The sweet and bitter history of gold rush food

The story of the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush can be told in terms of ‘gold rush food’.  Is it a coincidence that a seasoned gold seeker was referred to as a ‘sourdough’? Or that a financial loan to work the mines was called a ‘grubstake’?

Good food was important to surviving the cold, harsh weather and the unforgiving trails through mud and canyons. For goldseekers, nothing was more welcome than the sound of the bell indicating the arrival of a pack train of mules and horses bringing food and supplies. In other places even more remote, miners carried whatever supplies they could carry on their own backs; some with tumplines stretched across their foreheads or with sticks across their shoulders to balance the load.


“Bark” a type of sailing ship

Behind the mad rush of miners to Victoria were ships and steamers laden with imported food. Everything from stone jugs of ale to yeast powders was brought in by ship first to Victoria then to New Westminster.

Picture a bark from Hong Kong loaded with mats of rice,  ‘China no.1’ fair sugar, cases of assorted preserves, chests of fine black tea and flags of coffee from the Phillipines, sitting next to a few boxes of firecrackers. Next in line at the wharf is a ship with barrels of extra clear pork, fifty pound sacks of beans, tins of English biscuits and cases of bitters. Sacks of flour from California and codfish from the eastern shores are piled up as the ship broker surveys the goods. With all of this, he could easily hold an auction and attract the interest of merchants and traders and anyone else willing to venture into the unknown depths of the mainland.


ceramic jug for ale or other spirits

In Victoria, saloons representing every nationality awaited their shipments of hot whiskey punches, kegs of champagne cider, cases of claret wine and pipes of gin. Bakers were busy making fresh bread with hearty buckwheat flour and crackers for the miners to take with them on their journey to the gold fields. Cans of lard and butter from California stood on wooden tables ready to be mixed and sprinkled with ‘superfine flour’ to become pies or scones and the occasional tart.

The ‘Thames City’ carrying a ship of Royal Engineers and their families was due to arrive, having spent six months at sea with cows, chickens and a goat. No doubt they would be glad to step ashore to their new home. Already, there was talk that fresh bread would be requested; something the Sappers hadn’t smelled or tasted for a long time.

collapsible fork

collapsible fork

Before a gold miner ventured beyond Victoria, they were encouraged to bring as much supplies with them as they could carry. But not too much more because many of the trails were only wide enough for one person to pass.

At stores in Victoria such as Hibben & Carswell Stationers miners could buy pocket cutlery — collapsible knives, forks and spoons with hinged handles — along with a map or a Chinook phrase book.

But what about the gold seeker who planned to eat what he could catch? No doubt the new invention of the frying pan was the cooking utensil to take.  You could cook with a gold pan if you needed or a flat stone. One miner trekked to Mansen Creek in forty below weather finally reaching a friend’s cabin at 8 o’clock at night. His friend had kept dinner waiting – moose meat cooked in a gold pan on ashes “with the skill of a chef de cuisine”.

People were looking for ‘opportunities’ of all types, as this newspaper article describes:

Harmon Elliot and Wm. Ross, alias Rust, were convicted in the Police Court yesterday morning  of having stolen a quantity of cooking utensils from the cabin of a man named Wright. They were ordered to give security to be of good behaviour for six months. April 6, 1861


long-handled frying pan


HBC trade kettle

The Hudson’s Bay Company sold kettles which they had been using for years during the fur trade. Judge Begbie took his HBC kettle when he made his circuit route around the colony.

The Fraser Canyon War was essentially started over food: spawning salmon were being intercepted by gold seekers tossing around gravel looking for gold. Favourite fishing spots of the Nkla’mpamux had suddenly become someone’s bar and guarded with six shooters and bowie knives. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was now turning over a sizeable profit from the export of salmon, wanted the miners out of the way. That was the summer of 1858. Still the gold miners trudged on, the trail widening a fraction from the pounding and scraping of their hobnailed boots. If there was any wildlife, they were given advanced warning and scurried off, hidden from the hollowed eyed miners.


flour crackers

Beans, a little pork, and crackers sustained many miners along the trail, but many kept falling down and started to feel weak. By July the berries were out on the bushes and these were eagerly picked and eaten. Scurvy was seldom recognized for what it was, and miners suffered its symptoms as they tried all sorts of ways to cure themselves. Some took onions with them because they were easy to keep, others drank tea made from boiled spruce needles.

Before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, gold seekers had to hike inland from the point of the last steamship, which for many years was Yale. The first wave of miners might have been unprepared, thinking that there would be enough wild game or fish to sustain them during the trip, but word spread that it was necessary to bring as much as one could. Miners struggled under the weight of their provisions, carrying everything on their backs.

There was a variety of foods that people brought with them as miners came from Europe, America, South America, and China.

Gold seekers tasted the sweet and bitter of gold fever. Some considered themselves lucky to have made it to the gold fields only to discover the cost of food hardly made the search for gold worthwhile.

Others could appreciate a good dinner, like this traveller from 1861:

“When I reached Big Bar, I left Fraser’s banks and took the mule trail till I came to the Frenchman’s ranch, situated on a stream (Dog Creek). There I stopped to dine and had quite a sumptuous dinner of grouse, venison and all kinds of vegetables known in more temperate latitudes.”