Tag Archives: Royal Engineers

How E. B. Lytton changed the course of BC history

In 1858, gold miners swarmed to the Fraser River. It was also the year that the longstanding Palmerston government was defeated and E. B. Lytton became the Colonial Secretary, responsible for overseeing the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the past, there had been a push to settle Vancouver Island and the British Parliament had gone so far as to make it a colony, but the mainland was strictly under HBC’s monopoly. There were no settlers there and they liked it that way. As one member of parliament put it, “The Hudson’s Bay Company is by its very existence and its character the enemy of colonization” whose main purpose was to extract the resources of the land and not cater to the whims and needs of the populace.

Until 1858, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an ally in Parliament — the Colonial Secretary Henry Labouchere. That was about to change under Edward Bulwer Lytton.

E. B. Lytton - Colonial Secretary

E. B. Lytton – Colonial Secretary

The new Parliament made its mandate clear that it wanted to colonize the lands that the Hudson’s Bay Company possessed. The first step was to not renew their license which was slated for renewal May 30, 1859. In addition, the government aimed to bring into question the legality of the original Hudson’s Bay Company charter of 1670, this having been assigned to lands which were then under France’s control.

There was no instant communications in those days. It took many months for a ship to arrive with the mail and when it did reach the office of the Colonial Secretary, it took weeks on end for clerks to hand write copies for officials to read and comment on.

While he was waiting to receive an answer, Douglas made decisions as he saw fit. As the head of the HBC’s Columbia Department which oversaw New Caledonia, Douglas took it upon himself to establish mining fees and pricing controls. He also sought to uphold the Company’s monopoly and did his best to keep out the competition. To this end, he used the survey ships that were based in Esquimalt but most of the miners and merchants slipped in without notice.

Trading Rights

E. B. Lytton soon made it clear that the Company’s monopoly only went so far as exclusive trading rights with the Indigenous people and that it could not be the sole provider of provisions, even though Douglas had pointed out all the efforts they had made to accommodate the gold seekers.

Lytton also organized a contingent of Royal Engineers to come to New Caledonia to help build roads and plan towns, to be paid from the colony’s revenue. The other bit of bad news for Douglas came when he received word that Lytton wished to have future administrative appointments come from ‘home’ rather than someone from the Company.

He chose Chartres Brew to be the head of the colony’s civilian police force and Matthew Begbie, a lawyer, was selected to be the judge.

On the day that Begbie was to sail from England, E.B. Lytton boarded the ship to personally hand over the documents to establish the new colony of British Columbia and the appointments of James Douglas as Governor, and Begbie as its Judge. Each document had been signed by Queen Victoria.

British Columbia

Begbie arrived at Esquimalt November 16, 1858. Three days later, on November 19, 1858 the swearing in ceremony and declaration of British Columbia took place at Fort Langley. This marked the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control of New Caledonia.

The following year, Lord Palmerston’s government returned and Lytton was replaced by the Duke of Newcastle as Colonial Secretary.

Although the legality of HBC’s charter wasn’t settled for another 10 years, E. B. Lytton did succeed in terminating their monopoly of New Caledonia and establishing British Columbia.

Had Labouchere still been the Colonial Secretary when the gold rush broke out, things could have turned out much differently.

Ship stories: how passengers travelled to BC in the gold rush

How did most people come to British Columbia during the gold rush? They came by ship.

Tynemouth 1862

In 1862, Charles Redfern, a passenger on the Tynemouth wrote about some of the problems on board the 1500 ton steamship. They ran into a storm not long after they left England which saw  a cow and several pigs get washed overboard by a big wave. Then the coal passers who had been complaining of bad conditions stopped working altogether. The ship’s captain put them in irons and instructed the travellers to fuel the engines. For an entire month, the male passengers took turns filling wheelbarrows with coal, pushing them to the bunkers while another mutiny erupted and more were put in irons. By this time the ship was in the South Pacific with good trade winds. The steam was shut off and volunteers were called to man the sails.

Just before the ship sailed into the Falkland Islands, she ran into another storm and several large stacks of railway ties and iron tanks broke free of their moorings.

The Tynemouth docked at Esquimalt on September 17, 1862.

Passenger Contract

Everyone on board the Tynemouth was given a ‘passenger contract’ which said that each passenger would be given three quarts of water daily and a weekly allowance of provisions:

5 ¼ lb. Biscuit
½ lb. Soup
1 lb. Preserved Meat
1 ½ lb. Indian beef
½ lb. Preserved & Salt Fish
2 lb. Flour
1 lb. Oatmeal
6 oz. Suet
½ lb. Rice
½ lb. Raisins & Currants
2/3 pint Peas
½ lb. Preserved Potato
1 lb. Raw sugar
1 3/4 lb. Tea
3 ½ lb. Coffee
6 oz. butter
2 oz. salt
½ oz. mustard
¼ oz. pepper
1 gill vinegar*
6 oz. lime juice
21 qts. water

“When Fresh Beef is issued, 1 lb. to each Adult per day will be allowed; there will be no Flour, Raisins, Peas, Suet or Vinegar, during the issue of Fresh Meat. 1 lb. of Fresh Potatoes may be substituted for ¼ lb. Preserved Potatoes.”

Third class passengers were given rations and they were expected to prepare their own meals. They were allowed to cook their meal in the galley. The cook supplied hot water for tea, coffee, or drinking purposes.

Thames City 1858

The clipper ship, Thames City, carried 118 Sappers (Royal Engineers), 31 women and 34 children on board. The Thames City had a better voyage (no mutinies and no one in irons) but it was still arduous. This group of Royal Engineers and their families left England on October 10, 1858 and arrived in Esquimalt via Cape Horn on April 12, 1859 after a voyage lasting 187 days. They formed a band and held plays on board. They also brought with them a printing press used to produce a weekly publication, “The Emigrant Soldier’s Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle” read aloud each Saturday evening.

The final edition of the Gazette included a “Farewell Ditty” that described conditions on board:

Farewell thick biscuits and thin pea soup,
Farewell the suet, grog, and junk,
One was weak, the other stunk.
Farewell to the hen coop, and lonely duck,
Farewell to Longboat Square and muck,
Farewell to Laundry Lane and Galleys,
We’ll cook our grub in glades and valleys…

Farewell to hammocks, farewell to the clews,
Farewell to the would-be Irish stews,
Farewell to the cockroaches and thieving cats,
And a long farewell to those horrible rats.


Note: a “gill” (pronounced jill) is a quarter of a pint. See my post on grog (a mixture of rum and water). “Junk” refers to salt beef or meat. “Clews” are the cords by which hammocks are suspended.

How the gold rush town of Richfield nearly became Elwyntown

It was bitterly cold in the winter of 1861 and William ‘Dutch Bill’ Dietz only had time to stake a claim at an unnamed creek before being forced to turn back. He named the creek after himself as a way of marking the claim. Sensing that Dutch Bill had found something big, Ned Stout and three others travelled by snowshoe to ‘William’s Creek’ and they too found gold.

Word soon got out and by the first week of March 1862 many more prospectors soon arrived at Williams Creek. They built shafts on the hillsides and as the ice retreated from the creek itself, it became possible for all claims to be worked. Shacks and business establishments were built close by and a town emerged with stores, restaurants and saloons.

Assistant Gold Commissioner Nind based in Williams Lake was overworked with covering the entire Cariboo district as more mining claims were being registered and disputes needed to be resolved. Nind’s health began to suffer and he requested a leave of absence in early May.

Thomas Elwyn

Thomas Elwyn, the former magistrate for Lillooet, was named Nind’s replacement and upon seeing the amount of work to be done, recommended that the Cariboo be divided into two districts. Peter O’Reilly was assigned the western district while Elwyn was appointed head of the eastern section which included the area of Williams Creek.

By the end of May, 1862 more than twenty businesses were established to serve the needs of the prospectors who numbered over five hundred. Soon though, the deplorable state of the trails made it nearly impossible to bring supplies.

High food prices proved to be too much of a hardship for many miners who had arrived with a small amount of provisions on their backs and little money. Many left the Cariboo altogether.

Those miners who pooled their resources were able to stay and reap the profits of their claims. In one month, Cunningham & Company took out gold at the rate of three thousand dollars every twenty-four hours. Steele & Company’s claims yielded two hundred ounces a day.

On the last day of August, Judge Begbie arrived and the first Grand Jury was assembled in the newly constructed courthouse. Among the topics discussed was a name for the town.  The jury recommended it be called ‘Elwyntown’ after Thomas Elwyn.

‘Elwyntown’ didn’t make it on the map. Instead, Lieutenant Palmer, in his role as Deputy Commissioner of Lands and Works, decided upon the name Richfield.

Richfield retained its significance even as Barkerville grew and the neighbouring towns of Cameronton and Marysville were established in 1863 and 1864.

Richfield

Richfield

Shaving Saloons and Beards of the BC Gold Rush

tufts2

tufts were commonly worn before 1850

By the mid-1850s, beards were popular. In 1857, a journalist strolled through Boston’s streets, conducting a statistical survey: of the 543 men he tallied, no fewer than 338 had full, bushy beards, while nearly all the rest sported lesser facial hair of various sorts. Only four were “men of the old school, smooth shaven, with the exception of slight tufted promontories jutting down from either ear.”

Doctors encouraged men to grow beards as a means of warding off illness, especially sore throats. It was believed that a thick beard would capture the impurities in the air before they could get inside the body.

Many different styles of beards were seen – flowing beards, stubby beards – as well as many types of moustaches.

In 1858 the South Australian Advertiser printed: “Some men wear beards, whiskers and moustaches; others shave the whiskers and beard and leave the moustache; whilst others preserve the moustache and part of the beard but eschew whiskers!”

beard1

a beard style of the mid 1800s

The word ‘whiskers’ typically referred not only to bushy cheek growths—to massive sideburns and muttonchops, but also to a ‘wreath beard’ or ‘chin-strap beard’. Check out my portrait of packer Joel Palmer. In the mid 1860s many men imitated the look of the Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, known for his ‘mutton chop’ style, where whiskers broadened across the cheeks and met in a moustache. Thomas Hibben wore this style of mutton chop. Another style known as ‘Piccadilly Weepers’ – very long, comb-able, pendant whiskers – came into being in the 1860s.

The Royal Engineers who came to British Columbia in 1858 all had long full beards. Many of the gold miners probably didn’t have time to trim their beards either.

From an article printed in the British Colonist “A miner’s experience on the Pacific Slope” Thomas Seward recalled the summer of 1858 when he was digging for gold on the Fraser River:

Our life at this period was so monotonous it is hardly worth describing, one day exactly resembling another. Rising with the sun and cooking our breakfast of beans, boiled over night, making our bread of water and flour in our gold pans, frying, perhaps, a salmon or slice of bacon…Dinner at twelve showed no change of bill of fare, and supper followed in its footsteps with striking fidelity. The life was a hard one, certainly, but I was not unused to it, and as a pretty energetic worker, rocking out sometimes as many as 400 buckets in a day…

On April 21, 1859, it was reported that Queenborough (which later became known as New Westminster) consisted of two wharves, fifteen houses, two restaurants, two bakers, a grocer, and a barbershop.

Some later advertised ‘shaving saloons’. Here is an ad from a Halifax newspaper in 1860:

shavingsaloon

Fred Paine on Johnson Street (four doors down from Wharf Street) advertised himself as one of the first to shave and cut hair in Victoria. His advertisement which was printed in the British Colonist in 1863 gives his prices which Americans would have been familiar with – 2 bits meant 25 cents and 1 bit was 12.5 cents (12 cents and one half penny).

Cutting Hair…. 2 bits
Shaving…. 1 bit
Shampooing….1 bit
Dressing…..2 bits

Bread making in the Gold Rush

In the 1850s, bread making was a topic of serious discussion in England. People were encouraged to learn how to make their own bread at home rather than pay expensive prices for ‘unwholesome bread’ that could be tainted. By the time of the gold rush, the art of domestic bread making had become easier because of the use of saleterus, which allowed the bread to rise. Saleratus was a leavening agent for baking and was made by injecting pearl ash into the fumes of fermenting molasses. The first formulas for baking powder were developed in the United States in 1850. In that year a cream of tartar baking powder was sold by Preston & Merrill of Boston as “infallible yeast powder.”Bread

In his book, “At Home in the Wilderness” Royal Engineer John Keast Lord wrote that the most important items to take into the wilderness were a wrought-iron camp kettle and a dutch oven. “Flour is very much more easily conveyed on mule-back than ‘hard bread’ or biscuit…whereas biscuit rapidly mildews if damped…” The workers on the survey crew soon learned to make “capital loaves” in small cast-iron ovens with a ration of Preston and Merrill’s Infallible Yeast Powder for rising bread.

A miner who could make a good loaf of bread could easily barter with it when Sunday arrived – a day normally set aside for domestic chores. Miners would wash dirty shirts, darn stockings, repair boots, mend clothing, chop the whole week’s firewood, make and bake bread and boil pork and beans.

Sourdough bread was a favourite food of American gold miners, some of whom carried sourdough starter wherever they travelled, so as to be assured of good bread later on. Sourdough bread had been very popular amongst gold seekers during the California gold rush and the term ‘sourdough’ became associated with the ‘49ers themselves.

At the start of the gold rush, sacks of flour were carried in on the backs of mules or on the backs of gold miners. Some bakeries like the Miners’ Bakery and Restaurant in Barkerville offered an arrangement where miners would drop off flour in exchange for bread. In addition, miners could buy tickets for meals, lunches, pies or cakes.

Most flour was imported from California, but there were exceptions. F.W. Foster milled flour at Lillooet. He advertised flour of all grades: Extra, Superfine and Fine.

Robert Harkness, Overlander, wrote from Richfield June 10, 1863:

“You must pay well for everything here. Flour is $1.12 a pound. This is at the rate of $225 per barrel… Wages are ten dollars a day, out of which you must, of course, board yourself. We live on bread, beans and bacon, with an occasional mess of very tough beef (.50 a pound) and manage to subsist on three to four dollars a day each…I worked pretty hard today carrying stones to a man building a chimney…”

The price of flour dropped considerably with the construction of the Cariboo Road. Still, there were times when it crept up again and this had an effect on the local economy.

On October 17, 1867, the Cariboo Sentinel reported: “Rise in Flour. We understand great apprehensions are being felt by our miners that provisions and especially flour are about to be raised to an unusually high price…” Consequently, many left the Cariboo.

G.B. Wright: Cariboo Wagon Road builder

G.B. Wright

G.B. Wright

Gustavus Blinn Wright (1830-1898) was a prominent figure during both the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush. After spending several years in California, Wright came to BC in 1858, just as the Fraser River gold rush was starting.

He realized from the onset that there was more to be made transporting miners and supplies. He started off as a packer, transporting goods along the Harrison-Lillooet trail. In 1861 he joined Jonathan Holten Scott and Uriah Nelson in purchasing shares in the sternwheeler Maggie Lauder (rechristened Union later that year). Wright and Scott also bought shares in the Flying Dutchman in 1862 to increase further the capacity of their transportation companies.

Wright was one of three contractors who were awarded contracts to build the Cariboo Wagon Road as planned by the Royal Engineers. Wright was assigned to build an 18 foot wide trail from Lillooet to Alexandria. He attempted to have the road built to Soda Creek where he launched the Enterprise, the first sternwheeler on the upper Fraser River.

What did the Royal Engineers eat?

Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer, chef and inventor

Alexis Benoist Soyer was a French chef who believed that soldiers could be saved through good food. He invented a field stove which he took around to every regiment he visited in the Crimean War. It’s no wonder then, that the British Army adapted his recipes and his field stove.

When the Royal Engineers came to British Columbia to chart the boundary, they were well prepared. Soyer’s recipes included “Salt Meat for 50 men” and “Soyer’s Food for 100 men, using two stoves”. This worked when they were stationed at Fort Victoria and later as they surveyed New Westminster.

It was a different story when they were out in the bush surveying a road to the Cariboo:

“our fare consisted almost exclusively of bacon and dampers, with tea and coffee. Now and then we might be lucky enough to shoot a grouse.”

Dampers were “cakes of dough rolled out to the size of a plate and one or two inches thick. They are cooked either by being baked in the wood ashes of the fire, or fried in the pan with bacon fat.”

Here is a recipe I found for dampers:

2 cups self-raising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk

Add salt to flour, add sugar, then rub in butter. Mix in milk to make a medium-soft dough. Knead lightly on flat surface until smooth. Pat into a round shape. Place damper mixture on coals or hot ash. Cook for maximum of 40 minutes. Discard burnt outside and eat the inside. Serve with butter, syrup or jam.