Tag Archives: poetry

Overlanders of 1862

heading west I sketched an ox
as it ploughed forward
pulling the red river cart
without effort passing buffalo
bones piled high we bagged ducks
on the trail trading for bison and berries
the days were long I lingered
over the pages drawing, observing
along undulating hills
thirsty under the hot
sun wandering off
in search of water
I remember the moment
the ox tried to run away
from its cart scattering goods, breaking
its harness after crossing marshes, mudholes and creeks
crossing the Assiniboine on a scow
no grass to eat on the other side
oxen left behind at Fort Edmonton for mules and pack horses
men in mud to their waist with shoulders
to wheels of mired wagons rough sketches
hauling on lines to prevent carts and animals
from running down steep embankments
roasted skunk, food gone guns, ammunition, belts traded
for salmon at Tête Jaune Cache gold pans and pick axes
unwanted two months passed I put away my sketchbook
the group divided, unsure swift
with rafts and canoes along the Fraser
or along the North Thompson River
each trying to get to Fort George
lives lost horses killed
for food I cannot sketch the pain

_____ “Overlanders” was the name given to large organized groups who headed overland from Fort Garry, across the prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to the Cariboo where gold had been discovered in 1862.  One of the leaders of a large group of Overlanders, Thomas McMicking of Queenston, Canada West (Ontario) submitted his trip diary to the British Columbian newspaper which published it in November, 1862.

William George Richardson Hind (1833-1889) was an artist and Overlander. His drawings and watercolours of this crossing helped historians to understand and appreciate this unique part of Canadian history. You can view Hind’s sketchbook online. Previously, his brother, Henry Youle Hind, who was a surveyor and academic, had led government exploring expeditions to the Labrador region and the prairies.


Red House in Victoria

This poem appeared in the British Times Colonist on February 5, 1863. It’s a wonderful example of poetry in advertising. I kept the punctuation and capital letters as they were printed.

Machine Poetry by Mike Cohen

A miner from the Diggings once came down,
Whose wretched aspect was perceived by all the town;
His boots were soleless, and his pants were torn –
In fact, he looked an object, quite forlorn.
He sought a bed – but where to get that bed
He did not know nor where to rest his head
While pondering this, a good sight met his view;
The El Dorado Beds – price 50 cents and 5 and 20 too.

“Let’s have a quarter’s worth,” our miner said,
And quick as he thought, he soon in bed was laid.
He slept a weary sleep, and the next morn arose,
The more refreshed, for he had doffed his clothes.
Those pants he did not wish again to wear,
And thought perhaps his host would sent out for a pair;

He called out for the landlord, and much surprised was he,
Our friend Mike Cohen, of The Red House, there to see.
“What, Mike, you in this line!” our miner said:
“Then bring me up some pants, and something for my head.”
Mike brought them up, and quick as thought,
Our friend the miner a new suit had bought,
Paid down his money, then, looking in the glass,
His compliments to Mike he thus did pass:
“Whenever a man wants rigging out in something new,
For little money, Mike, I’ll send him straight to you.

And now, friend, Mike, pray tell me where
For breakfast I can get good fare?”
“‘Tis but next door, a Restaurant I keep!”
Says Mike, “and you will find it good and cheap!”
The miner went, and breakfast had,
And said that for a quarter ’twasn’t bad;
For Mike, I see, knows how to do the trade,
And put all the others right into the shade.

Cariboo Roadhouse Poem

advertisement for Cold Spring House in Cariboo Sentinel October 15, 1866

Cash Book

Stiff yellow pages reveal
A sturdy log roadhouse
Fifteen miles from Quesnel
Each entry a window
Through the penmanship of John Boyd
The door swings open
Mah Gee buys a pick axe and
sets off for the gold fields in the Cariboo
Dutch Charlie
Dancing Bill and
Play a game of Monte
The seasons pass as the pages turn
Mr. Dragon sits down for a hot meal and a wagon tongue
A train of oxen arrive in the snow
In the middle of the night
Fifteen dollars worth of cabbage is eaten
and charged to the team
Soap is $1.25 a bar
the same price as a bottle of lager beer

Boyd opens a package of seeds and
sets off for Quesnel to buy a plough
Henry McDames pays part of his bill
“for sundry items at sundry times”
Antoine Malbouf “commenced to work at $100 per month and board,
idle time to be deducted.”
Madame Simone buys 1070 pounds of hay at 7 cents a pound
Beet and turnip seeds are planted in the ground

John “Cariboo” Cameron
Frenchman with Sheep and
Ah Doo all pass through on their way to gold
Tolls are paid to G.B. Wright as the Cariboo Road
Is built by three hundred men
The cook Ah Fatt pays for his friends’ stay
Malbouf breaks a tumbler and settles for the damage
Ah Doo comes back from the creek to work at Cottonwood
Eggs are $4 a dozen
Berries are growing ripe in the hills
golden grain in the fields
long rows of vegetables in the garden


During the height of the Cariboo gold rush, there were twelve roadhouses situated along the road from Quesnel to Barkerville. John Boyd later bought the Cottonwood Ranch and roadhouse just west of Cold Spring House in 1874. Cottonwood became a provincial historic site in 1963, a hundred years after it was built. It is one of the last remaining roadhouses in BC.


Poisonous Potato

The gold miner
prepares to bake
removing some
yellow flesh
and replacing it with a blob
greyish, putty
mixes with black sand
over the flame of the campfire
he cooks them
turning them over, then
opens them
like oysters
with pearls of gold
he walks away
leaving broken halves

“Dr. Fifer!”
Sara is sick
only eight years old
Dr. Fifer tries to guess
what is happening?
the little girl’s life slips
through his fingers
he is helpless without knowing
her mother knocks his glasses
off his nose and onto the floor
Ah Chung picks them up
before her feet can crush them

Going for a walk to clear his mind
he comes across a campfire of
smouldering ashes and potatoes
and sees little teeth marks
he smells the potato with his eyes shut
then he opens them again and sees
Robert Wall, one of his patients
cooking mercury in the potatoes
he explains
wire that holds them together

Fifer throws down the potato in disgust
and turns his back to Wall
in two years Fifer will be dead
not from mercury
from an explosion of lead in his chest
from Wall himself

When the Fraser River gold rush began in the spring of 1858, Governor James Douglas sent Hudson’s Bay Company employee Ovid Allard to reopen Fort Yale, which had been abandoned on the completion of Fort Hope nearly ten years before. Allard remained at Yale until 1864. Sara was his youngest daughter.

Dr. William Fifer came to Yale during the height of the gold rush from California with his assistant, Ah Chung. He served as the town’s doctor as well as president of the Town’s council. He was killed by Robert Wall, a gold miner, July 5, 1861.

Mercury (or quicksilver) is a heavy, liquid metal, silvery-white in colour, with a very low melting point. It was commonly used to recover gold in the 1860s.

A note on the artist: Sarah Crease painted a series of watercolours depicting the Hudson’s Bay Company fort and the town of Victoria. In 1862 she sketched landscapes of New Westminster, Hope, Yale, and the Fraser River.

The New Eldorado

by Kinahan Cornwallis – 1858

To the clime of Columbia, Britain’s new born,
Where the rays of the sun gladly usher the morn,
And the landscape deck out with a smile;
Where the hearts of the countless beat hopefully high,
And gold doth the moments beguile;
Where the frown of the mountains, the blue of the sky,
Contrast in their beauty with forest and plain;
Where the green perfumed prairie rolls in the breeze.
And mankind ever struggle for gain;
Where the sight of the ore even fails to appease
Man’s inordinate yearning for gold, –
Still making each eagerly struggle the more
For the treasure ungather’d – untold.
To that clime go, ye people, ye sons of the west,
‘Tis a land of exuberant plenty and joy;
Go, ye children of cities, by fortune opprest,
Where gold may be gathered which knows no alloy;
Far and wide doth it lie on that beautiful shore;
May it gladden and laurel the pathway of time
Left the wanderer to traverse who reaps from its mine.
‘Tis the bauble of earth; – ’tis the gift of the chute,
Of millions the spoil, – It is mine – It is thine.


Kinahan Cornwallis (1839 – 1917) was a British author and poet. This poem appears in his book, “The New Eldorado; or British Columbia.”  The first line in the poem “Columbia, Britain’s new born” refers to British Columbia having just been named a British colony in 1858. Previously it was territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.


Standing at the Sluice Box

sluicebox from 1850s

"Andy at Sluice box" (Bancroft Library)

Standing at the sluice box
time seemed insignificant
repetitive movements
shoveling gravel into the narrow chasm
water flowing past, pushing light minerals ahead
leaving gold behind riffle blocks
like the narrow Fraser Canyon: a giant sluicebox
an ocean of ice sat on top of the mountains
grinding the rock beneath,
then retreated
exposing the gold stringers
tumbled forward in winter storms and melting summer snow,
prodded down painted cliffs and streams
held back by bars of gravel

men move forward
like ants carrying loads bigger than they are
resolute and determined
never looking down to the chasm below
men walking with scurvy, eating beans and flour
too weak to pull themselves from the frothing water
“drink this,
boil the branches from the spruce tree and
you’ll be better”
strips of salmon drying in the sun
smell the berries in woven baskets

everyone wanted to know how much gold the other had found
swishing and shaking the gold pan
back and forth
men lay on the ground in shallow comfort like salmon
with some life left in them
full of purpose but
people speculate and await
ready to catch the gullible ones
a man named Billy Ballou
said he was making more money delivering
letters from families to their loved ones
wondering if they had hit pay dirt
a dollar per letter

he had never heard that word before
c a shhh! with a finger to one’s lips
hidden for a future use
hidden from sight
up a tree in a place so obvious
but no one was looking

standing by a sluice box
shoulders sore
one more shovel full of dirt
the sun setting
the brim of a hat pushed back
eyes squeezed shut
judging the reflection of light
is it gold?


A sluice box could have been called a tray as it was open on both ends to allow for water to travel its length at a constant rate. Riffles acted as barriers to the water flow, creating eddies that allowed heavier minerals such as gold to drift to the bottom. Riffles were spaced evenly along the length of the sluice, usually every few inches, perpendicular to the length of the sluice.

Note regarding the photograph: this photo was taken in California in the 1850s but it would have been the same type of sluice box used here in British Columbia.

Gold Rush Poem

Here is a poem I found in an old book by J.D. Vallance titled Untrodden Ways.

Panning for Gold

Yellow Gold

What are you here for? Gold! Big pay!
And you think it’s here for the taking,
‘Lest so the “fronts” in ‘Frisco say
About fortunes here in the making

And you want me to give directions
As to where the the mother lode lays,
Because there with the least exertions
The “fronts” say it more than pays.

I’m old at the game of panning
In the rivers and streams for gold,
And I feel that’s why you’re planning
That I tell you the tale untold.

The mother-lode true is paydirt
That most everyone wants, to a man,
But gold to the one who’s most alert
Ain’t always what’s found in your pan.

Sure! I’ll tell you where to find it,
If you’ll listen to what I say,
And lad, you had better mind it,
‘Cause I don’t often tell without pay.

Have you ever heard in the morning
The elk send his bugle call
To the sun, and a rainbow forming
In the first silver mist of fall?

Or the Whipoorwill softly trilling,
In a setting of meadow and stream,
And all the outdoors thrilling
In tune with a woodland dream?

There, my boy, is the mother-lode
You seek, though you may not know it,
You’ll find more near the end of the road
Than in the sifting sands that show it.