Peter O’Reilly, Revenue Officer and Gold Commissioner arrived on horseback at the river they called “Rock Creek” along the southern border of British Columbia, colony of Britain. He had been sent on the premise to collect the $5 mining licences the Governor had imposed and record the claims.
The first day, he set up his tent and approached a cluster of men squatting by the river, shaking their gold pans.
“You are on British territory and everyone here is required to pay a fee of $5.”
Some miners regarded him with surly stares while others balked at his request for money.
“Who says we’re on British soil? I don’t see anything around here to tell me,” one of the miners said. “You’re a spy!”
“You’re above the 49th parallel and no I am not a spy, I’m a Revenue Officer.”
“This here bar was discovered by American soldiers and they claimed it in the name of the United States!”
A loud cheer went up and several fired pistols into the air, causing his horse to jostle him.
A few short miles down the winding river, he came upon another group of miners who reluctantly paid their due.
“Why must we pay $5 when we don’t have the same privileges as those other miners who claim that since they are American, they have first priority?”
“Every miner that pays the fee is entitled to work a claim wherever he so wishes. You are on British soil and no one miner is distinguished from another,” O’Reilly said.
The man extended his hand and O’Reilly shook it.
In the course of the day, O’Reilly tallied almost five hundred men, hunkered down over their gold pans and rockers, ignoring his request for payment.
He stopped at each of the four trading posts and noted the following:
Beef – 15 cents per lb.
Flour – $25 per container
Beans – 30 cents per lb
Sugar – 50 cents per lb
Milk was cheap and plentiful.
Judging by the prices and the sales, O’Reilly concluded that these were indeed profitable diggings. None of them admitted to selling liquor. Curiously, not one of them sold mining tools either.
“Fort Colville,” one of them said when he asked where the supplies originated.
Later that evening, O’Reilly returned to his camp only to discover that someone had been riffling through his belongings. Unnerved, O’Reilly settled on a rock nearby and started making notes.
He drew a brief sketch of the river and made marks where he noticed the various camps set up. Out of all the people he had spoken to, he only had $30. It certainly wasn’t enough to convince his superiors that he was doing his job.
Two bars in particular, “Soldiers’ bar” and “Denver bar” were yielding a lot of gold. Even from a distance, O’Reilly observed the miners gathering the lemon coloured lightn1ngs. He watched them carry their load back south.
Part of the problem lay with the territory itself. Rock Creek hovered just a few miles above the boundary with the United States. There was no impediment to someone scampering over the invisible line to Fort Colville some seventy miles away. It was just undulating hills and grassy prairie watched over by horses and cattle.
O’Reilly was starting to eat some dinner when he heard raucus shouting and yelling. As night fell, the boisterous activity continued. It was evident that alcohol was fuelling the miners’ conversation and he heard gunshots in the distance. O’Reilly slept in fits and starts with his pistol at his side.
When he awoke in the morning, he noted with some relief that it was very quiet. Perhaps everyone was still asleep or had already snuck off to the river to try their luck again. As he cautiously poked his head out of the tent, he saw a body. As he walked towards it he came to the realization that it was the man with whom he had shook hands with the previous day.
The Rock Creek War had begun.
(to be continued)