Tag Archives: clothing

Shoemakers and Sore Feet in the Fraser River gold rush

At the onset of the Fraser River Gold rush, most people were still making their own shoes and boots to save money.

In 1856, a popular book was published, “Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker” which showed how to make a shoe that would cost half as much as a store-bought shoe. All that was needed was a pre-cut sole, fabric for the upper, thread and needle.

There were two main methods of making shoes by hand – ‘turned’ and ‘welt’.

The turned method was for shoes with a lightweight upper and flexible sole. Women’s slippers or light dress boots would be made using the turned method. A popular style of shoe for women in the 1850s was the gaitor or Congress boot, either laced or with elastic sides.

gaitor boot for women

gaitor boot for women


The welt method used an insole, outsole, uppers, and a leather strip called a welt. The shoemaker positioned the welt between the upper and insole and sewed them together with one seam along the inner edge of the welt. A thin narrow shank and wood shavings filled the space between the insole and the outsole to add stability to the shoe. A heel was added.

Heavy boots and cheaper shoes, such as brogan, were held together with either pegs or nails. Pegged shoes did not have stitch indentations on the bottom of the outsole since each had its own peg. It is interesting to note that the nails used for constructing shoes left round holes while the pegs were square and left square holes that often skewed to a diamond shape over time. Pegged brogans were often made with a midsole which was a full layer of leather. These made the shoes durable but heavy. Brogans were almost heelless so they were hardly made for walking. Wellington boots had heels but weren’t meant for hiking either.

When the gold rush miners had to walk vast distances every day just to get to the Fraser River gold diggings, they soon started making their own footwear, including moccasins. Here is an excerpt from Herman Reinhart’s diary:

“I never suffered so much in my life as on that trip to the Fraser River. My ankles…would swell up so that I could hardly get along, but I had to drag on anyway. I made me moccosins of carpet from a saddlecloth I had, and I would have to put on a new sole every night after I got into camp. How glad many of us were when we…could sit down and rest our sore feet.”

In February 1858, the Mechanics Magazine published “Certain improvements in the construction of heels for boots and shoes,” by W. Westley.

“These consist of forming an entire or partial rim of metal the shape and height of the heel and the inside of which is filled up with gutta percha, scrap leather, or wood, through which holes may be made for attaching the heel to the boot or shoe. The metallic rim may be be japanned, or covered with steel around the bottom edge; or the rim itself will be made of cast iron, chilled on the under edge, to prevent rapid wearing away.”

A breakthrough in technology came in 1862 when the McKay Stitcher was invented. This machine, based on an earlier invention by shoemaker Lyman Blake, sewed the soles of shoes to the uppers without a welt. A lining then covered the seam that went through to the inside of the shoe. This prevented wear of the stitching thread. The shoes made on this machine came to be called “McKays.”

parts of a Wellington boot

parts of a Wellington boot

Here is a page from my upcoming graphic novel on the Fraser River gold rush. In the first panel I drew a Wellington boot which was commonly worn in the 1850s.


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.

Gold rush clothing: a Nlaka’pamux perspective

The Interior Salish lived along the Fraser River from Spuzzum to Lillooet; along the Thompson River, northward to Ashcroft; and along the Nicola River, eastward to Nicola Lake. The Nlaka’pamux Territory was divided into two main parts—that area below Lytton and that above. In 1858, there were about 2,000 Nlaka’pamux who lived along the Fraser River from near Siska (Cisco), on the north, to Spuzzum on the south. These people were sometimes referred to as the Lower Thompson.

Map of Nlaka'pamux Territory and surrounding peoples

Map of Nlaka’pamux Territory and surrounding peoples

The Lower Thompson wore clothing similar to that of the Upper Stó:lō which included capes and skirts woven of cedar bark. (In the Interior, sagebrush was used similarly to cedar). They also wore robes made of bear, groundhog, or rabbit skins sewn together and woven blankets made from mountain goat wool or dog wool. Buckskin shirts, dresses and leggings. The temperatures in winter in the Yale area were more extreme than downriver, and they were more likely to rely on buckskin clothing. Hunters wore moccasins. Others used dog salmon skins to cover their feet. In the summer and during wet weather, most went barefoot.

When goldseekers descended on the Fraser Canyon, Natives were intrigued by the clothing worn by these newcomers. Before the arrival of Europeans, the concept ‘Indian’ did not exist. People were simply ‘seytknmx’. Within a short time the Nlaka’pamux language had specific terms for Chinese, African, and Jewish people, but all were ‘shama’.

Oral history of the gold rush was passed along from generation to generation in the Nlaka’pamux culture.  Annie York (1904-1991) recalled various stories:

“Indians were very fond of buttons…the Hudson Bay buttons were very fancy. They trimmed their clothing that way. When the women saw broaches, they panned gold and went and got them. They would rub their index finger across their heart – that was the sign for the brooch. Their brooches were made of bone and their earrings of coral, sea shell. But they wanted Hudson Bay brooches and the Hudson Bay got to know that, too.

One white man asked one Indian to pack something from Thompson Siding [Nicomen] to Lytton, and he wouldn’t take money. He wouldn’t take gold pieces. He just wanted a shirt, pants, buttons. He told the white man, “Halo chikaman; just wants iktus”.

And they would buy blankets, Hudson Bay blankets—that’s the main thing they would buy. And goods— cloth—and make their own clothes out of that. Shirts, pants, everything—they made it. The women made those things. They would buy needles and thread, scissors and thimbles. They were the main things.

A white man told Granny’s cousin to watch the camp while he bathed in the water. Old Ki?me, they called him John. He was watching the white man go down to the water, bathing in the water. He watches him having a bath. Took his underwear off. ‘Gosh,’ he says, ‘this is funny, this skin comes off.’ And then they wash their bodies…
He saw the white men shaving their whiskers. And there’s a fire, and they just…throw it and wash it, then put their shirt on and another shirt and pants. So he told the people, ‘You know,’ he says, ‘these people, they’re funny. They got a skin inside. They skin themselves, and then they wash it and wash the other skin, then put another skin on…

They shaved themselves and throw it in the fire, and it smells. Sometimes they clip their whiskers and cut their hair. They throw that into the fire, and it smells. The Indians think that’s very peculiar because the Indians don’t do that to their hair.

Shoes. The Indians were very amused about shoes. They were heavy and made a noise when walking. They scared the animals.

The Indians called the Chinamen, “people with stick over their shoulder.” When they saw the Chinese black shoes, they didn’t like it.”

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.