When Gold Was King

A chapter of dramatic episodes from the days of the gold rush that gave birth to British Columbia

JASON O. ALLARD May 15 1929

When Gold Was King

A chapter of dramatic episodes from the days of the gold rush that gave birth to British Columbia

JASON O. ALLARD May 15 1929

When Gold Was King

A chapter of dramatic episodes from the days of the gold rush that gave birth to British Columbia


As related to B. A. McKelvie

PEND OREILLE mines have attracted a good deal of attention lately, and every time I see mention of that locality in the press, my mind reverts to old James Houston and the great gold rush of 1858 that brought British Columbia into being as a Crown Colony, for it was from the Pend Oreille that Houston came to make the discovery that led to the development of the country west of the Rockies.

Houston, a sailor and soldier of fortune, was highly connected in the old land, but he was of an adventurous turn of mind and left home to become a sailor. He served for a time with Walker in his Nicaraguan filibuster and campaigned in Mexico. He came to Puget Sound in 1856 as second officer on a sailing vessel. There he heard of the discovery of gold near Fort Colville on the Columbia. He deserted his ship and with a partner started overland for the new strike. The difficulties and dangers of the way—for the Indians in old Oregon, as Washington and Oregon states were then familiarly known, were on the war-path—so disheartened his partner, a man named Eldridge, that he turned back. Houston kept on and after many adventures and privations reached Fort Colville where he acquired a new partner.

These two men went to the Pend Oreille River and started prospecting in the vicinity of the now important mine named after the stream. Prospects were good and the friends had high expectations. Then, one night while they were asleep in their tent, hostile Indians swooped down upon them, cut the ropes of the tent and let the canvas collapse upon the sleeping men. With their long knives the savages stabbed through the cloth, killing Houston’s partner, but missing him. The Indians then fled.

In the morning Houston buried his partner and loaded his pony with supplies and left the place intent on getting out of the country. He hesitated to make his way back through United States territory for fear of encountering Indians, so determined to go north into the Hudson’s Bay territory where, under the rule of the fur traders, there was peace between the white men and the red.

He managed to make his way to the Valley of the Okanagan, intending to follow this up until he met the brigade trail near Osoyoos Lake, and cross the mountains to Fort Hope. All went well until he was within two or three miles of the border, when a large party of savages surrounded him. He protested that he was a “King Georgeman,” as Britishers were known to the Indians, but they did not believe him. His claim to protection of the Hudson’s Bay, however, saved his life, though not his belongings, for the natives robbed him of nearly everything he possessed. ,-

Houston was now in sorry plight. He could not hope to cross the mountains to Fort Hope unarmed and without supplies. There was but one alternative.

That was to make Fort Kamloops.

Several weeks later Houston stumbled into the fort on the Thompson river nearly dead from exhaustion. Donald McLean was in charge of Kamloops and at first took this haggard and weary man in ragged clothes foi a deserter from one of the New Caledonia forts of the Company.

Houston, however, was able to persuade him otherwise, and he was accorded genuine Hudson’s Bay hospitality.

In the spring he began to pan the creeks about the fort, and it was at Tranquille Creek, close to the present tubercular sanitarium, that he struck gold. He obtained a small quantity of the yellow metal and with it he paid McLean for his board.

This gold McLean remitted to the company’s western headquarters at Fort Victoria, and Governor James Douglas of Vancouver Island, who was also chief factor in charge of the western department, sent it to the mint at San Francisco. It was the arrival of this small packet in California that led to the great rush of the following year.

Such is the true story of how the stampede that put British Columbia on the map was started, and it has never been historically recorded. I knew Houston very well, and his son, Alexander, who lives on the site of the original Fort Langley of 1827, is a close friend of mine today.

Governor Douglas soon learned of the impending rush for the Fraser and its tributaries, and feared the consequences. He had seen the Indian war break out in the North West, following the influx of settlers over whom the Hudson’s Bay Company had no control when the country passed under the dominion of the United States; and he wished to prevent bloodshed in British territory.

He came to Nanaimo where my father had charge of the Indian labor about the mines, and asked him to go back to Fort Yale which he had established a decade before. The Governor pointed out that Yale would probably become the centre of mining activity, and as the Indians were naturally a quick-tempered and warlike people in that locality, it would require a firm hand and an intimate knowledge of the native mind and customs to prevent trouble.

Father was not inclined to go, for he had quit the mainland because he could not agree with J. Murray Yale, the officer in charge of Fort Langley and its dependent posts. Incidentally, these two patched up their differences later and became fast friends again.

The governor replied that father would report direct to him and would not be answerable to Mr. Yale, and so he undertook the post.

We all hated to leave Nanaimo. My sister and I were attending school there, and the place, with its population of miners, was so different from life at the other Company establishments that we did not relish the change. The other children at the school presented me with a Bible which is still my cherished possession.

This Bible, by the way, played an important part for years in British Columbia legal affairs. When Chief Justice Begbie held his first court at Yale it was found that there was no Bible upon which to swear the witnesses. None of the court officials or dignitaries of the town who were in attendance could produce one, and it appeared that the legal machinery of the young colony would be halted at the very outset.

While a search was being conducted without avail for The Book, Judge Begbie looked out of the window and saw me playing.

saw “Ah,” he exclaimed, “if anyone has a Bible, I warrant it will be young Jason. Go ask him.”

So it was that several men ran from the court to ask me —the only boy in the place, to find the necessary accessory to the functioning of the courts. I ran home and got my Bible, and it was not until some years later that I recovered it from the clutches of the Law. It still bears the marks of sealingwax on the cover where a Crucifix cut from paper was pasted on to further impress Indian witnesses.

It was in February of 1858 that we arrived at Fort Langley, there to await the house at Fort Yale being made ready for us by my father, who, of course, went straightway to his post.

The first shipload of miners arrived at Victoria late in April, and soon other vessels followed, bearing hundreds and thousands of adventurers. The river was high with the Spring freshets, and these miners were forced, for the most part, to await at Victoria for the waters to fall. Victoria became almost overnight a tented city of thousands, where there had been but a fur trading-post before. Many of those who came in the first rush were desperate characters who were only too glad to get away from California and the vigilantes. And had it not been for the fearlessness and ability of Governor Douglas, there might have been serious trouble. He would stand for no nonsense, and was ably backed by such resolute characters as Roderick Finlayson, the defender of the place a few years before when the Indians had tried to capture it; John Work, aging but still a power, and Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, who had brought about the first coal-mining in the West—the father of Hon. S. F. Tolmie, the present Conservative leader in B.C.

Of all the notorious characters who came from San Francisco, Ned McGowan was the most feared. A man of education, he had been a printer and newspaper proprietor in a mining camp, a judge and miner by turns. He had got away from San Francisco two jumps ahead of the vigilance committee, and the authorities at Victoria had every reason to anticipate that California’s gain would be Vancouver Island’s loss as far as he was concerned.

Ned gathered a gang about him and intimated that he was going to hoist the Stars and Stripes over the country, and would form a parade for that purpose. The governor learned of it and sent a man on horseback to the naval station at Esquimalt and presently H.M.S. Plumper steamed into the harbor and disembarked a company of marines. There was no parade.

I mention this incident, as I will refer later to Ned’s second public appearance in the affairs of the country.

I can recall, as if it was yesterday, seeing the advance guard of miners ascending the Fraser River. The broad stream below Fort Langley was alive with them, bearded men, for the most part redshirted and armed to the teeth. They came in canoes, in flat-bottomed boats and even on rafts; came by the hundreds and by the thousands. They camped about the fort in tents or rude shelters of bark and brush. All day long they pestered the employees of the company with questions. What was the disposition of the Indians? Where could gold be found? What were the winters like?—and in fact queries bn every conceivable subject.

It was a great sight, though—armed men, loud of voice, brazen and insistent in their demands; pioneers of the rush of ’49 to California, experienced and capable men who had been reared in clerical occupations or to the professions, obviously unused to frontier life; Indians dressed in blankets, dumbfounded at this sudden invasion, and our own people— Hudson’s Bay employees—for so long the lords paramount of the wilderness, quiet,

aloof and instinctively resenting this influx of noisy, clamoring thousands whose presence would, as a matter of course, change the existing order of things. But it was a great sight for a boy born behind the pickets of a tradingpost. To me it was something new and strange and fascinating, and now after seventy years, I can see it all again in my memory and I am glad—for it was the parade of civilization that I witnessed.

Then came the first steamer, the Surprise, to pioneer the way for steam above Langley. Two captains she carried, Lubbock and Huntingdon, and they wanted a pilot who knew the river.

Mr. Yale gave them Speelset, an Indian, and sent along August Willing, a clerk, as interpreter.

Speelset was a blanket Indian when he went away. We did not know him when he came back, for he was wearing a broadcloth suit and panama hat. “How much shall I pay him?” asked one of the captains.

“Oh, a couple of cotton shirts,” answered Mr. Yale.

“The h—1 I will,” was the reply, and the captain handed the Indian nine twenty-dollar gold pieces, remarking, “It was worth it to me.”

And in addition Speelset obtained a new name. He was ever after known as “Captain John.”

Hill’s Bar below Yale was the first one to yield large returns, although before the end of June every bar on the fifteen mile stretch between Fort Hope and Yale was crowded with miners, while these places had grown in size to the proportions of cities of tents and rude shacks.

Some miner would suddenly start a cry, “Oh-ee-ee Jo-ee-ee-ee-ee,” and his companions would take it up until it would be ringing out along the bank above the roar of the river. The miners were nervous, too. If a man was seen running, some timid fellow would shout, “Indians!” and this also would flash from bar to bar for miles as men dropped their shovels and sprang from rockers to catch up rifles and put themselves in a position of defense.

Indians On the Warpath

THERE was trouble with the Indians in August, and a sharp and bloody war was carried through the canyons above Yale. Just how many were killed in this sanguinary conflict will never be known, and even at the time the reports were conflicting and confusing. There seems to be no doubt, however, that the trouble originated through the unwarranted interference of lawless men with the Indian camps. Mutilated bodies came floating down from the narrow canyons; some undoubtedly were killed by Indians, although others may have been drowned.

The Indians were on the war-path and miners came flocking into Yale, where all was excitement. Punitive expeditions were talked of and one party went as far as Spuzzum and caused some damage and then returned. Fresh reports-came in and volunteers were called for to force a passage through the Forks—where the town of Lytton now stands. One group of hot-heads chose a firebrand named Graham and an ex-policeman from ’Frisco named Donnelly as their leaders. They were for carrying on a war of extermination. Others of more peaceable disposition were for organizing for defensive purposes only, holding that it was the duty of Governor Douglas to take any retaliatory measures which he deemed to be warranted. These men chose H. M. Snyder as their leader.

The war-of-extermination party crowded about the Hudson’s Bay post and demanded that my father give up the muskets and powder in the store. This he refused to do, knowing the terrible consequences of an Indian war if it spread throughout the country.

“Hang him,” shouted several excited men.

“That won’t do you any good,” answered my father as he stood in the doorway, pistol in hand, while I crouched behind him.

“I tell you, boys,” he went on quietly, “These goods don’t belong to me but to the Company. I can’t give them to you, and I’ll have to protect the property in my charge.”

His resolute stand held them off, but Donald Walker, officer in charge at Fort Hope, gave in to their demands and was later dismissed from his post for doing so.

When, however, several days later it was learned that some miners were beleaguered in the canyons, my father released some guns and ammunition to Snyder’s party upon guarantees being given that they would be returned or paid for.

I remember well seeing this expedition start off—and it was led by a man with the Stars and Stripes! Graham’s party took the opposite side of the river from Snyder. At China Bar some miners, who were defending themselves from behind a rude barricade, were rescued, and then Snyder pushed on, signing agreements of peace with the natives. Graham, however, and one of his lieutenants met death, being shot at their camp fire after they had rejected a flag of truce.

Through the wisdom and forbearance of Snyder peace was re-established. The miners went back to the abandoned bars, and both white man and red had a better respect for each other.

I had a busy and profitable time that summer interpreting for the miners. My father one day discovered I had a leather bag filled with money and he would not believe I had earned it. Just when it looked as if I was in for a thrashing, a couple of miners approached with an Indian.

“Say, boss,” enquired one, “where’s the youngster?” and spying me, “Here, Johnny,” said he, “I want to talk to this Injun.”

I interpreted for him and he gave me a five-dollar gold piece. After that my father was satisfied.

Some former college students came with the rush, and when they pushed on up the river they left some of their books with me, and these were of more value than the gold, for I spent my spare time reading them, and so did my sister, Matilda.

The Birth of a Province

'T'HE influx of such a large and unorganized population required the speedy establishment of some form of Government, and on the advice of Governor Douglas the Imperial authorities created the mainland west of the Rockies a separate Crown Colony and cancelled the exclusive trading privileges of the Hudson’s Bay Company that had so long and wisely governed the territory, holding it for the Empire when it might have become part of the United States. With the creation of the colony, a picked corps of Royal Engineers was sent out under Col. R. C. Moody—and splendid men they were, too, those sappers and miners. Matthew Baillie Begbie, a young lawyer, came also as Chief Justice, charged with the task of establishing courts and enforcing law and order.

I was not present at the ceremony when the Crown Colony was brought into being, but talked with those who were there. It was held in the Big House, or Hall, at Fort Langley, on a rainy day, November 19, 1858, in the presence of Chief Justice David Cameron of Vancouver Island, Admiral Baynes and officers of the navy and army, as well as some civilians.

Governor Douglas administered the oath of office to Begbie, who in turn swore Douglas in as governor of British Columbia. He also held office as Governor of Vancouver Island, but severed his connection with the Company as chief factor.

It was hard for some of the old Company men, including my father, to think that no longer was Douglas their head in the affairs of the Hudson’s Bay. Father continued to make his reports to him for a long time, and I will quote from a letter which he sent to the Governor, as it will illustrate several matters to which I would like to refer, and at the same time gives an impression of the times in those hectic days of ’58.

“Fort Yale, Dec. 26th, 1858. “To His Excellency,

Governor Douglas.

“Dear Sir,

“Your favor of the 7th inst, was received the 24th inst., the contents of which I duly note.

“I have nothing new or interesting to relate. Business of all kinds is very dull and my sales are of small account; some days little or nothing. I have no assortment in the store in comparison to what most of the merchants have, who seem tolerably well supplied with goods suited to the little market here.

“I would gladly go to Langley for goods were it not for the exorb. rates charged by the Indians, who are now being paid $3.00 per day by the merchants who employ them.

“I hereby send you an account of the dust and coin on hand, as follows:

“Gold dust, amlg. 120 oz.

“Cash, coin, $850.00.

“The Indians here and in this vicinity are on most friendly terms with the Whites, but many of them are in a suffering condition and destitute of food. I have used every endeavor to induce them to hunt but they decline doing so.

“. . . The weather has been very cold and severe from the 5th to the 20th, which has since been more moderate, with constant snow, rain and sleet. Our communication from below was almost suspended at one time: were 18 days without any news from Langley. Very few of the miners are at work and those few making but little.

“Our little town has been considerably excited in consequence of a man being shot on the 24th. Unfortunately the murderer (a gambler) has escaped as yet. Capt. Whannell has succeeded in shutting the doors of three gambling houses since.

“I remain, Dear Sir,

“Your Excellency’s Obedient Servant

(signed) Ovid Allard. “P.S. Dear Sir,

“Just as I was sealing this letter the Justice of the Peace of Hill’s Bar (Mr. Geo. Perrier) sent a warrant to Captn. Whannell to be taken, of which he ob’d and went down under American constable sworn for the purpose. There is a great deal of talk of McGowan’s party at Hill’s Bar to come and drive all the English people off of this place. However, I don’t apprehend much danger, for the money on hand is safe. I have secured it well ...”

This characteristic letter in simple language, I think, gives a very good picture of that first Christmas at Yale, and reveals something of its author’s loyalty to the Company and disregard for self. Between the lines can be seen Yale in its blanket of snow, the frozen river and the smoke of the miners’ rough shacks going straight up into the motionless air. Then, too, can be glimpsed the saloons and gaming tables around which the idle miners crowd for want of other occupation, only to have fights develop as gold dust is passed to and fro at the fall of the greasy cards.

He Couldn’t Do It Now!

I WAS witness of the murder referred to on Christmas eve. I was standing at the door, or just inside of the door to be correct, of one of the saloons and gaming halls run by a man named Foster, a professional gambler and worthless character. A man named Rice came in, blue with the cold, and called for a drink. It was served to him over the rude bar, and after he had emptied the glass he set it down and remarked, “You’ll have to wait for the money. I’m broke.”

“Is that so?” sneered Foster, and he reached down and picked up his revolver from beneath the bar. “Is that so?”—and he fired point blank.

Poor Rice staggered past me and fell dead outside of the door. I took to my heels and ran home and hid in my room.

Of course when the news spread through the camp there was a wild scramble to find Foster, but he had disappeared. That night one of the women—for women had followed the men in the stampede—gave a dance. She sat all evening beside the musicians, refusing all requests to dance by saying she had sprained her ankle—and Foster was hiding beneath the ample folds of her widespread crinoline.

He got away that night and made good his escape to the United States, only to be shot to death later in Arizona.

“Ned McGowan’s War”

THE postscript to the letter refers to what is remembered as “Ned McGowan’s War,” although the redoubtable Ned did not play the leading rôle in the affair. Captain Whannell was the magistrate at Yale, and Perrier occupied a similar position at the rival camp of Hill’s Bar. Whannell issued a warrant for the arrest of a resident of the Bar and sent his constable to arrest the man. This upset the dignity of Magistrate Perrier, who ordered the arrest of Whannell’s constable for invading his jurisdiction.

The policeman from Hill’s Bar came to Whannell’s court to arrest the guardian of the law in Yale, and openly insulted the gallant captain—who by the way, later turned out to be a bit of an impostor— —and the dignity of Yale’s court thus being injured, the invading constable was committed to jail for contempt of court.

When Perrier heard of this he was furious and instantly issued a warrant for Whannell’s arrest, and swore in Ned McGowan and twenty of Ned’s bosom companions as specials to serve it.

The arrest of Whannell and the liberation of the Hill’s Bar policeman had just been effected when my father sent off the message.

By the time the messenger got to Langley he was sure that Yale had been captured by Ned McGowan’s party which in his imagination had grown to be a young army. Murray Yale at Fort Langley, not knowing the seriousness of the situation, very properly communicated with Col. Moody, and a despatch was forwarded to the Governor at Victoria.

Having had trouble with McGowan before, Governor Douglas naturally assumed that Ned was carrying out his former plan of trying to annex British Columbia to United States. The governor acted with promptitude and decision, and in a few hours had a side-wheeled gun-boat churning across the Gulf of Georgia laden with marines and blue jackets drafted from the other ships of the Esquimalt naval station.

The army pushed up the ice-filled river, and after great difficulty reached Fort Hope where J. D. B. Ogilvy had succeeded Walker as officer in charge. Poor Ogilvy was later murdered in the North by a whisky pedlar.

We were all surprised when the soldiers under Col. Moody, accompanied by Lieut. R. C. Mayne of the navy, and Chief Justice Begbie, marched into Yale and right to the Hudson’s Bay post where they made their headquarters in our house.

McGowan and the two magistrates were haled before the judge. Ned was able to justify himself, explaining that as he interpreted British law he was obliged to come to the assistance of a magistrate when ordered to do so. Perrier, however, was dismissed from office.

The incident which has always been regarded with amusement had a wholesome effect in proving to the miners that the Governor was prepared to back the law with all the force at his command.

Ned McGowan, shortly after this, challenged a man to fight a duel, and while the affair, which was to be held on American soil, never came off, it led to McGowan leaving the country. Later, I have been told, Ned became doorman at the House of Representatives at Washington, and became religious, dying in San Francisco about thirty-five years ago.

“Sandbag the Jury”

JUDGE BEGBIE was a great man. I J knew him well and often interpreted for him and for Judge Saunders, too. Judge O’Reilly was another man of a later day—the sixties—who played a big part in the country. So was Judge H. M. Ball. But Begbie was in a class by himself. There are a great many stories told of him, and I can vouch for the truth of at least one of them.

A man was on trial on a charge of sandbagging, and there appeared to be little doubt of his guilt, but the jury returned a verdict of acquittal. Before discharging the prisoner the judge addressed him:

“Your equals have found you not guilty, and I must discharge you, but before doing so I would like to suggest that if you find you must sandbag any others, you start with the jury.”

Another time, in Cariboo, he was called upon to decide upon the division of a big ranch that was left to two brothers. Ignoring the younger brother, Judge Begbie asked the elder one to prepare a plan of how the ranch could be fairly divided. This was done.

“Now you’re sure that this is a fair division, and that this piece you want is no better than the other?”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the elder brother.

“All right, then,” answered the judge, “we will let the younger son have the first choice.”

The Royal Engineers were a splendid body of men. They have passed on and there only remain of that generation which was associated with their work, Mrs. Mary Spencer Palmer, widow of Lieut. H. S. Palmer, and myself. I was the guide and interpreter for the engineers when they ran the first lines for the mule trail that succeeded the Indian pathway through the canyons above Yale.

Col. Moody was the founder of New Westminster. Governor Douglas selected as the capital of the colony the site of the first Fort Langley and named it Derby. When Col. Moody arrived he disapproved of it for military reasons and chose higher ground on the opposite side of the river lower down the stream. Here barracks were built and a townsite was laid out.

Then there arose a dispute that was only settled by Queen Victoria herself. It was over the naming of the place. “Queensborough” was selected as suitable, but this roused bitter antagonism from the loyal citizens of Victoria who wished to be the only town in compliment to Her Majesty. Then the name “Queenborough” was suggested as an alternative, but this was rejected by those who wanted the “S” in the middle of the name.

At last in an effort to settle the argument it was referred to London with the prayer that Her Majesty express her preference. She diplomatically and very sensibly refused to become involved with either party, so selected as the name for the capital, “New Westminster”—hence its claim to being the “Royal City.” Her Majesty also gave British Columbia its name, and it can therefore be called the “Royal Province.”

Editor’s Note—This is the second of a series of articles by Mr. Allard and Mr. McKelvie, describing the colorful life of British Columbia before and after Confederation. The third will appear in an early issue.