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Fraser River Gold Rush

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Mining History

The Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 was British Columbia’s first gold rush. Many also view it as an extension of the California Gold Rush of 1849. By the late 1850s placer mining of free gold was replaced with capital-intensive hydraulic mining in California. The news of free gold discovered in the sand bars of the Fraser River Canyon between Yale and Hope reached the ears of miners looking for a second opportunity to strike it rich. The Fraser River Gold Rush drew thousands of miners—mostly Americans and some Chinese—to the area and quickly eclipsed the fur trade as the region’s primary economic activity leading to the creation the Colony of British Columbia. As miners exhausted most of the free gold situated in the sand bars of the Fraser River, they pushed their way into the interior of the province, sparking the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1862.


[edit] History

[edit] Hudson’s Bay Co.

The chain of events that led to influx of thousands of miners to the Fraser River to mine gold is debatable. Even before gold was discovered in the Fraser River, miners were trickling into New Caledonia, the name given by the British to the province before it was called British Columbia, as early as 1850. Most of these miners made their way up to the Queen Charlotte Islands where the first gold in the province was discovered.[1]

The population of New Caledonia during this time period was somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 and made up of mostly First Nations people.[2] Europeans and Americans began arriving in the region in the late 18th to 19th century. The British established the settlement of Fort Victoria in 1849 as a fur-trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC). The Hudson’s Bay Co. dissuaded the arrival of settlers and miners in fear of disrupting a thriving, profitable fur trade. As the only governing body in the region, the Hudson’s Bay Co. tightly controlled the news of any gold strikes. In fact, news of early gold strikes was often quelled. If gold was found, it was sold directly to the Hudson’s Bay Company. This way, the knowledge of any gold surfacing in the region was hidden from the outside world. News of gold in the region broke when James Douglas, the sole authority on the West Coast and governor of HBC, shipped a consignment of gold to the mint in San Francisco on April 3, 1858.[3] The same year, miners from California were making their way up to the Fraser River Canyon area. In 1858, more than 30,000 gold-seekers trekked first to Victoria before inundating the banks of the Fraser River between Hope and Lillooet in search of gold.[4] They mined about $500,000 in gold in 1858.[5] While the majority of the miners were Americans and a large number were Chinese, other nationalities represented during the Fraser River Gold Rush included British, English Canadians, Martimers, Mexicans, West Indians, and others.

[edit] The Colony of British Columbia

One distinct difference of the Fraser River Gold Rush in comparison to both the California Gold Rush and the Australian Gold Rush was the establishment of the system for mining licenses which had to be obtained in Fort Victoria before entering the mainland. To control the influx of immigrants in response to gold fever, James Douglas asserted the Crown’s authority by renaming New Caledonia the Colony of British Columbia. Anyone entering the colony had to do so through Fort Victoria. Miners were required to obtain a mining license, though many made their way to the goldfields of the Fraser River via overland routes such as the Okanagan and Whatcom Trails. The removal of any gold from within the newly established colony without a license resulted in civil and criminal prosecution. Police were hired and circuit judges placed in mining communities to maintain law and order. James Douglas even tried to limit the amount of weapons entering the colony but a lack of law enforcement and resources made it hard to control people from entering  via overland routes.[6]

[edit] Fort Yale

The First Nations Fort Yale area residents were the first people ever to mine gold from the sand bars of the Fraser River. Realizing its value, they mined it and used it in the trading of supplies with the British. Around 1856 or 1857 a prospector by the name of James Huston discovered gold close to Fort Kamloops. The search for more gold spread from the Thompson River, spilling over to the Fraser River with a substantial find made in 1858 at Hill’s Bar just south of the Yale.[7] The site of Fort Yale was located on a bar in the Fraser River and served first as an actual First Nations village site. When the Hudson’s Bay Co. established the fur trade in the region, it developed Yale as a small trading outpost located at the lower end of the Fraser River to service fur-trading brigades. When news of gold strikes in the Fraser River reached miners in California, Yale quickly evolved from a fur-trading outpost to a mining town with a population of 700 to 800 people.[8] The town’s native population was segregated to an area outside the town center. Yale even had a Chinatown to accommodate the growing population of Chinese miners and merchants arriving to the area.

[edit] The Chinese Miner Population

The Chinese were among the first visitors to the town of Yale, working as miners or as merchants supplying the miners with services. Many of them had come all the way from China and Hong Kong to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, making their way up to British Columbia. It was characteristic of Chinese immigrants to rework existing diggings left behind by others miners in a gold rush. During 1858 for example, many Chinese and First Nations miners reworked sites abandoned by other miners who had come to the Fraser River area in 1858. Most mining was carried out using the practice of sluicing. While most of the most reachable gold had been picked clean, Chinese and First Nations miners stayed behind on the bars and beaches of the Fraser River to search for additional gold. By 1860 there were about 4,000 Chinese people living in the colony. By 1866 close to the end of the Cariboo Gold Rush, the number of Chinese in the province had dropped to 1,700.[9]

[edit] End of the Gold Rush

The Fraser Gold Rush was short-lived. By 1860 most of the free gold in the sand bars of the Fraser River had been cleaned out. Many miners returned back to the United States or pushed further into the British Columbia wilderness in search of new gold-prospecting opportunities. Though not as prominent as the Cariboo Gold Rush that followed in 1862, the Fraser River Gold Rush played a pivotal part in the establishment of British Columbia as a colony and witnessed such conflicts as the Fraser Canyon War in the fall of 1858 and the building of the Douglas Road, the colony’s first mainland public works project.[10]

[edit] References

  1. The Fraser Gold Rush. The Canadian 01-05-2009.
  2. The Fraser Gold Rush. The Canadian 01-05-2009.
  3. Fraser River Gold Rush. The Canadian Encyclopedia Gold Rush. 01-05-2009.
  4. Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Trip Atlas. 01-05-2009.
  5. Fraser Valley History - Gold Rush Years. Found Locally. 01-05-2009.
  6. Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Trip Atlas. 01-05-2009.
  7. History of the Fraser and Thompson River Canyons. BC Adventure. 01-05-2009.
  8. Fraser River Gold Rush. Canada's Digital Collections Program. Industry Canada. 01-05-2009.
  9. Chinese Gold Washers on the Fraser River, BC, ca. 1864. McCord Museum. 01-05-2009.
  10. Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Trip Atlas. 01-05-2009.