Tag Archives: Ned McGowan

Judge Howay and the Fraser River Gold Rush

Judge F. W. Howay

Judge F. W. Howay (1867 – 1943)

Frederic William Howay was a judge and a leading authority on the early history of British Columbia.

Born near London, Ontario on November 25, 1867, his family moved to British Columbia in 1870, and eventually settled in New Westminster in the fall of 1874.

Howay became a teacher then he studied law at Dalhousie University, after which he returned to New Westminster where he articled at a law firm and later became a judge of the county court.

One of the most significant works he published was the “Early History of the Fraser River Mines” which provided a significant amount of detailed information on the Fraser River gold rush. In his book, Howay included several key pieces of correspondence regarding McGowan’s War. Here is a letter from Justice of the Peace P.B. Whannell:

Fort Yale – 31st December, 1858.
His Excellency James Douglas, Esquire, Governor, etc., British Columbia.

Sir, I have the honor to inform your Excellency that on the 24th inst. one William Foster, a notorious character and gambler, shot one Bernard Rice, a miner, in open daylight and has absconded…He has been hidden by his associates here as well as on Hill’s Bar, among whom is that notorious villain, Edward McGowan.

I have closed up all the Gambling Saloons, appointed three men on the Police Force, and taken on several special contables on pay, as I could not arrange otherwise, and a large force is absolutely necessary here at the present crisis.

I have also to inform your Excellency that Edward McGowan came up this day to this town at the head of a lawless band of ruffians; broke open the Jail and liberated a Prisoner, in the person of Hickson, Constable at Hill’s Bar, whom I committed this day for contempt of Court and insubordination.

Mr. Perrier, Justice of the Peace at Hill’s Bar, issued a Warrant for my arrest for the above act and dispatched a band of Sworn in special constables composed of the most notorious characters in that locality, and of which number was McGowan.

I pronounce Mr. Perrier totally unfit to serve in any capacity under Her Majesty’s Government.

This town and district are in a state bordering on anarchy; my own and the lives of the citizens are in imminent peril. I beg your Excellency will afford us prompt aid. I have applied to Captain Grant for assistance already… An effective blow must at once be struck on the operations of these outlaws…

…the whole of these disturbances at Fort Yale have originated in the acts of [gold commissioner] Richard Hicks, whom I do not hesitate to denounce as an  unprincipled and corrupt Public Officer and a disgrace to the Government under which he has served.

I have dismissed Hickson, the Constable at Hill’s Bar, but the Justice there has put him on again; that man is also in league with McGowan’s party.

P. B. Whannell
Justice of the Peace, District of Fort Yale

Hill’s Bar Mob (part 2)

It was the beginning of December and the miners were getting restless. The temperatures were dipping below freezing and the sluice boxes were full of ice.

Bernard Rice entered Foster’s saloon and demanded a drink. Foster asked for money up front. Rice had too many unpaid drinks and wasn’t welcome.

Rice pulled out a gun and waved it around. Foster pulled out a gun from behind the counter and shot Rice dead.

Nobody was really concerned at first. Anywhere else, Foster could have claimed self-defence, but not here.

The next day, Whannell was back in Dixon’s barber chair gloating over his new decision.

“I’m closing all the saloons that haven’t been properly registered.”

Dixon paused with his scissors hovering above Whannell’s head. “You closed all of them?!”

“I have to show who is in charge in this town, Dixon. The Foster saloon was unlicensed as are the other twelve. Hicks has spent too long at the helm, profiting from all these illegal saloons. This is an opportunity which fell into my lap and I intend to take advantage of it.”

Dixon started cutting Whannell’s hair. He’d already heard about Foster’s escape to Hill’s Bar but he asked Whannell about it anyway.

“Foster wasn’t there when I went to make my arrest but to guarantee that he doesn’t stray too far I arrested his assistant.”

Dixon furrowed his brow, “what does Foster need him for? He probably left the bar with his money to Hill’s Bar. He’s a Law and Order man.”

Whannell clenched his hands into fists, “McGowan again! I’m going to see to it that both he and Foster are arrested!”

There was no use in telling Whannell that by closing all the saloons, there would be more trouble in a town where people were agitated and restless.

Even when Dixon went out to get some food for himself at the diner, he saw the glum faced people shuffling along, looking miserable.

The saloons were still closed on December 24, 1858 when the Christmas dance was held. Dixon went there wearing his best suit and a clean pair of boots.  He arrived with some Nlaka’pamuth women he had met.

Dixon was having a good time, dancing with the ladies when he heard shouts in his direction. It seemed two ruffians were getting jealous and were determined that Dixon was not going to be a happy man.

Dixon told them to go elsewhere, “you’re in British Columbia and I’ve plead allegiance to Queen Victoria.”

The two men took that as a taunt and a scuffle ensued with Dixon being tossed outside and onto the frozen mud of the street. Dixon’s head hurt but he got to his feet and yelled at the closed door. He was angry and upset. How could those two jerks bully him like that?

The next morning he dropped by Whannell’s hut and found him standing by the fire.

Dixon took off his hat and pointed at his wrapped head.

“Sir, I want to file a complaint against two of McGowan’s ruffians.”

Whannell stepped forward, a look of concern on his face. “Who are they? I’ll have them arrested at once, especially if they’re friends of McGowan’s.”

“Farrell and Burns are their names. You’ll find them at Hill’s Bar.”

“Leave it with me Dixon. In the meantime, do you need the services of Dr. Fife?”

“No thank you, sir. I’ve got years of practice helping injured soldiers and the like.”

After Dixon left, Whannell sent for Constable Hickson.

“Hickson, go to Hill’s Bar and give this warrant to George Perrier. I’m ordering the arrest of Burns and Farrell for the assault of Isaac Dixon.”

Two hours later, Hickson presented the warrant to George Perrier who went in search of Ned McGowan.

“McGowan, what should I do?”

McGowan was sitting at the saloon playing cards. “I’ll go talk to Whannell.”

An hour later, McGowan knocked on Whannell’s door and entered. The furnishings were minimal he noted. There was only one small table and upon this McGowan dropped a small bag of gold dust.

“I’ve come to talk to you about Burns and Farrell,” McGowan began.

“And who are you to be barging in here? You’re not a constable!”

McGowan stood at his full height. “A reasonable man would be interested in bargaining. What’s to be gained by arresting these two men?”

“Take your gold dust and leave,” Whannell said through clenched teeth. “I won’t be bribed.”

McGowan returned to Hill’s Bar where Perrier and a few others were waiting for him on the other side of the river.

“Well? How did it go?” Perrier asked as he helped steady the canoe while McGowan disembarked.

McGowan shook his head, “stubborn and foolish. He has underestimated his opponent. Tell Constable Hickson to bring Dixon here if he wants to testify. We’ll hold the trial here at Hill’s Bar.”

Perrier nodded, “I’ll write up a summons right away.”

Hickson returned to Yale the next day – the last of the daylight was already ebbing away and he didn’t see the rush.

At nine o’clock the next day, Hickson rode in a canoe to Yale with the summons for Dixon.

He was halfway to the barber shop when he ran into Dixon on the main street and served him the paper.  Dixon read the paper over a couple of times, hardly believing it. He hurried over to Whannell’s hut and banged on the door.

“Hello! You only have to knock once,” said Whannell from behind the door. He opened it a crack.

“Dixon? What now?”

Dixon held up the paper, “they want me to come to a trial in Hill’s Bar!”

“Come inside and we’ll talk.”

It was warmer inside but not by much and Dixon kept his coat on, with the collar almost covering his ears.

Whannell read the paper. “This is absolutely absurd! I cannot believe that Perrier would do such a thing! Where is that Constable Hickson? He failed to follow my orders!”

Whannell gathered up his sword and put on his hat. Half an hour later, Constable Hickson was spotted talking to Yates, the HBC clerk.

“Hickson! You are to come to my court at once!”

Hickson followed Whannell at a distance and arrived at the “court” – a sparse room with only a bench for Whannell to sit at and no heat.

Cold air seemed to blow in from every corner of the room and Hickson stood there hunched as he waited for Whannell to enter.

“You must remove your hat when I enter the court, Constable!” Whannell almost shouted.

Hickson did as he was told and exposed his pink ears.

“You’re under arrest Mr. Hickson because you failed to carry out your orders as directed by an officer of this Crown colony.”

“But sir, Justice Perrier instructed me to summon Dixon! Those were his orders.”

“Am I not your superior?!”

Hickson gave this some thought and then he answered. “No.”

Whannell nearly blew up. His shouts brought the attention of the jailer who came running into the court.

“Put Hickson into the jail at once!”

Hickson protested loudly as the jailer pulled him from the room.

Whannell stood and drew out his sword, slashing the air in front of him. How could people be so turned against him? It was a plot to overthrow British rule! He was sure of it. But what proof did he have? If he penned a letter to Governor James Douglas, he would just reply back that he could handle the situation himself.

What the Governor didn’t understand was that Yale was no longer a small HBC Fort – it had become a quagmire of American politics that overwhelmed the Crown colony. Its situation was a tenuous as its physical location was precarious; clinging to the side of the deep Fraser Canyon.

McGowan and nine others from Hill’s Bar disembarked from two canoes and strode along the main street. Several people along the way observed the men, each of them carrying guns and knives in plain sight. No one challenged them or asked them where they were headed.

Whannell was standing in his hut with his back to the stove, talking to a few miners who had a few complaints when the door opened with a bang and McGowan and his entourage entered.

“You’re under arrest, Mr. Whannell. I, Ned McGowan and the nine others with me, have been given the title of special constables and are here to carry out the orders of Justice Perrier.”

Whannell stared at them open-mouthed. “On what grounds do you arrest me?”

“You’ve insulted her majesty and you’ve unlawfully detained Constable Hickson, who we are now going to release.”

Whannell, knowing he was outnumbered, had no choice but to step aside while McGowan and his men stormed the jail, ordering the jailer to open the door. Alarmed at the sight of these men with their guns all aimed in his direction, the jailer complied and unlocked door behind which was a crowd of men including Constable Hickson.

“All of these men are freed!” McGowan shouted.

Whannell tried to leave the room but McGowan’s men prevented him from doing so, instead they roped his wrists together and led him outside and down the street with one of them pointing his own sword at his back.

There were shouts of encouragement from some of the passersby but there were mostly insults hurled at Whannell by miners still missing their saloons. By the time they arrived at the place where the canoes lay waiting, the captors were full of self praise.

Breathless from running, Dr. Fife shouted, “McGowan! If Mr. Whannell is to get a fair trial then I have to attend as a witness.”

McGowan relented and let the Vigilante member climb on board and take a seat beside Whannell who sat with his military hat askew. The others snickered at his appearance.
Using this opportunity to lecture to his prisoner, McGowan said words which caused Whannell’s heart to race.

Thinking that Whannell was worried about the outcome of the trial, Fife reassured Whannell that he would pay for any fine. “McGowan likes money more than anything; something that’ll buy a pint all around.”

Whannell said nothing. He was too angry to speak. He sat there grinding his jaw. That afternoon was a blur. He proceeded like a prisoner in front of Perrier who read out the charges with occasional hints from McGowan himself.

“Perrier!” Whannell shouted. “This is a complete fraud!”

“Mr. Whannell, you are in my court.” Perrier didn’t look at Whannell as he read out the charges.

Whannell’s complexion turned a deep crimson and then pale with anger as McGowan gave a ten minute lecture on Whannell’s failings. He was almost shaking with rage as Perrier read out the fine of fifty dollars.

Fife paid the fine as promised and luckily had enough money to pay some paddlers to get them both safely back to Yale.  Fife said a few words about the closure of the saloons, but Whannell scarcely heard them.

Just as soon as Whannell reached his hut, he rushed to find paper and ink and set about writing letters to the forts downriver.

In each of the letters he transcribed word for word which he remembered McGowan utter during that canoe ride to Hill’s Bar:

“all there is in this so-called Colony of yours are forts. We’ll take Fort Yale and then go downriver and capture Fort Hope and retreat with our plunder into Washington Territory.”

With those words written, Whannell appealed for military intervention. “Fort Yale is under American control, the entire Colony is in peril!” he wrote.

There wasn’t enough time or space to talk about his ordeal but he did write that “George Perrier was colluding with Ned McGowan and the Hill’s Bar mob.”

Finishing his signature with a flourish, Whannell tied string around the paper in the fading candlelight and opened the door into the cold night to find someone to deliver the messages.

In less than ten days, troops from the Royal Engineers would arrive in Yale along with Colonal Moody and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie.  McGowan’s war had begun.

The Hill’s Bar Mob

Yale, BC

December 6, 1858 – Fort Yale, BC

Peter Brunton Whannell sat in the barber chair facing the rough hewn wall in front of him. He took off his military cap and carefully placed it on the floor, next to his sword. Some people said he was preoccupied over wearing his military uniform all the time, but he wasn’t adequately paid as Justice of the Peace of Fort Yale. Besides his tall riding boots had proved useful in the muddy streets in the fall and now that winter was fast approaching, they kept him warm.

Isaac Dixon, the barber, applied a greasy mixture to Whannell’s face.

“Those men I told you about, one of them came around yesterday, demanding a shave. He said if I drew even a drop of blood with my razor then he’d shoot me!”

“Hmm. And did you remind him that British law applies here?” asked Whannell.

“I didn’t say a word until he got out the door but I charged him double!” Dixon held up his razor as if to emphasize the point.

Dixon drew the razor along Whannell’s cheek, humming as he did so. Whannell sat still but he wasn’t relaxed.

“Have you heard anything more about Perrier?” Whannell asked.

“Nothing new, but then again that doesn’t mean that there’s anything good about no news. Judge Perrier is under the thumb of McGowan. Whenever McGowan wants something he just yanks on Perrier’s nose ring and there he comes.” Dixon laughed.

Whannell frowned. It was disturbing that his counterpart across the Fraser River in Hill’s Bar was being influenced by a former Californian politician.

“How can this Ned McGowan have so much influence? I fail to understand.”

Dixon smiled, “he’s been a politician for a long time. Some say he used to be a lawyer or a judge with high hopes until he got on the wrong side of the Vigilante Committee. They wanted him to hang for some crime or another but his friends got him out of there and up here to Fort Yale.”

Whannell turned his head and Dixon shaved the other side.

“It’s challenging enough to have these lawless miners around and now McGowan has to drag his party politics up here to our Crown colony. Do you think he’s intent on this manifest destiny?”

Dixon straightened up, “McGowan isn’t much of a miner and it wouldn’t take much for someone to round up some miners for a militia – back home I’m sure half of them already belong to one. The only lucky thing is that McGowan has enemies here and that’s why he’s had to stick to his camp across the river, although he’s been trying to make friends with the HBC factor Ovid Allard. I saw them having a friendly meeting in Foster’s saloon.”

“Hmm. Very interesting. Dr. Fifer, has also cast some doubt about McGowan’s character.”

Dixon snorted. “That’s no surprise considering Fifer is a Vigilante. If the Vigilante Committee had their way, McGowan would have hanged in California. It must irk Fifer to see McGowan walking around up here a free man. It irks me, come to think of it. Folks like me have only just seen their freedom and the politicians down there keep wanting to take it away again. That’s why I’m up here, happy to be freezing in the name of the Queen!”

Whannell took out a couple of coins and handed them to Dixon.

“If there is anything you need, consider me your friend and ally,” Whannell said as he patted Dixon on the shoulder.

“There’ll be trouble alright, you can be sure of that. You have a good day, sir.”

Whannell put on his military hat and with sword in hand, went out the door leaving a cold blast of air behind him. It was too bad Whannell insisted on wearing that outrageous uniform, thought Dixon. It didn’t give the least amount of credibility; instead he had become the butt of jokes.

As Dixon stoked the fire in the corner, he thought about what Whannell had said about McGowan dragging his party politics up to Yale.

Two weeks later, there was trouble just as Dixon had figured.

(to be continued)


The Missing Black Brimmed Hat (part 2)

After several days exploring the rugged coast, Elmwood decided to investigate Yak-Tulamn, the place where the red earth was sold.
He followed a rough path to one of the coal town of Nanaimo on the east coast of the Island, wearing his black brimmed hat, the one thing that kept him dry, unlike his boots which allowed water in everywhere. By the time he reached so called civilization, Elmwood realized he was getting strange looks. He removed the hat as he entered the Clipper Hotel and put it on the counter while he checked in for the evening.

“I’m a collector,” he said as he placed a battered oil cloth sack on the counter.

The clerk raised his eyebrows and gave Elmwood an appraising look of his own, as if not quite believing Elmwood matched his idea of a collector. After several days in the bush, sleeping in his same clothes, Elmwood had a rough idea of what he looked like.

“Do you have a safe place for this?”

The clerk handled the sack at arms length with only the tips of his fingers and put it in a drawer below the desk.

The clerk showed him to his room and politely asked him if he wanted a bath before dinner.

“There’s a laundry service too, for an extra dollar. He’ll pick up your clothes and have them washed and dried by the time you’ve finished your bath.”

Elmwood doubted that was the case, but he put his clothes in the laundry sack provided and left it outside his door as instructed while he waited for word that his bath was ready.

Looking out the window, he saw a man with a hat pulled low over his eyes trudging along behind the hotel with a wheelbarrow containing several sacks. He briefly wondered if one of the sacks were his.

After several days in the bush, Elmwood was grateful to settle in for a warm bath and he must have dozed off because he didn’t hear the footsteps treading down the hall.

Someone shuffled down the hallway and he thought he heard someone say something about dinner. Elmwood grunted in reply. Although he didn’t usually care much for eating meals, the water had turned tepid and his stomach grumbled. He got out, dried himself off slowly, dressed then ambled along the hallway to his room.

Opening the door to his room, he realized something was not quite right. On the bed lay some clothes, but they were not his. He had always been very fastidious about his belongings and how he travelled, yet nothing was how he had left it.

With some consternation, Elmwood slipped on the shirt and pants which hardly came up to his knees and made his way down to the lobby to see the clerk.

“I have received someone else’s clothes instead of my own.”

The clerk looked at him solemnly, “sometimes if the launderer is busy, he will provide clothes until yours are ready. In the meantime, dinner is being served,” indicating the dining room door which was propped open.

Elmwood was doubtful this was the case, however, he went to have dinner which consisted of a meat loaf and mashed potatoes, washed down with some port. He felt rather than noticed that someone was looking at him.

Turning his head, he caught sight of a man whose name should have been familiar to him but he couldn’t remember, other than he was a member of the ‘Know Nothings’ an absurd name for a political party.

A week before, he had knocked on Elmwood’s door claiming to be a friend of one of his patients, Ned McGowan. Always reluctant to discuss patients’ business, Elmwood told him he didn’t know anything, to which the man smiled and made a strange gesture with his hand, a signal of some sort.

“Did he pay you?” the man asked.

Elmwood had too much pride to discuss anything to do with money or lack thereof; he’d just been sitting on the crate eating some week old bread. He was about to close the door on the man, when he thrust an American dollar bill at him.

“If you happen to see McGowan, tell him Boyle called. I’m staying at the Inn by the wharf.”

“What use is an American dollar on British soil run by the Hudson’s Bay Company? It would be more useful to have a sack of nails,” Elmwood said and shut the door.

He wasn’t about to say anything about the visitor when he went to check on his patient who was languishing in the next room with a bruised jaw and several lacerations. It was evident by the look on McGowan’s face though, that he knew something was up.

“He’ll be back,” McGowan said through gritted teeth. “He’s a Know Nothing man.”

Sure enough, ten minutes later, there was another knock on the door. It was the Know Nothing man with a small sack of nails.

At this point, Elmwood should have declined. But there he stood holding the nails as the man walked away.

Although it pained McGowan to speak, he did.

“The Know Nothings are a bunch of no good traitors. I used to have a newspaper for a few years and none of them liked my questions about who profited from the arson fires of San Francisco.”

Elmwood crossed his brows, “how much trouble are you in?”

McGowan raised himself onto his elbows and winced as he swung his legs around. Elmwood steadied him as he got to his feet.

“My name has been cleared of any wrongdoing, it’s just that certain people want me dead and they’re willing to travel to the ends of the earth.”

Elmwood didn’t ask where he was going but McGowan’s words had an affect on him. Just how far would one’s enemies seek to travel?

He managed to avoid any contact with Boyd but Elmwood couldn’t help but feel shadowed. Now that he was in this hotel in Nanaimo, the same feeling came over him.

Immediately after dinner, Elmwood inquired about his clothes which he was told should arrive at any time.

Elmwood returned to his room and sat on the bed, wondering why he felt so ill at ease. It wasn’t just the fact that his clothes were elsewhere or that his collectibles were out of sight. There was something else. He refused to think about McGowan’s problems; they weren’t his. But why were the people following him? It didn’t make sense.

Suddenly, it occured to him that he hadn’t seen his black brimmed hat.
With some difficulty he found a match and lit the kerosene lamp. It cast shadows over the walls and the furniture, but it should have been adequate to see something as large as his black brimmed hat, but he couldn’t see it. His black brimmed hat was missing!

The sky had turned into shades of charcoal and the clouds were low. In the distance Elmwood could make out a small figure wearing a grey coat pushing a wooden wheelbarrow. A few fat drops of rain hit the window.

Just then, a pair of heavy shoes came along the hallway followed by a knock at the door.

“Dr. Elmwood? I’ve got your laundry here.”

The voice sounded distinctly American and he was sure it didn’t belong to the fellow at the front desk, nor the one with the wheelbarrow.

“Just a minute,” Elmwood said. He went to the window and looked out.

Down the lane, was the laundry man, running, his feet splashing in the puddles.

Elmwood lifted the sash and had one leg out the window and balanced on the ledge when he heard the door open. There was the Know Nothing man and his partner behind him.

“Stop!” A shot whizzed past Elmwood as he tumbled out, hanging by his hands.

It was about fifteen feet to the ground but high enough that he hesitated to jump.  Just then, the laundry fellow rounded the corner and glanced up at the commotion.

Elmwood landed in pile of mud. He was stunned at first then his eyes focussed and he recognized the launderer, hovering above him. He checked himself for broken bones, but other than bruises, he was okay.

A minute later, the hotel clerk came around with a small glass of potent liquor and asked him what had happened.

“Your clothes are ready,” he said.