Chapter 2: Fraser River Gold Rush
| No history of British
Columbia could ever be complete without some mention of
the gold rush. One of the men
credited with the first gold discoveries in British
Columbia was afterwards a farmer just outside the walls
of Fort Langley. Another took up a pre-emption
across the river from the fort at Albion.
One man credited with the gold discovery which resulted in 30,000 miners swarming into New Caledonia in 1858 was James Houston. He originally came from Dunfermline, the ancient capital of Scotland, where his parents were wealthy ship manufacturers owning the White Star Shipping Line. As a youth Houston ran away from home with school chum Andrew Carnegie bound for the United States. Carnegie, upon his arrival in America, apprenticed to a Pennsylvania blacksmith and eventually built up the steel-works which brought him wealth and fame.
Houston was side-tracked from his original destination when his ship was wrecked off the coast of New Zealand. The survivors on landing were promptly taken prisoner by Maori warriors. Houston made an attempt to escape but was speared in the groin. He was then tossed back into prison. As soon as the wound healed Houston made a second escape bid. This time he succeeded by swimming out to sea to a passing ship. He persuaded the ship's crew to rescue his comrades.
From here Houston boarded another ship bound for South America where he had many adventures to Latin-American ports during political wars and among South Sea pirates and slavers. He was once shipwrecked along the coast of Mexico.
In 1849 Houston was in New York where he was surprised to be greeted heartily in the streets by more than one passer-by (33) who was quite unknown to him. The explanation was that his brother Robert, an engineer by profession, was there at the same time and these were friends of his who had been deceived by the close family resemblance between the two men. Houston left New York as a quartermaster on a sailing ship bound for California. Here he left ship to participate unsuccessfully in the gold rush.
Houston came to the Puget Sound in 1856 as a second officer on another ship. Here he heard of the discovery of gold near Fort Colville on the Columbia. He deserted ship and with a partner named Eldridge bought a herd of cattle which they began to drive overland to the gold strike. Learning that the Indians were hostile Eldridge became disheartened and turned back. Houston went on alone and eventually reached Fort Colville where he disposed of the cattle to the miners for meat at a handsome profit. He then acquired a new partner and began prospecting along the Pend Oreille River. Their findings were promising and the pair had high expectations. Unfortunately Indians swooped down on their camp. They cut the ropes of the tent and let the canvas collapse on the sleeping men. With knives the Indians stabbed through the canvas killing his new partner. Houston managed to escape with a couple arrows in the back. In the morning he buried his partner and loaded his pony with supplies intent on getting out of the country. He hesitated to make his way back through United States territory for fear of again encountering Indians so decided to go north into Hudson's Bay Company territory, where, under the rule of the fur traders, there was peace between the white men and the Indians.
He managed to work his way northward into the Okanagan Valley with the intention of connecting with the New Caledonia Brigade Trail. All went well until he got within two or three miles of the border. Here he was overtaken by a large party of Indians. He protested that he was a King George man, as the Hudson's Bay Company men were known to the Indians, but they did not believe him. Instead of killing him they robbed him of everything he possessed.
Houston was now in a grave predicament. He could not expect to cross the mountains to Fort Hope unarmed and without (34) supplies. He had no alternative but to strike out for Fort Kamloops. Several weeks later he stumbled into the fort on the Thompson River more dead than alive. Luckily a prospector had found the lost Houston. Ironically Houston's troubles were still far from over as Donald McLean, Chief Trader in charge of Fort Kamloops, took him for a deserter from one of the New Caledonia forts of the Company. Eventually Houston managed to persuade McLean that he was a ship deserter and not a company deserter and was given genuine Hudson's Bay Company hospitality.
Houston was not the only prospector around Fort Kamloops. Another was Ferdinand Boulanger. He had left Alsace, Quebec, in 1849 to join the California gold rush, by working his way south down the Atlantic Coast on a sailing vessel as far as Panama. Here he jumped ship, changed his name to Peter Baker to avoid detection, and began footing it across the isthmus where he contracted and nearly died of scarlet fever. He then sailed up the Pacific Coast to the California diggings. After a short while at Sacramento he heard of the discovery of gold near Fort Colville. He made his way there. Here he met Houston who told him he had made a few dollars selling cattle to men in the north country. As a result Baker, accompanied by two other Quebecers and an Iroquois, began working northward mining around Rock Creek, Tranquille, and various other places along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. He too found gold. He taught the Shuswap Indians in the vicinity how to pan for the yellow metal and then bought their findings for next to nothing with plugs of chewing tobacco. He might have become prosperous had not the Indians shown their discoveries to Chief Trader McLean at Fort Kamloops. McLean bought their gold from that time onward and told the Indians not to sell their gold to the miners.
The gold, the Indians brought to McLean was sent to the Company's headquarters at Fort Victoria, and James Douglas, Chief Factor in charge of the Western Department of the Company, forwarded it to the San Francisco mint. It was the (36) arrival of this small packet of gold which started the stampede of miners, 30,000 of them, to Forts Victoria and Langley in the spring of 1858. Fort Langley no longer bothered with trading furs or curing salmon. It was much more profitable outfitting miners in food and clothing. For the first half of 1858 Fort Langley did a roaring business--as much as $1,500 in a single day. Miners, bound for the goldfields, were forced by the scarcity of canoes to linger about the stockade and buy provisions in its shop. Miner's tents covered the shoreline west of the fort walls.
On July 4 the Surprise, an American sternwheeler, reached the fort and its captain asked for a pilot to Fort Hope. An Indian named Speel-set volunteered and the vessel reached Hope in safety--making it the new head of navigation. Later that same (38) month a second American vessel, the Umatilla, passed beyond Hope to Fort Yale. These events reduced Fort Langley's importance but gave Fort Yale a new lease on life. Allard was sent there to take charge for the duration of the gold rush.
Earlier, Douglas, realizing the impact the sudden influx of miners would have on the country, wrote to the Home Government in England imploring them to act quickly. They did. Douglas at the same time suggested a military force be sent out to police the country.
It took valuable time for Douglas' dispatches to reach England. It took until August 22 for England's Parliament to revoke the exclusive trade licence that had been granted 21 years earlier to the Hudson's Bay Company. Douglas, meanwhile, had taken the law into his own hands and took steps to insure that the American miners knew they were trespassing on English soil. He put boats at the mouth of the Fraser to collect a tax on all miners going upriver. This move only forced the Americans to cut trails northward into the diggings. One trail, appropriately called the Smuggler's Trail, started in Bellingham, and came out at Fort Langley. Although the taxes were illegally imposed they had the desired effect. They fooled any lawless intruders into thinking that law and order had been set up in the area. Ironically two contingents of Royal Engineers, the answer from the British Government to Douglas' request for a police force, did not arrive until shortly before the inauguration ceremonies at Fort Langley in November, 1858.
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