Tag Archives: Judge Begbie

How E. B. Lytton changed the course of BC history

In 1858, gold miners swarmed to the Fraser River. It was also the year that the longstanding Palmerston government was defeated and E. B. Lytton became the Colonial Secretary, responsible for overseeing the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the past, there had been a push to settle Vancouver Island and the British Parliament had gone so far as to make it a colony, but the mainland was strictly under HBC’s monopoly. There were no settlers there and they liked it that way. As one member of parliament put it, “The Hudson’s Bay Company is by its very existence and its character the enemy of colonization” whose main purpose was to extract the resources of the land and not cater to the whims and needs of the populace.

Until 1858, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an ally in Parliament — the Colonial Secretary Henry Labouchere. That was about to change under Edward Bulwer Lytton.

E. B. Lytton - Colonial Secretary

E. B. Lytton – Colonial Secretary

The new Parliament made its mandate clear that it wanted to colonize the lands that the Hudson’s Bay Company possessed. The first step was to not renew their license which was slated for renewal May 30, 1859. In addition, the government aimed to bring into question the legality of the original Hudson’s Bay Company charter of 1670, this having been assigned to lands which were then under France’s control.

There was no instant communications in those days. It took many months for a ship to arrive with the mail and when it did reach the office of the Colonial Secretary, it took weeks on end for clerks to hand write copies for officials to read and comment on.

While he was waiting to receive an answer, Douglas made decisions as he saw fit. As the head of the HBC’s Columbia Department which oversaw New Caledonia, Douglas took it upon himself to establish mining fees and pricing controls. He also sought to uphold the Company’s monopoly and did his best to keep out the competition. To this end, he used the survey ships that were based in Esquimalt but most of the miners and merchants slipped in without notice.

Trading Rights

E. B. Lytton soon made it clear that the Company’s monopoly only went so far as exclusive trading rights with the Indigenous people and that it could not be the sole provider of provisions, even though Douglas had pointed out all the efforts they had made to accommodate the gold seekers.

Lytton also organized a contingent of Royal Engineers to come to New Caledonia to help build roads and plan towns, to be paid from the colony’s revenue. The other bit of bad news for Douglas came when he received word that Lytton wished to have future administrative appointments come from ‘home’ rather than someone from the Company.

He chose Chartres Brew to be the head of the colony’s civilian police force and Matthew Begbie, a lawyer, was selected to be the judge.

On the day that Begbie was to sail from England, E.B. Lytton boarded the ship to personally hand over the documents to establish the new colony of British Columbia and the appointments of James Douglas as Governor, and Begbie as its Judge. Each document had been signed by Queen Victoria.

British Columbia

Begbie arrived at Esquimalt November 16, 1858. Three days later, on November 19, 1858 the swearing in ceremony and declaration of British Columbia took place at Fort Langley. This marked the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control of New Caledonia.

The following year, Lord Palmerston’s government returned and Lytton was replaced by the Duke of Newcastle as Colonial Secretary.

Although the legality of HBC’s charter wasn’t settled for another 10 years, E. B. Lytton did succeed in terminating their monopoly of New Caledonia and establishing British Columbia.

Had Labouchere still been the Colonial Secretary when the gold rush broke out, things could have turned out much differently.

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.



The Cranford Affair: ‘extortion’ on the Cariboo Wagon Road

Cranford Affair

“Remember the Cranford Affair; and steer clear of extortion and delays”

When the colonial government decided to build the Cariboo Wagon Road, G.B. Wright was awarded a contract to build the section from Lillooet to Clinton in April 1862.

That same month, G.B. Wright met Robert Cranford, Jr. who had just arrived in Victoria  with a ‘considerable quantity of goods’ he had purchased in San Francisco which he intended to sell in the Cariboo. Wright offered to pack goods for Robert Cranford from New Westminster to Lillooet for nine cents per pound. He promised Cranford that his goods would arrive in ten days and in return Cranford would pay Wright for the cost of freight from the proceeds of the sale of goods 60 days after the goods arrived at their destination. Robert Cranford Jr. signed a contract on April 25th.

It took almost the entire summer for most of the goods to arrive. By this time Cranford Jr. realized it was too late to get the supplies to Williams Creek and he was at a loss.

When Cranford Jr. refused to pay, Wright went to the Justice of the Peace at Lillooet and asked that both Cranford Jr. and his brother John be tossed in jail for non-payment of the bill which came to £1,719. Wright suggested they be held in jail pending a bail payment of £2,500. As a result, the Justice of the Peace, who didn’t usually exercise such authority, sent out an order to have the brothers arrested, even though John had nothing to do with the original contract.

From his jail cell Cranford launched his own lawsuit to counter Wright’s. Cranford alleged that Wright had taken the goods that had cost $10,000 and sold them as his own at a time when the market was high. He sued Wright for $25,000.

In December 1862, Judge Begbie heard the case Cranford v. Wright. In the beginning it looked as though the odds were against the Cranford brothers. G.B. Wright had the attorney-general George Hunter Cary, attorney-general of British Columbia, and H.P. Walker acting in his defense. In addition, Judge Begbie used his discretion in favour of certain omissions on Wright’s part.

The timing was favourable for the Cranford brothers, however, because around the start of the trial, The British Columbian editor was imprisoned by Judge Begbie for contempt of court. Begbie objected to an article printed in the December 3, 1862 issue which exposed details of Begbie’s land acquisition in the Cottonwood District.

As a result, The British Columbian used the Cranford case as an opportunity to put Begbie and Wright in the worst light possible.

In court the written agreement was produced which read:

“Agreed with R. Cranford, Jr., & Brother to carry goods for them from Douglas to Lillooet at 9 cts. per lb. during the ensuing season, payable 50 days after delivery, and a proviso if freights fell, rates to be less.”

The lawyer for Cranford pointed out that the agreement had been falsified, with the words ‘& Brother’ squeezed into the margin and ‘them’ altered from the word ‘him’ as it was originally written. Both of the changes had been made in darker ink than the rest of the words.

The colonial government passed the Lillooet-Alexandria Road Toll Act which came into effect September 1, 1862. Any passengers on the road from Lillooet to Alexandria had to pay a half-penny per pound on goods, and one shilling per head on cattle. Wright received twenty-five percent of the tolls collected for five years.

In April 1863, Wright settled out of court with Robert Cranford Jr.

Judge Begbie hears from over taxed miners

Starting in the summer of 1859, Judge Begbie travelled to Langley, Fort Hope, Yale, and Port Douglas to hear from over taxed miners and merchants who gathered to voice their concerns and grievances.

When Begbie arrived in Langley on June 29th, he got an earful.

First, the people voiced their disapproval of land being sold by auction. This, they felt, was in favour of speculators who could afford to spend money on improvements. As a result, most settlers were forced to buy from speculators. It was required to wait until land could be surveyed first. In comparison, settlers south of the border could get land at five shillings per acre.

The over taxation of miners meant that many left the gold diggings altogether even though many of them were earning from $5 to $20 per day. Why? too many fees to pay. Miners had to pre-pay for their monthly licences, pay for registering mining claims, water rights and many other taxes.

To sum it up, the Grand Jury reported:

“We want a governor…who is unconnected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, or any other company, who will carry out the orders of the Home Government…”

At Fort Hope, Judge Begbie heard that their jail was insecure, that a bridge was needed across the Coquihalla River, and that few people had land of their own, with most of it in the hands of a few.

The trial of Sheriff Chisolm

There were two eventful court cases in the Cariboo in the summer of 1865.

John Perrin, a well-known gold miner from Richfield, was a defendant in a case regarding a disputed claim, Henness v. Perrin. Shortly after the case began, Perrin was approached by Deputy Sheriff Chisolm:

“I was standing by the Cariboo shaft when Daniel B. Chisolm, the Deputy Sheriff, came to me and said he wished to speak to me; he took me aside out of hearing of the men standing around and said if I had any doubts about the lawsuit pending he would put me on a safe track by summoning any jury I chose…in return for a quarter of an interest in the Cariboo claim. The next day I met Chisolm near Barkerville, when he asked me to go with him to the back room of the Spanish woman’s house at Barkerville, where he showed me a list of jurymen and asked me how I liked them; he said for a quarter of an interest in the Cariboo claim, he would summon those or any other that I wished; I told him I would not do it, and left the house.”

When Mr. Walker, counsel for the defence, read out Perrin’s affidavit in court, everyone was surprised including Judge Begbie and Deputy Sheriff Chisolm who was present in his official duty. The trial of Henness v. Perrin continued unimpeded, but it was followed afterward by the trial of Mr. Chisolm.

Dan B. Chisolm was arraigned and the indictment for unlawfully offering to take a bribe to pack a jury. Chisolm pleaded “not guilty.”

Mr. Perrin was cross-examined and gave the same account as in his affidavit. Jesse Pierce testified that he was in the house when he saw Mr. Perrin and Mr. Chisolm go into a back room.
Captain Henness testified:

“I have known Mr. Chisolm since the winter of 1862. The day before the trial of Henness v. Perrin, I called at Mr. Sutor’s office and found Mr. Chisolm there; I said to him have you summoned the jury for the Assizes? He said yes; I remarked that I wanted no favours but I hoped to have good, upright, honest men try the case. Mr. Chisolm said that was always his aim, and he would show me the list, which he then did.”

Messrs. Laumeister, Pearkes and Campbell all testified that they had known Chisolm for a considerable length of time and said he was of good character.

Chisolm testified that Perrin has anxious about the ‘big suit’ as the only person who could throw light on the matter [Cunningham] was dead.

“Here I asked him about the Cunningham estate, as I felt somewhat interested, holding Cunningham’s note for about $300…I told him that I thought a good deal of the claim at the time…I asked him then if he would not sell me a quarter interest, and he said no; this is all that ever passed between us…”

After deliberating for an hour, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’. Judge Begbie discharged Chisolm saying that he agreed with the verdict, but he censored Mr. Chisolm for his indiscretion in holding a private conference with a party in a lawsuit.

BC Gold Rush Judge Begbie

Judge Begbie

Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie – BC’s first chief justice

Judge Begbie was the first chief justice of British Columbia.

Born at sea in 1819, Matthew Baillie Begbie was educated in England where he became a lawyer. In the fall of 1858, Begbie arrived in British Columbia at the height of the Fraser River gold rush.

As the chief justice of the colony, Begbie oversaw the roles of gold commissioners, who previously had been used to wide-reaching control.

Begbie was required to travel great distances on horseback and there are many stories of his adventures over rough trails in a variety of weather. Before the Dewdney Trail was completed, Edgar Dewdney guided Begbie and his pack horses to Fisherville in the Kootenays for a court hearing.

There were very few established courthouses in those days. Begbie always carried his robes and wore them wherever it was convenient to hold court whether it was in a saloon, roadhouse, cabin or outdoors.

Begbie was careful to follow the jury’s decision in cases of murder, when the punishment was hanging. In matters regarding mining claims, sometimes Begbie was known to disagree with the jury and called for a new trial. Many who were not familiar with British law were not pleased with his decisions.

At a Clinton roadhouse, Begbie sentenced a man for a crime and then later that same evening overheard the fellow’s companions plotting to shoot him. Known to fight with his fists or with law books, the judge listened for a while then emptied his chamber pot over them.

Begbie became fluent in several aboriginal languages including Chinook. After hundreds of their people died of starvation during the winter of 1858, the Upper St’át’imc, whose territory was invaded by thousands of miners seeking gold in Lillooet district and beyond, appealed to Begbie to defend the rights of their people.

In 1863, Dr. Cheadle wrote:

“Passed Judge Begbie on horseback (near Clinton on the Cariboo Road). Everyone praises his just severity as the salvation of the Cariboo and the terror of rowdies.”






Kettles in the gold rush

Copper or brass kettles were an important exchange item for the Hudson’s Bay Company during the fur trade.

Metal containers with lids were more popular than others because the lid permitted food to be cooked more quickly and kept the contents cleaner in the outdoors. They were traded and sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company and were used well into the 20th century.

A variety of sizes of pots was manufactured. At one site where a canoe had dumped its cargo overboard by accident, archaeologists discovered a set consisting of 17 pots of various sizes nested into one another probably to save on space.

During the Fraser River gold rush, a group of gold seekers hired Natives to pack supplies across the short land bridge at Seton-Portage, before setting out across Anderson Lake in a dugout canoe. Partway through the crossing, the guides made an unexpected departure from their intended course, beaching the canoe at their village where one native quickly snatched the gold seekers most prized possession, the camp kettle.

One of the gold seekers, Charles Gardiner from Prince Edward Island, recalled the event.

“I jumped out and gave chase,” exclaimed Gardiner, “but only a short distance until two guns were cocked and levelled at my head…In a few moments the old Chief came down with the kettle in his hand, which we had to buy back. My partner taking the handkerchief from his neck, gave it to the old Chief, who gave it then in our presence to the villain who took our kettle. The Chief then asked for some mucamuc (Chinook term for food). We told him we had none, when again he took the kettle which we had to purchase this second time with flour.”

Judge Matthew Begbie frequently camped outdoors as he travelled around the colony of British Columbia to and from courthouses. Begbie’s kettle, missing a lid, was probably a prized possession as well. Today, it sits in the Quesnel Museum.

The murder of Charles Blessing

In the fall of 1866, the remains of a man were discovered in some bushes near Beaver Pass, between Quesnel and Barkerville, at a point where the Cariboo Wagon road intersected an old trail. Gold Commissioner George Cox, accompanied by Chief Constable Fitzgerald, held an inquest at the spot where the remains were found. Members of a jury witnessed the examination of the body.

The crime had taken place some months before because the body had been reduced to a skeleton but a bullet hole was visible at the back of the skull. An examination of the mouth revealed teeth in good condition with some of the back molars filled with gold. The clothes were still intact and these revealed someone who was quite well-to-do; not your typical gold seeker. The following description was printed in the Cariboo Sentinel in the hopes that someone reading it would recognize the person.

unkown murder

Cariboo Sentinel report October 1, 1866

Gold Commissioner Cox looked through mining licences to find any record of the name C.M. Blessing, but there was nothing.

In the months leading up to the discovery of the body, Barkerville’s barber, Wellington Moses had been doing his own inquiries about a man who had gone missing.

On May 28, 1866, Moses shared a stagecoach with a well-to-do New Englander to Soda Creek. Moses was returning from a winter in Victoria and Charles Blessing said he was looking for an adventure; it was quite obvious he didn’t need the money. Moses remembered the unusual gold lightn1ng pin he was wearing; he’d never seen anything quite like it. They caught the sternwheeler to Quesnel, arriving in the evening. At the Brown and Gillis’ Saloon, they ran into a Texan gambler named James Barry who admitted being down on his luck.

After Blessing paid for their drinks, it was agreed that Blessing and Barry would start the next morning along the trail for Barkerville since Moses had decided to stay in Quesnel another day to collect money he was due.

Weeks passed and Moses resumed cutting hair at his barbershop in Barkerville. It wasn’t until he saw James Barry that he was reminded of Blessing. He asked Barry what became of their travel companion, but Barry was vague, telling him that Blessing complained of sore feet and wanted to turn back. On one occasion, Moses remembered, Barry sat in his barber chair wearing a distinct lightn1ng pin. It looked familiar.

That day, Moses closed up his shop and made a few discreet inquiries and discovered that Barry had arrived in Barkerville on June 2nd and was able to pay for a room at Wilcox’s for $12 a week which he paid with a $20 bank note. Moses was suspicious but he didn’t go to the police.

One day, Bill Fraser, one of his long-time customers from Victoria, showed up at the barbershop. The topic turned to James Barry and Fraser recalled how he had travelled with him just that spring from New Westminster to Quesnel before they parted company. He remembered Barry making remarks that suggested that he had been in and out of jail. He was also wearing a Colt six-gun and cartridge belt and he never let it out of his sight.

As soon as he read the description in the paper, Moses decided it was time to go to the Chief Constable Fitzgerald and tell him what he thought. As soon as news went around Barkerville, Barry was nowhere to be found. Fitzgerald instructed Constable Sullivan to find Barry and bring him in.

Sullivan rode his horse for 120 miles to the steamboat landing at Soda Creek and it was here he learned that Barry had crossed the Fraser River two days before and had taken a stagecoach to Yale.

At this time, the Collins Overland Company had just finished stringing a wire to Quesnel. An operator at Soda Creek tapped out a message to the BC Police at Yale. Twelve hours later when Barnard’s stagecoach pulled into Yale, a police officer was waiting for Barry.

In the summer of 1867, James Barry was led into the Richfield courthouse to face Chief Justice Begbie and a jury of Cariboo miners. At the trial, the prosecutor brought forward the gold lightn1ng pin and asked Barry where he got it from. He said he had bought it from a man in Victoria. The prosecutor then asked Wellington Moses how did he know it belong to the murdered man.

Moses pointed out that when you looked at the gold lightn1ng pin in a certain way, you could see the profile of a man’s face. It was this profile he had seen as he put the barber’s cape under Barry’s chin. Judge Begbie looked at the lightn1ng closely and sketched it in the margin of his notes.

On August 8, 1866, James Barry was hanged outside the Richfield courthouse for the murder of Charles Blessing. Afterward, Moses helped to raise funds to give Blessing a decent burial. They placed a headboard and a fence around Blessing’s grave. It is a provincial historic site.