Category Archives: Gold Rush Poems

Poems about the BC gold rush

Drink-miners not worth a shirt

A “drink-miner” was a gold rush term for a miner who was indebted to a grog shop or saloon-keeper.

Advice to would-be miners was given in a booklet titled “Cariboo, the Newly Discovered Gold Fields of British Columbia, Fully Described by a Returned Digger Who Has Made His Own Fortune There and Advises Others To Go and Do Likewise” published in London, England in 1862.

Like many promotional pieces of the day it portrayed the gold diggings in British Columbia in glowing terms. Interestingly, the ‘returned digger’ said that the most important qualification to be a miner was temperance.

“Don’t suppose I am a teetotal [non-drinker] digger. I am nothing of the kind, but I tell you plainly there is nothing so pulls a man back at gold digging as spirits. They take all the strength out of him; they unman him for a time, and the expense is so great, spirits (especially the good) costing an enormous figure at all gold settlements, that I really think that the man who picks up half an ounce a day, and doesn’t spend a grain of it in drink, makes, in reality , more by the end of the month that the miner who picks up four ounces a day, and drinks when it pleases him. As a proof of the truth of what I am saying, I may declare that the owners of spirit stores are always safe to make fortunes.

This warning is worth something, for candidly I tell you that the temptation to drink is very great. Whether it is the excitement natural to a gold digger’s life, or whether it is the desire to be luxurious and dashing, I know not, but this is certain, that an enormous percentage of gold diggers…drink extravagantly of spirits.

These diggers who “drink their gold,” as they say in Australia, never are worth anything, and they generally die in ditches, unless men more temperate than they have been give them hut or tent-room.

…those who take much spirits are unable to bear the roughing of a miner’s life, and the consequence is that they are ready at any moment to take any disease which many be common, and not unfrequently, in fever times, they fall down in scores, and never get up again.

…the excitement of a miner’s life is so great that not one in six who takes a “little drop” will stick there, and if he goes beyond he becomes just what I warn you against- a fellow who digs for the spirit-store keeper, and who is never worth more than the shirt about him. Nay, I have seen a “drink-miner” as I have heard them called, not even worth a shirt.

…For my part I drank nothing but water and tea all the while I was at the diggings, and I was there long enough to feather my nest warm.”

The Old Red Shirt

In between washing clothes and repairing them, Rebecca Gibbs wrote poetry which was sometimes published in the local Barkerville newspaper. Her poem “The Old Red Shirt” tells of a thin miner who showed up at her cabin door in old dirty clothes, asking her if she could repair a threadbare red shirt.

…His cheeks were thin, and furrow’d his brow,
His eyes they were sunk in his head;
He said that he had got work to do,
To be able to earn his bread.

He said that the “old red shirt” was torn
And asked me to give it a stitch;
But it was threadbare, and sorely worn,
Which show’d he was far from rich.

O! miners with good paying claims,
O! traders who wish to do good,
Have pity on men who earn your wealth,
Grudge not the poor miner his food….

Measure of gold

3 inches freeboard and
four man crew

a steamboat plows through
dozens of prospectors jump off
and hike to the Cariboo

a claim 12 feet wide
100 feet long
$1,000 a foot

Davis puts 500 pounds of his gold
lightn1ngs in a strong box
18 inches square

he died first and there lies
12 foot Davis
1000 feet above

the mighty Peace River

Dying for Gold

Here is a poem I wrote after reading Bill Gallaher’s book on John “Cariboo” Cameron and the trip he took to fulfill his wife’s last request, who had died of typhoid, to be buried at home in Ontario. One of the things that struck me when reading the book based on the diary of Cameron’s friend, Robert Stephenson, was his account of seeing the snow graves. During the Cariboo gold rush, between 1862-64, the smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of over 20,000 First Nations.

Dying for Gold

Sophia Cameron died
left in a frozen cabin
in the bruised landscape
her husband
went back to crank the windlass
for days on end
digging until they hit bedrock
and found a vein of gold

Billy Barker saw it
and loaned him a poke full of gold
enough to take Sophia home, away from the Cariboo

Icy snow stung their faces as they pulled
her casket on a sleigh
she could kill them all
with a wrong turn
the gold sat on top, untouched
by chilled fingers
one by one the miners turned back
to Richfield

At the mouth of Keithley Creek was a house and store
Mrs. Lawless said
Smallpox on the rampage
from the Forks to Port Douglas
French Joe and Indian Jim turned back

At Beaver Lake
just Cameron and Stephenson remained and
a white undulating field of death
small mounds, all snow graves
maybe more

one bewildered old man

At Williams Lake, 120 bodies covered by blankets of snow
only three Indians alive

At Lac La Hache
a few feet from the door of the roadhouse
two snow graves
an Indian from smallpox
a white man over a game of cards

too many snow graves to count

Rattlesnake Grade
up that slippery, narrow trail
they hugged the mountainside
the horse strained lifting its legs in the snow
pulling the weight of the casket made uneven by the gold
six sweeping turns up the flank of Pavilion Mountain
without falling
then it died

Cameron and Stephenson met a third man
who carried the gold on his back
another horse pulled the sleigh

at Port Douglas
were Indians with smallpox
some so far gone that their skin had turned black
the stink of the dead and the dying
made them hide their faces in the crooks of their arms
afraid of the air

they boarded the sternwheeler Henrietta
the casket supported by poles
and they drank brandy
they promised to come back
to their claim
by another route

Gold Rush Gamblers

James Anderson wrote a poem about gold rush gamblers in Barkerville:

There is a set o’ men up here
Wha never work thro’ a’ the year,
A kind o’ serpents, craulin’ snakes,
That fleece the miner o’ his stakes;
They’re Gamblers – honest men some say,
Tho’ its quite fair to cheat in play
If it’s no Kent o’ I ne’er met
An honest man a Gambler yet!
O, were I Judge in Cariboo
I’d see the laws were carr’d thro’,
I’d hae the cairds o’ every pack
Tied up in a gunny sack,
Wi’ a’ the gamblers chained thegither
And banish’d frae the creek forever.
But Sawney, there’s anither clan,
There’s nane o’ them I’d ca’ a man.
They ca’ them “jumpers” – it’s my belief
That jumper is Chinook for thief; –
The jump folks claims and jump their lots,
They jump the very pans pots;
But wait a wee – for a’ this evil –
Their friend’ll jump them.
He’s the deevil.

Gambling went on unimpeded in the ‘gold diggings’ during the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush. Games such as Monte Bank, Keno and Euchre were played at ‘gambling houses’ which were usually tents.

In Fort Victoria, gambling was not tolerated. Many public lectures were given on how gambling houses would lead to the degredation of society. An editorial speaks of this prevailing attitude:

Praise is due to the authorities of Victoria for the prompt suppression of every attempt to introduce public gambling into this colony. Our town has consequently been preserved from all those incidents which ever follow closely in the train of the greatest of social vices…[where] life and property are rendered insecure…[and] the exhibitions of deadly weapons, and often their use, around the gaming tables, are the order of the day.

As a result, gambling was done behind closed doors. Here is an article from the British Times Colonist dated May 22, 1860:

A case was called on in the Police Court yesterday morning, which attracted a great crowd thither. It seems that Sergeant Carey has had the bookstore of W.F. Herre, on Yates Street, under his surveillance for some time, suspecting that gambling was being carried on in the rear apartments.

On Sunday night last, Carey, in company with [four other officers] went to the rear of the house, and having peeped through the blinds, discovered a party of men playing cards. The posse proceeded to the front door and demanded admittance, which being denied, the door was broken open and the parties arrested.

The Judge considered the charge against Herre of keeping a gambling-house fully sustained and fined him twenty pounds. The case was appealed to the higher court…

Overlanders of 1862

heading west I sketched an ox
as it ploughed forward
pulling the red river cart
without effort passing buffalo
bones piled high we bagged ducks
on the trail trading for bison and berries
the days were long I lingered
over the pages drawing, observing
along undulating hills
thirsty under the hot
sun wandering off
in search of water
I remember the moment
the ox tried to run away
from its cart scattering goods, breaking
its harness after crossing marshes, mudholes and creeks
crossing the Assiniboine on a scow
no grass to eat on the other side
oxen left behind at Fort Edmonton for mules and pack horses
men in mud to their waist with shoulders
to wheels of mired wagons rough sketches
hauling on lines to prevent carts and animals
from running down steep embankments
roasted skunk, food gone guns, ammunition, belts traded
for salmon at Tête Jaune Cache gold pans and pick axes
unwanted two months passed I put away my sketchbook
the group divided, unsure swift
with rafts and canoes along the Fraser
or along the North Thompson River
each trying to get to Fort George
lives lost horses killed
for food I cannot sketch the pain

_____ “Overlanders” was the name given to large organized groups who headed overland from Fort Garry, across the prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to the Cariboo where gold had been discovered in 1862.  One of the leaders of a large group of Overlanders, Thomas McMicking of Queenston, Canada West (Ontario) submitted his trip diary to the British Columbian newspaper which published it in November, 1862.

William George Richardson Hind (1833-1889) was an artist and Overlander. His drawings and watercolours of this crossing helped historians to understand and appreciate this unique part of Canadian history. You can view Hind’s sketchbook online. Previously, his brother, Henry Youle Hind, who was a surveyor and academic, had led government exploring expeditions to the Labrador region and the prairies.


Red House in Victoria

This poem appeared in the British Times Colonist on February 5, 1863. It’s a wonderful example of poetry in advertising. I kept the punctuation and capital letters as they were printed.

Machine Poetry by Mike Cohen

A miner from the Diggings once came down,
Whose wretched aspect was perceived by all the town;
His boots were soleless, and his pants were torn –
In fact, he looked an object, quite forlorn.
He sought a bed – but where to get that bed
He did not know nor where to rest his head
While pondering this, a good sight met his view;
The El Dorado Beds – price 50 cents and 5 and 20 too.

“Let’s have a quarter’s worth,” our miner said,
And quick as he thought, he soon in bed was laid.
He slept a weary sleep, and the next morn arose,
The more refreshed, for he had doffed his clothes.
Those pants he did not wish again to wear,
And thought perhaps his host would sent out for a pair;

He called out for the landlord, and much surprised was he,
Our friend Mike Cohen, of The Red House, there to see.
“What, Mike, you in this line!” our miner said:
“Then bring me up some pants, and something for my head.”
Mike brought them up, and quick as thought,
Our friend the miner a new suit had bought,
Paid down his money, then, looking in the glass,
His compliments to Mike he thus did pass:
“Whenever a man wants rigging out in something new,
For little money, Mike, I’ll send him straight to you.

And now, friend, Mike, pray tell me where
For breakfast I can get good fare?”
“‘Tis but next door, a Restaurant I keep!”
Says Mike, “and you will find it good and cheap!”
The miner went, and breakfast had,
And said that for a quarter ’twasn’t bad;
For Mike, I see, knows how to do the trade,
And put all the others right into the shade.

Cariboo Roadhouse Poem

advertisement for Cold Spring House in Cariboo Sentinel October 15, 1866

Cash Book

Stiff yellow pages reveal
A sturdy log roadhouse
Fifteen miles from Quesnel
Each entry a window
Through the penmanship of John Boyd
The door swings open
Mah Gee buys a pick axe and
sets off for the gold fields in the Cariboo
Dutch Charlie
Dancing Bill and
Play a game of Monte
The seasons pass as the pages turn
Mr. Dragon sits down for a hot meal and a wagon tongue
A train of oxen arrive in the snow
In the middle of the night
Fifteen dollars worth of cabbage is eaten
and charged to the team
Soap is $1.25 a bar
the same price as a bottle of lager beer

Boyd opens a package of seeds and
sets off for Quesnel to buy a plough
Henry McDames pays part of his bill
“for sundry items at sundry times”
Antoine Malbouf “commenced to work at $100 per month and board,
idle time to be deducted.”
Madame Simone buys 1070 pounds of hay at 7 cents a pound
Beet and turnip seeds are planted in the ground

John “Cariboo” Cameron
Frenchman with Sheep and
Ah Doo all pass through on their way to gold
Tolls are paid to G.B. Wright as the Cariboo Road
Is built by three hundred men
The cook Ah Fatt pays for his friends’ stay
Malbouf breaks a tumbler and settles for the damage
Ah Doo comes back from the creek to work at Cottonwood
Eggs are $4 a dozen
Berries are growing ripe in the hills
golden grain in the fields
long rows of vegetables in the garden


During the height of the Cariboo gold rush, there were twelve roadhouses situated along the road from Quesnel to Barkerville. John Boyd later bought the Cottonwood Ranch and roadhouse just west of Cold Spring House in 1874. Cottonwood became a provincial historic site in 1963, a hundred years after it was built. It is one of the last remaining roadhouses in BC.


Poisonous Potato

The gold miner
prepares to bake
removing some
yellow flesh
and replacing it with a blob
greyish, putty
mixes with black sand
over the flame of the campfire
he cooks them
turning them over, then
opens them
like oysters
with pearls of gold
he walks away
leaving broken halves

“Dr. Fifer!”
Sara is sick
only eight years old
Dr. Fifer tries to guess
what is happening?
the little girl’s life slips
through his fingers
he is helpless without knowing
her mother knocks his glasses
off his nose and onto the floor
Ah Chung picks them up
before her feet can crush them

Going for a walk to clear his mind
he comes across a campfire of
smouldering ashes and potatoes
and sees little teeth marks
he smells the potato with his eyes shut
then he opens them again and sees
Robert Wall, one of his patients
cooking mercury in the potatoes
he explains
wire that holds them together

Fifer throws down the potato in disgust
and turns his back to Wall
in two years Fifer will be dead
not from mercury
from an explosion of lead in his chest
from Wall himself

When the Fraser River gold rush began in the spring of 1858, Governor James Douglas sent Hudson’s Bay Company employee Ovid Allard to reopen Fort Yale, which had been abandoned on the completion of Fort Hope nearly ten years before. Allard remained at Yale until 1864. Sara was his youngest daughter.

Dr. William Fifer came to Yale during the height of the gold rush from California with his assistant, Ah Chung. He served as the town’s doctor as well as president of the Town’s council. He was killed by Robert Wall, a gold miner, July 5, 1861.

Mercury (or quicksilver) is a heavy, liquid metal, silvery-white in colour, with a very low melting point. It was commonly used to recover gold in the 1860s.

A note on the artist: Sarah Crease painted a series of watercolours depicting the Hudson’s Bay Company fort and the town of Victoria. In 1862 she sketched landscapes of New Westminster, Hope, Yale, and the Fraser River.

The New Eldorado

by Kinahan Cornwallis – 1858

To the clime of Columbia, Britain’s new born,
Where the rays of the sun gladly usher the morn,
And the landscape deck out with a smile;
Where the hearts of the countless beat hopefully high,
And gold doth the moments beguile;
Where the frown of the mountains, the blue of the sky,
Contrast in their beauty with forest and plain;
Where the green perfumed prairie rolls in the breeze.
And mankind ever struggle for gain;
Where the sight of the ore even fails to appease
Man’s inordinate yearning for gold, –
Still making each eagerly struggle the more
For the treasure ungather’d – untold.
To that clime go, ye people, ye sons of the west,
‘Tis a land of exuberant plenty and joy;
Go, ye children of cities, by fortune opprest,
Where gold may be gathered which knows no alloy;
Far and wide doth it lie on that beautiful shore;
May it gladden and laurel the pathway of time
Left the wanderer to traverse who reaps from its mine.
‘Tis the bauble of earth; – ’tis the gift of the chute,
Of millions the spoil, – It is mine – It is thine.


Kinahan Cornwallis (1839 – 1917) was a British author and poet. This poem appears in his book, “The New Eldorado; or British Columbia.”  The first line in the poem “Columbia, Britain’s new born” refers to British Columbia having just been named a British colony in 1858. Previously it was territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.


Standing at the Sluice Box

sluicebox from 1850s

"Andy at Sluice box" (Bancroft Library)

Standing at the sluice box
time seemed insignificant
repetitive movements
shoveling gravel into the narrow chasm
water flowing past, pushing light minerals ahead
leaving gold behind riffle blocks
like the narrow Fraser Canyon: a giant sluicebox
an ocean of ice sat on top of the mountains
grinding the rock beneath,
then retreated
exposing the gold stringers
tumbled forward in winter storms and melting summer snow,
prodded down painted cliffs and streams
held back by bars of gravel

men move forward
like ants carrying loads bigger than they are
resolute and determined
never looking down to the chasm below
men walking with scurvy, eating beans and flour
too weak to pull themselves from the frothing water
“drink this,
boil the branches from the spruce tree and
you’ll be better”
strips of salmon drying in the sun
smell the berries in woven baskets

everyone wanted to know how much gold the other had found
swishing and shaking the gold pan
back and forth
men lay on the ground in shallow comfort like salmon
with some life left in them
full of purpose but
people speculate and await
ready to catch the gullible ones
a man named Billy Ballou
said he was making more money delivering
letters from families to their loved ones
wondering if they had hit pay dirt
a dollar per letter

he had never heard that word before
c a shhh! with a finger to one’s lips
hidden for a future use
hidden from sight
up a tree in a place so obvious
but no one was looking

standing by a sluice box
shoulders sore
one more shovel full of dirt
the sun setting
the brim of a hat pushed back
eyes squeezed shut
judging the reflection of light
is it gold?


A sluice box could have been called a tray as it was open on both ends to allow for water to travel its length at a constant rate. Riffles acted as barriers to the water flow, creating eddies that allowed heavier minerals such as gold to drift to the bottom. Riffles were spaced evenly along the length of the sluice, usually every few inches, perpendicular to the length of the sluice.

Note regarding the photograph: this photo was taken in California in the 1850s but it would have been the same type of sluice box used here in British Columbia.