Tag Archives: bc gold rush

Quicksilver: Trapping gold with mercury

How did goldseekers wash out the gravel from their pans without losing any specks of gold? The answer is liquid mercury, known in the 1800s as quicksilver.


ad for Quicksilver July 28, 1860

Imagine a gold miner at the water’s edge filling a gold pan with water and then shaking it around in a circular motion. It takes several dips of the pan to get the gravel out. Then the smaller pebbles have to be picked out by hand until all that’s left is black sand (iron ore).  With some more water added to the pan there might be some yellow ‘colour’ in the pan. How to quickly retrieve most of the gold? To solve that problem miners would pour a few ounces of quicksilver (liquid mercury) into the pan before they started. In a few minutes the ‘quicksilver’ would engulf all the fine gold fragments and form a solid mixture (amalgam).

How much quicksilver was used?

How much quicksilver was used during the Fraser River gold rush or the Cariboo gold rush? No one knows for sure. It was easy to use but extremely dangerous to handle.

Quicksilver was poured along the riffles in rocker boxes and sluice boxes. The high density of mercury allowed gold and gold-mercury amalgam to sink while sand and gravel passed over the mercury and through the sluice. Large volumes of turbulent water flowing through the sluice caused many of the finer gold and mercury particles to wash through and out of the sluice before they could settle.

Gravel and rocks that entered the sluice at high speed caused the mercury to break into tiny particles. These tiny mercury particles became airborne. In the meantime, more mercury would be added to the sluice boxes. The bottoms of some sluice boxes eventually became coated with mercury.

Working a claim at Emory Bar

Some mercury was lost from the sluice, either by leaking into underlying soils and bedrock or being transported downstream with the placer tailings. If it was too cold, the mercury was ineffective.

The Daily Colonist published a letter February 12, 1859 from a miner working a claim on Emory Bar who wrote “…the coldness of the water thickens the quicksilver so much as to prevent a full half of the fine gold from being taken up or amalgamated as it would when the weather is warm.”

Dissolving the mercury

Some miners would take their amalgam down to Victoria where an assayer would dissolve the mercury under intense heat.

Did you know? Mercury is made by  roasting crushed cinnabar ore (HgS) in a furnace. Cinnabar  is mined in only a few places in the world. The New Idria Quicksilver Mining Company in central California started operation in 1854 and closed in 1972; the town of Idria was abandoned as a result.

Vigilantes and the lynching of an Okanagan man

Many Natives panned for gold but they were often forced from their claims or swindled out of them by white miners. Sometimes they provoked Natives into a violent confrontation just to shoot them claiming self-defense, knowing they had the backing of vigilantes. At several camps in the BC gold rush, vigilante committees ran the diggings.

At Rock Creek on June 13, 1861, a French miner named Pierre Cherbart started a fight with an Syilx/Okanagan man named Saul which ended with the death of Cherbart. Saul went back to his chief and told him what happened. Chief Silhitza told him to wait for a trial to tell his side of the story.

Sounds of gunshots at Rock Creek

Rock Creek, just north of the American border was a notorious place for rough miners. The first gold commissioner was forced to flee for his life. Few miners bothered to pay the mining fees. They were a rough bunch and like many would start their day with bitters and finish the evening with whiskey. The sound of gunshots punctuated the end of many conversations.

Map of Rock Creek area and Osoyoos Lake

William Cox, Rock Creek’s second gold commissioner, held an inquest into the death of Pierre Cherbart and put an arrest warrant for Saul. At the time of Cox’s decision, Saul was staying at a camp near Osoyoos Lake just below the border. Just as soon as the vigilante miners got word, a group captured Saul and “he was hanged towards eight o’clock in the morning. He didn’t die until the afternoon having suffered the most atrocious tortures at the hands of the Americans who made a game of it.”

During the mid 1850s, vigilantism was the norm south of the border in America. It was not uncommon for a group of self-appointed vigilantes to capture someone and find a good sturdy branch from which to hang them. Saul suffered a worse fate.

Father Pandosy

In 1855, Father Pandosy had stood by helpless as the Yakama he knew were forced to leave their homes when the settlers arrived and taken their lands. The governor of Washington Territory ordered Pandosy to abandon his mission and leave. He headed north to the Big Lake, where he established a mission near the Okanagan village of Skela’unna (Kelowna).

When Chief Silhitza told him about Saul’s vigilante execution, Pandosy penned a letter to Governor James Douglas on his behalf. He didn’t mince words.

“…my heart is heavy on seeing the manner in which justice is delivered to us. If the guilty man had been taken by the authorities, judged according to the rules, the entire camp would have learned a lesson at the gallows; but men without a warrant apprehend us and execute us without trial when Mr. Cox, your representative, is here and he has not even prepared a trial.”

At Douglas’ request, Cox provided further information about the murder of Pierre Cherbart and the chain of events that led to Saul’s lynching. James Douglas decided to let the matter drop and no action was taken to apprehend the men responsible. He was sensitive to the fact that the crime happened on American soil. This did not sit well with the Okanagan people.

W.G. Cox was transferred to other gold fields and John Haynes was brought in from Osoyoos to look after the Rock Creek office.

By the fall of 1861, the easy diggings at Rock Creek were played out. At the same time, stories of rich gold strikes in the Cariboo began to circulate. The miners departed with the first fall of snow.

Faro: The gambling card game of the BC gold rush

Among the first to arrive at a mining camp on the heels of the gold seekers were saloon keepers and faro bankers. In the mid 1800s, the gambling card game of Faro was very popular because it was simple, fast-paced, and the odds were good that a player would win if the game was played honestly.

James Anderson, known as the bard of Barkerville, didn’t have many kind words to say about gamblers and their game of faro. He wrote a song called “Come Back Faro” in which he describes the faro dealer:

I’ll sing you now a mournful song,
All of a fine old man,
Who liv’d some years in Cariboo,
All by his sleight of han’

I’ve often watched his little game,
And even been case-keeper;
And tho’ his eyes were pretty sharp,
I’ve sometimes nailed a sleeper.

Some say old Faro was a rogue,
Tho’ tis not my belief;
But if he were—then I’m sure
Young Lansquenet’s a thief.

The roots of faro can be traced back to the game of ‘Landsquenet’ played by Teutonic foot soldiers in the 1400s. The game was eventually called ‘Pharaoh’, because some of the playing cards used had an Egyptian king’s face on the backs of the cards. This was then simplified to ‘Faro’.

The game was also referred to as ‘Bucking the Tiger’ because in earlier times, many faro boards folded up into a wooden box which featured a Bengal tiger on the back.

How To Play Faro

Professional gamblers would set up their faro boards and case keepers at a saloon and wait for miners to bet their hard-earned gold dust. Faro was a fast game so it was necessary for a faro banker to have two assistants; one to watch the crowd for cheaters and one to keep track of the cards that had been dealt by moving the discs in the case-keeper.

faro board

faro board

A faro board was simply a board covered with a cloth and on it were pasted (or painted) 13 cards of one suit, usually spades. Across the top, nearest the dealer, was printed the words, ‘High Card’.

Players or ‘punters’ as they were referred to, would purchase chips called ‘counters’ from the ‘banker’ who ran the game.

Players would choose which of the 13 cards they wanted to bet on and lay their chips on them, or if they wanted to place their bet on two or more they would place their chips in between or at the corner. Players who placed wagers on the high-card bar were betting that the winning card (the second card drawn) would be higher than the losing card (the first card drawn). High cards were ranked from Ace (the lowest) to highest.

faro case-keeper

faro case-keeper

Playing cards in the mid 1800s didn’t have any numbers or letters on them.

When all the bets were placed, the banker would shuffle and cut the pack of playing cards, then place them face up in a dealing box. The first card was set aside.

The faro banker took out the next two cards from the deck.

Bets matching the first card lost. Bets matching the second card face up on the deck, won. Whether the card was in the same suite (diamonds, spades, hearts, clubs) didn’t matter.

Each pair of cards was called a ‘turn’. There were 25 ‘turns’ to a game. The first and last cards in the deck weren’t played.

If a player put a ‘copper’ (a token) on top of his or her bet, that was betting a card would lose instead of win.

Whenever there were two of kind in a turn, (two kings, two kings etc) then the dealer took half the chips staked on them. In an honest game, this could occur about three times in two deals, however, some dealers were often accused of stacking the deck in their favour.

Cheating at Faro

A dealer could tamper with the cards beforehand. Often times the dealer could tell what cards would be next because the dealing boxes were rigged with special levers or plates that would allow two cards to be taken out at the same time. With a sleight of hand, the dealer could change the sequence of a deck. Because of the game of Faro was so fast some of these tricky moves would have been hard to catch.

Players could cheat as well and some of them had creative ways of moving their chips around before anyone could notice.

Bucking The Tiger

The British Colonist published a letter to the editor on February 4, 1862 about a ‘Faro Bank’ in Victoria:

…six more non-professional gamblers…have been among the constant feeders of this Royal Bengal Tiger and…several more of the regular hangers-on or “ropes”.

I heard a great many strange statements from one and another of the “sports” – but the strangest of all was that “‘the Police were all right'”. In other words, that the force had been bribed not to interfere with the game…several of the victims have declared their intention to feed the tiger no more. They have suffered greatly, and assert openly that they have been “hogged.”

I hear that the next steamer will bring us some more sporting gents, fully prepared to open business at an hour’s notice.

The term ‘sporting gentlemen’ was often used when referring to professional gamblers.

Types of gold pans and spoons used in the BC gold rush

Before the Fraser River gold rush got off to a flying start in 1858, Nlaka’pamux who lived by the Thompson River were bringing gold lightn1ngs and gold dust to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Kamloops.

When news reached Fort Victoria, the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to send them some spoons. What did the spoons look like? What were they made of? For many years, this remained a mystery to me.

The other mystery which has perplexed me for years was the paintings by William Hind which show miners wearing a object tucked into their sash next to a mug.

In the course of digging up information for this blog post on gold pans, these two mysteries have been solved.

horn spoon

horn spoon

In the early days of the California gold rush, prospectors used ‘spoons’ made from cattle horns that were steamed and pressed to allow a person to use them as a scoop. The juvenile fiction book, “By the Great Horn Spoon” describes a horn spoon as half a bullock horn, from 6 to 8 inches long and up to 3 inches wide.

‘spoon’ gold pan made from mountain goat horn

This was copied and revised by the Natives further north who used the horns of mountain goats and shaped them into a shape that resembled a pinched frying pan.

So when the Hudson’s Bay Company met in Fort Victoria and talked of sending more ‘spoons’ to Fort Kamloops which the Natives to use for gold panning – they were referring to iron ‘spoons’ forged by their blacksmith.

blacksmith forged ‘spoon’

The blacksmith forged ‘spoon’ could have been similar to the type of one that was sent by the HBC to their fort.

iron spoon with long handle

iron spoon with long handle

Another example of an iron spoon is one that was typically used in the 19th century. Some people referred to it as a tasting spoon or a ladle. It was often found in pioneer cabins near the hearth and what could be more handier?

Consider this description of a Californian miner from G.A. Fleming’s book “California, its past history, its present position and future prospects” published in 1850:

“Occasionally, he dug the dust out of crevices with his long iron spoon and trowel, and found eight or nine dollars’ worth in a place not larger than one’s finger…a sheath-knife…was always worn in the belt used instead of suspenders, and to which was often attached that very useful article in the “diggings,” a long iron spoon, employed both to cook and mine with…”

Now, look at William Hind’s painting titled “Miner, Rocky Mountains” and you will see what definitely looks like an iron spoon tucked into his belt.

Gold pans are the most basic of mining equipment and there are almost as many types of gold pans as hats.



For thousands of years, people in South America have used a cone-shaped wooden bowl called a batea to wash the gravel. They vary in size but typically are wider than American-style gold pans and because of the wood, fine grains of gold are easily captured by it.

The batea is challenging to work with, but the idea of taking in a larger amount of gravel at a time soon caught on. The early gold pans were simply known as ‘washing pans’ because that is what a prospector did with them – they would gather up some gravel and water and swirl it around, literally washing the gravel.

1850s gold washing pan made from tin

Tinsmiths made gold pans that were tapered at the bottom like this one.

Inspired by the size of the batea, people starting making gold pans of a bigger size. The one I drew is based on a 19th century gold pan measuring 55 cm by 12.5 cm. The gold pans were made from steel. Oil was added in the manufacturing process to prevent the pan from rusting.

19th century gold pan made from steel

In the 1860s, Dickson, Campbell & Co. made galvanized steel “gold washing machines, different sizes” in Victoria at the corner of Johnson and Wharf Streets.

Many prospectors took their new ‘gold washing machine’ otherwise known as a gold pan and cured it over a campfire. This did two things – remove any oils which would cause fine gold to float out of the pan and also give the pan a bluish tinge which provided a greater contrast when gold appeared.

The Gold Escort in the BC gold rush

In 1860, the gold commissioner for the Cariboo Philip Nind recommended to Governor Douglas that a gold escort be instituted to strengthen the government presence and as a service to miners who feared the long hill leading up the bluffs on the south side of the South Fork River, near Quesnel Forks where they were easy prey for robbers.

The government also saw the advantage of a gold escort because it would be a way to get more business to the government assay office in New Westminster. Most of the miners (who were American) preferred to send their gold dust on steamers south to San Francisco to get a better rate of return. On July 9, 1861 the British Colonist reported:

“Treasurer Gosset has succeeded in one of his pet hobbies by getting the machinery of a Gold Escort in working order…The route of the escort will be from New Westminster to the Forks of Quesnel River via Port Douglas and Cayoosh [Lillooet]. Ex-Justice Thomas Elwyn of Cayoosh will have charge of the route from Cayoosh to the Forks of Quesnel; and will be accompanied by a sergeant and four soldiers of the Royal Sappers and Miners mounted. The escort from Cayoosh to Douglas will be under the charge of Mr. Hankin and two mounted policemen.”

It was initially reported that to have one’s gold dust transported by the Gold Escort would cost  one shilling per ounce (for trip Quesnel to Lillooet) or sixpence per ounce (Lillooet to New Westminster). Later, the government broke down the charges even further.

Initially, express companies were concerned about this new competition coming from the government, but the Gold Escort couldn’t match the delivery times of the express companies and nor would they guarantee the safety of one’s gold. In addition there were problems with those put in charge.

Quite a few officers quit when Mr. Hankin had them perform menial tasks – including cleaning his boots and looking after his horse and not allowing them to sit and take meals with him.

When Philip Nind returned in 1863 from a lengthy absence (having gone to England for almost two years to recuperate), he was put in charge of the ill-fated Gold Escort.

The Escort left Williams Creek on July 15, 1863 with about $50,000 in gold dust and on reaching Port Douglas, found that they were too late for the steamer. Captain Nind and five others came down to New Westminster in a canoe and they deposited the treasure with the government assay office.

Nind thought that he brought down one third of the gold then available on the creek. One horse died on the way up and Captain Nind’s own horse died on July 8th near the New Westminster cricket ground.

The British Columbian newspaper, which had always been a critic of the Gold Escort printed this poem, “Poor Old Horse, let Him Die”.

Come drop a tear, for this poor horse
Had once a decent name;
But alas! he joined the Escort,
And died of grief and shame.
And now no more he’ll follow up,
The cart along the track,
Nor clamber over the mountains,
With a “Greeny” on his back.
Then may the “grey backs” ne’er disturb
His bones—where they now rest—
For well they know that while he lived
He always did his best.

A few weeks later, on August 8, 1863 the British Columbian reported:

“Notwithstanding  the effort made in Victoria to induce the public to patronise the Escort, Dietz & Nelson’s Express  carried up a larger number of letters on Wednesday than it has ever done before.”

Sore feet and walking canes in the gold rush

In the early years of the gold rush before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, travelling to the Cariboo gold diggings was not an easy task. There were no horses or mules to ride; it was necessary to walk the narrow trails. Weary prospectors whose face and hands were covered in mosquitoe bites were not picky about where they stayed for the night.

Here are some journal entries from the ‘gold seeker’s diary’ from May, 1863:

Monday 18th. Set out at seven am. It rained from then till 2pm. Travelled 23 miles. Flat country, thickly timbered. Slept on the floor of the 70 mile house. A night scene in one of these extemporised inns would be an amusing novelty to a high-toned civilised Londoner. Might be compared to a robber’s cave. The floor covered with blanketted bodies. On the counter sleeps the bar-keeper, to guard the liquors from any traveller that might, in a fit of thirst, so far forget himself as to get up in the night, put forth his hand without permission, and moisten his throat…

Wednesday, 20th. Off about 7am. A heavy snow storm. Snowed at intervals during the day. A beautiful looking country…I would not wish for a prettier spot for a farm. Travelled 28 miles; feel a little tired. My feet quite sound. Some of our party in a bad state with sore feet. Put up at the ‘Blue Tent’. Paid $1.50 for supper, and slept comfortably on the floor.

In the Victorian era, ‘walking canes’ were necessary to help one travel.  On July 27, 1864, the British Colonist reported a man charged with stealing someone’s walking cane:

Peter Reilly was charged yesterday in the Police Court, with walking off with a walking cane, the property of Philip Lewis, creating a disturbance in the premises of complainant. The accused said he had been indulging in potent draughts, and was not aware that he had abstracted the prosecutor’s property. The case was remanded for one day for further evidence.

The first sewing machine in the BC gold rush

In 1846, the sewing machine was invented. Isaac Singer made a series of other improvements in 1850 and 1851, making curved stitching possible and replacing the hand wheel with a treadle.

SewingMachBy the time of the BC gold rush, there was a demand for sewing machines. This ad for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines appeared in the British Colonist newspaper in 1859.

This would have a made a huge impact on the availability of clothing. That same year a “Ladies’ Benevolent Society” was formed “for relieving the sick and clothing the naked.” One can imagine what a difference these sewing machines would have made.

Trousers made of canvas or denim were essential for prospectors working the creeks. These could now be made by sewing machines. Most miners had to learn how to make their own repairs with a needle and thread themselves.

Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine (credit McCord Museum)

In the meantime, young aboriginal women were taught the old ways of making clothing. At their Cowichan convent, the Sisters of Saint Ann taught “young female Indians and half-breeds” to card wool.

In the eariy 1860s it was proposed that the Songhees women of Victoria be put to work in a laundry, while others thought instruction in needlework would be better.

Mrs. Reynard and Mrs. Hills taught Aboriginal women to knit stockings in Victoria’s Humbolt Street mission in the late 186Os.

News Correspondents in the BC Gold Rush

During the gold rush, newspapers in the colonies of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island didn’t have their own reporters in the field to report on events. Instead, they encouraged ‘correspondents’ to write to them with news and information.

In its very first issue (February 13, 1861), the British Columbian newspaper put out a call for news correspondents:

As yet we have not had an opportunity of organizing our staff of agents and correspondents, and consequently are not in a position to give our readers that variety of colonial, and other information which we desire…give us your best thoughts upon every useful and important topic, either in the shape of short and pithy articles for publication, or facts and suggestions for our own use.

It is our desire to have one or more good correspondents in every locality of importance in British Columbia, in order that we may be kept thoroughly ‘posted’ in the wants and resources of the colony.

The newspaper was overwhelmed with a response from its readers.

…it will not be in our power to publish one-half of the communications now coming to hand…We shall always be glad to receive communications long or short…but our correspondents must not feel hurt if we should not always find it convenient to make room for their communications.

The British Colonist in Victoria had regular news correspondents and these people were given code names like ‘Argus’ or ‘Puss-in-the-corner’. Very rarely were they identified by their real names.

Reporting on the events in the Fraser River gold rush, ‘Puss-in-the-corner’ had some damning things to say about the Assistant Gold Commissioner Travaillot based in Lytton on June 6, 1859:

From miners arriving from Lytton city, we daily receive accounts of the outrageous conduct of Travailie [sic], the Crown Commissioner. If these accounts be correct, he is little better than a drunken sot, and otherwise totally unfit for the responsible position to which he has been elevated.

Work boots and brogans of the BC gold rush

Good boots were essential to a gold miner. S.G. Hathaway describes packing his load of supplies along the Harrison-Lillooet trail in 1862:

After sailing up the Fraser River about 45 miles we turned into Harrison river, & 5 miles brought us to where it widened into a beautiful lake [Harrison]  from one to 6 or 8 miles wide & 45 miles long. I wish you could see it. Snowy mountains & rocky cliffs rising straight up from the water, shutting out all the world but the blue sky overhead; islands and sharp points running out into the lake- making a picture of wild grandeur different from anything I ever saw before. We got to the upper end at 10 o’clock at night, where there is a shanty village called Port Douglas. Got our things ashore & blundered around in the dark to find a spot to camp, which we did without much trouble. From Douglas there is 29 miles of land travel to the next lake [Little Lillooet Lake], where we are now.

The next morning after landing we loaded the mule & made up packs for ourselves, each one carrying from 30 to 40 pounds, & away we went. It was very warm, my pack bore down heavy & my boots – iron heeled, soles nearly an inch thick & driven full of round-headed nails – gave my poor feet a sorry rasping. I had too much clothing, & was soon drenched in sweat. We staggered along some 4 miles & stopped for dinner & a few hours rest; then we bucked to it again & stopped for the night after making altogether about 10 miles.

Hobnailed boots were made with very thick soles that were almost completely covered with hobnails and the stout heels were protected by a horseshoe-shaped iron tip.

Another name for hob nails is clout-nails: short nails with large heads for the soles of strong shoes.

A notice for an auction in Victoria dated July 15, 1861 had a list of items for sale including:

full nailed calf boots
full nailed calf and kip boots with steel heels
heavy grained leather boots
kip and calf boots with two rows of nails
kip and calf brogans

Brogans: a heavy, coarse shoe described as being ‘between a boot and a shoe’. Hobnailed boots of this style were made by Irish craftsmen –– bootmakers called ‘Greasai Bróg’ in Irish; hence the name Brogans.

Kip is the hide of a small or young animal, i.e. calfskin. So kip brogans might be brogan style shoes made from calfskin.

Frank Beegan, boot and shoemaker in Victoria, had an advertisement in September 4, 1860 for: “New Boots $11  Footed Boots $8   made of best calf skin”

Up until this period, it was not uncommon for men to buy boots which were made on straight ‘lasts’ and therefore were interchangeable between right and left feet, supposedly for longer wear. These boots were referred to as ‘square-toed’ boots.

Music during the BC gold rush

Music was an essential part of daily life during the gold rush years in British Columbia. Musical instruments were much more difficult to acquire unless gold seekers managed to bring a violin or flute with them.

One of the Overlanders of 1862 recalled a typical evening on the prairies during the first part of their journey to the Cariboo:

“An association of musicians was formed on the trail. After supper, many others amused themselves on different kinds of brass instruments, clarinets, flutes, violins and a concerteena…At Edmonton, the musicians gave a concert to a crowded house…”

Some of the Royal Engineers were trained as musicians and provided welcome entertainment to the citizens of Fort Victoria.

The Victoria Philharmonic Society was formed in 1859 with forty members who paid $5 to join. Flutes, violins and other stringed instruments were very popular. Barrel organs and pianofortes as they were known, were coveted items and brought at great expense and effort.

James Loring purchased an upright piano and had it shipped as far as Quesnel and from there four men carried it in its crate for 60 miles to Barkerville. The hurdy gurdy was a popular stringed instrument during the Cariboo gold rush and dancers were known as ‘hurdy gurdies’.

hurdy gurdy player

playing a hurdy gurdy (creative commons image)