong gold.
Wei ran the Linlong mine for six years and the country’s gold production increased to 40,000 ounces a year. When the emperor died, Wei’s enemies killed him. Seventeen years later the dynasty collapsed and so did Linglong.
The new Manchu rulers believed that the gold veins were that of dragons’ and digging them up would disrupt spatial harmony. On a practical note, the Manchu feared that the gold could finance an insurrection amongst the people they had conquered. Subsequently, they decreed an end to gold mining and they executed those they caught digging for gold illegally.
The last gold bars left the Chinese treasury in 1842, in reparation payments to the foreign occupying powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. It was at that point the ruling Dowager Empress repealed the gold mining prohibition. In actual fact, the mining had never stopped.
During the time of the prohibition, a British colonial official stationed in Burma wrote “by far the larger portion of all the gold used [in Burma] is brought from China. It is imported in the form of thin leaves of gold made up into little packets, each packet weighing about one viss [3.6 pounds].” Gold had also leaked out of China along the Himalayan smuggling routes. When the gold mining prohibition ended, the gold simply headed back to the domestic market.
Major W. Downie and his partner Alex MacDonald were the first to officially explore the Bute Inlet. In June 1861 Downie travelled the Homathko River, that flows from the Chilcotin Plateau to the coast. Downie travelled the Homathko River by canoe and foot for a total of 33 miles when a steep canyon forced him back.
Alfred Waddington, a merchant and a promoter, was excited at the prospect of a possible new route to the gold fields. He convinced his fellow merchants in Victoria, who faced competition from New Westminster, to give Downie’s route along the Homathko River a chance.
Alfred Penderell Waddington was born in London, England in 1801 where he attended school. After his father died in 1818 Waddington moved to France where his brothers had business interests. In 1850, he set his sights on California and the gold rush there. Waddington sailed to San Francisco in May and set up a wholesale provision firm which was soon profitable. Upon hearing of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, Waddington came north to Victoria to set up another grocery firm.
By the end of the year, Waddington had published his observations in a book titled, The Fraser Mines Vindicated; Or, the History of Four Months. In his book, Waddington was optimistic about future gold prospects and wrote “it is beyond doubt that the other kind of dry diggings exist plentifully in the north…”
On September 19, 1861, Waddington left Victoria on the steamer Henrietta, visited the head of Bute Inlet, made friends with certain native people in Desolation Sound, navigated by steamer for 8 miles up the Homathko River and then by canoe for some distance beyond. He left five men to explore further while he returned to Victoria.The five returned to Victoria near the end of October.
Within a week, Waddington arranged for a second party. This included Robert Homfray, a surveyor who had worked for the Colonial Survey Office under J.D. Pemberton. Homfray was in charge of the group which consisted of three HBC voyageurs – Cote, Balthazzar, and Bourchier, along with Henry McNeill and two natives.
Homfray and his crew set out on October 31, 1861. Nine days later they reached the entrance to Bute Inlet. Here they were kidnapped. Fortunately, they were rescued by a chief of the Cla-oosh people whose village was in Desolation Sound. Homfray convinced the chief to guide them through the Homathko River valley.
Robert Homfray told of one log jam, twenty feet high and half-a-mile long, stretching right across the river. They proceeded up the rapids, manhandling the canoe over slippery log-jams, often up to their waists in water. He could look up and see the blue ice of glaciers above the steep walls of the river. The chief turned back. Then the weather turned bitterly cold and the ice froze on their clothes, their beards and hair. After almost losing their canoe when the tow rope broke, they decided to cache it, and proceeded on foot.
Just when they were coming to the end of their food, they encountered a tall Native, his body painted jet-black, and vermillion-colored rings around his eyes. He was pointing an arrow straight at them. They were able to convince the Native that they were friendly and they needed food. After giving them a dinner, they were told to return the way they had come. For Homfray and the others the trip back to the coast was worse than they could have imagined.
Their canoe was wrecked in a log jam, and most of their supplies lost. They salvaged some gear, including matches and two axes. It took them four days on a makeshift raft to reach the head of Bute Inlet and their buried provisions. They had to eat with their fingers and shared one empty baking-powder tin for drinking.
After riding half-way down Bute Inlet in a hollowed-out log, they were eventually rescued by the same Cla-oosh chief who brought them to his village. He later helped them return to Victoria. They had been away two months.
Waddington was more determined than ever to pursue the route. Before Homfray and his party returned, Waddington wrote a letter to Governor James Douglas and described the Homathko as a “fine level valley, from two to four miles wide, and navigable for forty miles from the mouth for steamers of four or five feet draft . . . without a single rock or other serious impediment”.
From its beginning in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company traded muskets to First Nations trappers for beaver pelts. Many of the firearms introduced during the early fur trade period were of inferior quality, and were known to sometimes blow up in the hands of the person using it. Often times, these trade guns were returned to an HBC post where a blacksmith would make repairs. Supplies of amunition were also relatively costly and had to be purchased through trade. For these reasons, traditional forms of weaponry and hunting equipment continued to be used side by side with firearms, and depending on the circumstances, the guns were less effective than the bow and arrow.
Factories in Birmingham and London, England manufactured trade guns for the Hudson’s Bay Company. A distinctive feature of these guns was the dragon or serpent shaped side plate. This was considered a mark of quality and most Natives would not trade for a gun that did not have the serpent plate.
In later years, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to order firearms with percussion caps for use as trade goods. The HBC guns were made so that a hunter could shoot while wearing a glove or even a mitten. As well as the serpent sideplate, on the gun itself was an indented image of a fox, identical to that of the fox on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s coat of arms.
Revolvers were brought north by the American goldseekers. This type of gun allowed the user to fire it multiple times without reloading. This was a big change from the single-barreled smoothbores of the horse-pistol type. The caliber of the pistol was the same as the rifle or musket carried by the owner, so that a single bullet mold could serve both guns.
Here is an advertisement from the June 24, 1859 edition Daily Colonist:
35 tierces [casks] of fine corned beef at 7 cents per pound. 40 Colt’s Revolvers at prices less than in California, suitable for parties fitting up for the North.
Apply to H. Holbrook at the Hotel de France, or at the wharf of J.T. Little, Wharf St.
Rifle muskets were another type of gun used during the BC gold rush. Volunteer militia groups known as ‘rifle companies’ were actively promoted. The town of Victoria had two.
In September 1864, a concert was held at the Victoria Theatre as a fundraiser for the Victoria Rifle Volunteer Corps. In a review of the concert, the British Colonist newspaper wrote that the theatre was elegantly decorated with muskets, bayonets and flags of all nations. The program included “Rifle Fever” sung by the Germania Sing Verein.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.