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The hunt for gold

How the effects of the Fraser River gold rush are still being felt 160 years later


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Approaching the banks of the Fraser River in Yale, it's not difficult to see gold in nearly everything.

It's likely similar to the optimism and naiveté—or perhaps, the desperation—that prospectors felt when they made their way into what we now know as British Columbia back in 1858.

On this late-November day, what had piqued my interest turned out to be fallen leaves and the remnants of a jack-o-lantern, not an undiscovered mother lode lazily laying mere metres from the town's sign commemorating the Cariboo Wagon Road, near the intersection of Front and Albert streets.

I wander over and dip my fingers into the rushing river. The water's not frigid to the touch like I expected, but chilly enough to become unpleasant after submersing my skin for more than a few seconds.

Yet these were the conditions in which thousands came from all over the world in search of fortune. Today, Yale is the town along B.C.'s Gold Rush Trail that has most clearly embraced its prospecting past, with sites and murals around town, as well as a restaurant and motel called Digger's Gold Nugget (the latter is, however, shuttered and several letters from the sign have disappeared from the building.)

This marketing opportunity is just one small legacy from the rush, which in turn set in motion British Columbia's official colonization, the relatively new colony joining Confederation, and the signing of treaties with local Indigenous communities that ended up unfulfilled.


The exact year a Shuswap woman found gold in the North Thompson River does not seem to be entirely certain, with some texts claiming it was 1856, and others noting it was 1857. Either way, it was kept quiet for a relative while, as it was only when, in February 1858, that an assay office in San Francisco received a shipment of gold from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) for refining that the word got out.

It wasn't the first discovery in what would later become B.C.—the local Indigenous people drove prospectors from Haida Gwaii in 1852—but it was one that lasted. On April 25, 1858, the Commodore arrived in Victoria from San Francisco carrying roughly 400 of the first fortune seekers.

It was the beginning of a boom for the future provincial capital, as it became a starting point for miners needing to stock up before crossing the Strait of Georgia and beginning the treacherous journey from the coast to the Interior. At that point, Indigenous communities and HBC traders were the only residents of the present-day mainland.

According to Patricia E. Roy and John Herd Thompson's British Columbia: Land of Promises, in May and June 1858, 10,000 miners headed up the Fraser's path by river, by land, with some travelling on the Whatcom Trail and others on the fur brigade trail via the Columbia and Okanogan rivers. That number ballooned to 25,000 by that fall and 50,000 by 1861, with an estimated 80 per cent believed to have been veterans of California's 1849 gold rush.

The rush's demographics were diverse, as in addition to Indigenous populations and the British, miners of other European descent, Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians, and black Americans fleeing slavery all came for the rush, according to The Trail of 1858, by Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson. Many came because California was experiencing a recession, while many black Californians moved north because of discriminatory laws passed by former Southerners in power.

With the bulk of the prospectors coming from America, though, Colony of Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas felt it was his duty to assert the British Empire's control in the region, keeping in mind the calls of "54-40 or fight!" from James K. Polk during his presidential election campaign in 1844. The slogan refers to the southern boundary of present-day Alaska, controlled by the Russians until its purchase by the United States in 1867, as Polk saw a manifest destiny for America to claim the Oregon Territory and all other land that had not yet been colonized.

\Another way to fend off American influence, Douglas thought, was to encourage a multicultural society to have as many residents on his side as possible. This meant encouraging black, Chinese, and other European folks to come, as he thought they would more willingly become British subjects. Douglas, whose mother was Creole and whose wife was Cree, did this through incentives such as extending full citizenship to blacks. However, he also felt the Chinese were "not a desirable class of people" in the long run, as, he believed they generally spent little money and thus, provided little economic boost, and kept to themselves, generally preferring the relative lull of opium dens to boisterous saloons.

According to The Trail of 1858, Douglas saw the Indigenous population as victims in this situation and offered treaties to theoretically protect them, and also to have them as allies if needed.

The American threat seemed to subside not too long after the rush began, as many returned home in 1859, calling "humbug" on the Fraser and incorrectly assuming no prosperity was left to uncover.


Prior to the miners' arrival, HBC employees and local Indigenous people had a relatively respectful relationship, as the employees would purchase fish and trade with locals. The prospectors, by and large, took what they wanted. The majority of them were conditioned in California's rough-and-tumble Wild West, and regularly settled disputes through brawls and bar fights. But they reserved their most violent tendencies for Indigenous people. According to The Trail of 1858, miner militias even formed reserves before British Columbia was officially colonized.

Prospecting interfered with salmon fishing on the Thompson and Fraser rivers for the Stó:loand Nlaka'pamux peoples, which led to the Fraser River War in which two-dozen miners were estimated to have been killed, according to British Columbia: Land of Promise, though scores more were said to have died on the other side.

After a Texas Ranger and his men burned three villages near Spuzzum, killing 36 Indigenous people, including five chiefs, the Indigenous population started to consider its options.

Pike Guards Captain H.M. Snyder met with Chief Spintlum and a grand council of 11 chiefs on traditional Nlaka'pamux land, near present-day Lytton, and threatened to return with thousands of men to drive them from the Fraser.

Warriors had already come to Lytton to block the whites' progress, and several chiefs were pushing for war, but the Nlaka'pamux, led by Chief Spintlum, favoured peace.

Snyder signed treaties with 27 chiefs, representing more than 2,000 people, for an "uneasy truce" to end the threat of war.

However, settlers and ranchers soon came in, making it even more difficult for Indigenous people to access their traditional territory.

In the early 1900s, roughly 50 years after the gold rush, Chiefs from the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau tribes wrote to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to remind him of the signed treaties. In the letter, they referred to fur traders as "real whites" while prospectors were the "other whites."

"They treat us as less than children and allow us no say in anything. They say Indians know nothing and own nothing, yet their power and wealth comes from our belongings," the letter read.

In addition to the violence, a smallpox epidemic that broke out in 1862 is estimated to have killed between 50 and 75 per cent of the local Indigenous population.

In terms of local connections, Lil'wat Nation researcher Lex Joseph says in an email that there were no treaty initiatives between the nation and the government. He adds that "at (Port) Douglas, the Lillooet tribe came in vast numbers displacing the original population, the Chehalis tribe of the Stó:lo. The Lillooet tribe came in search of jobs carrying goods" like money, beaver and, of course, gold.

Joseph adds that two sternwheeler paddleboats sank in Lil'wat territory—the Martzell sank at the south end of Lillooet Lake while the 23-metre-long Prince of Wales sank on Lilloet Lake near the Birkenhead River. The Prince of Wales was still visible in its resting place over a century after being abandoned, but as of 2018, had sunk into the sand.


In terms of collecting gold itself, the process was far from simple.

Panning was initially the easiest, as miners would hope to loosen gold nuggets and dust washed down from the mountains from the sand and gravel in which it settled.

Later, some developed the method of sluicing, where prospectors would put sand into a box called a rocker and run river water through it. A mesh layer separated larger gold pieces while a felt layer trapped the dust.

According to The Trail of 1858, the extraction methods became more refined based on who was working the waters. Many of the early pickers didn't know how to secure much more than the largest nuggets until the Californians arrived. Later, Chinese prospectors successfully worked abandoned areas for finer pieces that had escaped others.

In later parts of the rush, the gold became tougher to access, as it was trapped by up to four metres of clay up in the Cariboo.

Sometimes it was worth it, as some of the earliest prospectors to the region made $100 a day (worth roughly $1,900 now), while some of the luckiest were said to have panned up to $30,000 worth in a day.

These days, you still might see the odd person panning a river, but it's more for recreational purposes than any real hopes of striking it rich. There are currently 14 public panning sites, including one near Hope, one near Yale and two near Lytton.

Jeff Grimolfson of Lillooet-based River Monster Adventures has been offering gold-panning tours alongside his sturgeon and monster fishing tours for the past four years.

While it admittedly hasn't made up the bulk of his business, Grimolfson says there are still tourists interested in learning the history of the gold rush, while trying their hand at panning as well, often combined with a sturgeon-fishing tour.

River Monster's claim is accessible only by jet boat, and instead of using a traditional steel pan, guests use a plastic one. But Grimolfson reckons that guests still get a taste of the excitement of 1858 without their livelihoods depending on performing the repetitive motion in icy-cold waters for hours on end.

"It's a really nice experience, just being on the boat, having the fresh air blowing in your face and (traversing) some of the rapids on the river, scouting out a panning location and doing the test pans," he says. "Bringing a classifier and all your gear trying to find a hotspot, it does get fairly exciting for people."

While his expeditions have found smaller nuggets, Grimolfson says they typically find flakes instead. Though the portions are small, it's extraordinarily rare to leave emptyhanded, especially since he knows the area well.

"It depends on the water level and what's up. We end up finding areas that have some bigger boulders and try to flip the boulders. We find that a lot of the bigger stones are gold traps, so that's what we target," he says. "We dig underneath where (the rocks) were. The gold is actually very easy to find there. We find gold every pan. It's very rare that we don't find a few flakes of gold.

"We might get 60 to 70 specks in a pan, but in the end, it doesn't really weigh a ton. It's very back-breaking and very labour intensive, that's for sure.

"A lot of them put it on top of their TV. It's a nice, little keepsake for them to bring home," he adds.

Sometimes, instead of on his company's claim, Grimolfson will try some public panning areas because of the close proximity to town.

It's rarely busy; Grimolfson camped throughout the summer season near one of the sites and saw "maybe eight or 10 people panning throughout the whole year there."

Over in Lytton, meanwhile, Tom Peglow of the Lytton Museum, says interest in panning is down. Peglow, who has lived in the community for the past 13 years and serves as a summer tour guide, says it's mostly Europeans who come to try their hand at panning, but access has been difficult for the roughly 2,000 people living in the area in recent years.

"We had some success around the bridges panning for gold here, but CN has shut off our access," he says. "We have to go across their tracks and go down their hillside to get to the riverfront, and they've cut it off so we're not allowed to go down there and pan for gold.

"We were hoping that they would relent, but they haven't."

Lytton, which sits on the forks of the Fraser and Thompson rivers, offers two different options for prospecting. In addition to gold, lucky panners might find jade in the Fraser, or platinum coming down the Thompson "if you look at the right place at the right time."

However, no one is getting rich on either rivers; Peglow estimates his panning efforts have netted him one-third of a small vial of gold.

"It's in small qualities, but you have to work hard for it," he says. "I just go down into the bedrock and rake it up and see what you get.

"It's a challenge and also a way of connecting with the people that were here in the 1800s."

He notes one friend accumulated enough gold for a jeweller to make a heart-shaped medallion out of it, but it's rare that anyone finds enough to create anything.

"If other people have managed to accumulate more, they're not telling me," Peglow says.


Because of high tides at some times and frozen waters at others, it wasn't possible to trawl for gold 12 months a year.

The colonial government opted to employ miners on public works projects to keep them occupied instead of risking hooliganism among their ranks.

Starting in the summer of 1858, the government built wagon roads to provide access to steamers on Harrison Lake, carrying goods to Lillooet. According to Frank Rasky's The Taming of the Canadian West, the builders were not paid, and even put up a $25 good-conduct guarantee.

As of the 1861 census, Port Douglas (on Little Harrison Lake), Yale and Lillooet all boasted larger populations than now-booming centres such as New Westminster and Victoria, as they were major stops on the route, which was heavily used from 1858 through 1864. Lillooet was so integral to the rush at this time that it was marked as Mile 0 of the original Cariboo Wagon Road, which is where communities such as 100 Mile House get their names.

The route was an incredibly inefficient one, however, as prospectors had to travel:

By paddlewheel to Port Douglas;

46 kilometres by wagon or stagecoach to Little Lillooet Lake;

By boat to the north side of the lake; by wagon or foot to Lillooet Lake;

By paddlewheel to Port Pemberton;

48 km by wagon or stagecoach to Anderson Lake;

By paddlewheel across the lake;

1.5 km by rail to Seton Lake;

By paddlewheel across;

Eight km by wagon to Lillooet;

By ferry across the river;

And finally, by wagon or stagecoach to Barkerville, which boasted a population of 50,000 in its heyday. All the while, they carried packs weighing 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

The Harrison route has seen revived usage in recent decades after Lower Mainland high-school teacher and renowned historian Charles Hou started organizing the Harrison Hike 41 years ago in Burnaby. The hike, which has been hosted by a handful of different schools over the years and has been at Langley's Walnut Grove Secondary School (WGSS) since 1995, is three excursions in one for Grade 10 students at the school: a day hike and an overnight hike, culminating in a six-night hike from the former site of Port Douglas on Little Harrison Lake to Lillooet Lake.

Grant Inkster, a longtime WGSS teacher who recently retired, is in his 21st year organizing the 41-km hike and describes how it helps students connect with B.C.'s history.

"They're having fun hiking and camping, but they became like sponges to hear the story of the history as we walk along in the footsteps of the gold miners," he says. "As there were more and more kids brought on, the legend of the hike grew, to the point where we're now taking 72 kids each spring."

Inkster explains that organizers try to make the hike as authentic as possible, as students are not allowed to bring cell phones and must start fires from scratch, cook their own food and carry their own packs.

"You're walking through the bush, and as you get to the next stopping point, you look around and you try to find a place that looks flat enough. Then you go to search for firewood, you search for clean drinking water, you put up your shelter," he says. "The next morning, you take it all down and start walking all over again."

As well, he notes that mining and forestry companies have used parts of the trail from the east side of Lillooet Lake to Harrison Lake, with one forestry service road being superimposed on part of the old wagon road. However, he estimates that at least 60 per cent of the wagon road still exists as it did in the 1860s.

"You'll still see wagon ruts in the road. You'll still see old timber bridges that were built across the creeks. As often as possible, we are on that original wagon road, telling the story and the history and actually feeling what it would have been like to sell everything you own, pull up stakes ... and try to make your fortune in the gold fields," Inkster says.

Hou has lobbied Victoria to designate the route as a heritage trail and each year, the hikers trim the growth to keep nature from reclaiming it entirely.

Part of the journey takes students through the In-SHUCK-ch Nation. An elder speaks to the trekkers to provide an Indigenous perspective. On one night, contemporary folk singers from Princeton join the group, leaving the students singing the traditional songs the rest of the way.

However, Inkster feels the point that hits closest to home with students is how easily the flag waving in front of their school could have been the stars and stripes if Douglas hadn't taken the steps he did so long ago.

"They realize, 'Wow, I like being Canadian,'" he says.

That route was only in use for a few years, after the government commissioned the Cariboo Wagon Road from Yale to Barkerville in 1862. This nearly 500-km-long, five-metre-wide road bypassed the Fraser Canyon, and was built partially because of the miners' fear of the Nlaka'pamux, but also because there were worries miners on the Upper Fraser might starve because of a lack of rations. It was a much more direct route: miners had to paddlewheel to Yale and then take the wagon or stagecoach to Barkerville.

Douglas took out a local loan since the colonial office in London was wary of funding such projects. Toward the end of the decade, with gold revenues falling and cash still owing on the loan, the Colony of British Columbia agreed to join the Confederation, which was finalized in 1871.


What is now the Sea to Sky has its own connections to the rush, as prospectors went through present-day Pemberton on their journey to Lillooet.

As well, William Downie—who took part in California's 1849 rush—and former HBC trader Joseph Mackay were hired by the colonial government to explore between Lillooet Lake and Howe Sound to try to find a more efficient route to the Interior, according to the Whistler Museum. However, their supplies started to run low and forced them back toward the coast. The Museum also notes there is evidence many prospectors came to the Sea to Sky as part of the rush, though most early mining records are dated decades later.

Later on, the Northair gold mine operated in the Callaghan Valley from 1976 to 1982.

River Monster's Grimolfson notes Lillooet's closeness to Whistler helps to diversify the demographics of those who do participate, noting European and Japanese tourists are his most common customers. He credits Discovery Channel's Gold Rush along with the recently cancelled Yukon Gold reality TV shows with helping to drive interest in the history, as well as encouraging viewers to pan for gold themselves.

"There's not a gold rush, but some gold hype. Everybody wants to find some gold," he says.


What's with the camels?

When you're up in Lillooet, you may notice an odd affinity for camels, whether it's crossing the Bridge of the 23 Camels or spotting a lamppost banner featuring the desert dwellers.

But there's a gold-rush-connected reason for it.

In 1862, Arizona's Frank Laumeister ordered 23 camels to arrive at Esquimalt to replace mules, horses and, in some cases, Newfoundland dogs as pack animals. The rationale was that camels could go days without water, required less food, and could carry between two and three times as much weight as the other animals.

However, the camels were aggressive toward mules, horses and humans, creating stampedes and causing mayhem on the trails. As well, their hooves were not well suited to the rocky terrain.

The government soon outlawed camels on the trail, but that didn't stop rumoured camel sightings in the surrounding area for years afterwards, adding to the strange mythos of the Fraser River gold rush.


Digital gold

In terms of a modern-day gold rush, the closest comparison may very well be the technology sector, with companies staking claims all over the internet's Wild West. One such company is QuestUpon, an augmented-reality app that enables users to complete missions relating to certain areas or topics, including the Gold Rush Trail.

QuestUpon co-founder Miles Marziani had visions of the app before phones offered the capability to host it, but with the smartphone's rise, his business is booming as QuestUpon has appeal not only to historical societies and museums, but to businesses as well.

The company officially launched as the Legend Tracker in 2011, with users searching out legendary monster Ogopogo in the Okanagan, while it achieved prominence in 2013 after the District of Mission approached the company to allow users to find Sasquatch in the Fraser Valley Heritage Park. Marziani fielded calls from media outlets as far away as the United Kingdom and Russia interested in the creature that has become an integral part of B.C. folklore.

Marziani explains the concept is similar to Pokémon Go, a game where users collect cartoon critters, which became a cultural phenomenon after its 2016 launch.

As for its connection to the Gold Rush Trail, Marziani says QuestUpon users can take part in 200 missions based along the roughly 750-kilometre route from Vancouver to Barkerville.

"We've been able to hit the sweet spot. We've been doing it for so many years and it seems to get better and better," he says. "We're learning what works well for which demographic."