Before the Fraser River gold rush got off to a flying start in 1858, Nlaka’pamux who lived by the Thompson River were bringing gold nuggets and gold dust to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Kamloops.
When news reached Fort Victoria, the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to send them some spoons. What did the spoons look like? What were they made of? For many years, this remained a mystery to me.
The other mystery which has perplexed me for years was the paintings by William Hind which show miners wearing a object tucked into their sash next to a mug.
In the course of digging up information for this blog post on gold pans, these two mysteries have been solved.
In the early days of the California gold rush, prospectors used ‘spoons’ made from cattle horns that were steamed and pressed to allow a person to use them as a scoop. The juvenile fiction book, “By the Great Horn Spoon” describes a horn spoon as half a bullock horn, from 6 to 8 inches long and up to 3 inches wide.
This was copied and revised by the Natives further north who used the horns of mountain goats and shaped them into a shape that resembled a pinched frying pan.
So when the Hudson’s Bay Company met in Fort Victoria and talked of sending more ‘spoons’ to Fort Kamloops which the Natives to use for gold panning – they were referring to iron ‘spoons’ forged by their blacksmith.
The blacksmith forged ‘spoon’ could have been similar to the type of one that was sent by the HBC to their fort.
Another example of an iron spoon is one that was typically used in the 19th century. Some people referred to it as a tasting spoon or a ladle. It was often found in pioneer cabins near the hearth and what could be more handier?
Consider this description of a Californian miner from G.A. Fleming’s book “California, its past history, its present position and future prospects” published in 1850:
“Occasionally, he dug the dust out of crevices with his long iron spoon and trowel, and found eight or nine dollars’ worth in a place not larger than one’s finger…a sheath-knife…was always worn in the belt used instead of suspenders, and to which was often attached that very useful article in the “diggings,” a long iron spoon, employed both to cook and mine with…”
Now, look at William Hind’s painting titled “Miner, Rocky Mountains” and you will see what definitely looks like an iron spoon tucked into his belt.
Gold pans are the most basic of mining equipment and there are almost as many types of gold pans as hats.
For thousands of years, people in South America have used a cone-shaped wooden bowl called a batea to wash the gravel. They vary in size but typically are wider than American-style gold pans and because of the wood, fine grains of gold are easily captured by it.
The batea is challenging to work with, but the idea of taking in a larger amount of gravel at a time soon caught on. The early gold pans were simply known as ‘washing pans’ because that is what a prospector did with them – they would gather up some gravel and water and swirl it around, literally washing the gravel.
Tinsmiths made gold pans that were tapered at the bottom like this one.
Inspired by the size of the batea, people starting making gold pans of a bigger size. The one I drew is based on a 19th century gold pan measuring 55 cm by 12.5 cm. The gold pans were made from steel. Oil was added in the manufacturing process to prevent the pan from rusting.
In the 1860s, Dickson, Campbell & Co. made galvanized steel “gold washing machines, different sizes” in Victoria at the corner of Johnson and Wharf Streets.
Many prospectors took their new ‘gold washing machine’ otherwise known as a gold pan and cured it over a campfire. This did two things – remove any oils which would cause fine gold to float out of the pan and also give the pan a bluish tinge which provided a greater contrast when gold appeared.