Cariboo Cameron

A true saga of the romantic West

CHARLES CLOWES January 1 1936

Cariboo Cameron

A true saga of the romantic West

CHARLES CLOWES January 1 1936

Cariboo Cameron

A true saga of the romantic West


THIS is the story of Cariboo Cameron. One of the strangest, most romantic and most tragic of all the strange and romantic stories that came out of the Cariboo when the Cariboo was in its heyday as a gold camp. The story of a man who made a fortune in a few months and gave away a further fortune to keep a promise to a dying woman, only to be accused of having sold that woman for gold.

The story starts, for us, on the sunny, breezy afternoon of February 27, 1862, when the side-wheel coastal steamer Brother Jonathan, had chugged and churned her way up the harbor of Victoria, Vancouver Island, to her wharf, and commenced the discharge of her passengers. The first to disembark was a sturdy, bearded man, followed closely by a slim, graceful woman. The man was John A. Cameron, of Summertown, Glengarry County, Ontario. He was then forty-one years old. T he woman was his wife, Sophia, daughter of Nathan Groves, of Stormont. In his arms the man carried, wrapped in a blanket, their grievously ill fourteenmonths-old daughter, Mary Isabella Alice.

'I'he Royal Hotel hid the Camerons for a spell, but on March 8 they emerged bowed and broken; following behind a little black casket that held a treasure greater to them than all the gold of Cariboo; their only child.

Cameron, of course, had come to the Colony to seek his fortune in the gold fields of Cariboo. From the beginning, benevolent fortune kept close on one hand—even as malevolent tragedy stalked on the other. Within two hours after his arrival he had been approached by one who as a youth had lived in the same county in far-away Ontario— Robert Stevenson of Vankleek Hill. The two formed a friendship that held firm through life.

Stevenson had been in Cariboo the previous year, and was waiting for spring to unlock the trail before returning. He had a trading business there; handling the goods of the packers on commission. It had been his intention to take back with him a pack-train of supplies, but that meant he would have to delay his return until the trail became passable for loaded animals. He liked the sturdy, dependable man from his home county of Glengarry, and offered him a partnership in these supplies; offered to finance the undertaking and advance Cameron money for his expenses in Victoria if he would superintend the delivery of the goods. Cameron eagerly accepted the offer, for he had but $40 to his name.

On the Trail

C TEVENSON left for Cariboo early in April, after having ^ arranged for a $2,000 line of credit for Cameron with the Hudson’s Bay Company. John and Sophia Cameron left with the freight in June. Although white women were practically unknown in the land of gold in ’62, Sophia determined to stay close by her husband’s side.

They went by boat to Fort Yale, and there Cameron engaged a packer with a mule-train to carry the cargo to Cariboo via the Fraser River trail. The two rode on horseback in company with the train. The road had not then been built, and the trail was fearsome, cruel and dangerous even to those inured to hardships; every one of the 400 miles held a menace. Sophia Cameron was a woman unaccustomed to the rigors of frontier life.

They reached Williams Creek about the first of August, and Cameron constructed a rude log shack in Richfield; the first collection of miners’ cabins there to be dignified with a name. (Barkerville and Camerontown were not built until the following year.)

The goods that Cameron brought in had cost $2,000 in Victoria, and the freight as much or more, nevertheless the two partners sold their stock at a large profit. Cameron had included a ton of candles in the load; these sold for $100 per twenty-pound box, for there happened to be a famine in that article. In fact, all supplies were scarce at the time, and exorbitant prices prevailed: butter, $5 per pound; nails, $5 per pound; potatoes, $115 per 100-pound sack. For a short time that year flour sold as high as $2 per pound. Cameron’s share of the profits enabled him to pay his debts, and left him a sum for investment. He looked around for a chance to get in on a good claim.

Stevenson was also prospecting and got wind of a promising piece of ground about two miles down Williams Creek

from Richfield. This ground had been staked before, and abandoned as worthless. The gold-bearing strata, or pay dirt, on Williams Creek lay at varying depths of ten to thirty feet; and many miners, used to the surface workings on Fraser River, were entirely deceived as to the richness of that creek; for some time it was known as “Dutch Bill’s Humbug.” Deep digging was beginning to unlock the gold, however, and Stevenson decided to try his luck at it.

He told Cameron of his find, and they decided to take in some friends and form a company of seven, which would permit them to stake a good-sized claim. Cameron, Mrs. Cameron, Stevenson, Allan McDonald, Richard Rivers, Charles and James Clendenning comprised the company. On August 22 they staked the claim, which measured 700 by 300 feet. On Stevenson’s suggestion it was named the Cameron Claim.

Promise to His Dying Wife

VV/’ORK WAS started immediately; but after toiling a v v month they reached a large flat rock at a depth of twenty-two feet, which they took to be bedrock, without finding a trace of pay dirt. It looked to the discouraged miners that their claim was a frost, as it had been pronounced once before. The two Clendenning boys, having lost faith and not relishing a winter in Cariboo, left for Victoria, and refused to bear any expense of further searching.

All work on the claim was now held up, for, while it was only the last of September, a heavy fall of snow covered the ground ; also, about two weeks previous, Mrs. Cameron had been taken ill, and Cameron had to devote his time to nursing her; this, with the loss of the two Clendenning boys, made them short-handed.

Mrs. Cameron grew worse, and Doctor Wilkinson pronounced her illness to be a severe case of typhoid fever. Cameron was distracted, and Stevenson, the faithful friend, took turns watching by her bedside at night. The second great tragedy of Cameron’s life was approaching.

The early morning of October 23 was intensely cold; the thermometer registered thirty degrees below zero, and a sixty-mile gale swirled the snow about Cameron’s log shack with a force that shook the sturdy building. Within, a fire blazed in a large fireplace at the end of the one room, while on a rude cot in one comer lay Sophia Cameron, her pale face faintly illuminated by the light of a candle flickering in the draughts that eddied in the room. Two rugged men stood by the bedside; one a little apart with a look of sincere pity on his weather-seamed face, the other bending over the one he loved, his face distorted in an agony of grief.

The dying woman stirred uneasily and opened her eyes, looking up into the face above hers. Her lips opened and she spoke faintly. Stevenson turned to the fire and gazed into it with unseeing eyes.

“John—-John, promise you will take me home. Promise you will not lay me to rest in this unkind country.” Cameron controlled his agitation with an effort and spoke quietly: “Sophy, you aren’t going to leave me;


“Promise,” the fleeting wife gasped, half rising.

"I promise,” came the choked reply.

A smile lighted Sophia Cameron’s face as the faint spark of life flickered—flickered and ceased—as did the candle in a violent draught. The room, lighted fitfully by dancing gleams from the hearth, was silent save for the angry roar of the gale. The strong man kneeling by the cot wrestled with his grief inaudibly.

There were no undertakers in Cariboo, but Cameron told his friend of his wishes, and they were carried out. Griffin, the tinsmith, fashioned a strong tin coffin; and Henry Lightfoot, a friend of Stevenson from Vankleek Hill, made the wooden case. James Loring, another friend from Ontario, and Griffin assisted Stevenson to lay the body in the unlined casket; Stevenson placing a brightly colored, checkered shawl, which he found hanging near by, under the head of the rigid figure.

Eight thousand miners had crowded Cariboo in the summer of ’62, but only ninety of these had elected to stay

through the savage winter. These formed a procession and followed behind the coffin to an empty shack at the back of Richfield. Here they left il.

This was the first ol the four funerals of Sophia Cameron —the first white woman to die in Cariboo.


CTEVENSON and Rivers started another shaft on the ^ claim two days after the funeral. Mining in Cariboo, by reason of the intense cold that gripped that country of high altitude in winter, was, as a general thing, suspended in October; but pay dirt could be brought to the surface and shafts could be sunk. Stevenson and Rivers were determined

Continued on page 28

Cariboo Cameron

Continued from page 26

to make another attempt to prove the claim before spring, and dug with a will. They carried on with little assistance from Cameron, as he was too much wrapped up in his grief to think of gold.

On December 22 the diggers reached a depth of twenty-two feet. Cameron was assisting Stevenson at the windlass: Rivers was in the shaft. Suddenly a muffled shout came up:

“Gold! Gold! Look, boys, look! The place is yellow with it !"

Cameron and Stevenson peered down at Rivers, wondering if he had lost his reason. He was holding aloft a rock, which even in the dimness of the shaft the two could see was studded with the dull yellow precious metal.

“Send it up, Dick." Stevenson called.

When the bucket came up with its precious load. Cameron seized the rope and slid down into the shaft. He found the gravel richly mixed with coarse gold. He was rich beyond his wildest dreams.

We can well imagine Cameron's feelings that night, as he sat alone in his lonely cabin. The gold but added to the leaden weight that pressed his heart: it could not bring his loved ones back to him. He buried his face in his arms on the rough table, and groaned: “Oh. Sophy and little Mary! It has come too late; too late.”

Winter had now set in in real earnest; and Cameron was anxious to begin the journey to Victoria with the body of his wife before the snow on Bald Mountain became

too deep to admit of a passage over it. He offered $12 a day and a bonus of $2.000 to any hardy man w'ho w'ould accompany and assist him on the trip. But he had few offers. The dangers of the trail w'ere many— deep snow, blizzards and excessive frosts; precipices and mountains: rapid, treacherous rivers. But a menace far more fearsome to intrepid miners than these reared an ugly head—smallpox ! That dreaded, loathsome disease had that winter obtained a firm foothold among the Indian tribes along the trail; they were dying by hundreds. No one w'ould venture out of Cariboo.

A man at last was found, but he flunked on the very eve of departure, and Cameron w'as in despair. .Stevenson found him so when he called to assist w’ith the final preparations. and impulsively exclaimed: “I

will go w'ith you. John.”

Cameron sw'ung to his friend and partner in surprise. “Why, Bob, you can’t go. Think of the treasure you are leaving."

“The gold means nothing more to me than it does to you. It can wait until I return," Stevenson replied quietly.

“But, man, you may never return. No one can fight smallpox,” Cameron remonstrated.

made up his mind to assist his partner in his desperate attempt to keep the promise made to dying Sophia.

Keeping His Promise

ON THE last day of January, 1863.

twenty-two men left Richfield and started up the forbidding face of Bald Mountain; for Cameron and Stevenson did not want for an escort on the first stage of their journey. The route chosen was across country to Lillooet and thence to Port Douglas by the old Douglas-Lillooet trail400 miles of toil and stress and danger above the accomplishment of average men during the moderate months; but now', winter gripped and smallpox threatened.

The coffin was draw’n on a toboggan. On ton of the coffin w'as lashed a small supply of provisions, a few blankets, a two-gallon keg of rum, and fifty pounds of gold dust.

All but six of their escort of twenty turned back the next day. but Doctor Wilkinson, Dick Rivers, Evan Jones, Rosser Edwards, French Joe and Indian Jim continued with them until near Beaver Lake—the first post where smallpox was prevalent. Only one adult Indian of the Beaver Lake tribe had survived the ravages of the disease; the rest

lay in snow graves, awaiting the thawing of the ground in the spring for permanent burial.

It was February 10 when they reached Beaver Lake, having accomplished but seventy-two miles in eleven days; every hour of which had been full of excruciating toil, for the snow was deep, blizzards frequent, the frost often registered fifty degrees, there was no sign of a track, and the topheavy toboggan overturned repeatedly. Often they were lost. On one occasion night found the eight in a terrible plight. They had expected to reach a small roadhouse on Keithley Creek before dark, but numerous upsets had delayed them. The toboggan would not stay upright on the mountainside trail, and in one of the spills their supply of matches was lost, in another the keg of rum, rolling down the slope, struck against a tree and burst; they had been without food since morning and despaired of finding their way. But men of that stamp die hard. They reluctantly abandoned, for the night, the toboggan with its funereal load—but not the bag of gold and staggered forward; reaching the roadhouse some hours after dark.

From Beaver Lake the two friends pushed on alone. But now the snow was not so deep, the trail better defined, so Cameron bought a horse to pull the toboggan. Horses have not the stamina of men—some men; two died of the exertion and exposure, and a third was played out when Port Douglas was reached. Often the two had to sleep in

Continued on page 30

Continued from page 28

the open with no covering but the few blankets they had with them. Every foot of every mile was gained only through unrelenting toil, for a passage had to be made through the snow on the unused road, the tired horse coaxed and pulled forward, and the toboggan guided and kept upright. Everywhere, smallpox menaced. At Port ■ Douglas they found deplorable conditions. The road was lined on either side with tents, through the flaps of which could be seen Indians lying in all stages of the disease; the air reeked with the stench peculiar to it.

The two travellers had a companion from Pemberton down to Port Douglas James Cummings, who later that year figured in Cameron’s history.

From Port Douglas the little sternwheel steamer, Henrietta, took the weary men to New Westminster, and they proceeded to Victoria the following day, March 7, on the Enterprise.

Mrs. Cameron’s second funeral was held on Sunday, March 8; just one year to the day since little Mary Isabella Alice had been laid to rest. Previous to the funeral, Richard Lewis, undertaker later Mayor of Victoria —filled the metal casket with alcohol and sealed it securely.

Before returning to Cariboo, Cameron looked up the two Clendenning boys and bought their interest in the Cameron Claim. These two had no faith in the claim, and had refused to invest further money in it. I do not suppose they were made acquainted with the results shown by the second shaft. Cameron also bought, for $300, a half interest in a Uvo-man claim adjoining the Cameron known as the Wattie Claim. Since the law limited a miner’s holdings, Cameron registered this last purchase in the name of James Cummings.

The two travellers returned to Cariboo on horseback, arriving there on April 4. The round trip had taken sixty-four days.

His Journey Resumed

THEN followed a summer of feverish activity. The Cameron Claim was worked with a large crew of men, and no expense was spared in machinery to aid the work. P'rom twenty-two feet down to bedrock at thirty-eight feet, the gravel was richly lined with gold. The Wattie Claim was also worked with the utmost rapidity under James Cummings, to whom Cameron paid $16 per day. It proved comparatively as rich as the larger claim.

Cameron, now universally known as Cariboo Cameron, moved from his shack in Richfield, and lived with Stevenson and James T. Steele in a cabin they had erected near their work. Steele was secretary of the Cameron Company, which had undergone a change in personnel since the claim was staked, and was another Ontario man; his brothers were the founders of The Steele Briggs Company of Toronto.

When autumn came and it was necessary to suspend operations, Cameron decided to quit Cariboo. He had had enough of the rugged country. It had given him a fortune in gold, but had taken away a far greater treasure, and he longed to view again the scenes of earlier and happier years. But a greater incentive than even these was the promise he had made to his dying wife. Sophia must be laid to rest in her native Ontario. Stevenson decided to accompany Cameron and make a short visit to his childhood home. They left Camerontown on October 6, 1863, with a pack-train of eight horses laden with their gold.

Although always the subject of great controversy, Cameron never divulged the extent of his fortune; but we know from existing records that it must have approximated $350,000, the Wattie Claim alone having yielded him $100,000. Before leaving, it is said, Cameron made a present of his entire Cariboo holdings to friends.

On November 8, Cameron and Stevenson, with the alcohol-filled coffin, lelt Victoria on the steamer Pacific for San Francisco, en route to Cornwall, Ontario, via Panama and New York. The trip was uneventful until they arrived in New York; there they had

much trouble in getting the coffin through the customs. Richard Lewis had filled the metal case so full of alcohol that there was no convincing splash when it was moved, and the officials did not choose to believe it contained a body. Cariboo, the gold country, was famous the world over, and the great weight of the coffin—450 pounds—led the officials to believe that it was filled with gold. The two friends had to interview many authorities and make many affidavits before the coffin was released. Even then, as will be seen, suspicion followed them.

They reached Cornwall on December 22; and Mrs. Cameron was accorded her third funeral in the cemetery there. News of Cameron’s fortune and bereavements had preceded him, resulting in a large attendance of relatives and friends, and others who came out of curiosity. It was a custom of the day to open the coffin at the graveside that friends and relatives might have a last look at the face of the departed. Cameron, however, stubbornly refused to conform to this custom. Stevenson saw that this attitude was resented, and remonstrated with his friend. The argument waxed violent, and when Stevenson at last told Cameron there were some who doubted that the metal case really contained the body of his wife, Cameron’s enraged reply, “No one shall ever see the face of my wife!’’ was echoed to the crowd. Many remembered this remark.

Robert Stevenson returned to Cariboo in February, and Cariboo Cameron settled down to the easy and alluring task of spending money. The man enjoyed it thoroughly. First, he gave largess to his four brothers and two of his sisters -—for some reason he gave nothing to a third sister. His next step was to purchase the old Cameron homestead in Summertown, which had been held by three generations of John A. Camerons. This, together with a beautiful $16,000 home and numerous improvements, cost him $52,000. It was a bill of expense from the first.

After some years of hopeless grieving for his Sophia, Cameron married a daughter of Colonel John R. Woods, a prominent citizen of Dickinson’s Landing on the St. Lawrence River. Theirs was a happy marriage, but the culminating episode in Cariboo Cameron’s capricious career was at hand. Nine years after his arrival home he was caught in a v'eb of mystery woven from a tangled skein of gossip.

A Startling Story

/CAMERON’S difficulty in getting the ^ coffin through the customs at New York had been remembered by the gossips. This and his refusal to show his departed wife’s face, supported many flimsy fibres of fiction. And his short sojourn in Cariboo, whither he w'ent one year a poor man with a wife and returned the next burdened wfith gold, alone, helped to complete the warp

that held the woof of gossip. It needed only a skilful hand to form and direct the pattern to complete the web. This artist soon appeared.

A paper in Malone, N.Y., published a startling story that not only satisfied the credulity of the gossips but caused a doubt to grow in the minds of many who had scoffed at the rumors current about Cameron. The story was to the effect that Cameron had taken Sophia far north into the wilds of British Columbia and sold her to a wealthy Indian chief for a fabulous sum; hence the wealth acquired in an unbelievably short space of time. Gold mines were not so easily lound nor so quickly worked as Cameron would have it believed. Part of the gold he had received from the chief, Cameron had brought East concealed in the metal coffin; hence the trouble he had had with the customs officials and his absolute refusal to open the coffin.

The story swept over the country. Other papers and magazines took it up; it was made the theme of a novel. Cameron’s rage turned to pleading assertions as the story gained headway, but few would believe him. James Steele lent his aid in denying the canard, but in vain. Finally, Cameron wrote his old friend, Stevenson, who was still in Cariboo, beseeching him to make an affidavit that he had seen Sophia Cameron die and had helped to place her in that same metal casket. Stevenson’s reply showed that he knew human nature better than did his friend. He wrote:

“I refuse to make any such statement, John. It would be useless to do so. The only way to kill that story is to open the coffin, as I advised you to do that day in Cornwall cemetery nine years ago.”

Cameron was beaten. He published a notice in the Cornwall papers that on a certain day he would exhume the coffin and open it in the presence of all interested.

Needless to say, he did not want for spectators. The Groves were there, pressing dose to the graveside; friends who had known Sophia Groves at the time of her marriage were there; prominent citizens were present at Cameron’s request, one of them a son of Judge Pringle of Cornwall. The whole countryside was well represented.

Willing hands soon opened the grave, and the 450-pound casket was raised. A tinsmith, engaged for the occasion, punctured the bottom of the coffin, and the alcohol gurgled out. A breathless silence prevailed as the man skilfully made an opening at the head of the casket, and the tension increased as the undertaker motioned the Groves family forward. Fearfully those relatives peered, then gasped in unison—a gasp that sounded suspiciously like a sob-as their eyes beheld the face of their loved one; dead ten years, but as natural as life. “It is Sophy!” they said.

A line was formed and the crowd filed past the coffin to see the truth laid bare for their

inspection. Many averted their faces in shame as they passed the sturdy figure of John Cameron, who stood by with bared and bowed head.

As the crowd thinned, Sophia’s sister spoke to the undertaker. That official put forth his hand and drew from under Sophia’s head a woollen thing that, though bleached by the alcohol, still showed the vivid pattern it once had possessed. “It is the checkered shawl I gave Sophia the day of her wedding!” the girl sobbed, and buried her face in her hands.

Whether Sophia’s sister kept that shawl, I do not know. But she should have, and bequeathed it as a rich legacy, like a hair from the head of noble Caesar. Those who can visualize Cariboo of ’62 and the trail that led there, know the depth of wifely devotion possessed by Sophia Cameron.

The outraged husband had the coffin removed to Summertown. And there, after four funerals, Sophia Cameron sleeps today; near the banks of the St. Lawrence where it widens into Lake Saint Francis; near, too, the old Cameron homestead, once made beautiful with gold from Cariboo.

Failure and Death

AS THE YEARS passed, Fortune, as -AAthough repenting of her lavishness, shut her hand tightly against her one-time favorite, Cariboo Cameron. His wealth passed quickly from him. He took a contract on the Lachine Canal that netted him a loss of $32,000. He bought a sawmill and timber limits. The mill was burned, together with two million feet of sawn lumber, and there was no insurance; a flaw developed in his title to the timber limits, and in the ensuing costly litigation, Cameron lost them. He turned to gold mining again; this surely could not fail him. With Mrs. Cameron hè went to Nova Scotia, where a quartz mine was promising great things. About all his remaining wealth went into this mine—and stayed there.

Although sixty-seven years of age, and a poor man again, Cameron was still undaunted. A great longing came to him to see Cariboo again; to see Williams Creek, where the gravel had been so heavily laden with gold that it had shown yellow in the sluice boxes. There he would quickly retrieve his fortune.

September, 1888, found Mr. and Mrs. Cameron in Victoria en route for Cariboo. There they were met by the old friend, Robert Stevenson, who had long since left the rocky hillsides of Williams Creek for the verdant valley of the lower Fraser River. In vain did the former partner tell Cameron of the great change in Cariboo; how the gravel of the creeks had been washed and washed again until the gold was depleted. Cameron would not believe him. He was convinced that Cariboo still held something great and glorious for her favorite.

For some days Cariboo Cameron tramped disconsolately about Williams Creek on the site of his old claim. He saw that it had been washed clean to bedrock. He saw that his quest was hopeless. His spirit was broken. He returned dejectedly to Joe Mason’s hotel in Barkerville, sunk in a stupor of sad thoughts, and took to his bed.

Mrs. Cameron tried in vain to rouse him from his lethargy. One day, November 7, as she sat talking to him, he turned his face wearily to the wall, as though in sleep. Later, when she bent over him, she found it was the sleep of death. The doctor said that he had died of a paralytic stroke; but we who have learned his story know that he died of a broken heart.

Cariboo Cameron lies in the crowded graveyard in Camerontown, opposite the scene of his sudden rise to wealth. A marble headstone marks his grave.

Around the glowing stoves of the roadhouses in Cariboo and wherever miners foregather, old-timers still tell tales, in which fact is strangely mixed with fiction, of Cariboo Cameron. The man whose story, containing as it does all the elements of a romance, needs no embellishment—Cariboo Cameron.