MINERS AT WORK, A HISTORY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA’S GOLD RUSHES – by B. Griffin (Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C.)

The search for gold is the single most dramatic event of British Columbia’s early history. Although European settlement originally was founded on furs, it was the gold rushes of 1858 through the 1860s that changed the direction of development in this province for considerable time. These gold rushes not only brought a sharp increase in population and wealth but also initiated development of an early infrastructure of roads and services and directly influenced the shape of British Columbia’s politics.

It has been estimated that between 1860 and 1880 about $35 000 000 worth of gold was extracted from the 130 square kilometres (50 square miles) surrounding Barkerville. Although the later gold rushes were smaller, they also played an important role in our history. 

The rush to British Columbia was only one of a series of sudden shifts in population and wealth that resulted from the search for placer gold. California and Australia both attracted hordes of miners in search of riches. This paper places the British Columbia gold rush in a world context; it drew less world attention and was smaller than either the Californian or Australian rushes.

The discussion then follows, in some detail, the progress of the early miners up the Fraser River in 1858, past Hill’s Bar, reputedly the richest bar in North America, and on into the Cariboo and Barkerville in the 1860s.

Particular attention will be paid to the interaction of the government and the miners, especially as highlighted by the Ned McGowan incident of 1859 and the Grouse Creek war of 1867. An examination will also be made of the life of the miners and the conditions under which they worked, as well as the wealth they extracted. A brief look at some highlights of other British Columbia gold rushes, starting with Rock Creek in 1860 and ending with Atlin in 1898, will also be presented.


One of the most exciting historical events in British Columbia was the gold rush up the Fraser River into the Cariboo to Barkerville. This portion of our history has aroused more interest than almost any other episode and much has been written about it. These events certainly had a greater impact on post-contact British Columbia, than any other event that took place in such a short period of time. The Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes, however, are only part of the full picture of the search for placer gold in the province and while this paper mainly focuses on them it also touches on other rushes.


Miners have been preoccupied with gold for centuries. The 19th century introduced new elements into this quest. Several gold discoveries early in the century, especially in Brazil and Siberia, focused attention on the availability of placer gold. No stampede developed to Brazil or Siberia, such as happened with the discovery of gold in California, since both of these discoveries were too distant and under strict government control. A great deal of the work in Brazil, for instance, was carried out by slave labour. As well, world communication and transportation networks had not quite reached the necessary plateau for such a mass movement of people. These factors came together in 1848 and 1849 to spark the greatest gold rush the world has seen, the one to California. Over 100 000 people are estimated to have been in the gold fields by 1852 (British Columbia at its peak probably had no more then 20 000 miners). In California between 1848 and 1860, an estimated $639 billion in gold was discovered while in British Columbia between 1858 and 1949 an estimated $93 million worth of gold was recovered.

In 1859 the California goldfields produced over $44 million in gold, while British Columbia production in 1860 amounted to over $2 million. Even though the accuracy of both figures is somewhat suspect, the difference is so great that any errors are not significant. Nor does this detract from the importance of the gold rush to British Columbia and its impact on this territory, but rather illustrates the difference between the two areas and why many prospectors saw and portrayed the British Columbia goldfields as a humbug and false trail. 

It was also in California that the techniques of gold mining were refined. Most of those eager prospectors who flocked to California had no idea of how to look for gold and the Sierra Nevada was their training ground. Miners, or those who had learned from the Californians, seemed to be always available thereafter to set newcomers straight. Most of the techniques had originated centuries before, but knowledge of them was not widespread – from gold panning to rockers to sluices, all were learned and relearned during the California Rush.

In the 1850s another substantial rush developed, this time to Australia. In 1851, it is reported that about half the male population of South Australia had departed for the goldfields. Although numerous 49er’s (participants in the early California rush) went to Australia, even more prospectors arrived from England. It is worth noting as well that the Australian discoveries were made by an Australian who had gone to California in the search for gold. He remembered seeing similar areas in Australia and returned home to make the first Australian discovery.


Gold was still being found in California at the time of the gold rush to British Columbia, but much of the easy digging was gone and many miners were seeking new sources of wealth. Gold had been reported earlier in British Columbia, around Fort Kamloops in the early 1850s, for instance. Rumors of gold found on the Thompson River by natives aroused interest in California and when the S.S. Otter arrived in San Francisco in February of 1858 carrying some of this gold, the rush was on. James Moore, one of the first miners to reach the Fraser River, was attending a fire department meeting in San Francisco when he first heard the news. He and others were dispatched to British Columbia to report on the situation. Miners soon flocked to Victoria on their way to the Fraser River.
Moore’s group, the first miners on the Fraser River, bypassed Victoria and went through Whatcom and Point Roberts to reach the Fraser in March of 1858. His company had camped for the night at Fort Hope and then moved on in the morning, stopping for a midday meal on a bar about 2.5 kilometres below Yale (about 21 kilometres from Hope). T.H. Hill thought he noticed colours and washed a pan of gravel discovering one of the richest river bars in the world. During Hill’s Bar’s peak production, each miner averaged about 50 cents a pan day; over $2 million in gold was recovered. (Values of gold are somewhat difficult to determine and convert but are given in this paper in the value of the day; the $2 million from Hill’s bar, at about $20 per ounce (31.1 grams), would equal about $35 million, at $350 per ounce today). Hill’s Bar was also the site of another incident which will be referred to later. A few bars below Hope were also mined in early 1858.

Gold in paying quantities was found at Fargo’s Bar about 5 kilometres above Sumas and before the end of 1858 miners had worked their way a considerable distance up river. At least seven bars below Hope were mined, between Hope and Yale there were at least 26 bars and between Yale and Lytton another 40. The gold-bearing sand and gravel in these bars varied considerably but at Hill’s Bar it was said to be 2 metres deep, 60 metres wide and cover the whole bar, a distance of about 0.8 kilometre. Mr Winston, so it is recorded, took about 23 kilograms of gold from the bar between December 1858 and April 1859; at times they reportedly obtained about 1.5 kilograms (50 ounces) a day and when running the sluices day and night, up to 2.5 kilograms (70 or 80 ounces). It was quite a sight. Alfred Waddington reported seeing 800 rockers at work between Hope and Yale, while Governor James Douglas, in November 1858, thought there were about 10 000 miners at work above Murderer’s Bar which was located just below Hope (Howay, 1914, p. 41).

These miners were often footloose and early in 1858, at least one adventurer, Aaron Post, had worked his way as far as the Chilcotin River, testing and trying every bar and reportedly finding gold in most of them. The gold hunters were moving into the upper Fraser by early in 1859. After reaching the mouth of the Quesnel River in May of 1859, prospectors continued up both the Quesnel and the Fraser, finding rich diggings. The advances away from the Fraser found the richer strikes to lure the miners ever on. On the Horsefly River for instance, five men with two rockers, took out about 3.1 kilograms (101 ounces) in one week, some areas reported earnings of $200 per day per man. Incentives such as this spurred prospectors onward and soon they were trying the most inhospitable of places. In 1860 Doc Keithley, George Weaver and their companions found Keithley Creek and adjoining streams, and finally in 1861 William Deitz and his partners crossed over Agnes Mountain and discovered Williams Creek, the richest of the rich Cariboo streams.
At first Williams Creek gave no sign of its great wealth, and was called for a time Humbug Creek, but late in 1861 Mr. Abbott decided to penetrate the hard blue clay over which they had been mining [at a depth between 8 and 12 feet (2.4 – 3.7 m)]. Under this clay was the real wealth of Williams Creek. Working alone (his partner had gone for supplies) Abbott retrieved about 1.5 kilograms (50 ounces) in 48 hours. The claim, with three men, produced at least 3.5 kilograms (120 ounces) per day and probably more, with an estimated total production of $150 000, though this is certainly low. Many of the miners were very reluctant to reveal how much gold was recovered by their efforts and so estimates are very inaccurate.

These were difficult workings, hard to get to and difficult to work (Figure 1). Some went to a depth of over 24 metres (80 feet) and had to be continually pumped to reduce the water (Figure 2). Supplies were expensive and winters harsh. When compared to the diggings in California it was misery. Nor did the large tract of ground exist as in California, the Cariboo goldfields covering a comparatively small area.

For the rest of this article, please go to the British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines website: http://www.em.gov.bc.ca/Mining/Geoscience/PublicationsCatalogue/OpenFiles/1992/1992-19/Pages/GoldRush.aspx

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