Tag Archives: Fraser River

The First House of Assembly of Vancouver Island

The first House of Assembly for the British Colony of Vancouver Island met for the first time on August 12, 1856. There were seven elected representatives who had been voted in by slightly more than forty male property holders. The House met in “Bachelors’ Hall” inside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort known as Fort Victoria. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, the first Speaker of the House, described the scene as a room:

“…about twenty feet in length by about a dozen in breadth, lined with upright plank unpainted, unadorned, save perhaps with a few “cedar mats” to cover fissures. On each side were two doors leading to as many dormitories. In the centre stood a large dilapidated rectangular stove its sides made of sheet iron, beautifully and picturesquely bulging. At the end was a wooden table, upon which stood a hundred page ledger, an inkstand, pens, and a small supply of foolscap…Around the Speaker’s table stood half a dozen very ordinary wooden chairs, for the use of the members and at a respectful distance a couple of benches, without backs for the audience.”

At the end of the year the Colony paid the Hudson’s Bay Company (simply known as the ‘Company’) twenty-five dollars for using the room. Their last meeting was held December 7, 1859.

When the House of Assembly first met there was talk of the British Government’s (the Home Government) free trade negotiations with the United States under the Recriprocity Treaty and what that would mean for Vancouver Island. As it was still under the exclusive control of the Company, free trade was considered a good thing.

In the Spring of 1858 as news of the Fraser River gold rush were beginning to spread, discussions turned to the dominant control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Local Victoria merchants wanted protection from imported goods that were coming north on ships as fast as the flood of miners.  Mr. McKay wanted to introduce a bill which would see imported goods levied by 5 cents but this was countered with 80 signatures on a petition brought forward by Mr. J. D. Pemberton. McKay’s motion was defeated.

Up to this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company had exclusive navigation and trading rights on the Fraser River. James Yates wanted to petition the Home Government in Britain to attach ‘Frazer’s River’ and the surrounding country to ‘Vancouver’s Island’, and remove it from the exclusive control of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Taking a less drastic approach, Mr. Skinner rose to move that a conference with Governor Douglas was needed. Particularly, he wanted to know by whose authority the Company had received exclusive navigation privileges on the Fraser River and by “what right the Hudson’s Bay Co’s. goods only are allowed to be carried up.”

Mr. Yates offered to postpone his motion for a petition to the British Government until after a conference with the Governor was held.

Governor Douglas stalled over the issue, but Yates and several others continued to question his ability to both govern the colony and continue the Company’s exclusive trading rights throughout the mainland.

Derby – the first capital of BC



Governor Douglas wanted Derby (now Langley) on the Fraser River to be the first capital of British Columbia. This was the site of the first Hudson’s Bay Fort Langley built in 1827. This decision was made despite going against the recommendations of Colonel Moody of the Royal Engineers. Lots were drawn up and advertised for sale by the time Moody and his regiment of Royal Engineers landed in Victoria. Douglas called for tenders on December 1, 1858, for the erection of a parsonage, church, courthouse and gaol, and these were built by E. L. Fell, under contract. A large barracks was built which housed the Royal Engineers and their families.

As time passed, the town of Queenborough (New Westminster) became more populous compared to Derby and became the capital of the mainland colony.

Explosion of Sternwheeler Fort Yale

During the heady years of the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes, sternwheeler accidents were not uncommon. Between 1860 and 1861 the British Colonist reported that 25 people were killed from steamship explosions and sinkings. The story of the sternwheeler Fort Yale disaster was another reminder how hazardous it could be both as a captain and as a passenger.

Under the direction of Captain Smith Baird Jamieson, the Fort Yale had a regular run on the Fraser River from New Westminster to Fort Yale – a trip which normally took between 8 and 9 hours. On its initial voyage on November 26, 1860, the ship managed to do the trip in just 7 1/2 hours.

On April 14, 1861 tragedy struck.

“Terrible Catastrophe!

The steamer Fort Yale, while passing Union Bar [2 1/2 miles north of Hope] on her upward trip…was blown up by the explosion of her boiler. Fortunately the passengers had just sat down to dinner, thus removing them from the immediate vicinity of the boiler, otherwise the list of casualties would doubtless have been much larger.”

Four people were killed by the blast including Captain Jamieson. Several more people suffered injuries.

“The boat…was now a sinking mass of ruins from stem to stern- scarcely anything remaining in sight above water, but a small portion of her bow and the after part of her saloon, and those gradually disappearing below water…Five or six human beings…were struggling for life.. After the explosion, several canoes manned by Indians were seen coming from Union Bar and vicinity were soon alongside, receiving the wounded and others who wished to go ashore.”

Simon Fraser and the Red Capote

Simon Fraser

The Fraser River is named for Simon Fraser

Years after he explored the Fraser River in 1808 and the Upper Canada rebellion had left him injured, Simon Fraser became a farmer in Cornwall.

“They found gold on the Fraser!” John shouted to his father working in the field.  He ran up to his father and showed him the headline on the Cornwall Freeholder.  Gold Rush on Frazer’s River.

Simon held the paper at arm’s length and shook his head, “unbelievable.”

“All those years you said no one would find a use for that river and now look! Thousands of gold miners are making their way up the river to seek their fortune.”

“I never said that river was useless, it was a force to be reckoned with.  It’s nothing like the rivers around here,” he said, handing the newspaper back to him.

“I want to go – this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

“What about your studies?”

“I want to go and explore places like you did.”

Simon wiped his brow. “Let’s go in and talk about it.”

Father and son sat at the heavy wooden table in the kitchen while the sun streamed in through the window.

Simon put on his spectacles and scanned over the map that John had provided.  He shook his head, “published in San Francisco! What would they know about the Cariboo?  Where is Fort George? They left that off the map!”

Simon pushed back from the table and winced from the pain in his knee.  “I’ll go find my own map that I drew up, back then.  Just a minute.”

John wanted to go to the gold diggings in the Cariboo – the place where they said ‘Doc’ Keithley had struck gold.

Simon came back to the table with a bundle of papers held together by a string.

“I kept my rough notes.  These are the ones I nearly lost in the river, had it not been for Jules Quesnel who got them back for me.”

They were fragile like dried maple leaves and just as discoloured.  Still, it was possible to read Simon’s handwriting.

“Fort George – this is where it should be,” Simon said.  They discussed John’s travel plans throughout the week as he made arrangements.  So much had changed since Simon had made his way with several hardened coureurs du bois carrying maize and pemmican.  A lot had changed since Simon first went west of the Rockies fifty years previous.

“I always say, respect the river and its people.  I remember the time when we’d spent the better half of the day carrying our load like a bunch of billy goats within inches of the edge of the canyon with the river roaring and boiling a mile below. We had entered a rapide couvert  –  the river was completely enclosed by cliffs.  Just when I thought my legs couldn’t walk straight, one of our native guides led us around a bluff and the next thing we were on a plateau and there was the chief waiting for us! To this day I still can’t figure out how he found out we were coming.”

His father looked out the window as a robin landed on a branch outside with Rivière aux Raisins in the distance.  They watched the bird watching them and for a while nothing was said.

On the day John was to leave, Simon Fraser handed his son the bundle of papers, “everything you’ll want to know is going to be in there.”

His father had suggested that he travel to Victoria first and visit with a family acquaintance who lived there, named Dr. Powell.

Powell was very interested in his father’s papers.

“I can’t believe that no one would be interested in publishing your father’s notes!  This is all so fascinating.”

“I could edit them myself and publish them perhaps as a guide for adventurers,” John said.

Powell shook his head. “This needs the experienced hand of an academic, a geographer perhaps.” He stood up. “Leave the papers with me for safekeeping.  Goodness knows what kind of bush tent you’ll find to stay in while you’re up scavenging for gold.”

John left on the steamship the next morning and consoled himself that at least his father’s notes would be safe.

After spending the night in Fort Yale, he started on foot along the newly opened Cariboo Waggon Road. There were hundreds of people, some young, some old – each of them heading north towards in their quest for gold.

He quickly learned that most of the bars had been worked and re-worked.  Texas Bar, Emory Bar, Kanaka Bar, the list went on.  Soon enough, he succumbed to the “gold bug” and every hour drifted seamlessly into the next as he washed pan after pan of gravel.  As the days and the weeks wore on, he lost weight and he gained muscles from carrying his load of supplies and the constant walking.

When he came to Soda Creek he asked how far it was to Stuart Lake.

“Why would you want to go there?” A couple of heads turned in his direction, wanting to know if he heard about gold.  As soon as they heard him talk about his father, the famous Nor’wester, they lost interest.

Unfazed, John carried on, taking a steamer first to Quesnel then by canoe up the Fraser River past Fort George through the Grand Canyon, north along the Nechako River, then up the Stuart River.  The weather was cooperative and the trip wasn’t without its challenges, but he couldn’t help but be in awe at the grandness of it all.

After several weeks he came to a small village where he could smell smoke.  There was an odd feeling about the place, as if something was terribly wrong.

His father had met a man here named Chief Kw’ah.  “He saved our lives. We had run out of food days before and we were almost delirious with hunger.  He had his people bring us salmon while we rested. Everything we could possibly want was brought to us. I was totally indebted to him, but I had nothing to give.  John Stuart had an idea to cut up my old red capote which was in a bad state. He cut a large piece out of the capote with his knife and managed somehow to get it looking decent, like a sort of flag.  I presented this to the Chief as a way of thanks.”

John inquired after Chief Kw’ah. “I’m the son of Simon Fraser,” he said.  He saw a few people standing back a distance with pocked and swollen faces.  After a time, a middle aged man came forward and introduced himself as Bob, the Yu-ka-guse medicine man.

They shook hands.  “I remember your father well,” he said.  “Have you come for his canoe?” Bob led John around to a small stream where the Perseverance was tied up.  He could see the marks on the canoe where it had been battered by the rocks. How amazed would his father be, to know that his canoe was still here?

Later, Bob showed him the red cloth.  John held it in both hands.

“Our people are suffering from smallpox.  Before many people would touch the red cloth, now I keep it in a box.”

So much had changed in fifty years.


For all that he accomplished, Simon Fraser (1776-1862) passed away into relative obscurity. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a group of individuals from BC arranged to have a cairn erected at his unmarked gravesite in Cornwall, Ontario. His son John died in 1865.  Dr. Powell eventually returned the bundle of papers to Fraser’s descendants in Eastern Canada. Some years later Simon Fraser’s granddaughter sold them through an Ottawa dealer. Simon Fraser’s original rough notes were never seen again. Chief Kw’ah’s descendant Peter Erickson presented the red cloth to the Canadian government in 1997.

Standing at the Sluice Box

sluicebox from 1850s

"Andy at Sluice box" (Bancroft Library)

Standing at the sluice box
time seemed insignificant
repetitive movements
shoveling gravel into the narrow chasm
water flowing past, pushing light minerals ahead
leaving gold behind riffle blocks
like the narrow Fraser Canyon: a giant sluicebox
an ocean of ice sat on top of the mountains
grinding the rock beneath,
then retreated
exposing the gold stringers
tumbled forward in winter storms and melting summer snow,
prodded down painted cliffs and streams
held back by bars of gravel

men move forward
like ants carrying loads bigger than they are
resolute and determined
never looking down to the chasm below
men walking with scurvy, eating beans and flour
too weak to pull themselves from the frothing water
“drink this,
boil the branches from the spruce tree and
you’ll be better”
strips of salmon drying in the sun
smell the berries in woven baskets

everyone wanted to know how much gold the other had found
swishing and shaking the gold pan
back and forth
men lay on the ground in shallow comfort like salmon
with some life left in them
full of purpose but
people speculate and await
ready to catch the gullible ones
a man named Billy Ballou
said he was making more money delivering
letters from families to their loved ones
wondering if they had hit pay dirt
a dollar per letter

he had never heard that word before
c a shhh! with a finger to one’s lips
hidden for a future use
hidden from sight
up a tree in a place so obvious
but no one was looking

standing by a sluice box
shoulders sore
one more shovel full of dirt
the sun setting
the brim of a hat pushed back
eyes squeezed shut
judging the reflection of light
is it gold?


A sluice box could have been called a tray as it was open on both ends to allow for water to travel its length at a constant rate. Riffles acted as barriers to the water flow, creating eddies that allowed heavier minerals such as gold to drift to the bottom. Riffles were spaced evenly along the length of the sluice, usually every few inches, perpendicular to the length of the sluice.

Note regarding the photograph: this photo was taken in California in the 1850s but it would have been the same type of sluice box used here in British Columbia.

To Fort George on the Cariboo Road

Imbert Orchard recorded an interview with Ivor Guest in 1964. Guest had travelled from his home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Fort George, British Columbia in 1910. Here is an excerpt of that story from “Voices of British Columbia” by Robert Budd.

“We went to Ashcroft, bought a team of horses and a wagon, put our belongings in it and started for Fort George.  We weren’t horsemen, I wasn’t. We got along about ten, twelve miles from town. One horse begin to make a funny noise. So I didn’t know what it was, and we gave him a drink of water and the further we went, the more noise he made.

Jerkline transporting freight on the Cariboo Road near Ashcroft, BC, 1909 (credit: Voices of British Columbia)










So a fella came along, McMullin, with a jerkline outfit. Jerklines were three teams and a leader. McMullin came along and I said, “Look, what’s the matter with this horse?”

“Oh,” he said, that’s old Yeller, he’s got the heaves.”

“Well, I said, what do you do for that?”

“You can’t do anything for it. Just take it easy and he’ll do alright.”

So we went along with the heave-y horse all the way through to Fort George, but all along the way there were many of these jerkline outfits. All the freight went in with horses then. We didn’t see a car, of course, no trucks, all the time we were on the way.

They had some wonderful big roadhouses on the Cariboo Road: the Hundred Mile, Ninety-Five and Hundred and Fifty, and so on. We tented out but we did stop a time or two and the teamsters they all stopped at these roadhouses and sleep and eat there. The horses were put up and fed.

We got to Quesnel, and at Quesnel they had a ferry and a fellow was running the ferry across the river; he took us over. And we started for Fort George. The road was a very, very poor road. After we crossed the Blackwater River [West Road River], the road was just slashed out through the timber. No road at all. It was pretty hard going and no feed and no place to buy any.

It was a nice spring, nice weather, and there was a little grass, but we’d have to take the horses way down someplace where we could find grass. And we finally got into South Fort George on the Fraser River; the first day of May, 1911.

Well, we had quite a time to feed the horses. I went to get oats, and oats was twelve cents a pound, and I got fifty cents worth in a little sack and gave each of the horses a feed, all there was in that. And of course, I made up my mind right then, we had to get rid of these horses.

The next day a man named Paulette came along and he said, “I’d like to trade a canoe for this horse,” he said pointing to old Yeller.

I said, “sure!”

So he brought over a canoe. “Look, nice new canoe.”

It looked good to me. And he put the canoe up on the beach and a couple of paddles and two traps.  So I said, “the horse, you know where he is.” He got the horse.

I went uptown and met a fella, Ernie Livingstone from back in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  I told him how I traded the horse.

He said, “you traded for canoe?”

I said, “yes, looks good, brand new and nice shape, everything.”

So we went down and looked. He looked at it, and the first thing he said, “I knew it was no good.”

“Well,” I said, “what’s wrong with it?”

“Well,” he said, “see that split in the bow and the split in the stern?” He said, “it’s gonna have two halves, that’ll just break right in two.”

“By golly,” I said, “I’ll fix that up. I’ll put tin on it.”

He said, “you can’t put enough tin on there to hold it. It’s gonna split.”

Sure enough, I put the canoe in the water. It came out and it just broke in two. That was about a week after I traded, it broke right in two, two pieces.

Paulette came back and he said, “that horse died.”

“Well,” I said, “you can have the canoe back.”

He said, “both stung!” and laughed.

(note: I named the horse and omitted a few paragraphs)

Mount Robson: Fraser River Headwaters

In 1865, on their way through the Yellowhead Pass area, adventurers Milton and Cheadle wrote,

“On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.”

From this peak, a tiny trickle appears.  This is the start of the Fraser River and the beginning of its journey of almost 1400 km, growing ever larger as it collects water from its tributaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Robson was named after Colin Robertson, an official for the Hudson’s Bay Company who sent a group led by Ignace Giasson in command and the blonde multilingual Iroquois, Pierre Bostonais nicknamed Tête Jaune, as their guide.  Tête Jaune means Yellow Head in French and both the pass and the current highway bear his name.

‘Yuh-hai-has-kun’ or ‘The Mountain of the Spiral Road’ was the name given Mount Robson by the Texqakallt First Nation, referring to the layered appearance of the mountain.

Mount Robson from Northeast by Lawren Harris 1929

At 3,954 meters, Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is quite a sight. At its base lies the brilliant blue Berg Lake, fed by chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier above.  The glacier has shrunk considerably since Lawren Harris made his famous painting.

John M. Sellar, one of the Overland party of gold seekers, bound for the Cariboo, who passed the peak on August 26, 1862 wrote these words in his diary:

“At 4 p.m., we passed Snow or Cloud Cap Mountain which is the highest and finest on the whole Leather Pass. It is 9000 feet above the level of the valley at its base, and the guide told us that out of twenty-nine times that he had passed it he had only seen the top once before.”