By Jo Johnson
For some, the opportunity to retrace the steps of pioneers—to see history as they must have seen it and travel along the historical path they travelled—is irresistible. For others, the adventure lies in discovering local cultures, landscapes, and Indigenous history. Each year, the Gold Rush Trail of British Columbia attracts thousands of people who want to relive the experience of that pervasive pull, that promise of wealth and prosperity that fueled the dreams of so many long-gone prospectors. Head back in time to where the story begins and follow the route of the men and women who journeyed into the wilderness, hoping to find “easy gold” and helped to build roads, railways, and bridges as well as creating industries that have helped to shape early British Columbia.
Often thought of as the pioneer of civilization, gold has lured men and women across seas and prairies, over forbidding mountain ranges and into unknown wilderness with the fever to find it. That earnest search for gold inevitably lends itself to the transformation of territories and countries as prospectors work and often settle in the areas they mine.
Such was the case for British Columbia.
Now, let me tell you a story about gold. A story about miners and dreamers, schemers and thieves. A story about our land. A story about us.
Prior to the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1856, the west coast of Canada was still relatively untouched wilderness. There were a few explorers in the area (including Simon Fraser), there was industry with furs and fish, there was commerce with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and there were the local Indigenous people, the stewards of the land and original inhabitants of BC.
The Gold Rush of 1858 changed all that.
By the mid-1850s, the California Gold Rush had depleted all placer claims and given way to hydraulic mining, which eliminated the need for people to manually sift silt and gravel and put many placer miners out of work. Californian, Pulteney Willie, was out of work and a bit down on his luck. He and his friends were itching for another big gold discovery and the chance to get back in action—perhaps even strike it rich this time! Along with Willie were thousands of Chinese immigrants who had sailed from China to mine gold in California in hopes of providing for their families back home. Now all of them were sitting idle, wondering where to go and what to do next.
Meanwhile, up in Canada around the same time, a member of the Simpcw First Nation (formerly the North Thompson Indian Band) was drinking out of a creek branching off the Thompson River and noticed a shiny pebble in the water. He picked it up and realized it was a nugget of this “gold” that the European fur traders seem to put so much value in. The man and his band collected gold from the creek and traded it for goods at Fort Kamloops with the local fur traders. When the local Governor, Sir James Douglas, realized what the natives had stumbled upon, he provided them with picks and shovels and gold pans to dig the gold out of the creek and, in 1858 when he sent a small fortune in gold to the San Francisco Mint…word spread quickly.
Tales of abundant gold deposits along the North Thompson River in New Caledonia (BC’s original name) quickly reached Willie and the Chinese and, seemingly overnight, thousands of fortune seekers gathered their gear and boarded boats bound for Fort Victoria on the west coast. From there, they gathered provisions and headed for the mainland and the long trek up to the North Thompson River.
Completely by chance, while winding their way up the banks of the Fraser River, Willie’s friend—a man named Hill from San Francisco—found a large nugget of gold in a standing pool along the banks. Realizing what they’d found, they immediately dropped stakes and started pulling a fortune of gold out of the river every day.
And word caught on about that, too. Soon, 20,000 more gold seekers from around the world—many from the United States—flooded into the area to prospect—causing Governor Douglas to worry that the “unruly” Americans would try to take over the territory. Douglas petitioned the Queen to make New Caledonia into a legitimate British colony and, just like that, British Columbia was born and so was the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858.
It didn’t take long until the banks of the Fraser from Hope all the way up to just outside of Lillooet were staked and thousands of people, including entire Indigenous families, were mining the Fraser for her gold. Towns sprung up around each of the largest deposits in Yale and Boston Bar, and men and women even braved the pass at Hell’s Gate in hopes of staking untouched claims farther up the Fraser.
Just outside of Yale, a large sandbar dubbed Hill’s Bar proved to be particularly rich in gold, and it didn’t take long for Americans to start mining there, amongst entire Indigenous villages. As is inevitable with too many people in one place, high tensions created by close quarters and competition between the Americans and residents, fueled by readily available alcohol on both sides, sparked a skirmish. In the summer of 1858, Chief David Spintlum convinced his fellow First Nations leaders to agree to a truce with the leader of American troops who were in the area as part of a regiment tasked to annex BC and secure Fraser Canyon gold. The subsequent treaties averted potential bloodshed and prevented the province from becoming a territory of the United States. While the details are vague in many histories—the brief and bloody “Fraser Canyon War” resulted in many dead on both sides. Despite all of this, many Indigenous people continued to act as guides for prospectors, carrying them safely along the riverbanks to new areas, often through treacherous territory
The town of Yale also continued to boom and prosper until it resulted in a wild west style town full of thousands of rough and rowdy men and women, as well as some upstanding citizens who ran reputable businesses. Yale survived and prospered, even after the main contingent of fortune seekers left at the end of the rush.
By 1860, the throngs of people flooding in to search for gold along the mighty Fraser had depleted it of the large nuggets. All that was left were the flakes available in the silt and sediment and the area soon cleared out. In a brilliant move, many Chinese miners chose to stay in the area and continue mining for the flakes. Many historians estimate they gathered more than $150 million worth of gold just from the sediment that other prospectors ignored.
As the Chinese miners were working the Fraser, Pulteney Willie—already a wealthy man, but still lit with the fever—and many of his fellow placers continued to move farther inland. A group of prospectors eventually turned up the Quesnel River and discovered huge deposits of free gold in Williams, Lightning, and Lowhee Creeks. With this area becoming the center of the mining operations, a trio of service and supply towns—Richfield, Camerontown, and Barkerville—sprang up around them. Barkerville—named after the prospector who struck it rich with his discovery in Williams Creek‚—still survives today and has been declared a National Historic Site by the Canadian government.
With these new discoveries, the Cariboo Gold Rush began, and the fever spiked again.
In 1861, as word of this new gold vein spread and another flood of people began rushing to the area, Governor Douglas brought in many British engineers and planners to build roads and communities all along what is now dubbed the Gold Rush Trail. Soon after, construction of the Cariboo Waggon Road began, starting in Lillooet at “Mile 0” and stretching all the way up to Barkerville area. Many roadhouses were also built along the way where prospectors could rest, replenish their stocks, and continue their journey into the Cariboo. Places like 100 Mile House, 108 Mile, and 70 Mile eventually became bustling communities of settlers who took up ranching and agriculture long after the rush had ended.
From 1860-1863, the Cariboo Gold Rush, along with the newly constructed road from Lillooet to Barkerville, allowed thousands of people to find their way from New Westminster all the way into northern BC, settling the region as they went. Many found their fortunes in gold, while others found lucrative businesses providing services, ranching, agriculture, and more. The same Chinese immigrants who had so cleverly worked the sediments on the Fraser, eventually made their way up to the Cariboo and mined that area too, many settling in communities along the way
The Fraser River and Cariboo Gold Rushes, although not always providing a smooth transition, eventually allowed people from many different nations, ethnicities, and cultures to build communities and settle in our beautiful province. To this day, this diversity is one of the most desirable aspects of British Columbia.
And our friend Pulteney Willie? Well, he doesn’t really exist, but if he did, I’d like to think that his ancestors are still here, living in BC, and reaping the rewards of his hard work and tenacity.