Our history: The early days of B.C.'s gold rush

In 1851, reports of gold discoveries in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) sparked a flurry of excitement among British and American traders in the area. Several parties of miners were dispatched to the Islands, but their efforts turned up only small quantities of gold and were repeatedly thwarted by shipwrecks, accidents and resistance from the local Haida people. By the end of the decade, the Islands’ gold rush was declared a bust, but the episode had helped to consolidate the new Colony of British Columbia and prepare the way for the “real” rush to the Cariboo.

The era of British Columbia gold rushes started in 1851 with the discovery of gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) after a Haida man traded a 27-ounce nugget in Fort Victoria for 1,500 Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) blankets. Governor Richard Blanshard wrote Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, on March 29, 1851: “I have heard that fresh specimens of gold have been obtained from the Queen Charlotte Islanders. I have not seen them myself, but they are reported to be very rich.”

John Work, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief factor at Fort Simpson (now Port Simpson), showed visiting Haida chief Albert Edward Edenshaw some gold specimens, promising huge rewards if he could direct him to the newly reported gold discoveries on the Queen Charlottes. After Edenshaw returned home, an old woman guided him, his wife and their four-year-old son, Cowhoe, to an outcropping of gold.

Leaving the boy in the canoe, the three adults started chipping the rich gold ore from a quartz vein and placing it in a basket. When the basket was full, Edenshaw’s wife walked back to the canoe, emptied the gold samples into it, and then returned to help her husband collect more gold. At dusk the three gold pickers returned to the canoe, only to discover that young Cowhoe had thrown all the gold samples into the ocean. As a result, the number of gold samples collected on this outing and later shown to Work was relatively insignificant.

On May 13, 1851, Work travelled by canoe from Fort Simpson to the Charlottes to investigate the gold discoveries for himself. He made his way toward Masset, over 120 kilometres in a flotilla of 10 cedar canoes. The canoes were equipped with sails and manned by a crew of local Haida.

On May 20, Work’s canoe was almost swamped in ocean waters. He wrote in his diary about a couple of smaller craft: “We are afraid the Indians before us are lost.”

Work continued south three days later and reached the west coast of Moresby Island at what was later named Gold Harbour. His men immediately commenced blasting the rock some thirty-six centimetres deep but found only a few fragments containing quartz with gold. The following day was no more encouraging.

On his return route, Work visited Skidegate, where he managed to trade for a few ounces of gold in small lumps and grains. He declined purchasing one nearly pure lump weighing close to 0.5 kilograms (about one pound), and a second of about 170 grams (six ounces), because the Haida placed too great a value on them. Work returned to Fort Simpson with little to show for his two-week excursion.

The HBC vessel Una, captained by William Mitchell out of Victoria, was the first to carry a crew to mine in the same area. They documented a vein 16.5 centimetres wide and some 24 metres long, with an estimated 25 per cent gold content.

The mining attempts proved difficult, because after each dynamite blast, the Haida, who were watching and who had by then fully grasped the value the Europeans placed on the gold, would rush to any exposed gold and attempt to gather it up before the Una’s crew could get to it. According to the ship’s logbook, they also grabbed the sailors by the legs to prevent them from harvesting the gold.

Fearing bloodshed, and with at least one injured crewman, Captain Mitchell pulled up anchor and departed for Victoria. His ship was blown off course and wrecked off Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, and the small amount of gold that had been recovered was lost. The officers and crew were rescued by the crew of another British ship, Susan Sturgis.

Several American ships visited the Queen Charlotte Islands during this period. The first, the Georgiana, was wrecked on the east coast of the Charlottes and her crew taken captive by Haida warriors before they set the ship ablaze. The crew’s freedom was paid for with HBC blankets by the next American ship to pull into what they now called Mitchell Harbour, in honour of the captain of the Una (and later the Recovery).

Word of the gold discovery spread quickly, and in the fall of 1851 10 American ships visited the Queen Charlottes in search of gold, but some unwelcoming members of the Haida Nation curtailed any mining. Then Capt. Matthew Rooney of the Susan Sturgis befriended Chief Edenshaw and enlisted the chief and other warriors to join the ship’s crew and act as guides and interpreters in other settlements.

But when the ship pulled into Masset Inlet to trade, she was swarmed by the local Haida who rejected Edenshaw and his men. The American ship was destroyed, and Rooney and his men were taken captive. When Chief Factor Work heard of the event 10 days later, he again had to travel from Fort Simpson, this time to negotiate their release and pay a substantial ransom.

When Governor James Douglas learned that the crew of another American ship had cut down numerous trees growing in the Haida territory to craft new spars for their ships, he became suspicious that the Americans were planning to annex the islands to the United States. After alarming the high command in London, Douglas was appointed lieutenant-governor in 1853 of a new colony: the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Later that same year, Douglas issued a proclamation of the British Crown’s ownership of all precious metals on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and thereafter all miners were required to pay a monthly fee to mine. The next five years proved uneventful, but in his March 25, 1859, report to London, Governor Douglas expressed renewed interest in the land of the Haida when he wrote:

“Great excitement has been recently produced in Victoria by the exhibition of a nugget of pure gold weighing 14 ounces, procured by the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company from the Indians of Queen Charlotte’s Island. There is a generally prevalent impression founded on the discovery of gold in that island in the year 1851, that it will yet become a productive gold field.”

By this time, Douglas had resigned from the HBC to become governor of the consolidated colony of British Columbia, which included the mainland and all coastal islands. In light of the new discovery, he dispatched a schooner to “Queen Charlotte’s Island” with a party of professional gold hunters, including a Douglas appointee, “a respectable Scotchman named Downie, one of the most successful miners in California, and known all over that state as Major Downie, the founder of the Town of Downieville.”

The miners spent several months searching for gold after examining the site where the original quantities of gold had been taken out. William Downie wrote in his book Hunting for Gold: “The general nature of the gold was trap and hornblend [sic], and, at the head of Douglas Inlet, we found granite, as well as slate, talcose rock and coal, but not gold; and I concluded that the large amount of this metal, which had been found previously in those parts with so little difficulty, existed merely in what the miners call an off-shoot or blow-out, which can only be explained as one of those freaks of nature, so often found in mining country.”

The men did not have the necessary tools to do any serious quartz-mining operations, yet they did manage to bring back about half a ton of specimens. In the great scheme of things, it was an insignificant “rush” that didn’t produce much gold.

Far more predictive was the last paragraph of Governor Douglas’s missive to London in early April 1858, in which he speculated on future discoveries along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers: “In addition to the diggings before known on Thompson’s River and its tributary streams, a valuable deposit has been recently found by the natives on a bank of Fraser’s River.”

Douglas went on to add that while the “about 800 ounces … found in the possession of the natives” might have been considered small, this could have been due to the lack of proper tools and the “want of skill.” He wrote: “On the contrary, the vein rocks and its other geological features as described by an experienced gold miner encourage the belief that the country is highly auriferous.”

The Fraser River gold hunt would soon be on.

Excerpted from British Columbia and Yukon Gold Hunters:
A History in Photographs
© Donald E. Waite, Heritage House Publishing, 2015

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