Avaricious adventurers came for quick cash, left a lasting legacy
by Greg Klein
Gold, gold, gold! Powerful as the passion it provokes, gold’s mania can be temporary, its effects short-lived. But a new exhibit at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum examines a critical stage in western Canadian history that was part of an international movement. Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia puts fascinating new perspectives on a subject of wide-ranging appeal.
If James Douglas was trying to avert a gold rush in 1858, his plan backfired. The Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor and governor of the colony of Vancouver Island had been quietly buying gold from prospectors who came north from the California diggings and other mining camps. He apparently thought his purchases would keep B.C.’s bounty a secret.
If so, he sure screwed up. When he sent a gold shipment for refining at San Francisco, word got out and the rush was on.
Without warning one Sunday morning, a ship suddenly arrived at the HBC’s once-placid Fort Victoria to unload hundreds of California veterans headed for the new goldfields across the strait. Among their baggage was gear, guns and American attitudes that ranged from lawless anarchy to Manifest Destiny.
Douglas acted swiftly with a unilateral declaration of sovereignty over the B.C. mainland. Britain later backed him up by formally declaring the mainland a colony, dispatching a soldier/settler detachment of Royal Engineers, enforcing British law and building a road to Barkerville, roughly the 19th century equivalent of opening up Ontario’s Ring of Fire.
By that time the world was arriving. Hundreds of thousands of hopefuls from diverse backgrounds and far-flung parts of the planet poured into the new colony as the Fraser River rush of 1858 morphed into the Cariboo rush of 1862. Would anything ever be the same?
The first, largely American, wave threatened British sovereignty. Even so, “if there hadn’t been a gold rush we might have ended up as part of the United States,” museum deputy director Kathryn Bridge told ResourceClips.com. “The gold rush stimulated the British government to create the colony of British Columbia, which secured formal British presence on the west coast.”
Massive immigration followed. “The estimates are up to 300,000 during the gold rush time,” she explained. “A lot of those people came and left but a substantial quantity stayed. They stayed because they found other means of livelihood, not necessarily because they made their fortunes … so it was the real beginning of immigration and the multicultural base of British Columbian society.”
Among the exhibit’s many features are “dozens of archival documents that have been available to researchers but haven’t been on exhibit before,” Bridge pointed out. “These are really pivotal documents, diaries, records of gold mining claims. One of the things we wanted to do was introduce personal stories so that it wouldn’t just be an event, it would be an experience that we shared.”
The stories include the Chilcotin War and, much less known but supported by recent research, the Fraser River War, in which a native coalition nearly had to fight for survival against a private army of Americans.
There’s also the earlier story of what Bridge calls an “attempted rush” at the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1851. Natives repulsed British and American boats, holding one crew for ransom.
Then there’s the story of “Harry,” supposedly a man searching the almost all-male goldfields for his brother, but in fact Harriet Collins looking for her husband. Her cover was blown when she gave birth.
Over 400 artefacts include prospecting and mining gear, contemporary miners’ guidebooks, weapons and the 52-ounce Turnagain nugget, along with a wealth of other 19th century frontier memorabilia. Photos, posters, video and interactive displays also convey the stories of those turbulent times.
Another feature qualifies as an exhibit in itself, 137 pieces of pre-Hispanic gold artwork from El Museo del Oro in Bogota making their first North American appearance. The country’s indigenous people saw no value in gold until it was transformed, through metallurgy and artistry, into objects denoting status or bestowing spiritual power.
Whether the Fraser and Cariboo rushes were two separate events is an oft-debated subject, Bridge said. But they did differ. “It was mainly alluvial gold in the lower Fraser and by the time they moved up to the Cariboo it was hard rock mining, hydraulics. It wasn’t an individual miner, people formed companies. So it was more big business.”
By 1865 the rush was over. Some would-be miners left, others settled down to logging, fishing, farming or ranching. But the more determined individuals fanned out again, part of a movement that would bring the great Klondike discovery and another dramatic rush sometimes portrayed as the western frontier’s last stand against encroaching modernity.
Gold’s allure continues, of course. That’s demonstrated by the museum’s more recent artefacts such as Olympic gold medals, a gold Oscar, gold coins from around the world and, under the watchful eye of security, a Canadian gold coin with a face value of $1 million. Not something you’d pop in a parking meter, it’s over two feet in diameter, weighs 100 kilos and, at $1,200 per ounce, would be worth over US$3.85 million.
B.C.’s gold rush era lives on too, in place names and historic sites dotting the Gold Rush Trail that leads visitors to Barkerville, now a restored tourist attraction.
Gold Rush! El Dorado in B.C. runs until October 31 before moving to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. A version of the exhibit will also travel to Guangzhou, China. The Victoria event coincides with publication of New Perspectives on the Gold Rush, a collection of 10 essays edited by Bridge.