Tag Archives: Cariboo gold rush

The Lillooet Fire of 1866

The Lillooet Fire of 1866 was significant because the town lost all three bakeries. How did the fire start?

The night was damp and cool and everyone was staying warm either at a saloon or in their own log cabin. Mr. Defoe’s bakery was just another dark shadow on the street. Inside, Mr. Defoe was just closing the door to his kitchen where he had spent several hours baking pies, cakes and bread for sale the next day. His tin stove was hot but he didn’t notice anything unusual before he treated himself to a glass of whiskey courtesy of Spellman’s saloon and went to his room out the back.

Half past midnight on March 19th, a Chinese fellow was walking home from a night of playing fan tan. He walked the familiar road thinking about his Bridge River claim. There was more gold there he was sure of it. Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention as he walked past Defoe’s bakery. He turned and looked but didn’t see anything. There it was again. An orange spark flew out. He ran around the back where the baker lived and banged on the door. But there was no answer.

He kicked the door open. Defoe was lying on his bed. The air was thick with smoke. Coughing, he grabbed Defoe and yanked him to the floor. The impact woke up the baker.

Fire! Get out!

He dragged Defoe stumbling to his feet and out the door before Defoe had a chance to  get dressed and grab his shoes.

Seconds later fire shot through the roof and it collapsed over the spot where he’d been sleeping. For a brief few seconds Defoe stood stunned while everything he had worked for went up in flames.

Lillooet Fire of 1866

Lillooet Fire

The explosion sent a rush of people onto the street. Among them was the town’s doctor and surgeon H.F. Featherstone who recorded the following for The British Columbian newspaper:

As usual in such cases, there was neither water, hooks nor ladders, otherwise it might have been arrested at the second building, which was a log house; the next was a Balloon building, and the boards full of pitch, which was entirely consumed in ten minutes; the fourth and last was fortunately an extensive old log house, which took some time to get into flames. Fortunately there was eighty or ninety feet space between the next.

Blankets and water were freely applied which saved it. Great credit is due to the native citizens for the great agility they displayed in fetching water in barrels; they seemed to try to  [outdo] each other. The flames were visible at the Fountain, a distance of eight miles. Many parties put their goods into the middle of the street; but had both sides caught [fire], they would have all been consumed. Everyone lent a willing hand. The chief of the contents were saved.

After the fire was extinguished everyone who had fought the blaze were given liquors and cigars at Parker & Spellman’s saloon.  The surgeon was quick to point out that although “many of the boys got jolly”, the morning broke without anyone needing his attention from fights with pistols or knives.

No Bread The Next Day

Mr. Defoe [was] seen busily engaged clearing away the rubbish from around his oven ready to go bread-baking again. Messrs. Sproat & Baily displayed equal energy, rented a building, and were ready at early dawn, with smiling faces, to supply their friends and the public generally with gin slings, cocktails, etc.; tonight they propose having a great ball and supper…

Strange to say, three of the houses destroyed were Bakeries, and the only ones in town, so that at breakfast we were without bread, and had to introduce the old original slap-jack, or frying pan bread

The names of the sufferers are Mon. Defoe, baker and whiskey saloon restaurant; Messrs. Martin & Co., bakery and whiskey saloon; Messrs. Sproat & Bailey, saloon and dancing academy; and Mr. Casper Herber, bakery…

Estimated loss by the Lillooet fire was $7,500.

Barrels of Beans and Square Meals in the BC Gold Rush

What is a square meal? A square meal in the gold rush was one that kept gold seekers full all day and gave them enough energy so they could hike the long trails to the gold diggings. The term ‘square meal’ was a common term with Americans as the term square meant ‘right’ or ‘proper’.

The ad below from Hardie’s Hotel in New Westminster advertised ‘square meals’ for 50 cents.

square meal

square meal

Beans and bacon were considered food staples back then. A 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.”

From pipes to puncheons – barrels of food and liquor



Most of the food that made up a ‘square meal’ was brought by ship in wooden casks and barrels. These barrels ranged in size depending on what they were containing.

Salted beef and pork came in wooden casks called ‘tierces’ which contained 42 gallons.

Liquor was imported in different types of wooden barrels.

A ‘hogshead’  typically contained 63 old wine gallons or 54 old beer gallons. A ‘pipe’ contained twice as much.

Rum and whiskey came in ‘puncheons’ and each puncheon typically held about 84 gallons.

Here is a list of some other types of food that were imported:

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
Edinburgh Ale in stone jugs or bulk
bottled porter
India Pale Ale in pints and quarts
dried apples
hot whiskey punches

Looking for a ‘square meal’

A ‘square meal’ was nearly impossible to find in the Cariboo as Viscount Milton and Dr. Cheadle discovered when they stayed at J.D. Cusheon’s hotel in 1863:

“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 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.”

How the gold rush town of Richfield nearly became Elwyntown

It was bitterly cold in the winter of 1861 and William ‘Dutch Bill’ Dietz only had time to stake a claim at an unnamed creek before being forced to turn back. He named the creek after himself as a way of marking the claim. Sensing that Dutch Bill had found something big, Ned Stout and three others travelled by snowshoe to ‘William’s Creek’ and they too found gold.

Word soon got out and by the first week of March 1862 many more prospectors soon arrived at Williams Creek. They built shafts on the hillsides and as the ice retreated from the creek itself, it became possible for all claims to be worked. Shacks and business establishments were built close by and a town emerged with stores, restaurants and saloons.

Assistant Gold Commissioner Nind based in Williams Lake was overworked with covering the entire Cariboo district as more mining claims were being registered and disputes needed to be resolved. Nind’s health began to suffer and he requested a leave of absence in early May.

Thomas Elwyn

Thomas Elwyn, the former magistrate for Lillooet, was named Nind’s replacement and upon seeing the amount of work to be done, recommended that the Cariboo be divided into two districts. Peter O’Reilly was assigned the western district while Elwyn was appointed head of the eastern section which included the area of Williams Creek.

By the end of May, 1862 more than twenty businesses were established to serve the needs of the prospectors who numbered over five hundred. Soon though, the deplorable state of the trails made it nearly impossible to bring supplies.

High food prices proved to be too much of a hardship for many miners who had arrived with a small amount of provisions on their backs and little money. Many left the Cariboo altogether.

Those miners who pooled their resources were able to stay and reap the profits of their claims. In one month, Cunningham & Company took out gold at the rate of three thousand dollars every twenty-four hours. Steele & Company’s claims yielded two hundred ounces a day.

On the last day of August, Judge Begbie arrived and the first Grand Jury was assembled in the newly constructed courthouse. Among the topics discussed was a name for the town.  The jury recommended it be called ‘Elwyntown’ after Thomas Elwyn.

‘Elwyntown’ didn’t make it on the map. Instead, Lieutenant Palmer, in his role as Deputy Commissioner of Lands and Works, decided upon the name Richfield.

Richfield retained its significance even as Barkerville grew and the neighbouring towns of Cameronton and Marysville were established in 1863 and 1864.



Backpacking food on the BC gold rush trail

What did gold seekers eat on the way to the gold diggings? In 1862, there weren’t many roadhouses because the Cariboo Waggon Road was just being built. Most of the gold rush miners were backpacking food if they were to survive the long journey from Victoria to the camps in the Cariboo region. Carrying food on one’s back could get really heavy. That’s why compressed, dried vegetables were so appealing – that even stands true for today’s hikers.

advertisement for dried vegetables March 27, 1862

Victoria advertisement for dried vegetables March 27, 1862

This advertisement from the British Colonist reads:

Dried Vegetables. On hand and for sale a few cases of Superior Dried Vegetables.
From their extreme portability, these are very desirable for conveyance to the Mines.
A small case weighing about 100 lbs. only containing nearly 1800 rations. They sold
for a very high price in Cariboo last year. For sale by JANION & GREEN.”

In 1846, a few years before the French Revolution, the head gardener for King Louis-Philippe invented a process by which kiln-dried vegetables, herbs, and fruits could be compressed. It turned out that this invention, which vastly reduced the original weight and bulk of the food, was a valued necessity during the Crimean War (1853-1856) when both British and French troops had to keep well fed and travel at the same time. The vegetables were mixed, dried and compressed under rules laid down by the International Anglo-French Military & Naval Medical Commission. The renowned chef Alexis Soyer was the Chief Inspector of Army Cookery.

Vegetables were cleaned, washed, peeled, sliced and slightly steamed before being dried in kilns and on trays where they exposed to hot dry air. Once dried they were mixed according to the proportions suggested by the military commission:
Potato: 40
Carrot: 30
Cabbage: 10
Turnip: 10
Seasoning herbs (onion, leek, celery, parsley, parsnip, etc): 10

The vegetables were then compressed by machine to one-eighth of their original bulk into molds where they were formed into square slabs almost an inch thick and grooved so they could be divided evenly afterward at the rate of one ounce per ration.

The Hudson’s Bay Company imported compressed dried vegetables especially onions which were considered good for the stomach when made into soup. Also onions were considered a good remedy for those who had drank too much liquor.


1862: Backpacking food on the gold rush trail

Pemmican and Berries in the BC gold rush

What did gold miners eat in the gold rush?  Many brought flour, salt pork and beans, but they soon saw value in the edible plants that were found growing near the trails such as ‘miner’s lettuce’. Vitamin-rich plants were often identified by names in the Chinook trading language. Here are just a few:



Olallie: salmonberry
Amote: wild strawberry
Camas: ‘sweet’ starchy bulb

Miners in the Cariboo gold rush would often stop to eat wild strawberries on their way to the gold diggings. Harry Jones recalled in his diary that he spent almost an afternoon eating his fill of strawberries while some others even became lost in their pursuit of the tasty berry.

Overlanders travelling through the Prairies would have purchased or traded for pemmican. The word ‘pemmican’ comes from the Cree language: pimii ‘fat’ + kan ‘prepared’.

Buffalo meat was dried and then braised over a fire. After, it was laid out on buffalo skin and pounded with stone mallets until it was tenderized. At this stage it was called ‘beat meat’. Bags made of buffalo skin, called taureaux or parflèches by fur traders, were sewn up and half-filled with ‘beat meat’ then buffalo fat was poured into the bag.  Dried berries such as chokecherries, saskatoonberries or golden currants were added.

Each bag was stirred before being sewn tight. Then it was rotated every so often to prevent the fat from settling to the bottom. Pemmican had a long shelf life and the bags even withstood being dumped overboard from a canoe.

‘Rubbaboo’ was a soup made by chopping pemmican, some wild onions, a few roots of prairie turnip and a chunk of salt pork. Some flour could have been added to make it the consistency of a stew.

The name ‘rubbaboo’ was derived from a combination of words from various languages: the Ojibwa and Cree words for soup, ‘nempup’ and ‘apu’; the Alongquin word for the meat that has been pounded (the first stage of the pemmican making process) ‘ruhiggan’; and finally a word from 18th Century naval slang, ‘burgoo’ which referred to oatmeal gruel eaten by sailors.

James Carnegie, who travelled across the Prairies in 1859 wrote about pemmican in his journal which was later published, “Saskatchewan and The Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel.”

Pemmican is most endurable when uncooked. My men used to fry it with grease, sometimes stirring in flour, and making a flabby mess, called ‘rubbaboo’ which I found most uneatable. Carefully made pemmican, such as that flavoured with the Saskootoom berries…or the sheep-pemmican given us by the Rocky Mountain hunters, is nearly good—but, in two senses, a little of it goes a long way.

Cariboo Slang

On August 6, 1863, during the Cariboo gold rush, The Daily Colonist printed a list of words and phrases that were commonly heard in the Cariboo in the form of a miners’ proclamation. Here is my shortened list of ‘Cariboo Slang’ that was originally compiled by a miner named William Hazeltine.

“fizzled,” “played out,” “petered,” “caved,” and “gone up a flume” – a worthless claim or a person that is ruined, helpless, dead, or in debt
“pile,” “the dust,” Spondulix,” the colour,” and “bottom dollar” – legal tender
“honest miner” – every person entitled to mine
“on it” – a willingness to buy, sell, or get drunk
“on the make” – a determination to make money honestly
“on the sell” – a willingness to sell
“on the buy” – a willingness to purchase
“you bet your boots” –  equivalent to “you bet your life”
“chain lightning” – very ardent spirits;
“mountain howitzer” – liquor that kills at over 1000 yards
“grey backs” – the gold escort
“in a horn” and  “in a hog’s eye” – refusal; equivalent to “no you don’t”
“vamoose the ranch,” “slope,” and “make tracks” – individual has left for parts unknown
“got the dead wood on him” – when someone has an advantage over someone else
“spotted” – a person is being watched
“sock it to him” and “give him fists” – punish
“jawbone” – credit provided
“nare a color” and “nare a red” – dead broke
“gone up a flume” – in trouble
“slum-gullion” – clay
“pay-dirt” – dirt containing gold
“good prospect” – where there is plenty of “pay dirt”
“wash boulders” “wash gravel” “bedrock pitching” – indications of gold
“jumper” a person who takes another miner’s claim because it is paying

Transportation directly to the Cariboo: not as advertised

A series of letters written in the autumn and winter of 1861-2, by London Times correspondent Donald Fraser, created a somewhat rosy picture of travel to the Cariboo gold diggings. He spoke of stagecoaches on the proposed Cariboo Wagon Road, giving readers the impression that travel was easy.

Several thousand people who read Fraser’s accounts were excited to undertake the journey to British Columbia in the spring of 1862. Almost overnight, so-called transportation companies were formed and advertised their services.

Upon their arrival in Victoria, some prospective gold seekers from England  brought with them the notices which pictured the carriages that were to carry them from Yale. They had been lead to believe their tickets for transportation directly to the Cariboo, as advertised. They were in for a rude awakening. In 1862, there were only trails north of Yale; provisions had to be carried on one’s back for the length of the journey.

One of the fraudulent companies to take advantage of the situation was the British Columbia Overland Transportation Company which promised to carry passengers across the continent in ‘comfortable carriages’ for the moderate sum of 40 guineas per person (approximately $500 in today’s money).

A group of 30 Englishmen responded to the advertisement and travelled with an agent for the company, James Hayward, from England to St. Paul, Minnesota. There they were supposed to meet up with the company’s agent from Toronto, H.S. Hime. Not surprisingly, Hime wasn’t able to make the travel arrangements.

After waiting several days in St. Paul, several of the people in the group decided to return to England, Hayward included. Others in the group thought they could proceed to the Red River settlement and stay there until the following spring or go on to British Columbia if it wasn’t too late.

On October 10, 1862, the British Colonist printed a letter from one of the Overlanders dated June 1, 1862 sent from Fort Garry:

“I think we have now got things well arranged, and intend to start tomorrow. We have three [red river] carts and oxen between us. Each man has 150lbs. of flour, and about 70lbs. of pemmican, a great advantage on a long journey.

We expect to travel at the rate of 20 to 25 miles a day, and to be at Jasper’s House in about 40 or 50 days, and then cross the mountains to the Cariboo, about 20 days more; the time allowed, however, is three months…

There are over 100 fellows here waiting to go. About five companies of us have formed into a party numbering about 70. We are determined to go ‘through,’ calculating to go faster than if we all went separately, and by which we shall get besides more game on the way. We have hired for £20 sterling, a competent guide, a native of Edmonton, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts on our route…

To get along in this part one needs to know a little French. The governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company was at St. Paul’s when we arrived there….It was he who supplied us with the flour and pemmican, and has been doing everything he can to assist us through, giving us letters to the officers at all the Company’s posts on the way.

We have found the settlers all along a pleasant, hospitable set of people. Here they are divided into two settlements, Scotch and French, but the Scotch is by far the larger settlement.”

Williams Creek: Windlass and Waterwheel

In his book, “Very Far West Indeed: A Few Rough Experiences on the North-West Pacific Coast”, Richard Byron Johnson recalled his travels to the Cariboo during the gold rush. In the chapter on Williams Creek, Johnson described the chaotic scene near Richfield.

“The unfortunate little stream had been treated in the most ignominious manner. A little above the town it flowed along silvery and clear as had been wont to do; but soon inroads were made upon its volume in the shape of ditches cut from it, and continued along the sides of the hills, to feed the huge over-shot waterwheels that appeared in all directions. Then its course became diverted into five or six different channels, which were varied every now and then as the miners sought to work the surface formerly covered by them.

At intervals dirty streams were poured forth by the sluices, in which the earth dug from beneath was being washed by the water; and here and there the stream was insulted by being shut up for a few hundred yards in a huge wooden trough, called a ‘flume.’

Across the breadth of the little valley was a strange heterogeneous gathering of smaller flumes, carrying water to the different diggings and supported at various heights from the ground by props, windlasses at the mouths of shafts, waterwheels, banks of ‘tailings’ (the refuse earth washed through the sluices), and miners’ log huts.

On the sides of the hills the primeval forests had been cleared for a short distance upwards, to provide timber for mining purposes, and logs for the huts. These abodes were more numerous on the hillsides than in the bottom of the valley, as being more safe from removal.

The town comprised the ordinary series of rough wooden shanties, stores, restaurants, grog shops, and gambling saloons; and, on a little eminence, the official residence, tenanted by the Gold Commissioner and his assistants and one policeman, with the British flag permanently displayed in front of it, looked over the whole.

In and out of this nest the human ants poured all day and night, for in wet-sinking the labour must be kept up without ceasing all through the twenty-four hours, Sundays included. It was a curious sight to look down the Creek at night, and see each shaft with its little fire, and its lantern, and the dim ghostly figures gliding about from darkness into light, like the demons at a Drury Lane pantomime, while an occasional hut was illuminated by some weary labourer returning from his nightly toil.



The word here seemed to be work, and nothing else; only round the bar-rooms and the gambling tables were a few loafers and gamblers to be seen. Idling was too expensive a luxury in a place where wages were from two to three pounds per day, and flour sold at six shillings a pound.

The mingling of noises was as curious as that of objects. From the hills came the perpetual cracking and thudding of axes, intermingling with the crash of falling trees, and the grating undertone of the saws, as they fashioned the logs into planks and boards.

From the bottom of the valley rose the splashing and creaking of waterwheels, the grating of shovels, the din of the blacksmith’s hammer sharpening pickaxes, and the shouts passed from the tops of the numerous shafts to the men below, as the emptied bucket was returned by the windlass.”

Vices and Stolen Firewood

In the early 1860s, the cost of living during the Cariboo gold rush was extremely high. Eggs and candles cost a dollar each while sugar and flour averaged a dollar per pound. The candles were made from marlin fat and could burn for six or seven hours.

Complaints of high prices were explained with the cryptic phrase, “it’s the freight.” Freight was a factor. Goods had to be back-packed from Quesnel Forks to Barkerville via Keithley and Antler Creeks. There were only narrow trails at this time; no roads existed.

Each gold seeker packed anywhere from 80 to 100 pounds of provisions, not including a pair of snowshoes. The trip took four to five days and this meant they had to sleep in the bush or build themselves a snow cave to lie in.

There is the story of Gai Sai who “packed over the trail a barrel of rum that weighed in excess of 100 pounds” not to mention his food and cooking pail.

In addition to bringing provisions, the gold seekers also brought with them their vices. One of them was opium spoking which was prevalent amongst the Chinese. Containers of opium were made of horn or bone and sold in various weights for ten cents up to a dollar. The dollar containers were about four inches long and an inch in diameter.

Opium smoking produced a foul taste in the mouth, and regular users always looked for something sweet to eat before retiring late and sleeping until noon the next day.

A Chinese liquor called mui-kwa-lou, which was 75% alcohol, was also consumed.

The sale of lottery tickets and constant gambling left little time for mundane tasks like gathering firewood. Here is a story from Bill Hong’s book, “And So…That’s How it Happened”:

“Characteristic of the early mining centres, female companionship was at a premium, and at least one Chinese had two “sporting girls” living with him. The girls spent many of their summer days on the banks of Lightning Creek, gathering and drying wood which had floated downstream. Large supplies of the heating fuel were necessary for the cool evenings and long winters.

When on one occasion, some of the lazier Chinese men snitched wood from the girls’ piles, their boss—Chan Toy Shan—issued a firm reprimand and branded the men as thieves. Among those scolded was Hun Ah Ton…He took exception to Chan Toy Shan’s reaction, and the two had a spirited quarrel.

Hun stomped over to Coulter Creek where he worked and returned to Stanley with some dynamite and fuse. After waiting until everyone had gone to bed, he went up onto the roof, and stuffed down the stovepipe a salt sack containing six sticks of dynamite.

After lighting the fuse, Hun Ah Ton ducked into a nearby cabin for a smoke of opium while waiting for the explosion that never came. The fuse had become kinked and ineffective.

However, when the two girls arose the next morning and attempted to light the stove, the house soon filled with dense smoke. Aroused from sleep and angry at the girls and the smoke, Chan Toy Shan went to the stove and worked the damper. In twisting the damper back and forth, he released the dynamite-filled sack which fell into the stove. Further investigation revealed details of the plot and Chan and his girls escaped unharmed.”

George Walkem: Cariboo Lawyer and Politician

George Walkem: Cariboo Lawyer and Politician

George Walkem: Cariboo Lawyer and Politician

It’s hard to believe that a Canadian trained lawyer would be denied to practice law in British Columbia, but such was the case for George Walkem.

The Walkem family emigrated from Ireland to Canada East (Quebec) in 1847, when George was thirteen. His father was a member of the Royal Engineers. After he graduated from school, George attended McGill College in Montreal where he studied law. Walkem was called to the bars of both Upper and Lower Canada in 1858 and 1861.

As soon as Walkem heard about the Cariboo gold rush, he ventured west. At first, Walkem advertised his services a lawyer, but Chief Justice Begbie would not hear of allowing Canadian trained lawyers. As a result, Walkem plied his trade unofficially.

Perhaps as a result of being denied his profession, Walkem became interested in politics and no doubt fought to have his education recognized. In 1863, Governor James Douglas passed the Legal Professions Act which allowed non British lawyers to practice. This made a huge difference for Walkem and his business grew.

In 1864, Walkem was elected to the Legislative Council as a representative for Cariboo East which included the gold rush town of Quesnel Forks. From 1862 to 1865, the Cariboo was divided into two parts, Cariboo East with a Gold Commissioner at Quesnelle Forks, and Cariboo West with a Gold Commissioner at Williams Creek (Richfield).

Over the years, Walkem rose in political stature. After British Columbia entered Confederation, he held the position of chief commissioner of Lands and Works, followed by a term as attorney general. From 1874 to 1882, Walkem served as the third premier of the province.