General Joel Palmer: gold rush trader and packer

General Joel Palmer

General Joel Palmer – gold rush trader and packer

General Joel Palmer was famous for guiding wagon trains along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, and later for his role as Indian Superintendent in Oregon. Perhaps one of his most important contributions to Canadian history is the role he played as one of the earliest American traders and packers in the Cariboo from 1858 to 1861.

Palmer was born on October 4, 1810 in Canada West (Ontario) to an American family who moved back to the United States after war broke out in 1812. As a child, Palmer lived in New York, Pennsylvania and later Indiana.

In 1845, Palmer travelled from Indiana to the Willamette Valley to find out if the area was suitable for permanent settlement. While on his trip, Palmer kept a detailed diary which he later published as a guide for emigrants.

In 1858, as soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush, Palmer took a wagon train from Priest Rapids north through Oregon and Washington to the gold diggings of Okanagan, Similkameen, Rock Creek, and Upper Columbia River to the Fraser River via the HBC brigade route all the way to Fort Thompson (Kamloops).

Where there were miners, meat was sure to follow. The following year he made two trips, one to the Fraser River, and the second to Fort Alexandria.  In the early spring of 1860, Palmer set about equipping more pack trains for a return to Fort Alexandria, contracting for 37,660 pounds of freight and hiring 14 men to help with the packing at $40 a month.

This endeavour is all the more impressive when one considers that this trip took place several years before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built. In June 1860, Palmer took cattle and several small pack trains from Mud Lake to Quesnel Forks, over “the worst trail possible to conceive” and stopped at Beaver Valley where they spent one afternoon cutting out logs and detours. Palmer and his men had to walk the last ten miles to the South Fork River to spare their horses.

Only miners who were finding large amounts of gold could afford the high cost of provisions. At Quesnel Forks, Palmer set the rate for flour at 55 cents a pound but other merchants undercut his price to 35 cents. Despite this, Palmer still made a good profit.  During July and August, Palmer took 62 pack mules to Lillooet for more merchandise.  He returned to Quesnel Forks in mid-September when he sold out to business partners David Kelley and W.H. Wright for $4,249.65.

Palmer returned via Lillooet, New Westminster and took a steamship from Victoria to his home in Oregon to prepare for another trip to the Cariboo. He continued to bring pack trains north for a few more years until 1862.