The B.C. Gold Rush

The Haida first discovered gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1851.  That led to prospecting on other coastal islands in the lower mainland of New Caledonia (present day British Columbia).  The Hudson’s Bay Company supplied the aboriginals with equipment to keep htem digging and panning, and indeed, the First Nations found more gold along the Fraser River in 1853 and near the Thompson River on the mainland three years later.

However, James Douglas, the HBC’s chief at Fort Victoria and the colonial governor of Vancouver Island, feared an invasion of American prospectors into the unsettled mainland if word of the discoveries got out, so he tried to keep everything quiet.  Douglas’ attempts at secrecy worked until 1858.  That February, the HBC shipped nearly 1000 ounces of Fraser River gold to the mint in San Francisco.  The Mint’s superintendent was a member of the local volunteer fire department and, unfortunately, a blabbermouth.  One day, while on drill, he let slip to his fellow firefighters the news about the gold shipment.

On March 12, 1858, the first 15 gold prospectors from San Francisco sailed for Victoria.  Within a week, they were at the mouth of the Fraser River near present-day Yale, and on March 20, discovered Hill’s Bar, the largest single deposit of gold ever found during the Fraser River Gold Rush.  Word quickly spread across the entire world, and Douglas’ secret was out.

On April 25, 1858, the Commodore arrived in Victoria from San Francisco with 450 prospectors on their way to the Fraser River goldfields.  Doubling the town’s population, the miners had to sleep in tents because Victoria did not yet have any hotels.

Over 20,000 gold miners arrived in Victoria in 1858.  The vast majority went on to the goldfields along the Fraser River, but some stayed, and the sudden influx of people, both transient and permanent, resulted in wild increases in the price of real estate.  City lots in Victoria that once sold for only $25 apiece were, one week later, going for $3000 each!

In the last two weeks of May 1858 alone, at least 10,000 Californians passed through Victoria on their way to the Fraser River goldfields.  By the end of the year, up to 30,000 prospectors were searching for gold along the Fraser between Hope and Lillooet, with some as far north as Quesnel.  Of the 30,000+ who arrived, only a quarter of them actually searched for gold.  The others included gamblers, claim jumpers, prostitutes, land speculators and others intent on making a living by providing whatever products and services the miners needed or by stealing the miner’s gold.

In reality, most of the flood of prospectors who came to British Columbia did not strike it rich.  Even if they did, there was no guarantee that they’d hold onto their money.  Take William Barker, for example.  He became tremendously wealthy when he found gold along Williams Creek in northern B.C. in 1862.  His claim yielded $600,000 by 1866, which would be worth millions today.  But Barker quickly spent his fortune, and ended his days as a pauper in the Old Men’s Home in Victoria.

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