Tag Archives: documents

Molasses in the Gold Rush

Fort Langley - 1858

William Henry Bevis was the Revenue Officer at Fort Langley.  He was in charge of collecting fees for liquor, timber cutting and mining licences.

“I don’t see why I should be paying you money!” the man shouted.

William Bevis stood his ground. “I am the Revenue Officer here at Fort Langley and you will have to pay a fee for the timber you have cut.  These are the rules.”

“But whose rules are they?” the man challenged. “I don’t see a flag hanging above this shack.”

As the gold seeker stomped away, Bevis had to agree.  Other than his title, he had nothing to identify him as working for any government. There was no flag.  The shack the man referred to consisted of one room where he was to handle business, sleep and eat.  His wife Mattilda  didn’t complain much but the cramped quarters and lack of household amenities were taking its toll and her enigmatic smile had been replaced with a perpetual frown. Of course he did write to James Douglas in Fort Victoria, and his replies were not definitive.

There was a growing occupation of tents and lean-to shacks much like his own about a quarter-mile down river from Fort Langley.  Bevis had an idea that liquor and supplies were being sold, contravening all fees that were posted.

Most of the supplies were coming in from the Semiahmoo Trail up from Washington State.  While the Satellite and the Recovery patrolled the Fraser River, watching for contraband liquor and supplies, it was up to Bevis to watch the people coming up from the Semiahmoo Trail.

In addition to tracking people down and kindly asking if they would pay the custom tariffs, Bevis was also given the addition of Postmaster.

“Perhaps this would be a good way to intercept some of the smugglers,” Mattilda said.

Bevis raised one eyebrow. “Do you honestly think someone would be so daft to write to say that they were coming with a large shipment?”

“Why not?  It’s not like you can do much to stop them!”

Bevis gritted his teeth, “I suppose not. But I certainly am not going to waste time nosing about people’s letters either!”

“I will then.”

“You? Do you plan on reading through the mail?”

She sat up straighter and shook her head, “not every single letter of course, but just the ones I think are suspicious.”

Bevis considered it for a minute before he realized that his wife was smiling.  He agreed; he got paid out of the revenue collected and he received a commission based on the value of the goods seized and the licences issued.

As weeks past, nothing seemed to improve.  “The present state of Langley is getting worse. There are muggings, constant firing of guns and pistols, gambling and theft of boats,” Bevis wrote to Douglas.

There was a campsite about fifteen miles south of Fort Langley where most of the smugglers took their break.  When Bevis spotted them on horseback, they claimed that they were with the Boundary Commission and that they had every right to be on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“What are those boxes?” he asked, pointing to the wooden crates strapped to either side of the mule.

“Those are molasses,” said the man.



“Where are your custom papers?”

To Bevis’ surprise, the man pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket while at the same time showing the grip of a large gun he was carrying.

Sure enough, the much handled paper contained the signature of A. C. Anderson, the chief customs officer in Victoria.

Disappointed, Bevis let him pass.  He doubted the boxes contained molasses but being outnumbered and outgunned, he had no choice.

While he was manning the Semiahmoo Trail, Mattilda kept a watch outside their little hut and observed the new arrivals and the ones that had set up shop.

“I saw that box of so-called molasses,” she said one day after Bevis arrived back from a five-hour canoe trip.

He was in no mood to pursue the matter, but she insisted he do something and he had to agree.  After a meager meal of hard bread and watery tea, Bevis ventured out to the tent she indicated and discovered the box of molasses already pried open. He reached in and lifted a bottle of liquor.

“You’re wanting to make a deal, Mr. Bevis?”

Bevis turned around and found himself facing down the barrel of a gun. He looked at Baxter, the well-known liquor seller, who was smirking.

“I don’t make deals. I collect payments. If you don’t wish to pay, then I will have to confiscate your box of liquor.”

After several more minutes of talking, Bevis left empty-handed and with a headache.  He could have used some liquor to calm his own nerves.

The following day brought good news:  assistant Revenue Officer Charles Wylde arrived.

At first Bevis was enthralled by this well-connected man. He seemed genuinely concerned about the present state and was full of ideas as how to bring order to the situation.

Bevis showed Wylde his letters to Douglas regarding the need for patrols on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“I report directly to the Colonial Secretary,” Wylde told him. “I can make a difference.”

Following the meeting, Bevis noticed that Mattilda was frowning once again.  She said that she was concerned about him.  “He seems too full of ambition.  How much is he going to earn from the revenue? What will be your commission?”

Bevis didn’t have the answer to her questions and he didn’t think anything of them at first. He was just glad to have someone else to share the responsibilities of collecting revenue.

A few days after his arrival and Bevis began to hear rumours of Wylde already penning long rambling letters to Douglas’ office claiming he single-handedly stopped canoes full of liquor, sometimes wading out into water under the threat of gunfire.

Bevis occasionally asked Wylde how things were doing and Wylde insisted everything was fine. It wasn’t until one of the other Fort employees complained that Bevis realized he had a problem on his hands.

As was his habit, he brought the mail back to his outpost and let Mattilda go through it.  Surprisingly enough, there was a large amount of mail this time so it was taking longer to go through it all. She was sitting at their table  with the mail piled on top, when there was a knock on the door.

“Well, what was I supposed to do?” She told Bevis later.

“Wylde demanded to know what I was doing with the mail. I told him I was helping you with your postmaster duties.  He told me that I was breaking the law and I told him that on the contrary, I was being helpful and at least I wasn’t concocting stories!”

Bevis bent down and started retrieving some notes, most of which were tied with string or twine.  Some of them had been sealed.

“What do you suppose this is?”

Bevis looked at the paper and something trilled in his brain.  “It does look unusual. Why on earth –”

His own thoughts jumbled over each other in excitement.  “These are original customs papers being brought down from Fort Yale ready to be used again.  Clever!  Now I know why we can’t collect any revenue! ”

Bevis looked at the destination.  It read simply Baxter at Fort Langley.


The American Boundary Commission, headed by Archibald Campbell as chief Commissioner, set up a camp on the Canadian side of Semiahmoo Bay in 1857.  This camp was there from 1857 to 1859.  The British conducted their own boundary survey.  To learn more about Camp Semiahmoo and the American Boundary Commission, see http://www.surreyhistory.ca/campsemi.html

Tracking Numbers

Note:  Archibald Blue was the Chief Officer for the 1911 Canadian Census.  Stagecoach Billy, as he was known to many, was a stagecoach driver during the BC gold rush.  This is a fictional story.

Archibald Blue always wore black suits.  It was a habit that had served him well during his successive promotions at the Department of Statistics to his present position as Chief Officer in charge of the 1911 Canadian Census.

He sat behind his large polished desk and read the report submitted by a census taker in the backwoods of British Columbia.

As Chief Officer, Blue was somewhat annoyed that the report hadn’t been dealt with by one of his questionably loyal underlings; that was their job to handle reports like this. There were several signatures on the attached memorandum but no one wanted to make a decision on this that could cost them later. Blue understood.

Just after two o’clock in the afternoon there was an avalanche of snow in Deadman’s Pass which caused a derailment of a British Columbia Electric Railway Company train, killing two railway workers and upsetting two rail cars which held the census information from almost twenty neighbouring communities.

Attached was an account from the nearest train station about ten miles west of the tunnel.

“As soon as I heard the explosion, I sent out a morse code message to the main station in New Westminster. After making the necessary precautions, I loaded up my hand cart with some medical supplies and headed up the tracks. There was debris everywhere which was easy to spot because the ground is still covered in snow here in March…”

Blue glossed over the details of the descriptions of the wreckage. What about the census information?

“The next day, while waiting for a train crew to arrive and begin repairs, I acquired the help of a retired stagecoach driver, “Stagecoach Billy” who is a native from these parts. There was mail scattered everywhere, blowing around in the tunnel from the fierce winds outside. It took a while to figure out how to get at the car which I figured to contain the census information. We had to use every kind of tool we could get our hands on, but the metal was so bent up from the impact that we decided to wait until the train crew arrived.

BCERC crew #14 arrived with strict instructions to repair the track and get the cars loaded onto the next train. Since the two mail cars were too damaged to be put on another train, the idea was to smash them up. I told them I had heard from the district census officer, Mr. Charles Sherry and he told me that this was very important information that must be delivered to Ottawa.

As a result, three members of crew #14, along with myself and a couple of other volunteers, spent almost two full days extricating the census documents from the wreckage. It was not a good sight and in the blowing snow and cold it was made a monumental task.
Being in the mountains, the weather here is highly unpredictable and Stagecoach Billy organised a dog team to pull the hundred pounds worth of documents which we wrapped in some old canvas. Billy knew the mountain pass and he planned to take it through there to the highway about 40 miles away.”

Blue took a moment to check the date of the letter. It was dated almost three weeks ago. 

“I promised Stagecoach Billy that he would be compensated for his efforts of bringing the census documents over the pass. He told me it took him five days instead of two because of the blizzard like conditions. Being a humble man, he was too proud to talk about the treacherous conditions but he lost one dog and he himself had to spend a week recovering from the ordeal.

By this time, you should have received the census documents delivered safely to your door and will know the reason for the late arrival.  If you would be so kind as to forward your compensation to Stagecoach Billy c/o the Kootenays, I would make sure he receives it.
Respectfully yours,
Simon Wilkinson

Blue phoned his assistant, Malcolm Upbridge, who promptly appeared in the doorway.

“Malcolm, did we receive these census documents?”

Malcolm shuffled his feet, “yes sir, they’re in the basement. However, because we were informed that the documents were lost -”


Malcolm twisted his neck as if his tie were suddenly too tight and clasped his hands behind his back. “Spencer did not include those figures, sir as you had instructed.”

“Whose figures did he use?”

“He used a calculation based on the 1873 census.”  Malcolm stepped forward and placed a piece of paper on Blue’s desk. There was a single line of numbers with all sorts of addition and percentage symbols sprinkled in between.  Blue frowned. This was not the sort of statistic calculations he would like to see.

“Bring Spencer to my office.”

“Spencer is ill today, sir. He’s got an ulcer apparently.”

Blue shook his head as if the whole thing was a simple annoyance. “Set up a meeting with Uxhall and Umbridge and tell them to report to me.”

Blue held out the letter from Wilkinson. “Write a thank you letter to this man that we respect his efforts and his contributions to the federal government.”

A week later, Blue ordered the destruction of the recovered census documents; it was deemed too late to change the statistics as Minister Greyson had already approved the first draft. There was nothing to do but forge ahead with the figures they had concocted.

The next day, Blue ordered Malcolm Upbridge, Charles Spencer, Uxhall and Umbridge into his office and presented them each with termination papers.

Edward L. Greyson, Minister of Statistics, was about halfway to his car with his assistant when he was approached by a young man in uniform. He was beginning to see a lot more of them these days. The young man gave a friendly salute and Greyson gave a perfunctory smile.

The young man took off his cap. “Are you Mr. Greyson?”

“I am indeed.”

He offered his hand, “Simon Wilkinson. Pleased to meet you sir. I received a letter from the Department of Statistics for my efforts in recovering those 1911 census documents.”

Greyson looked puzzled, “documents?”

“It was in March of 1911, sir. We had a terrible avalanche in the Kootenays and I was working at the Crow station when I heard of the accident. Two workers were killed. It took us several days to get all the census documents because of the snow and the wreckage. The only way out of there to the highway was by sled. That’s where Stagecoach Billy came in, him and his dogs hauled all those documents through Deadman’s Gulch. Well, most of them anyway. You see, sir, Mr. Billy lost a dog and his sled nearly broke in two going over a ravine so he thought he lost something. Anyway, the next spring, he was out trapping and he found this. He figured it was too late but I was coming through on the train.”

Wilkinson reached inside his overcoat and produced a small folded bundle held together with some string. Greyson’s assistant carefully took the bundle.

“I wrote to Mr. Archibald Blue after the train derailment and he thanked me for my efforts in recovering the lost census documents. I was hoping your department could help out Mr. Billy, but nothing ever came of it. Still, I was glad to help.”

Greyson shook his head sympathetically. “When did you receive this letter from the Department?”

“In May, sir.”

“I appreciate your diligence Mr. Wilkinson,” he said and shook his hand. “I will personally see to it that your friend gets compensated. Stagecoach Billy is it?”

Wilkinson smiled, “yes. In the Kootenays.”

Greyson smiled and shook his hand again. Once inside the warm car, Greyson spoke to his  his assistant as the driver pulled away from the curb.

“Do you recall a derailment Malcolm?”