Tag Archives: Royal Engineers

The Barter

Thomas Hibben leaves San Francisco

Thomas Hibben, a stationer from San Francisco, came north for the gold rush never thinking he would be relying on his tried and true negotiating skills.

Hibben, like so many others before him, thought he would strike it rich on the banks of the Fraser River but by the time he got word of the gold rush, the steamers were packed with gold seekers. He had packed up his belongings in a hurry and dissolved his partnership in the Noisy Carriers’ Book and Stationery Company. There was no turning back.

The unfortunate thing was he had gambled every last cent on finding gold nuggets or at least some fine grains. Would his luck hold out until then? He was running out of money. He figured merchants would need experienced men like him to help get their consigned goods to the gold fields.  He told one of them about his stationery store in San Francisco and was quite surprised when he discovered that there was no such thing in Fort Victoria.

As he travelled with his pack and gold pan, Hibben made notes on the Chinook jargon and the scenery, adding places to his roughly sketched map. He might as well make the most of his trip, he figured.

At the foot of Kamloops Lake, he ran into a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee named François Savona.  He seemed like a no-nonsense man, emphasized by his downturned moustache.

“I can get you across here for two bits,” Savona said. “There are some spots farther up you can try but the best is on the other side.  The Bonaparte River I hear is good too.”

Hibben nodded.  “I’ll pay you when I arrive on the other side.”  He climbed on board the raft and held the rudder steady while Savona pulled on the cable and the raft inched its way to the other side.

Once they were safely across and Savona was catching his breath, Hibben went through his pockets. All he had were just a few American coins and a silver token he had picked up from a card game he had won.

Savona held the token by the tips of his rough fingers, and turned it over. He was apprehensive about taking it but Hibben convinced there was enough silver in there to make it worth something.

Relieved, Hibben carried on his way.  Why couldn’t he find any gold like the others?  He’d been so foolish to leave the store like that.

In due course, he encountered a bearded fellow who was sitting in a field gathering strawberries.

“This is worth more than gold,” the miner said holding up a strawberry.

Hibben popped a strawberry into his mouth and his eyebrows shot up. “This is just what I needed!  What flavour.”

“Aye, I need these bad. My legs have gone all rheumy and I’ve got gout, my feet hurt.  Too many days of hard tack, pork, and beans.  What I would do for a piece of bread!”

“That sounds dreadful. I’ll tell you what; I’ll use my frying pan and gather up some strawberries for you.”

The man sat down on the ground and Hibben, true to his word, nearly filled his frying pan with strawberries.

As the miner was listing all his aches and pains, Hibben couldn’t help but notice a cylinder shaped rock that had fallen into the long grass.

Hibben picked it up, surprised it was polished bone, and very light weight.  He could hear something rattle inside.

Elk horn purse with string of dentalium shells

“That was some elk horn trinket someone gave me.”

There was a slit in the middle, just wide enough for Hibben to insert his finger and pull out a string with unusual shaped stones on it.

“How about if I made some pancakes in exchange for this?” Hibben asked.

The miner agreed. After they were sitting around eating pancakes, Hibben asked him about the best gold panning sites. “Probably the Bonaparte, near Lacache.”

“Is that far from here?”

He took some tobacco out of a tin case and stuffed it in his cheek.

“It’ll take you a few days.  I was heading back when I ran into some of those Royal Engineers so I thought better pack it in before one of them sticks a gun up my nose and demands another licence.  Nothing like the old ’49 rush.”

Hibben cheerfully waved goodbye just as the miner started listing his aches and pains.

Over the next few days, Hibben hiked on, through the arid scrub, grateful for the food from the last miner. He was feeling cheerful and optimistic about his prospects at Lacache Creek. “Look for the big canyon,” the miner had told him.

Sure enough, in the distance, he could see large mountains.

Eventually, he came across two men who were setting up an interesting piece of equipment. Curious, Hibben stopped and asked what they were doing.

“Surveying a route from Fort Kamloops to Pavilion,” said the man with the long beard. Later he found out he was Lieutenant Mayne and the other fellow was Jean Baptiste Lolo.

They talked about telescopes and the hikes so far. Hibben told them about his adventures so far.

“Interesting.  And you say that you ran a stationery store in San Francisco? You should set one up in Fort Victoria. I can assure you that a great many of us Royal Engineers are most keen to write home on a decent piece of paper.  Speaking of which, you don’t happen to have any paper with you?”

Hibben riffled through his pack and found several pieces of paper.  He also pulled out his own map. “How much farther to Lacache Creek?”

“Baptiste? What do you think?”

Baptiste frowned as he looked at the paper and then turned it around.  “Pavilion Mountain is northwest of Lacache.  You’ll want to follow the Bonaparte River, then you’ll come to Lacache.”

As he was speaking, Hibben noticed he held the paper to a tattoo on the inside of his forearm.  It was a single line with marks at various intervals.

“It comes in handy sometimes now and then. Originally I got it when I was younger and I was counting out money.” Baptiste described in detail, small shells which were threaded onto a string. Each one was worth something.

Hibben showed him the elk horn pouch and pulled out the string of tiny shells. He watched Baptiste’s eyes light up as he measured the length of it against his tattoo.

Lieutenant Mayne inspected the shells under a magnifying glass. “If there’s anything you want to know about trade goods, our interpreter and guide, Baptiste knows everything.”

Hibben followed them along the trail for the next day, often losing sight of them as they kept up a blistering pace.  He was so used to seeing low lying sagebrush and bunch grass he didn’t really notice the trees until they rounded the corner and he was standing at the edge of a limestone canyon with bands of colour painted across its length. Tucked in at the bottom was a narrow lake. On the opposite side was a wall of green evergreens.

Baptiste shouted and gestured for Hibben to come down to their camp below. The aroma of fish edged him on down the slope.  Mayne was smoking his pipe while chopping more firewood. There was plenty of fish and large berries.  They ate and told some stories until Mayne fell asleep. Baptiste asked him some questions every now and then about the string of shells. As the last embers of the campfire had gone out Baptiste offered him a deal.

Hibben was doubtful at first but Baptiste’s enthusiasm won him over. In exchange for the shells, Baptiste would help him compile the first Chinook dictionary.


Thomas N. Hibben established the first stationery store in Victoria and in 1862 he published the “Dictionary of Indian Tongues, Containing Most of the Words and Terms Used in the Tshimpsean, Hydah, & Chinook, With Their Meaning or Equivalent in the English Language.”

Jean-Baptiste Lolo (Leolo) was an HBC employee, trader, and interpreter. Born in 1798 of Iroquois and French parents, he entered the fur trade and was listed as working at many forts around New Caledonia. He was as an unofficial liaison officer between the company and the Indians of all the interior Salish tribes. Respected by both, Lolo helped maintain the balance of power between them with remarkable dexterity. He was also given the honorific title of “Chief” by the HBC and others called him “St. Paul.” His restored house still survives as part of the Kamloops Museum.

In 1856 Lieutenant Richard Mayne was attached to the Nautical Survey of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Later, he was assigned the exploration and mapping of hitherto unknown parts of the colony. Mayne Island in the Gulf Islands is named after him. He returned to England in 1860.

Bitten at Sumas Lake

The Royal Engineers, a corps from the British Army, came to the British Colony of New Caledonia in 1857.  “Sappers” as they were commonly known, were initially responsible for establishing the international boundary between British Columbia and Washington.

Lieutenant Charles Wilson, RE (BC Archives)

June, 1858

There was chaos in the Moody household.  Mary Moody and her children had just moved from Esquimalt to New Westminster into the newly built house.  Along with all her other trunks of supplies and possessions her husband Colonel Moody had arranged for the delivery of two thousand loaves of  baked bread from Victoria.

Two thousand loaves!  It made her shake her head. What was he thinking?  Bread was meant to be eaten fresh, and besides what they really needed were buildings to house people.  As it was there were several Sappers living in brush tents between the fallen trees and stumps.

Mary did not mention her opinions on the bread loaves to her husband , but she insisted that they accommodate some of the Sappers and their families who were showing the ill effects of living in a brush tent in the rain.  It was crowded in the house as a result.

Stepping around everybody, lying on cots and on pillows on the floor, Mary was reminded of her own four-month voyage to Vancouver Island.  The close quarters were exactly like being on the ship, she mused.  After a while one became accustomed to being stuck to living in one end of the ship.  It was the first time she and the other women on board were encouraged to remove the hoops in their dresses.  Now, she was so used to being without them that she wondered how she managed to sit at all.

She went into the study and found her husband Colonel Richard Moody, sleeping with his legs hanging over the edge of the small sofa.  He opened his eyes as she pulled up a chair to the desk and sat down.

“You’re up early.”

“I am going to write a letter  to my mother.”

“That reminds me,” Richard said as he swung his legs onto the ground, “I’m expecting the arrival of the Zenith telescope.”

Within a few minutes, everyone in the household was up, including the youngest of the sleepy-eyed children and the noise of domestic activity could be heard through the front door as Charles Wilson knocked.

“Wilson,” said the Colonel, “I want you to set out to Chilukweyuk with the others.”

“Certainly, sir. What about the bread loaves that we were in the midst of unloading?”

“Never mind, gather the supplies for the group – sextants, spyglasses, chronometers and aneroids.”

Charles had breakfast with the others in the large tent outside and afterwards gathered the supplies while the others prepared the horses for travel.  Camping outdoors required a uniform of its own. Each one of the Sappers wore a soft cloth hat, a red serge shirt with pockets, a blue serge pair of trousers tied under the knee, stockings and moccasins.

They weren’t expected to reach far the first day in their travels before they set up camp.  John Keast Lord decided on a spot at which to set up the telescope and from there to examine the position of the stars.

“There is a large lake out there we’ll have to work around.”  The group was split up into groups of two or three sappers, each responsible for different tasks such as trail making and recording astronomical measurements.

Sumas Lake (panorama by Leonard Frank, 1922)

With another day’s travel, Charles and John arrived at the edge of Sumas Lake.  It was large, very large, hemmed in by mountains on one side and swampy prairie on the other.

“This must be the lake that Simon Fraser mentioned when he came down here fifty years ago,” Charles said.

He slapped a mosquito that had landed on his chin and continued preparing to make some dampers – flattened dough cakes.

John was sitting across from him, feverishly writing notes.

“I’m going to write all these things for a book,” John said.  “Just think what a valuable resource it will be, especially if our fellow countrymen should want to venture into the woods as we have done.  Take for example that frying pan you’re holding there, that is probably the most important utensil one could carry – you can cook and bake in it without ever putting your food near the fire.  Can you imagine, some people would consider baking a Damper amongst the ashes of a fire?”

Charles swatted a few more mosquitoes.  “These crazy things don’t seem to mind the smoke, do they?”

“Try puffing on a pipe, it seems to do the trick for me.”

“It’s more like they can’t penetrate your beard.”  John’s beard hung down to his chest and started somewhere just below his eyes.

John picked up a deceased mosquito, “They’re quite large and fat, unlike the ones I’ve seen before.  I should imagine they’ll be a tasty meal for someone.”

Charles had a reaction to the mosquito bites, because the next day, he wouldn’t stop scratching and his skin started to swell. Even still, more bites followed.

“Here, try rubbing some bacon grease on your face,” John said.

Charles did as he was told but still his condition did not improve. His hands were so stiff and swollen from the mosquito bites he resorted to wrapping them in wet cloths until he could move his fingers again.

While Charles was left guiding the horses around the edge of the swampy lake, John told him he was going to stay with the natives who were currently camped on platforms towards the middle of the lake.  From a distance, Charles could see the scaffolding, suspended above the lake by poles, reached by ladders. Fleets of canoes were moored to the poles.

Luckily, they had also packed gauze netting which Charles tied around his head while preparing a small dinner of pork, beans, and stale tasting bread.  He puffed on his pipe but it only seemed to make the mosquitoes more determined.  The gauze was hardly any help at all. Even his horse was showing signs of discomfort; flinching and shaking its tail.  Charles rearranged the horse’s blanket, but they hadn’t packed any salve for the horse’s wounds either and it was clear the horse was suffering.

About four o’clock the next morning, when the sky was beginning to lighten, Charles had had enough.  There was at least one mosquito in the tent and he wasn’t getting any sleep. In half an hour, he had everything packed and ready to go.  John would have to catch up later.  Frustrated and angry, he envisioned John patting his well-fed belly and nodding off to a restful sleep.

It was a relief to have some wind in his hair and as the horse trotted on, shaking its head he was filled with a sense of calm and drowsiness.  Other than heading east, he hardly knew where he was going.  Around six o’clock, he came across a native family who were sitting by the beach, eating.

His face was so swollen from the mosquito bites that it was painful to move his lips, let alone smile.  His horse was shaking in discomfort.  As soon as he dismounted, the horse headed off in a brisk trot. Charles couldn’t blame him for wanting to be rid of a company who had failed him.

A woman about the same age as his mother, got up and without saying a word, she motioned him to follow her.  There was a small hut nearby and he sat down while she mixed a pot of red powder with some grease, then using her fingertips, she lightly applied the mixture all over his face.  He closed his eyes and he felt relaxed, as the mixture was like a soothing tonic on his skin.  Then she examined his hands and repeated the process.

Afterwards, he sat down and shared their meal of freshly baked duck and some other vegetables.  In a few words, they explained he had been camped near the swamp of the lake.  They pointed to a dark cloud in the distance and he watched as the cloud came closer, changing its shape into a narrow line.  Short bursts of sound filled the air as hundreds of birds, their wings flapping slowly and with great effort, descended onto the lake.


Chilukweyuk later became known as Chilliwack. The red pot of powder was vermilion, a much traded mineral found near the confluence of the Tulameen and Similkameen rivers.

After the 1913-1916 McKenna-McBride Provincial-Federal Joint Commission on Native Lands, the reserve was reduced and Sumas Lake and surrounding area was sold in 1920 to the Soldier Settlement Board which provided farmland for returning war veterans. Sumas Lake, an area of almost 90 m2, was drained in 1922 as part of a “reclamation” project by the provincial government to provide more land for agricultural purposes.

For further reading, check out “Disappearing a Lake” which also includes photographs and audio recordings.