The Fraser Canyon War

Fraser River looking south from Saddle Rock tunnel toward Spuzzum and Yale, B.C.

When Anderson came down the Fraser in 1847, he walked down these river banks. In 1848 the brigade came upriver via a rough trail cut into the woods on the opposite bank. Ten years later, in 1858, the American (and other) gold-miners forced their way up this river, against the wishes of the Indigenous people who lived here. At Hill’s Bar, the Indigenous people threatened the miners, and conflict became inevitable.

With a little luck and a lot of work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

I have to re-write the last two chapters of my brigades book because I fell into a story I had not researched nor discovered until now. Why had I not discovered it? It is because I write about the territory before 1858, and this is a gold rush story. It is the story of the Fraser Canyon War.

Of course the gold rush is part of my story about the brigades that crossed the Tulameen Plateau to Forts Hope and Langley every year. I had researched the gold rush until 1857, and was going to finish the book when the miners arrived. I can’t do that now. The brigades would have arrived at Fort Hope in the middle of the mess that was the Fraser Canyon War!

The book that broke the story for me is written by Uvic professor Daniel Marshall, and is titled Claiming The Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New El Dorado [Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2018]. He has already written a book about this war, published in 2009. When it was published I was researching Alexander Caulfield Anderson, of course, and the only thing he had to do with these battles is that he arrived at Fort Victoria after Douglas had gone upriver, and waited for Douglas to return from Fort Langley in July.

Anyway, lets begin. There is no record of the numbers of American gold-miners who were in the territory before 1858, but there were a few. Because because the Okanagans and other Indigenous peoples blockaded the Okanagan River at the junction of the Similkameen, most American miners were turned away. But in the United States, the last big battle of the Yakima War was fought, with the professional soldiers of the U.S. Army completely overwhelming the Yakima and Spokane Indians who were defending their land. When those battles ended, there was nothing to prevent any miner, who wished to come north by the Okanagan River, from making his way north to British Territory.

More than 8,000 miners entered the territory via the Okanagan River. They ganged up, in military fashion, in groups of men 250-strong, and forced their way north, to the place where the Okanagan and other Indigenous peoples in British Territory were protecting their own territory. Americans, of course, had little idea of where the boundary ran (it wasn’t yet marked), and didn’t care, anyway. They came north presuming that all the gold in the Thompson’s River district belonged to them. At Okanagan Lake, some miners raided an Okanagan camp and threw their food into the lake: then twenty-five miners remained behind, hidden. When the Okanagans returned to their village the miners murdered many innocent and unarmed Indigenous peoples. For their own safety, many Indigenous peoples retreated across the mountains to Blackfoot lands.

The same invasion of miners was happening on the Fraser River, of course. More than 23,000 miners entered the gold fields by the Fraser, many of them avoiding Fort Victoria where they were expected to purchase a license. The first reported gold strike took place at Hill’s Bar on March 12 1858, but the Nlaka’pamux on the Fraser River had already been mining the bar for months, using gold-pans and sluice-boxes carved from cedar.

At Fort Vancouver, retired Chief Trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson was besieged by miners asking for information on the routes to the interior, and in May 1858 published his book, Handbook and Map to the Gold Region of Frazer’s and Thompson’s River. It sold in the thousands of copies. But many miners did not have his map: they arrived at Fort Victoria in April:

I have to communicate for the information of the Governor and Committee that the Steam vessel “Commodore” arrived in this Port on the 25th of Instant [April] direct from San Francisco with 450 passengers, chiefly gold miners, who have come here with the intention of working the gold mines of the interior. [James Douglas to William Smith, Secretary of the London Committee, April 27 1858]

These first miners were peaceful, but as soon as they departed, new miners arrived. On hearing stories of unrest in the interior, and worrying about a potential Indian War, Douglas traveled up the Fraser River to talk to the miners. Long before he reached Fort Hope he learned that, because of the freshets,  mining on the river bars had stopped. At Fort Hope he talked to the Americans (and others) whose tent cities now surrounded the post. Frustrated miners rampaged around, unable to reach the gold-fields because of the freshets: they eyed the Indigenous people who visited the fort, noting that each carried his own little bag of dust. They also noted how well-armed the Nlaka’pamux men were, and how they appeared to be in league with the HBC. Many miners threatened to force their way upriver when, in their own words, all hell would break loose!

I don’t think I have a date for the brigades arrival at Fort Hope, but they generally reached the place close to the end of June. Probably James Douglas remained at Fort Hope to ensure they did not desert. Naturally, news of the gold rush excited the voyageurs, and to encourage them to return to the interior, Douglas increased their wages.

New Caledonia, an increase of 10 pounds [sterling] on all classes of servants which will bring the rate of wages to  35 pounds for the boutes [bowsman/steersman], 30 pounds for the middle-men, and 45 pounds for guide & boat builder. [James Douglas, “Private Papers,” BCA]

In mid-June, a group of heavily armed miners had gone up the Fraser to set up camp near the Nicoamen River. Because of the freshets they were unable to pan for gold, but they decided to return to Fort Hope when an Indigenous woman warned them that white men had been killed downriver. The miners made their way down to China Bar, where they reported that twenty-six of their number had been killed in running battles with the Nlaka’pamux. At the Spuzzum village, other American miners shot 36 Nlaka’pamux, including five or more chiefs. News of these battles reached Fort Yale when bodies of nine mutilated white men floated down the Fraser. “These were troublesome times,” Jason Allard wrote:

 Bodies were picked out of the river, and Indians were blamed for murdering the white men who had been drowned through inexperience of the difficult waters of the river. My father repeatedly warned white men against the dangers of such a fate. Agitations were started to clean up the Indians. The climax came when the body of a headless white man was found floating in a back eddy of the river, and near it the body of a white woman, both stripped of clothing. Then war was declared against the Indians. Mass meetings were held at which wild speeches were made and two companies of troops were formed and officers. Captain Snyder and Lieutenant Graham and an officer named Donelly were among the officers selected…The irregular troops started out for vengeance in military form, the stars and stripes at their head. A week later they straggled back, arriving at midnight with the story that now a war of extermination was essential. They appeared to be in a very ugly mood, created a terrible commotion…Later it developed that two officers had been shot during a scouting tour by their own man who mistook them for Indians. [Jason Allard, “Enclosed sketches of early life in B.C.” BCA]

When I looked up these names in Daniel Marshall’s book, I discovered that Captain Snyder was Captain Henry M. Snyder, an American Army man well known in San Francisco, and commander of the Pike Guards on the Fraser River. “Lieutenant” Graham was Captain Graham, commander of the Whatcom Guards, another American force set up at Fort Hope. [He is one of the two men who died]. It is likely that “Donelly” was a former chief of San Francisco Police named B.C. Donallan, who in July arranged a pact with the Nlaka’pamux on what he named “Washington Bar,” so that he and his companions could pan for gold during the day, while the Nlakapamux fished for salmon in the mornings and evenings. Americans on the Fraser River were arranging peace treaties with the Indigenous people?

Indeed, they were. On August 18, three different companies ascended the Fraser. Their goals differed: while Captain Snyder wanted to sign peace treaties with the Indigenous people on the river, Graham wanted to kill them all. On August 21, Snyder met with Spintlum [Sexpinlhemx] at Thlikum-cheen [Kumsheen, near Lytton], apparently telling him and his chiefs that if he had to come again to force peace, he would come with thousands of men. As the Nlaka’pamux were aware of what had happened on Okanagan Lake and in the United States, they believed him. Spintlum was prepared to negotiate for peace.

In the meantime, at Fort Hope, the miners panicked when rumours of 49 white men being killed on the Upper Fraser reached them, and additional false stories of 150 men murdered on the newly-opened Harrison-Lillooet trail contributed to their alarm. They held meetings at Fort Hope, and addressed a letter to Governor Douglas, on the “Indian difficulties.” Douglas arrived at Fort Hope on September 3, accompanied by 35 red-jacketed Royal Engineers, members of the British Boundary Commission who had arrived at Fort Victoria o July 12. On August 31, Lieutenant Charles Wilson, of the Royal Engineers, reported:

In consequence of the very bad reports from the mines up Fraser river, Major Hawkins has gone up with a body of men, to help the Governor to keep the peace. I volunteered several times to go up as a little fighting would be much more to my taste than this work…I am very anxious for news of the party, as there has been a good deal of fighting up there, & wise heads in these matters ay we are going to have a regular Indian war. [George F G. Stanley, ed., Mapping the Frontier: Charles Wilson’s Diary of the survey of the 49th Parallel, 1858-1862, 23-24]

On his return to Fort Victoria in June 1858, Douglas had written to the Colonial Secretary on the dangers of an Indian war in the Fraser Canyon. Fortunately for Douglas, the first batch of Royal Engineers to arrive at Fort Victoria had departed London in April 1858 — they were the members of the Boundary Commission, who were to carve the boundary line between the United States and British Territory. Douglas’s journal of his upriver journey to Fort Hope in September does not mention that the Royal Engineers, and militia men from the HMS Satellite, accompanied him. But picture him arriving at all of these upriver posts and Indigenous villages, accompanied by these red-jacketed soldiers and military men. Douglas himself was large and imposing. To the unruly Americans he was saying, “You are in British Territory. You must behave.”

To the Indigenous people his message was different. “The Queen is looking after you.” The remainder of his message would have echoed Peter Skene Ogden’s message to the Cayuse in 1848, after the Waiilatpu Massacre.  “But if you go to war, we cannot help you.”

It appears that everyone got the message. Peace was restored: or at least I hope it was. I still have the rest of the book to read, but this is probably as far as I will go in my own book about the Brigades.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

One thought on “The Fraser Canyon War

  1. Daniel Marshall

    Hi Nancy, so glad you are making good use of my book Claiming the Land! To think that it is 160 years ago this Summer that gold seekers were using your well-known ancestor’s guide book to the Fraser gold fields. Perhaps my ancestor was one of them? Hope you find the rest of the book a good read. Cheers, Daniel