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.