Tag Archives: food

Nam Sing and the gambling loan paid in flour

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the first Chinese miners who reached Quesnel in 1861 was Nam Sing. He became known as the one who supplied fresh food to the restaurants of the gold rush towns in the Cariboo.

Nam Sing

Nam Sing

Chow Nam Sing was born in China’s Kaiping County in 1835 and went to California for the gold rush. In 1861 Sing came north to British Columbia and panned for gold up the Fraser River until he reached the junction of the Quesnel River. During times of high water when it wasn’t possible to work his rocker, Sing cleared a small area and tilled the soil with his gold digging shovel on the west bank of the Quesnel River.

He raised a few vegetables for himself and sold the surplus to neighbouring miners using a scow to bring his produce across the river to the townsite. After the peak of the Cariboo gold rush in 1865, Nam Sing turned to vegetable gardening and ranching for a living.

In 1868, Nam Sing was taken to court for his involvement in a gambling debt.

Sing agreed to store sacks of flour for a gambler named Ak Tie who planned to use it to pay off his debt of $280 to businessman Sing Hing. When the time came to repay the loan Ak Tie was short on both money and flour. He was only able to pay most of his creditors 75 cents for every dollar he owed. Sing delivered 30 sacks of flour to Hing who valued it to be only worth $210. Instead of going after Ak Tie, however, Hing sued Nam Sing for the $70, alleging that it was he who had received the loan in the first place.

A witness named San Hing swore in court that he was in the house and saw the plaintiff hand over $280 in bills, “partly red and partly white” to Nam Sing. For his part, Nam Sing denied the debt altogether. The court sided with Hing saying that he had given positive evidence of the loan while Sing had neglected to bring Ak Tie to give his side of the story. In the meantime, the judge allowed Sing’s lawyer to apply for a new trial in order to produce the gambler.

Donald Fraser and Land Speculation in the BC Gold Rush

When the Fraser River gold rush was underway so was land speculation. One of the least known figures involved in land speculation in the BC Gold Rush was Donald Fraser.

Fraser was born in Scotland and was a classmate of Alexander Grant Dallas, a future son-in-law of Governor James Douglas. Fraser came to Victoria in 1858, whereupon James Douglas appointed him to the Executive Council of Vancouver Island.

The Hudson’s Bay Company thought that if it could entice gold rush miners to come to British Columbia then it would raise the value of land. What they needed was someone to promote the ‘gold diggings’ to the masses abroad.  As a correspondent for the Times of London, Donald Fraser was the ideal candidate to spread this propaganda.

According to Fraser, miners were finding gold without much effort:

The work is not heavy; any ordinary man can do it. The time at work is generally 10 hours. Every man works much or little, according to the dictates of his own sweet will. This independency is one of the chief charms of the miner’s life. Independence and hope make up the sum of his happiness. The cost of living is $1-a-day. To wash 250 buckets of ‘dirt’ is a short day’s work. The bucket is a common wooden water pail, rather small size. Went up to two men at a place by themselves ‘clearing out’ their day’s work. They ‘guessed’ their amalgam was worth $21 to $22.

In the summer of 1858, James Douglas travelled with Donald Fraser to Fort Yale. Here, even Fraser had to admit that the living conditions were primitive. At Hill’s Bar, Fraser found “a gang of miners dining on fried bacon and potatoes cooked à  la Maître d’Hotel, eating out of the frying pan  in which the edibles were prepared, set upon the stump of a tree…”

Fraser also suggested there were stagecoaches on the as yet incomplete wagon road. Many miners were disappointed to discover that they would  have to walk 400 or 500 miles farther carrying a load on their backs.

Not only was Donald Fraser a key political figure, but in a few short years, he became one of the largest land holders on Vancouver Island.

In 1866 Fraser returned to England. In London he joined a group including Gilbert Malcolm Sproat and Alexander Grant Dallas which wielded a lot of political influence. The group opposed the union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia in 1866 and helped to secure the capital of BC at Victoria in 1868.


Bitterroot – plant of the Fraser River gold rush

Before the Fraser River gold rush, bitterroot was an important food staple for the indigenous people of the Sheowk’tm (Thompson River). The people of the Thompson River, known as Nlaka’pamux, valued this versatile plant for its roots.

Bitterroot - illustration by Mary E. Eaton

Bitterroot – illustration by Mary E. Eaton

The roots could be eaten raw or cooked, alone or in a mixed dish; they were even steeped as a tea. If the roots were cured for storage, either before or after cooking, it was only a matter of soaking them for a few minutes in warm water to reconstitute and tenderise them before consumption.

Fresh roots were consumed raw or lightly steamed while the dried roots were usually boiled to be eaten alone or added to a variety of souplike stews of which salmon eggs were a common ingredient. As in traditional times, along with other root food vegetables, a favourite but occasional method of cooking bitterroot is to steam it in underground pit ovens.

Bitterroot was also prepared in bannock and dumplings. Their basic recipe called for water, flour, salt and or sugar with any combination of bitterroot, saskatoon berries or other available berry ingredients.

Oyster Saloons in the gold rush

Olympia oysters, once abundant on the Pacific Coast from California to Vancouver Island, now teeter on the brink of extinction. These small but delicious oysters, measuring only 1 and a half inches, were a delicacy during the California gold rush and oyster saloons popped up all over to satisfy the demand. Soon the Californian coast was stripped of its oyster beds and the miners’ insatiable demand prompted the commercial harvest of Olympia oysters in Puget Sound.

In the mid 1800s, the village of Oysterville began to prosper after Chief Nahcati introduced the town’s founders, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, to oysters. The rich oyster beds of Willapa Bay were soon responsible for Oysterville’s growth, as the town became a major competitor with other oyster companies.

Willard Espy wrote in his memoir of Shoalwater Bay “Oysterville” that “the Puget Sound oyster, known as the Olympia, had a copper taste offensive to refined San Francisco palates. But the same gourmets who rejected the Olympia oysters sang hosannas” to the oysters of Shoalwater Bay.

BritCol18590610_OysterSaloonBy the mid-1850s, oyster saloons had become fashionable once more and gold miners couldn’t get enough of the fishy, saltwater flavour of these small bivalves that could be swallowed whole in a glass of whisky mixed with ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce in a concoction that came to be known as the Oyster Cocktail.

Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon didn’t so much advertise the quality of the oysters as he did the liquor:

“Having lived in Victoria long enough to find that good Malt Liquor is a scarce article, I would respectfully call the attention of the public to the fact that the genuine stuff can be had at my saloon, where can also be found the News from all parts of the civilized world. Call and see me at Duffy’s old place, on Waddington Street, Victoria.”

Steamers came daily to Muddy Bay, Oyster Bay, and Little Skookum to pick up sacks of Olympias. They brought down canoe loads of Olympia oysters down from Comox to the oyster saloons in Victoria. To fill the sacks, oystermen and their families worked at night when the tide was out and the oysters could be raked from the mud flats.

The oysters were forked up into a float which was then poled to the culling house anchored some distance from shore. There the oysters were forked into a sink float, an upside-down float holding two feet of water to keep the oysters fresh.

From the sinkfloat they were forked into a wheelbarrow, rolled into the culling house, up a plank and dumped onto the culling table. All day long, the cullers sorted out the larger oysters, knocking of barnacles, smaller oysters and debris with a culling iron and dropping the marketable oysters into a can, then raking the cullings down the hopper at the edge of the table.


This advertisement from  Thomas Golden in 1859 promises “Fresh Oysters! Served up in every Style at the Phoenix Saloon. Families supplied at the shortest notice, by the quart or gallon. All orders promptly attended to.”

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.

Food history of the Fraser Canyon

Before the Fraser River gold rush, the Nlaka’pamux and neighbouring peoples relied on the rivers and mountains for their well-being and economy.

The deep cliffs of the Fraser Canyon were a perfect place to dry prepared salmon. The major salmon runs were in July and August at a time when the Fraser Canyon was hot and dry and warm winds blow through it continuously. In the daytime, as the sun beat down on the rocks, the wood framed drying racks were protected from direct sunlight by fir boughs. The open shape of the drying rack allowed for the south winds to travel through. At night, as the wind blew north, the drying racks captured the heat emanating from the canyon walls.

Fishing stations were inherited and shared with members of an extended family.  While waiting for the salmon—all five types of salmon were caught—people stayed in two-sided, slant-roofed shelters nearby. These summer shelters were left standing all year round and rarely collapsed as the snow slid off the sloped roof. Salmon were caught with dip-nets, conical bags of hemp fibre, held by rings around a wooden hoop that was secured to a long handle. A fisher would hold the net open by means of a hemp cord, and pull it closed when a fish entered the net. Stationary nets were also used.

Steelhead and Dolly Varden were caught and usually eaten fresh. Larger trout were caught with salmon-harpoons; smaller ones by trout harpoons, small-meshed nets, and hooks sometimes made from tying crab-apple thorns together.

Large and small game were abundant as were vegetables and fruits. In early spring the shoots of thimbleberry and nettles were harvested. Wild potatoes, Saskatoon berries, blueberries, huckleberries, and trailing blackberries could be preserved when harvested in the summer and stored for winter consumption. People carried out controlled burns to increase the quantity and quality of the wild vegetables such as wild carrot, dog-tooth lily root, rice root, nodding onion. Fires were set when people were certain that it would rain in a few days. Cinquefoil and elderberries, currants were found in swampy areas.

Temperance in the BC gold rush

liquor ad 1861

liquor ad 1861

In contrast to the many saloons and breweries which were successfully established in Victoria during the Fraser River gold rush, a temperance movement also began. Temperance movements were dedicated to the moderation, or in some cases complete abstinence in the use of intoxicating liquor.

On June 23, 1859, John T. Pidwell placed an advertisement in the Victoria Gazette celebrating the efforts of the eastern temperance movement and advocating the creation of a B.C. division.  Pidwell, future father-in-law of David Higgins, had arrived in Victoria in 1858 from New Brunswick where he had taken an active role as a member of the Sons of Temperance.

In his essay the Passing of a Race, Higgins remarked that certain well-regarded businessmen were profiting from selling so-called ‘liquor’ to the local tribes while the police and government turned a blind eye.

It was a notorious fact that certain firms were never disturbed. They were immune from the visits of constables, and Justice was not alone blind—she was so deaf that she could not hear the plaintive cries of the wretched victims…

From the British Colonist newspaper September 30, 1862:

Last evening a meeting of gentlemen was convened at the rooms of Messrs. Franklin for the purpose of forming a Temperance Society and Debating Club, when a certain well-known citizen was unanimously voted to the chair, which he took with many thanks for the honor conferred, and sitting down, rested his chin upon his right hand and appeared absorbed in deep thought. Several motions were made, but the chair paid no attention to them for several minutes, when the wondering audience discovered that the chairman whom they had unanimously chosen was in an advanced state of “How-come-you-so” —just in good trim for a small tea party at which whisky formed the principal beverage, but hardly the right thing for a temperance meeting…

The following is a recipe from “Six Hundred Receipts Worth their Weight in Gold” by John Marguart printed in 1867.

How to make Silver-top, a temperance drink

Take 1 quart water, 3 1/4 pounds white sugar, 1 teaspoonful lemon-oil, 1 tablespoonful flour, with the white of 5 eggs, well beat up; mix all the above well together. Then divide the syrup, and add 4 ounces carbonate of soda into one part, and put it into a bottle, and then add 3 ounces tartaric acid to the other part of the syrup, and bottle it also. Take 2 pint tumblers, and put in each tumbler 1 tablespoonful of the syrup (that is, from each bottle of the syrup) and fill them half full with fresh cold water; pour it together into one tumbler. Superb.

Plum Pudding: food of the gold rush

Puddings were very popular during the 19th century. According to food historian Dorothy Duncan, the Danes introduced the plum pudding  to Great Britain in 1013.  The pudding first resembled a soup-like consistency. Eventually, the pudding became thicker as batter puddings were becoming more popular.

Pudding cloth became available  which allowed for easier pudding making.
The British developed hundred of pudding recipes. Here is a recipe for Plum Pudding from “The Dinner Question” by Tabitha Tickletooth 1860.

“To three ounces of flour, and the same weight of fine lightly grated breadcrumbs, add six of beef kidney-suet chopped small, six of raisins, weighed after they are stoned,  six of well cleaned currants, four ounces of minced apples, five of sugar, two of candied orange-rind, half a teaspoonful of nutmeg mixed with powdered mace, a very little salt, a small  glass of brandy, and three whole eggs. Mix and beat these ingredients well together, tie them tightly in a thickly floured cloth, and boil them for three hours and a half. We can recommend this as a remarkably light small rich pudding. It may be served with German wine or punch sauce.”

From A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852)
Plum or Currant Dough Pudding

2 pounds of dough from the baker’s
4 ounces of plums or currants
pinch of allspice
pinch of salt
1 gill of milk


Mix all the above ingredients together in a pan; tie up the pudding in a well-greased pudding-cloth, and place it in a pot containing boiling water, and allow it to continue boiling for two hours; at the end of this time the pudding will be done, and may be turned out on its dish.

There are several stories of gold seekers celebrating Christmas with a ‘plum duff’ without the plums. Here is an interesting account from a traveller who noticed some unusual fruit growing near Boothroyd’s Bar near Lytton. Quite possibly, this fruit could have made a good substitute:

The leading feature [in this area]…was the growth of red wild cherries of small size but for the most part intense bitterness; in some cases they appeared to cover acres of ground. They are almost invariably surrounded by a wide fringe of wild filberts; one species of cherry, rather larger, are very palatable and juicy; they are black.

Prior to opening the Globe Hotel in Lytton, Louis Hautier owned and operated the Confectionery and Pastry Cook Store in Victoria. In addition to having the finest choice of bonbons, syrups and ‘luxuries unparalleld in the history of the country’, he offered Christmas Plum Puddings.

Cast iron cooking stoves of the gold rush

“Cast Iron Cooking Stoves” promised to be of first rate quality and guaranteed to “bake well” were advertised in the Cariboo Sentinel newspaper. These cast iron cooking ‘stoves’ were described as between 6 to 9 inches in diameter.

English dishes such as fried fish, doughnuts or fritters required “frying pans” as distinguished from other kinds of pots such as stewpans.  Frying pans were manufactured in varying depths to suit the cook’s need of lard or butter.

A typical frying pan in the 1830s had a flat thick bottom, and was made into an oval shape – 12 inches long and 9 inches wide with perpendicular sides.

John Keast Lord, a member of the British North American Land Boundary Commission during 1858–62, wrote:

“I never carry more than a frying pan and a tin pannikin; the former I strap behind my saddle…It is wonderful what a man can do with a ‘frying pan,’ it is equal to any emergency. Why, it would make any civic dignitary’s mouth tingle with delight if his nose only sniffed the rich appetising odour that exhales from a moose steak…fried in its own fat. Then I can bake bread in my frying pan, make and fry pancakes, or ‘slap-jacks’ as trappers call them,roast my coffee, boil the salt out of my bacon before I fry it; I can also stew birds, or putting a crust over, produce a pie few would be disposed to turn away from…”


Olympia oysters: food of the BC gold rush

Olympia oysters were a much sought after delicacy, starting from the California gold rush through the Fraser River gold rush and to the late 1860s.

Label on a can of oysters 1850s

Label on a can of oysters 1850s

Wild oysters were abundant in the San Francisco area but soon became depleted as demand outstripped supply. As a result, people looked for Olympia oysters further north. They became a lucrative source of trade for people living in the Puget Sound area. The town of Oysterville, Washington, sprung up directly because of the demand for oysters. Vancouver Island was another source for oysters.

Despite the fact that they were serving the same species of oyster, many saloons distinguished between the source of their oysters – either referring to them as Olympia oysters or Island oysters.

In Victoria, there were oyster saloons. Some oyster saloons were attached to another larger saloon as in the case of the Theatre Saloon, or they stood on their own. Here is a notice from June 27, 1859:

“Fire! Last evening the roof of Rudolf’s Oyster Saloon, Waddington street, was discovered in a blaze . Fortunately the rain prevented the shingles burning.  Had it occurred a day or so ago when the roofs were dry and the wind blew furiously, no one could guess at the result…”

Oysters were eaten on the half shell, fried, or they were made into soup, sauce, patties and as a main ingredient in many other creations and combinations. Oysters were typically served with other types of seafood and meat. They were also served with welch rarebit (known today as welsh rarebit) and even ice cream.

The Occidental Hotel in Victoria had its own oyster stand where oysters were sold by the “bag, gallon, quart, etc.”