Category Archives: Food and Drink

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

Barrels of Beans and Bacon

One of the main items to be imported into the colony during the gold rush were barrels of beans and bacon. Beans and bacon were considered food staples back then. As one goldseeker remarked:

“At the inn here we enjoyed what our Yankee companions called a ‘square meal,’ of the generally characteristic fare of the colony, bacon and beans; the latter are abundantly imported in barrels from the States. Here also, after our toilsome march, we indulged in a good wash, the only really cheap comfort obtainable in British Columbia.”

Not only did merchants import kegs of bacon and barrels of beans but also:
crushed sugar
Golden Gate Flour
Hope Butter
Rio Coffee
J & H Lard
Black Tea
Turk’s Island Salt
mats of China Rice
boxes of Macy’s candles
Harvey’s Scotch Whiskey in Puncheons
Holland Gin in Pipes
Champagne Cider in Barrels and Kegs
Edinborough Ale in Stone Jugs or bulk
Bottled Porter
India Pale Ale in pints and quarts
dried apples
hot whiskey punches

Viscount Milton and Dr. Cheadle stayed at J.D. Cusheon’s hotel in the Cariboo district of British Columbia in 1863 at the height of the gold rush:

Our quarters at Cusheon’s Hotel were vile. A blanket spread on the floor of a loft was our bedroom, but the swarms of lice which infested the place and rendered sleep almost impossible, and made us think with regret on the soft turf of the prairie, or a mossy couch in the woods. The fare, limited to beefsteaks, bread and dried apples, was wretchedly cooked and frightfully expensive. Beef was worth fifty cents or two shillings a pound, flour the same, a “drink” of anything except water was half a dollar, nor could the smallest article, even a box of matches, be bought for less than a “quarter” -one shilling. Before we reached Williams Creek we paid a dollar and a quarter, or five shillings, for a single pint bottle of stout.

Stuck in the frozen Fraser River

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ecember 1858 was so cold a sternwheeler got stuck in the frozen Fraser River.

Many gold rush miners who hadn’t reached pay dirt were stuck where they were at camps and bars. A Fraser River correspondent to the Daily Alta California had this to say:

Many who have been at work here for months, are destitute of means not only to lay in their winter stores, but even to buy their daily food. I have never seen so many “strapped” men in any part of the world as here…

The frozen steamer Enterprise

The steamer Enterprise was stuck in the frozen Fraser River

When the steamer Enterprise became stuck in the ice near the mouth of the Harrison River most of the 125 passengers decided to abandon ship and travel by foot. The Victoria Gazette reported that at least two passengers froze to death:

“There being no provisions or accommodations on board for so large a company for any length of time, about 100 of the passengers and one or two of the officers deserted the steamer, determined to make their way into Langley on foot through the woods. Without food – in many instances poorly clad – with snow and ice on the ground, these desperate men commenced their sad journey. For three days they wandered through the woods, shivering, foot-sore, and almost starving, in the rain and through the sleet and ice. In the meantime, the weather had moderated a little, and the rain had softened the ice in the river.

The Enterprise got free again, and ran up and down the river blowing her whistle and firing her guns to attract the attention of those on shore. Here and there she picked up a straggler, who had wandered to the river banks, perhaps to die. On the third day, when about five miles from Langley, she came upon the great majority of passengers, who, feeling it impossible to proceed further, had camped on the bank to wait assistance from the town for which they had sent by four of their hardiest men.

After taking up her passengers, the Enterprise continued on to Langley, where she arrived in a couple of hours…

For those people fortunate enough to make it to Victoria with gold dust in their pockets, they could enjoy a nice meal. The Yates Street Chop House in Victoria advertised their “Christmas Bill of Fare”:

Soups: Oyster, Chicken, Gambo, Mutton Broth

Fish: Boiled Halibut, Boiled Flounder, with Oyster Sauce

Boiled: Ham, Tongue, Chicken, Turkey with butter sauce

Oyster pies, Lamb Cutlets, with green peas, Selmes of Ducks, Venison Pastry, Fricassed Chickens

Roasts: Beef, Pork, Mutton, Venison, Turkey, Geese, Chickens.

Vegetables of the season. Pastry and Desserts. Pies assorted. Cakes assorted.

Plum Pudding, Blanc Mange, and Jelly.


Donald Fraser and Land Speculation in the BC Gold Rush

When the Fraser River gold rush was underway so was land speculation. One of the least known figures involved in land speculation in the BC Gold Rush was Donald Fraser.

Fraser was born in Scotland and was a classmate of Alexander Grant Dallas, a future son-in-law of Governor James Douglas. Fraser came to Victoria in 1858, whereupon James Douglas appointed him to the Executive Council of Vancouver Island.

The Hudson’s Bay Company thought that if it could entice gold rush miners to come to British Columbia then it would raise the value of land. What they needed was someone to promote the ‘gold diggings’ to the masses abroad.  As a correspondent for the Times of London, Donald Fraser was the ideal candidate to spread this propaganda.

According to Fraser, miners were finding gold without much effort:

The work is not heavy; any ordinary man can do it. The time at work is generally 10 hours. Every man works much or little, according to the dictates of his own sweet will. This independency is one of the chief charms of the miner’s life. Independence and hope make up the sum of his happiness. The cost of living is $1-a-day. To wash 250 buckets of ‘dirt’ is a short day’s work. The bucket is a common wooden water pail, rather small size. Went up to two men at a place by themselves ‘clearing out’ their day’s work. They ‘guessed’ their amalgam was worth $21 to $22.

In the summer of 1858, James Douglas travelled with Donald Fraser to Fort Yale. Here, even Fraser had to admit that the living conditions were primitive. At Hill’s Bar, Fraser found “a gang of miners dining on fried bacon and potatoes cooked à  la Maître d’Hotel, eating out of the frying pan  in which the edibles were prepared, set upon the stump of a tree…”

Fraser also suggested there were stagecoaches on the as yet incomplete wagon road. Many miners were disappointed to discover that they would  have to walk 400 or 500 miles farther carrying a load on their backs.

Not only was Donald Fraser a key political figure, but in a few short years, he became one of the largest land holders on Vancouver Island.

In 1866 Fraser returned to England. In London he joined a group including Gilbert Malcolm Sproat and Alexander Grant Dallas which wielded a lot of political influence. The group opposed the union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia in 1866 and helped to secure the capital of BC at Victoria in 1868.


Cattle Drovers of the Gold Rush

Within two months after the first miners crossed the International boundary from California, the renowned Oregonian packer ‘General’ Joel Palmer crossed the border at Osoyoos and travelled through the Okanagan Valley and on to the Thompson Valley with a cattle drive and wagons pulled by oxen.

HBC Brigade Trails

HBC Brigade Trails

The earlier cattle drives from Oregon to the goldfields followed the old Hudson’s Bay Company Brigade Trail along the Columbia River to the mouth of the Okanogan River and then north to Okanogan Lake, turning westward near Vernon and through Grande Prairie (now Westwold) to the Thompson River and west to Fort Kamloops; then along the south side of Kamloops to Savona’s Ferry, crossing the river there and continuing westward to Cache Creek; northward along the Bonaparte River to contact the Brigade Trail from the north.

Later, numerous other trails were defined to the coast and Okanagan, notably the all-Canadian trail developed after the Oregon Territory boundary was settled.

In 1859, Joe Greaves drove sheep from Oregon to Olympia,Washington, from where they were shipped to Fort Yale on the Fraser River and then trailed 250 miles along the Brigade Trail to the Cariboo.

The cattle drovers were mostly Americans who, for the most part, did not settle in the country.

Digging roots at Lytton

In the book, “Our Tellings: Interior Salish Stories of the Nla’kapmx People”, Christine Bobb describes how they went up to Petáni  [Botanie Valley] to gather roots during the month of August. The women dug roots using a special tool known as a pátsa, (pronounced pa´cha in Stl’atl’imx and Secwepemc).

The size of a pátsa ranged from 30 to 120cm (approximately a foot to four feet) in length. It had a curved tip and a cross piece near the top. Depending on the size of the pátsa, a person would use one hand or two to press it into the soil.

First peoples of the Interior made digging sticks from hard wood such as Black Hawthorn or Saskatoon Berry or of mule deer or elk antler.

Stick for digging roots

Stick for digging roots

“My mother dried it [roots] while I watched, but I helped her get through drying and fixing it. Then she stored it away.

When it was almost wintertime, my mother cooked it in the dirt. First she dug the ground, then she put down the wood and, finally, the rocks. When finished, the wood was burnt and the rocks were red hot. Then she buried it with dirt — not too much — and blanketed it with fir boughs, maple leaves, and dry pine needles. That’s how the roots were cooked for putting away.

They made licorice, which they washed in water. It was washed in water until it was clean and had turned white. Then it was put in a basket and taken to be cooked. Everything was cooked this way: sk’ámats [roots of the yellow avalanche lily], tiger lily, cinquefoil, tatúwen [corms of wild potatoes]. When wiýe [black tree lichen] is cooked it’s really good – it tastes just like licorice…”

Annie York wrote that they would “soak the wiýe so many days and wash it clean and then they dig the earth. They build a fire first, and when the earth is hot they dig it out and put wiýe on after it’s washed. And they put it there, put rocks on the bottom, lay sticks side by side, pour the water in, they cover it up good. It has to be there for about twenty-four hours.”

Lunch House in the BC Gold Rush

Did this ‘Lunch House’ serve lunch? Here is an interesting ad printed in the British Colonist August 15, 1860:

Johnson Street
Lunch House
Between Waddington Alley and Wharf Street,
Board and Lodging Reduced to $5.00 per week
Boarders to furnish their own Bedding.
Single meals……….37 ½ cents.

Provisions having fallen considerably, the Proprietor is enabled to make the above reduction without injury to the table.
An experienced Cook is engaged.
Epicures are invited to call.

Wm. R. Bastion

Lunch in the Gold Rush

Lunch in the Gold Rush

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.

Cows vs. Cabbages in Victoria


British Colonist newspaper advertises cow for sale

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, farms dotted the landscape throughout the Victoria area. Just north of Esquimalt Harbour was a large farm of almost 400 acres. In addition, many settlers in Victoria kept their own cows and chickens as well as vegetable gardens. Druggists sold seeds for vegetables such as turnips and cabbage.

Sometimes there was conflict between neighbours such as the case of ‘Cows vs. Cabbage’ reported by the British Colonist newspaper on June 9, 1864:

Cows vs. Cabbages

Mr. Myers of Fort Street complained yesterday to the stipendary Magistrate that two cows had broken into his garden and had devoured 400 or so cabbages. He had detained one of the animals and had complained to the owner of the other, whom he knew, but who had refused any compensation, telling him he might take a pail of milk every time he caught her in his garden. Mr. Wood [Magistrate] said the custom here seemed to be to allow animals to run at large, and he was afraid he could do nothing for him. His [Myers] best plan would be to milk the cow he had detained until the owner sent for it.

Mr. Myers wrote to the paper the next day to set the record straight:

“…the Magistrate [advised] to sue the owners of the cows for damages, a course I shall certainly pursue in respect to the owner of one of the cows (the owner of the other having compensated me).

Coincidentally, the following notice appeared in the newspaper that same day:

Grazing to Let.
The Grass on a Farm of About 100 acres near Mount Tolmie and within two miles of Victoria suitable for grazing Cattle and Sheep TO LET, with immediate possession for one or more years.
Apply to Mr. Weissenburger Land Agent, Government Street

Saloons and Grog Shops of the Gold Rush

Before saloons had a chance to establish themselves in Cariboo gold rush towns like Van Winkle, Stanley, and Richfield, there were plenty of “grog” shops. Grog was a simple mix of rum and water. As the Hudson’s Bay Company provided a ready supply of their own brand of rum, this was an easy and accessible drink for the weary miner. However, not all the liquor sold at these grog shops came straight from a bottle. Very strong liquor was referred to as “chain lightning” and “mountain howitzer” implied liquor that “kills at over 1000 yards.”

As the mining camps became more established, stone jugs of ale and porter were carried up the trails as well as puncheons of Scotch whiskey and kegs of champagne.

The BC gold rush also brought a mix of British and American influences. Gin punch drinks known in Britain as  ‘John Collins’ were served using cold water and gin while toddys (hot whisky punches) were made with boiling water.

IcePickIn the United States, the profession of saloon keeper had been transformed by the availability of ice year round, due to new storing techniques. Blocks of ice were shipped to saloons and the bartender handled them with tongs and picks. Then they began the task of breaking the blocks apart with axes and mallets. Using a variety of tools, ice was cracked, broken into ‘lumps’ or shaved directly into a glass for individual drinks made to order.

The American Saloon on Yates Street in Victoria advertised “ICE constantly on hand” while the Phoenix Saloon in Victoria advertised “plenty of ice on hand” for sherry cobblers, mint juleps, brandy smashes, Heenan cocktails, and Sayers gin-slings, done up in the latest style by their bartender Frank Pfaff, who came from Portland, Oregon.

Mr. Pfaff most likely used a shaker or tumbler made of tin to mix the sherry cobblers and mint juleps. Sherry cobblers were served with a straw to avoid swallowing pits. For stirring gin slings, he would have used a long-handled spoon with a twisted stem.  Making a drink pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate was a new challenge and bartenders, known as mixologists, were well-regarded.

It is interesting to note that while gold seekers had very little vitamin C in their diet, many of the ice drinks contained slices of lemon or other citrus fruits. Sherry cobblers, for example, were made with a few slices of orange. Perhaps those miners who were fortunate enough to find a saloon were able to stave off scurvy. Gin slings (so named because one would ‘sling’ them back) were once considered a health drink. Similar to toddy, a sling was made with gin, white sugar, water, and a small lump of ice.

The Steward and Barkeeper’s Manual printed in 1869 included a recipe for “Canadian Punch” with the following ingredients:

  • 1 quart of rye whisky;
  • ½ pint of Jamaica rum;
  • ½ pineapple, sliced;
  • 4 lemons, sliced;
  • 2 quarts of water;
  • ice and sugar