Category Archives: BC Natural History

BC natural history

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory

After weeks of paddling and rock climbing down the Fraser River, Simon Fraser reached Musqueam territory. Musqueam means People of the River Grass. The grass (pronounced m-uh-th-kwi) was found at the mouth of the Fraser River. At the bottom panel (A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush) you can see some of this river grass. Simon Fraser passed by the impressive longhouses painted with designs in black, red ochre, and white.

Most likely, Simon Fraser passed by c̓əsnaʔəm (ts-suss-naam) the largest Musqueam village that dates back about 5,000 years.

One can almost imagine the shouts of relief and joy (and the occasional musket blast) as the crew finally reached what they had hoped would be the mouth of the Columbia River. But, their joy was short-lived when Simon Fraser realized, according to his compass, that they were much further north. In fact, they had reached the Strait of Georgia. Simon Fraser didn’t realize that they weren’t far from the open ocean.

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory

Simon Fraser reaches Musqueam territory (A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush)

Food of the Fraser Canyon: Salmon Oil and Saskatoon Berries

During their epic journey in 1808, Simon Fraser and his Northwest Company crew were treated to the food of the Fraser Canyon,  including salmon oil and salmon eggs.

Salmon was a major source of fats and oils. How did they extract the salmon oil? This was done by pounding out a rock to form a large hollow. Next, the hollow was heated with hot rocks from a fire. When the hollow was hot enough to boil water, the rocks were removed and replaced with salmon heads. The salmon heads boiled there for a day and then it was allowed to cool down. A yellowish layer formed on top, similar to cream on a milk pan. This was skimmed off. Below that was the salmon oil which was then scooped into salmon skin bottles. All the bones that were left were soft enough to chew. The oil was stored for winter use.

Children would snack on the soft salmon bones from the hole after they had been cooked down.

Simon Fraser also enjoyed salmon eggs, which was considered a delicacy. People buried salmon eggs in the ground in birch bark baskets. They were kept in the ground until early Spring after the ground had thawed. These were often served with dried Saskatoon berries, noted for their sweet flavour.

Dried salmon was sometimes stored in underground cache pits. These cache pits were dug within their winter homes (dome shaped structures with roof entrances) and lined with grass and pine needles. In other places, dried salmon was kept in wooden boxes on raised platforms or in a tree. The boxes had spaces to allow for the wind to circulate around the fish.

Here is a page from my graphic novel in progress: A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush:

Food of the Fraser Canyon

Food of the Fraser Canyon – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

The North West Company and the route to gold

The name ‘Fraser’s River’ or ‘Frazer’s River’ would be tied to the gold rush that changed the course of British Columbia history, repeated in bold headlines from California to Australia.

What’s in a name?

Simon Fraser - North West Company explorer

Simon Fraser – North West Company explorer

One day while farming in Upper Canada, Simon Fraser was told that there were thousands of foolhardy goldseekers trying to make their way up the same river he had explored fifty years earlier in 1808.

Back then, Simon Fraser was an explorer with the North West Company; the first fur trade company to establish forts west of the Rockies. Fraser named this vast area New Caledonia. He established Fort George in 1807 (present day Prince George).

Simon Fraser was determined to find a river route to Oregon. The Dakelh told him that the wide river that flowed by the fort, Ltha-Koh-Cho, emptied into the coast. Could this river be the Columbia River?

This river becomes too treacherous to paddle the whole way, the Natives told him. There were easier alternative routes to the coast.

After the ice melted and the ground had thawed in May 1808, Simon Fraser and two Native guides, 19 voyageurs and 2 clerks set out on their journey.

Simon Fraser concluded the Natives had been right after all. This river was not a good way to travel! Fraser returned to Fort George after the nail-biting trip with a diary full of stories of climbing sheer bluffs, hanging onto rock walls with bare hands and abandoning their canoes. At one point the voyageurs, exhausted, injured and disheartened, turned mutinous. Fraser talked them out of it.

Later, his friend David Thompson named the river after Fraser.

Note: My drawing is an interpretation of what Simon Fraser looked like during his journey back to Fort George. According to Kwantlen oral history, the fur traders were a bearded, ‘fierce-looking’ lot.

Bitterroot – plant of the Fraser River gold rush

Before the Fraser River gold rush, bitterroot was an important food staple for the indigenous people of the Sheowk’tm (Thompson River). The people of the Thompson River, known as Nlaka’pamux, valued this versatile plant for its roots.

Bitterroot - illustration by Mary E. Eaton

Bitterroot – illustration by Mary E. Eaton

The roots could be eaten raw or cooked, alone or in a mixed dish; they were even steeped as a tea. If the roots were cured for storage, either before or after cooking, it was only a matter of soaking them for a few minutes in warm water to reconstitute and tenderise them before consumption.

Fresh roots were consumed raw or lightly steamed while the dried roots were usually boiled to be eaten alone or added to a variety of souplike stews of which salmon eggs were a common ingredient. As in traditional times, along with other root food vegetables, a favourite but occasional method of cooking bitterroot is to steam it in underground pit ovens.

Bitterroot was also prepared in bannock and dumplings. Their basic recipe called for water, flour, salt and or sugar with any combination of bitterroot, saskatoon berries or other available berry ingredients.

Bunchgrass: plant of the BC gold rush

Bunchgrass - plant of the BC gold rush

Bunchgrass – plant of the BC gold rush

Were it not for the bunchgrass, the cattle drives to the Cariboo during the BC gold rush would not have been possible.

Cattle fed on wild bunchgrass that was plentiful from Washington State, through the Okanagan, and along the river valleys of the Nicola, the Fraser and the Thompson River.

The first cattle drives, following old Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigade trails, found the bunchgrass to be plentiful. From the onset of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858 and the years following, packers such as General Joel Palmer came to rely on the nutritious grain to sustain the cattle all the way to the gold diggings in the Cariboo.

The problem started to arise as more and more ranchers realized the need to protect grazing areas. It became necessary to move the cattle from one area to another in order that the grass could replenish itself. Unfortunately, cattle drives with a thousand cattle and five hundred sheep could demolish in an instant, what these farmers had set aside for their winter feed.

The Cornwall brothers of Ashcroft fenced off a large area of grassland for their own use. In addition, they applied to lease all of the Hat Creek Valley in 1865. Only a small portion was granted, as Barnard’s Express made it known it would need the grasslands for their horses.

The grasslands on the east bank of the Fraser River between Big Bar and the Chilcotin River junction became a hotly contested area. Ranchers preempted land there while at the same time it was being used by cattle drovers.

At first it was thought that this was an inconvenience, but small farmers were being put out of business and they blamed cattle ranchers and drovers Jerome and Thaddeus Harper. The Harper brothers, originally from Virginia, made their fortune in the meat business in the California gold rush. The Harpers drove herds of cattle north from Washington and wintered them in Osoyoos. Later, they leased Crown land and bought a ranch near Kamloops. They also entered into a partnership with the Van Volkenburgh butchers in Barkerville.

George Walkem, an elected member of the Legislative Council for Cariboo East, sent a petition in May 1869 to the Colonial Secretary for Governor Seymour on behalf of farmers of the Lillooet district.

“Bunch-grass, as your Excellency is aware, is the only grass indigenous to the soil, and as—unlike most other grasses—it springs from seed and not from a permanent root, preservation becomes a necessity…The grass once eaten off in the summer time is forever destroyed…” He went on to explain that the ranchers were careful where their livestock grazed, leaving a strip for winter feed. “The grass on this strip has thus an opportunity of ripening and in this manner, a continuous crop is ensured from the fallen seed; while the dry bunches form an excellent substitute for hay and food for the cattle when driven by frost and snow from the higher altitudes. This strip forms the only resource of the stock raiser in the winter time, and in the event of its destruction as a grazing ground, your Petitioners will undoubtedly be compelled to abandon this very important branch of farming.”

“A large area of the strip was destroyed last year by large bands of sheep and cattle of passing drovers, who selected this spot for fattening their animals, regardless of the destruction of the grass; and this year larger bands now driven upon it threaten to reduce the whole strip of…the once fertile plains of Lillooet.”

In a private letter to the Colonial Secretary, Walkem spoke of the Harpers vast wealth, estimated to be at $200,000. Walkem also wrote that the Harpers were crushing “both open opposition and indirect competition. Hence, he temporarily benefits himself by destroying the Fraser River grass, while he permanently crushes and ruins the farmers on that river.”

The farmers continued to file grievances to the government the following year. Nothing changed until the health of Jerome Harper began to decline and he left for California where he died in 1874. He left most of his estate to his brother Thaddeus who went through the money in a few short years.

Chopaka: Soapstone Pipes

Soapstone Pipe

“Chopaka” – Soapstone Pipe

In the Similkameen Valley, before the gold rush, soapstone was more valuable than gold.

According to the South Similkameen Museum:

Gold was not used by the Similkameen people as its properties were considered a bad omen. Historically all Similkameen people who used the gold either died or their families came upon harm or hurt in some way.

Soapstone, called “chopaka” by the Similkamix, was an important trade item.

The Similkamix were known for their pipes which were carved from either black soapstone or a light green soapstone from the Similkameen River.

It was very challenging to retrieve the soapstone which was under the water. Someone would have to scramble over a bluff (with the help of some hemp rope) and balance on a shelf and rocks before taking the stone from under the water.

The soapstone was immediately cut into shape while still wet and soft with a flint or obsidian knife. Afterwards, the bowl was smoothed and polished with horsetail. The short stems of stone pipes were sometimes lengthened by inserting a hollow willow stem.

The information below is from the Sinkaietk (southern Okanagon tribe) in Washington state who traded extensively with the Similkamix:

Women and men each smoked their own pipe. There was apparently a tribal pipe (i.e., group or band pipe) in the custody of the chief of the band. This pipe was passed around the council circle to the right, starting with the chief, before the discussion began, each man taking two or three puffs. The heads of winter houses were also said to have large pipes for formal gatherings like those of the chiefs. A shaman had a special ceremonial pipe decorated with his power animal, in addition to his ordinary pipe. No other person was permitted to smoke the shaman’s ceremonial pipe.

Leaves were gathered from mature tobacco plants which grew along creeks and in moist places. Each tribe had a different method for curing the leaves; some preferred to let them dry on rocks, whereas others dried the leaves over a fire. There were different ways of storing the leaves as well. Dry leaves were put into buckskin bags and pulverized by rubbing the sides of the bag together or simply stored in tight cedar-root baskets.

Kinnikinnick was mixed with tobacco just before being put into the pipe in the ratio of two parts of kinnikinnick to one of tobacco. Other plants were sometimes substituted for tobacco and mixed with kinnikinnick.


Bill Barlee: BC’s gold rush historian

One of British Columbia’s most enthusiastic historians, Neville “Bill” Barlee, has passed away.  Born in Grand Forks in 1932, Bill became interested in the history of BC and began a collection of gold rush artifacts. Samples of his extensive collection have been displayed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. In addition to writing books on gold panning and frontier life, Bill published a magazine called Canada West.  There was a long-running tv program called “Gold Trails and Ghost Towns” from 1986 to 1996 hosted by Mike Roberts. Here is Bill Barlee talking about the gold rush at Rock Creek:

Fraser River Salmon and the Gold Rush

How did the annual salmon migration affect the “Canyon War” in the summer of 1858?

I have posted a new page called “Salmon and the Gold Rush” that deals with why salmon was so critical to the Hudson’s Bay Company and First Nations alike.

Also, I have included interesting and little known facts about the process that was used to cure and store the salmon.




Mount Robson: Fraser River Headwaters

In 1865, on their way through the Yellowhead Pass area, adventurers Milton and Cheadle wrote,

“On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.”

From this peak, a tiny trickle appears.  This is the start of the Fraser River and the beginning of its journey of almost 1400 km, growing ever larger as it collects water from its tributaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Robson was named after Colin Robertson, an official for the Hudson’s Bay Company who sent a group led by Ignace Giasson in command and the blonde multilingual Iroquois, Pierre Bostonais nicknamed Tête Jaune, as their guide.  Tête Jaune means Yellow Head in French and both the pass and the current highway bear his name.

‘Yuh-hai-has-kun’ or ‘The Mountain of the Spiral Road’ was the name given Mount Robson by the Texqakallt First Nation, referring to the layered appearance of the mountain.

Mount Robson from Northeast by Lawren Harris 1929

At 3,954 meters, Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is quite a sight. At its base lies the brilliant blue Berg Lake, fed by chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier above.  The glacier has shrunk considerably since Lawren Harris made his famous painting.

John M. Sellar, one of the Overland party of gold seekers, bound for the Cariboo, who passed the peak on August 26, 1862 wrote these words in his diary:

“At 4 p.m., we passed Snow or Cloud Cap Mountain which is the highest and finest on the whole Leather Pass. It is 9000 feet above the level of the valley at its base, and the guide told us that out of twenty-nine times that he had passed it he had only seen the top once before.”