Fur Trade Gold Rush

Fort Colvile and Fort Shepherd

The Fort Colvile/Fort Shepherd area from Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s 1867 Map of British Columbia, CM/F9 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Detail from original map

I have written this article to complement the 2015 British Columbia Historical Federation Conference in Quesnel, May 21-25. As you can see from this link, http://bchistory.ca/conferences/2015/index.html  the conference’s theme is JOURNEY TO THE CARIBOO — the Cariboo and Barkerville Gold Rush.

However, many B.C. historians do not like to hear about the history that happened outside the British Columbia border: that is, south of the 1846 boundary line between British Territory (modern-day British Columbia), and Oregon (later Washington) Territory. To me, that means the historian is ignoring a great deal of the history that actually created British Columbia. Without that history, British Columbia would not have become what it is today.

So here goes:

“Gold has a charm about it that is irresistible,” Peter Skene Ogden complained in 1849, almost ten years before the Fraser River gold rush began. (1) No one would recognize gold’s charm better than Ogden: As Chief Factor in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters at Fort Vancouver in the late 1840’s, Ogden had lost most of his fur trade employees to the excitement of the California gold rush. Thousands of American settlers also abandoned their Oregon Territory farms for the new goldfields on the banks of the Sacramento River. “Within the last two months,” Ogden reported in October 1848, “2,000 persons have left the Wallamette [Willamette] Settlements for California, and many more are making preparations to follow their example.” (2)

Gold fever also reigned at distant Fort Colvile [near Spokane, WA], where Chief Trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson complained that “Much as the important combination of these four small letters sound sweetly to the ear at most times, one wearies of it through satiety here. Gold gold Gold is the cuckoo cry on all hands.” (3) But Anderson was luckier than Ogden; most of his employees stayed until their contracts were finished.

Eventually the California gold fever slowed and some miners returned home wealthy. Others still searched for gold and found it closer to home. In 1851 Ogden reported that “another Gold Mine has been discovered within 10 or 12 days march from this place, on the Klamath River (northern California). For this place upwards of three fourths of the Oregon population have already started, leaving their Farms totally neglected.” (4) By 1851 even the Natives in the territory had learned the value of gold, and Anderson wrote from Fort Colvile that, “a lump about the size of a ball is now said to be in the possession of  an Indian who lives a days’ march from this.” (5) A gold find was also reported to be on the Flint River, near Fort Connah, and clerk Angus McDonald had sent down for a specimen. “This, sir, may be dry details to you,” Anderson complained to the HBC Governor Simpson. “I must confess there is something almost ludicrous in this constant playing in the word GOLD, as is now the case in the Columbia… I suppose all this gold now flung about since the discovery in California will help the dividends; but really I am sometimes tempted to wish that the good old times were back again. If profits were less, they were more secure; and we had the benefit of tranquility into the bargain, which is out of the question nowadays.” (6)

In the same year that the Klamath gold find emptied the Willamette Valley, another short but exciting gold rush lured gold miners north to the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of modern-day British Columbia. After a Native woman traded a gold nugget at a northwest coast post, James Douglas (who now viewed gold as an expansion of the fur trade) sent ships to the Queen Charlotte Islands to trade for more. By late 1851 the HBC men were blasting for gold at a place they called “Gold Harbour.” Although they managed three blasts on the vein and collected 58 pounds of ore, the Haida threatened the miners with knives and collected most of the ore for themselves. (7) American ships then sailed north and were pillaged or threatened. In 1852 a second HBC ship bartered for the metal on the island, but so little was traded that the Company’s gold fever subsided for a while.

Fort Victoria’s James Douglas might have become discouraged in his search for gold, but south of the 49th parallel, gold fever showed no signs of abating. In 1853 gold was discovered at the Grande Ronde, in the Blue Mountains “back of Walla Walla.” (8) Two months later, however, Ogden reported that “the discovery of a Gold mine in the Blue Mountains is so far without foundation, at least no one is looking after it nor has any [gold] made its appearance.” (9) But the 1855 gold strike proved to be quite different. It began when Angus McDonald, now in charge at Fort Colvile, “wrote down to Fort Vancouver, stating that one of his men, while employed hauling firewood, had almost undesignedly, amused himself by washing out a pannikin of gravel on a beach near [Fort] Colvile. Some particles of gold appeared — enough, however, to excite curiosity and invite further research — explorers went out; and at the mouth of the Pend’Oreille River, close by the boundary line, diggings which were moderately productive were discovered.” (10) The Pend-d’Oreille River flowed into the Columbia forty miles north of Fort Colvile, in British Territory a few miles north of the 49th parallel.

It quickly became obvious that these gold rushes interfered with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trade. “The confounded gold discovery at Colvile is creating quite an excitement all over the country,” Fort Nez Perce’s James Sinclair grumbled. “The largest bag of gold dust that I saw from Colvile was about the size of a half pint tumbler, beautiful thin flakes — containing from $1200 to $1500, and this was the work of one man for about a month or rather less.” (11) Chief Factor Dugald Mactavish, now in charge at Fort Vancouver, reported that “There is considerable excitement in Oregon about the Colvile mines, and I have no doubt there will be three thousand people digging before the end of September.” (12)

In August of that year, two retired fur traders [A.C.Anderson and Archibald McKinlay] traveled up the Columbia River to Arrow Lake, to see if they could establish a trading post near the Pend-d’Oreille mines. On their return they camped on the Spokane River alongside a group of American gold-miners. A Spokan Native approached the familiar fur traders at their camp, warning them that the Yakima Natives downstream had set up an ambush for any miner who used the Yakima shortcut. The fur traders warned the nearby Americans, and reached home themselves just before the Yakima War commenced. (13)

This turbulent war was not a local war, but involved most of the Native tribes in the region south of the 49th parallel. The U.S. Army, now in Washington Territory, had little success in settling the rampant tribes, and two years after the war had begun, the territory remained as embattled as it ever had been. The Yakima War effectively stopped the rush of gold miners north to British Territory. But those miners on the Pend-d’Oreille River north of the war zone continued to work, and small but steady streams of gold dust reached Fort Victoria via Forts Hope and Langley. For many years the Fort Colvile fur traders had recommended erecting a fur trade post north of the boundary line, and now the Pend-d-Oreille gold fields gave the Company the impetuous to build that post. James Douglas sent two ex-HBC carpenters over the Similkameen brigade trail to the Columbia River, and by summer 1857, sturdy Fort Shepherd stood ready to supply the gold miners with whatever goods they might need.

By this time gold fever had also infected many of the HBC employees who traveled in the horse brigades that brought out the furs to Fort Langley via the brigade trail. In 1856, a specimen of gold was found, “being the produce of a panful of sand taken at hazard from the bed of the stream by one of the party, as he was travelling with the [Fort Colvile] brigade” through the Similkameen and Kettle Valleys. (14) Douglas also reported that “Gold has been discovered in several parts of the Thompson’s River district; the River Tranquile a tributary of Thompson’s River about 8 miles from Fort Kamloops appears to be the most promising gold stream.” (15) This last discovery was apparently made by Donald McLean, now Chief Trader at the post, late in the spring when high waters of the season made it difficult to examine the stream bed. McLean carried his sample of gold to Fort Langley with the Brigades, delivering it to Douglas before he returned home. Days later, Douglas reported, “We have just heard of the departure of the Brigade from Fort Hope on their return to the interior. It is also reported on the same authority that Gold has been found in small quantities in the bed of the Quaqualla [Coquihalla] River, near Fort Hope. The moment I feel assured of gold being found in considerable quantities in the interior I shall order a further supply of Goods from England, as the demand will in that event rapidly increase.” (16)

If Douglas was making preparations for a large discovery of gold in the interior, he was disappointed by McLean’s reports. In 1856 Douglas passed along the information that “Samples of gold have been brought in from various parts of the country particularly from the Nicommeen [sic] Fork, a tributary of Fraser’s River, and I am in hopes that some more important discoveries will yet be made in that district. (17) He was unfamiliar with this part of the country; the Nicoamen River tumbled down steep cliffs on the south bank of the Thompson River, a dozen or so miles east of its junction with the Fraser.

This is the first of what will probably be three posts on this subject. The next post is now published: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/gold-rush-two/ 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.