Notice for Public Meeting (Cariboo Sentinel newspaper, 1866)
Two miners, Miles and Frederick, entered the office of the Gold Commissioner in Richfield and sat down opposite William Cox, Assistant Gold Commissioner.
“Begbie overturned the jury’s decision,” Miles said bitterly. “If he had gone with their decision at least we would get half, now who knows?”
William Cox nodded, “so I heard.” They were a rough and ragged bunch but Cox respected them; he never questioned their intelligence or their qualities as being less than his own.
“Your paperwork is still here. I agreed with you in the beginning and I still do now. But with this new Gold Act, I don’t have the authority to bring some common sense resolution,” Cox said.
“Begbie said he will hold a trial next Tuesday to make his decision and I can hardly think it will be in our favour. We expected that the law would protect our interests, after all we were the ones who recorded our claim and paid all our dues and obligations. Doesn’t that account for anything?” Frederick said.
“We’ve invested all our money, plus we still owe money to Macdonald Bank, not to mention the labour. I can’t believe that all our work is going to be tossed out,” Miles said.
“You could try appealing it in Chancery court,” Cox said, trying to sound hopeful.
“How is a miner supposed to operate in the Cariboo when the odds are stacked against him? This is the third time that Borealis has done this dirty trick – coming in as soon as someone hits bedrock, they file a complaint in court saying that they recorded something somewhere,” Frederick said.
Cox agreed. Disputed claims were a common occurrence in the Cariboo. In the first year, there was enough gold to fill your pan even if someone else came alongside. Eventually, though the obvious nuggets got plucked and miners had to work harder to get the same results.
Assistant gold commissioner, William Cox, reminisced about the days early on in the gold rush when he could resolve mining disputes in simple terms like the time he got the miners to run from the Richfield courthouse to the disputed claim – winner take all.
Now they had Judge Begbie to overrule anything that was decided in the Mining Courts. When Cox had first arrived in the Colony, there was the Court of British Columbia, then it became the Supreme Court of Civil Justice of British Columbia which oversaw all civil and criminal cases. Small Debts Courts came later and then sprouted up County Courts and Chancery Court.
Judge Begbie was well-educated but he had never sat before in a court room when he was appointed the Chief Justice of British Columbia. Cox had heard rumours that Begbie was a distant cousin of Governor Douglas; nothing would surprise him there. Most of Douglas’ inner circle was related in one way or another.
The day after Begbie overturned the jury’s decision in the case of Borealis vs. Frederick & Company, six hundred miners and residents gathered in front of the Richfield courthouse to discuss the administration of the Colony’s mining laws. Some of the miners were among those who had been involved in the gold rush in California and many were familiar with the style of these miner meetings where their resolutions were in effect the first types of laws for miners.
Speakers stood on the steps and the others in the audience let them know their opinion.
“Judge Begbie set aside the jury’s decision and by doing so he is telling each one of you that you don’t have the intelligence or the common sense to judge your peers! We want justice but we want it done impartially.”
“The law has destroyed confidence and is driving out labour, capital and enterprise out of the Colony!”
“There is no way that someone can get a proper redress in a court system without an appeal process. We need a Court of Appeal! Judge Begbie is partial and dictatorial. He can’t be allowed to have the final say!”
The crowd carried on for several hours until they came up with a couple of resolutions included among them that they wanted a Court of Appeal to be established.
Matthew Baillie Begbie would rather ride his horse along the Cariboo Waggon Road all the way to Lillooet than suffer through the slow ride of the stagecoach, which in his opinion was far too slow and cumbersome. There were certain things that he carried at all times and this included his robes and a bible necessary for swearing someone before his impromptu court which could occur anywhere, wherever he felt it was necessary. His luggage, reference books, papers and the court seals followed behind in the stagecoach, usually arriving about two or three hours later.
At Bridge River, stagecoach driver Billy was easing the horses along the narrow, precipitous trail when his eye caught some movement just beyond a rock bluff ahead.
Two men stood in the path, blocking the horses.
Pulling the reins, Billy brought the horses to a halt. Everything was silent except for the sound of rushing water below.
“What do you want?” Billy yelled out gruffly. “Nothing here!” he shouted as he pulled out his musket and levelled it at them.
“We need to talk to you.” One of them replied as they kept walking towards the horses.
Billy cocked his gun. He knew he couldn’t shoot without spooking the horses, but if he got down from his seat, they could overtake him and leave him stranded or worse.
Judge Begbie stood outside the back of the court house wearing his judicial robes. Where was his stagecoach? Luckily he had read the particulars of the case the night before so his memory was still fresh, but there were no notes to reference once he got started.
Everyone rose as Begbie entered the room, carrying with him some blank sheets of paper on which to make notes. He sat down and banged the gavel, “Gavan Company vs. Tiller Company” was in session.
There were five people in the court room, including a lawyer who rose on behalf of Gavan Company, whom he recognised from Victoria.
Of all the cases, this one had to include a lawyer, he mused.
The lawyer blustered on for almost half an hour without referencing a single piece of evidence for which Begbie was grateful while the frowns on the faces of the miners representing themselves stretched downward with every passing minute.
While Begbie managed to scratch out some notes with the small pot of ink that was thick like molasses, one of the miners approached the stand.
The miner who called himself ‘Lightning’ Frank Underhill, passed along various sheets of paper, several of which had been filed by the Assistant Gold Commissioner, William Cox.
Begbie looked at the names on the claim. “Who is ‘Tinker’ Brown? I think that Mr. Cox should have put your proper names on the form, rather than your nicknames. I award the disputed claim to Gavan Company.”
The lawyer bowed slightly as Begbie banged the gavel, announcing the court was adjourned.
Afterward, Begbie sent a messenger from Barnard’s Express with the papers. “Instruct Mr. Cox to affix his seal to this judgement.”
Leaving in a cloud of dust, the messenger rode the horse at a fast clip all the way to Richfield.
William Cox refused and handed back the paper. “Judge Begbie will have to find his own seals. Why would I use my own seals to give credence to this ruling when it overrides my own recording? I object.”
With that, the messenger was on his way back.
(to be continued)