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The British Columbia Gold Rush

David Trenholm
November 27th, 2006
HIST 2773 B1
Dr. Stephen Henderson
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The British Columbia Gold Rush is remembered today as a dynamic part of the

province’s history—it was an era of change, development and indeed, an era that had

contributed to the province’s cultural identity. The success of the gold rush of the 1850s

was quite insignificant compared to the earlier gold rush that had occurred in California1,

but that did not dissuade large droves of miners to head north to claim a small measure of

gold for their own. Although there was indeed gold, and some miners had walked away

with a small fortune of it, many were not so lucky and had ended up poor, starving and

broken. The firsthand accounts of Dr. Carl Friesach and Charles Major describe the poor

conditions and marginal success of the gold miners, and their experiences contribute to a

better understanding of the lifestyles of those involved. The secondary sources included

in J.M. Bumsted and Len Kuffert’s Interpreting Canada’s Past provide interesting

material that contrast Friesach and Major’s experiences, serving to illuminate the gold

rush from a personal perspective, and that of a historian’s.

The firsthand accounts written by Dr. Carl Friesach and Charles Major offer a

degree of clarity to the British Columbia gold rush. Dated 1858, Friesach’s letter details

his journey through Fort Hope via boat to Fort Yale.2 According to Friesach, travel by his

way was uncomfortable and dirty, as there were no cabins, mattresses and very little

blankets. The floor had a fine layer of coal dust, and it was difficult to remain clean.3

Friesach and his party, on arriving at Fort Hope, met with Governor Douglas (who had

been staying there at the time), and received a letter of recommendation for the officer

1
J. M. Bumsted and Ken Kuffert, eds., Interpreting Canada's Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-Confederation Reader,
3rd ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 277.
2
Carl Friesach, Ein Ausflug nach Britisch-Columbien im Jahre 1958, trans. And reprinted by Robie L. Reid
in ‘Two Narratives of the Fraser River Gold-Rush’, British Columbia Historical Quarterly 5 (1941): pp.
278.
3
Friesach, 278-9.
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commanding Fort Yale, their next destination.4 Friesach’s narrative here yields some

valuable information—Fort Yale, according Friesach, is filled with nearly three thousand

inhabitants; Americans, Germans, French, Chinese, Italians, Spaniards and Poles, a

staggering diversity.5 Friesach even describes in the components of the miner’s sluice,

and how effective it could be in extracting gold from the soil—indeed, Friesach writes

that while some claim to harvest roughly $30 of gold per day, others barely manage $4 to

$5.6 “There is hardly a more hazardous form of work,” Friesach claims, “The test of the

pan often gives a good result when the soil is later on found to be hardly worth

working…”7 While Friesach does touch on the sourer aspects of the gold rush, Charles

Major narrows in on and exclusively expounds on the harsher aspects of gold mining in

British Columbia. In his letter to the Daily Globe in Toronto, Charles Major describes the

exhausting working conditions of British Columbia gold mining, “…we have worked

from half-past two and three o’clock in the morning till nine and ten o’clock at night…

and lived on beans!”8 It is quite obvious that Charles Major’s experience in the British

Columbia gold rush was quite different than Friesach’s. While Friesach described a yield

of $4-$5 a day in gold being a poor day at the mines, Major writes, “…but when you

wash up at night, you may realize 50 cents, perhaps $1”.9 Major also claims that only one

in one thousand miners were doing well in the gold rush, which is not a fantastic figure10

—it would be interesting to know, however, how Major had come to such a number.

4
Carl Friesach, Ein Ausflug nach Britisch-Columbien im Jahre 1958, trans. And reprinted by Robie L. Reid
in ‘Two Narratives of the Fraser River Gold-Rush’, British Columbia Historical Quarterly 5 (1941): pp.
279.
5
Friesach, 280.
6
Friesach, 281.
7
Friesach, 281.
8
Letter of Charles Major, 20 Sept. 1859, in Daily Globe, Toronto, 2 January 1860, reprinted in Reid, ‘Two
Narratives’, p. 282.
9
Major, 282.
10
Major, 283
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Despite such differences between each man’s experiences, it can be reasonably concluded

that the British Columbia gold rush was profitable for few, and indeed, involved hard

work and hard living.

The secondary sources included in J.M. Bumsted and Len Kuffert’s Interpreting

Canada’s Past offers a view into the British Columbia gold rush that is unattainable

through the firsthand accounts of Friesach and Major. T.A. Rickard in his article, “Indian

Participation in Gold Discoveries” highlights the role that the First Nations had in

discovering gold in British Columbia. Rickard writes that that one of the first gold

discoveries that led to the B.C. gold rush was made by an Indian11. Also of note, Ricard

goes on to say that; “…the earliest gold to come within the cognizance of the Hudson’s

Bay officers was brought to them by the Indians.”12 This proves to be a stark contrast

between the picture that is painted by Friesach and Major, as they make little note of First

Nation involvement in the gold rush, and rather seem to limit their accounts to European

and American gold mining. Dr. Carl Friesach makes some mention of the Governor

James Douglas in his narrative, but it is Margaret Ormsby that expands on the Governor

in British Columbia: A History. Douglas, Ormsby contends, visited several mining-fields

on two separate tours, and had resolved upon concluding these visits to act in order to

improve the state of the gold rush.13 He had commissioned the services of steamboats in

order to expedite transportation, and even had purposefully introduced the Beaver and

Otter in order to combat an American monopoly on passenger ferrying, in addition to

lowering “freight and passenger rates”.14 Furthermore, Douglas had begun building a road

11
T.A. Ricard, ‘Indian Participation in the Gold Discoveries’, British Columbia Historical Quarterly 2 (Jan.
1938), p. 284.
12
Richard, p. 286.
13
Margaret Ormsby, British Columbia: A History (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1958), p. 288.
14
Margaret Ormsby, British Columbia: A History (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1958), p. 288.
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through the mountains north of Fort Yale, in order to better facilitate communication in

the province, as well as “withdraw a restless element from the Colony”15 The primary

sources make little mention or reference to the work done by Douglas, but from the

perspectives of Friesach and Major, this does not come as a surprise. Another issue that

was of concern to Douglas was the administration of justice and law in British Columbia.

David Ricardo Williams in his narrative describes the type of self-governed justice the

mining settlements had established, in lieu of any Colonial authority. The administration

of justice was fairly organized; a large camp, for example, “…would select a presiding

judicial officer, a sheriff, and a 12-man jury. A member of the camp—perhaps someone

with an education—would be appointed to defend a man accused of a serious camps.”16

Smaller camps, Williams writes, would merely vote on guilt or innocence, where more

serious crimes, such as murder, would allow votes to be cast from other camps as well.17

Colonial observers describe the nature of the miners as moderately peaceful with “…

amenability to constituted authority”.18 Williams claims that John Nugent, an American,

“counselled them [the Miners] to show ‘a decent conformity with local regulations’, and

to display both ‘obedience to the laws’ and a ‘proper show of respect for the authorities

by whom these laws are administered’”19 It was then possible to believe that such large

mining settlements, such as Fort Hope (which reached a population of over three

thousand) existed fairly harmoniously. Last of the secondary sources is “A Delicate

Game: The Meaning of Law on Grouse Creek”, from Tina Loo. In it she describes a

15
Ormsby, 289.
16
David Ricardo Williams, ‘The Administration of Criminal and Civil Justice in the Mining Camps and
Frontier Communities of British Columbia’, in L. Knafla, ed. Law and Justice in a New Land: Essays in
Western Canadian History (Toronto: Carswell, 1986). p. 290.
17
Williams, 291.
18
Williams, 290.
19
Williams, 290.
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situation where a substantial group of miners, stricken with poverty due to failure at the

mines, had refused to pay for passage to New Westminster, and in spite of the apparent

lawless of the action, Magistrate John Boles Gaggin had allowed them to pass. In his

report, Gaggin claims that, “Magistrates in these up country towns have a delicate game

to play, and I believe we are all of opinion that to avoid proving resistance to the Law is

the manner in which we best serve the interest of His Excellency, the Governor…”20

Indeed, this “delicate game” was the balance between enforcing what law a Magistrate

could reasonably enforce, and what law had to be bent in response to the nature of the

situation. Loo also discusses the Gold Fields Act of 1858, where the creation of an

Assistant Gold Commissioner was deemed necessary to oversee the mining-fields and

settlements, “He [Assistant Gold Commissioner] had jurisdiction to hear all mining or

mining-related disputes and to dispose of them summarily.”21 This alleviated the delays of

waiting for Supreme Court rulings and jury trials.22 No mention is made of the

administration of law in the British Columbia gold rush in Friesach or Major’s accounts,

and indeed, their written experiences portrays the gold rush as a wild, savage and lawless

episode.

The most convincing of these secondary sources is T.A. Ricard’s, “Indian

Participation in the Gold Discoveries”, who spends a great detail of time detailing the

role the First Nations had in the gold rush, and with the discovery of gold in general. As

mentioned before, the earliest discovery of gold that led to the B.C. gold rush was made

by an Indian woman, and in the following year more gold had been found by another

20
Tina Loo, ‘”A Delicate Game”: The Meaning of Law on Grouse Creek’, BC Studies 96 (Winter 1992-3):
p. 293.
21
Loo, 294.
22
Loo, 294.
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Indian woman, “…an Indian woman found a nugget on the beach of Moresby Island.”23 It

was the Indians, Ricard contends, that first led miners to the Thompson River in search of

gold, “The discoveries of gold on the mainland, like the one made on Moresby Island,

must be credited to the Indians;” Ricard agues, “…it was they, and not any canny Scot or

enterprising American, that first found gold on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers”.24 T.A.

Ricard’s, “Indian Participation in the Gold Discoveries” is the most convincing—he

provides detailed information on these discoveries, and even go as far as to describe the

gold discovered (“…it is stated that 3¾ ounces of gold were included in the takings at

Fort Kamloops”25 and “ The nugget, as received, weighed about 5 ounces”26). There is no

doubt that the First Nations were among the first to discover gold in the Colony of British

Columbia.

The British Columbia Gold Rush largely defined the historical identity of the

province, and indeed, led to the colony becoming an official province. The narratives of

Dr. Carl Friesach and Charles Major serve as a firsthand account of the gold rush,

describing the deplorable living conditions and the limited chance of success with the

famed sluice. While not as personal, the secondary sources expand on the gold rush,

including the role of the First Nations, the actions of the Governor James Douglas, and

the “delicate game” of law and order in the colony. The gold rush is an important part of

the British Columbia’s development and has remained a popular era of the province’s

history.

23
T.A. Ricard, ‘Indian Participation in the Gold Discoveries’, British Columbia Historical Quarterly 2 (Jan.
1938), p. 284.
24
Ricard, p. 286-287
25
Ricard, p. 285
26
Ricard, p. 287
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Bibliography

Bumsted, J.M. and Kuffert Ken, eds. Interpreting Canada’s Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-
Confederation Reader, 3rd ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Friesach, Carl, Ein Ausflug nach Britisch-Columbien im Jahre 1958, trans. And reprinted
by Robie L. Reid in ‘Two Narratives of the Fraser River Gold-Rush’, British
Columbia Historical Quarterly 5 (1941).

Loo, Tina, ‘”A Delicate Game”: The Meaning of Law on Grouse Creek’, BC Studies 96
(Winter 1992-3).

Major, Charles,, 20 Sept. 1859, in Daily Globe, Toronto, 2 January 1860, reprinted in
Reid, ‘Two Narratives’.

Ormsby, Margaret, British Columbia: A History (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1958).

Richard, T.A.,, ‘Indian Participation in the Gold Discoveries’, British Columbia


Historical Quarterly 2 (Jan. 1938).

Williams, David Ricardo, ‘The Administration of Criminal and Civil Justice in the
Mining Camps and Frontier Communities of British Columbia’, in L. Knafla, ed.
Law and Justice in a New Land: Essays in Western Canadian History (Toronto:
Carswell, 1986).