The Cariboo Trail (Agnes Christina Laut) (Literary Thoughts Edition) - Agnes Christina Laut - ebook

The Cariboo Trail (Agnes Christina Laut) (Literary Thoughts Edition) ebook

Agnes Christina Laut

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Literary Thoughts edition presents The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia by Agnes Christina Laut ------ "The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia" was written by Agnes Christina Laut (1871–1936), a Canadian journalist, novelist, historian, and social worker, about the Canadian gold rush that began in 1858. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage to see our other publications.

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The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbiaby Agnes Christina Laut

Literary Thoughts Editionpresents

The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia by Agnes Christina Laut

Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)

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Map of the Cariboo Country
The first Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island Back Row—J. W. M'Kay, J. D. Pemberton, J. Porter (Clerk) Front Row—T. J. Skinner, J. S. Helmcken, M. D., James Yates (After a Photograph)


Early in 1849 the sleepy quiet of Victoria, Vancouver Island, was disturbed by the arrival of straggling groups of ragged nondescript wanderers, who were neither trappers nor settlers. They carried blanket packs on their backs and leather bags belted securely round the waist close to their pistols. They did not wear moccasins after the fashion of trappers, but heavy, knee-high, hobnailed boots. In place of guns over their shoulders, they had picks and hammers and such stout sticks as mountaineers use in climbing. They did not forgather with the Indians. They shunned the Indians and had little to say to any one. They volunteered little information as to whence they had come or whither they were going. They sought out Roderick Finlayson, chief trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. They wanted provisions from the company—yes—rice, flour, ham, salt, pepper, sugar, and tobacco; and at the smithy they demanded shovels, picks, iron ladles, and wire screens. It was only when they came to pay that Finlayson felt sure of what he had already guessed. They unstrapped those little leather bags round under their cartridge belts and produced in tiny gold nuggets the price of what they had bought.

Finlayson did not know exactly what to do. The fur-trader hated the miner. The miner, wherever he went, sounded the knell of fur-trading; and the trapper did not like to have his game preserve overrun by fellows who scared off all animals from traps, set fire going to clear away underbrush, and owned responsibility to no authority. No doubt these men were 'argonauts' drifted up from the gold diggings of California; no doubt they were searching for new mines; but who had ever heard of gold in Vancouver Island, or in New Caledonia, as the mainland was named? If there had been gold, would not the company have found it? Finlayson probably thought the easiest way to get rid of the unwelcome visitors was to let them go on into the dangers of the wilds and then spread the news of the disappointment bound to be theirs.

He handled their nuggets doubtfully. Who knew for a certainty that it was gold anyhow? They bade him lay it on the smith's anvil and strike it with a hammer. Finlayson, smiling sceptically, did as he was told. The nuggets flattened to a yellow leaf as fine and flexible as silk. Finlayson took the nuggets at eleven dollars an ounce and sent the gold down to San Francisco, very doubtful what the real value would prove. It proved sixteen dollars to the ounce.

For seven or eight years afterwards rumours kept floating in to the company's forts of finds of gold. Many of the company's servants drifted away to California in the wake of the 'Forty-Niners,' and the company found it hard to keep its trappers from deserting all up and down the Pacific Coast. The quest for gold had become a sort of yellow-fever madness. Men flung certainty to the winds and trekked recklessly to California, to Oregon, to the hinterland of the country round Colville and Okanagan. Yet nothing occurred to cause any excitement in Victoria. There was a short-lived flurry over the discovery in Queen Charlotte Islands of a nugget valued at six hundred dollars and a vein of gold-bearing quartz. But the nugget was an isolated freak; the quartz could not be worked at a profit; and the movement suddenly died out. There were, however, signs of what was to follow. The chief trader at the little fur-post of Yale reported that when he rinsed sand round in his camp frying-pan, fine flakes and scales of yellow could be seen at the bottom.[1] But gold in such minute particles would not satisfy the men who were hunting nuggets. It required treatment by quicksilver. Though Maclean, the chief factor at Kamloops, kept all the specks and flakes brought to his post as samples from 1852 to 1856, he had less than would fill a half-pint bottle. If a half-pint is counted as a half-pound and the gold at the company's price of eleven dollars an ounce, it will be seen why four years of such discoveries did not set Victoria on fire.

It has been so with every discovery of gold in the history of the world. The silent, shaggy, ragged first scouts of the gold stampede wander houseless for years from hill to hill, from gully to gully, up rivers, up stream beds, up dry watercourses, seeking the source of those yellow specks seen far down the mountains near the sea. Precipice, rapids, avalanche, winter storm, take their toll of dead. Corpses are washed down in the spring floods; or the thaw reveals a prospector's shack smashed by a snowslide under which lie two dead 'pardners.' Then, by and by, when everybody has forgotten about it, a shaggy man comes out of the wilds with a leather bag; the bag goes to the mint; and the world goes mad.

Victoria went to sleep again. When men drifted in to trade dust and nuggets for picks and flour, the fur-traders smiled, and rightly surmised that the California diggings were playing out.

Though Vancouver Island was nominally a crown colony, it was still, with New Caledonia, practically a fief of the Hudson's Bay Company. James Douglas was governor. He was assisted in the administration by a council of three, nominated by himself—John Tod, James Cooper, and Roderick Finlayson. In 1856 a colonial legislature was elected and met at Victoria in August for the first time.[2] But, in fact, the company owned the colony, and its will was supreme in the government. John Work was the company's chief factor at Victoria and Finlayson was chief trader.

Because California and Oregon had gone American, some small British warships lay at Esquimalt harbour. The little fort had expanded beyond the stockade. The governor's house was to the east of the stockade. A new church had been built, and the Rev. Edward Cridge, afterwards known as Bishop Cridge, was the rector. Two schools had been built. Inside the fort were perhaps forty-five employees. Inside and outside lived some eight hundred people. But grass grew in the roads. There was no noise but the church bell or the fort bell, or the flapping of a sail while a ship came to anchor. Three hundred acres about the fort were worked by the company as a farm, which gave employment to about two dozen workmen, and on which were perhaps a hundred cattle and a score of brood mares. The company also had a saw-mill. Buildings of huge, squared timbers flanked three sides of the inner stockades—the dining-hall, the cook-house, the bunk-house, the store, the trader's house. There were two bastions, and from each cannon pointed. Close to the wicket at the main entrance stood the postoffice. Only a fringe of settlement went beyond the company's farm. The fort was sound asleep, secure in an eternal certainty that the domain which it guarded would never be overrun by American settlers as California and Oregon had been. The little Admiralty cruisers which lay at Esquimalt were guarantee that New Caledonia should never be stampeded into a republic by an inrush of aliens. Then, as now, it was Victoria's boast that it was more English than England.

So passed Christmas of '57 with plum-pudding and a roasted ox and toasts to the crown and the company, though we cannot be quite sure that the company was not put before the crown in the souls of the fur-traders.

Then, in March 1858, just when Victoria felt most secure as the capital of a perpetual fur realm, something happened. A few Yankee prospectors had gone down on the Hudson's Bay steamer Otter to San Francisco in February with gold dust and nuggets from New Caledonia to exchange for money at the mint. The Hudson's Bay men had thought nothing of this. Other treasure-seekers had come to New Caledonia before and had gone back to San Francisco disappointed. But, in March, these men returned to Victoria. And with them came a mad rabble of gold-crazy prospectors. A city of tents sprang up overnight round Victoria. The smithy was besieged for picks, for shovels, for iron ladles. Men stood in long lines for their turn at the trading-store. By canoe, by dugout, by pack-horse, and on foot, they planned to ascend the Fraser, and they mobbed the company for passage to Langley by the first steamer out from Victoria. Goods were paid for in cash. Before Finlayson could believe his own eyes, he had two million dollars in his safe, some of it for purchases, some of it on deposit for safe keeping. Though the company gave no guarantee to the depositors and simply sealed each man's leather pouch as it was placed in the safe, no complaint was ever made against it of dishonesty or unfair treatment.

Without waiting instructions from England and with poignant memory of Oregon, Governor Douglas at once clapped on a licence of twenty-one shillings a month for mining privileges under the British crown. Thus he obtained a rough registration of the men going to the up-country; but thousands passed Victoria altogether and went in by pack-train from Okanagan or rafted across from Puget Sound. The month of March had not ended when the first band of gold hunters arrived and settled down a mile and a half below Yale. Another boat-load of eight hundred and fifty came in April. In four months sixty-seven vessels, carrying from a hundred to a thousand men each, had come up from San Francisco to Victoria. Crews deserted their ships, clerks deserted the company, trappers turned miners and took to the gold-bars. Before Victoria awoke to what it was all about, twenty thousand people were camped under tents outside the stockade, and the air was full of the wildest rumours of fabulous gold finds.

The snowfall had been heavy in '58. In the spring the Fraser rolled to the sea a swollen flood. Against the turbid current worked tipsy rafts towed by wheezy steamers or leaky old sailing craft, and rickety row-boats raced cockle-shell canoes for the gold-bars above. Ashore, the banks of the river were lined with foot passengers toiling under heavy packs, wagons to which clung human forms on every foot of space, and long rows of pack-horses bogged in the flood of the overflowing river. By September ten thousand men were rocking and washing for gold round Yale.

As in the late Kootenay and in the still later Klondike stampede, American cities at the coast benefited most. Victoria was a ten-hour trip from the mainland. Whatcom and Townsend, on the American side, advertised the advantages of the Washington route to the Fraser river gold-mines. A mushroom boom in town lots had sprung up at these points before Victoria was well awake. By the time speculators reached Victoria the best lots in that place had already been bought by the company's men; and some of the substantial fortunes of Victoria date from this period. Though the river was so high that the richest bars could not be worked till late in August, five hundred thousand dollars in gold was taken from the bed of the Fraser during the first six months of '58. This amount, divided among the ten thousand men who were on the bars around Yale, would not average as much as they could have earned as junior clerks with the fur company, or as peanut pedlars in San Francisco; but not so does the mind of the miner work. Here was gold to be scooped up for nothing by the first comer; and more vessels ploughed their way up the Fraser, though Governor Douglas sought to catch those who came by Puget Sound and evaded licence by charging six dollars toll each for all canoes on the Fraser and twelve dollars for each vessel with decks. Later these tolls were disallowed by the home authorities. The prompt action of Douglas, however, had the effect of keeping the mining movement in hand. Though the miners were of the same class as the 'argonauts' of California, they never broke into the lawlessness that compelled vigilance committees in San Francisco.

Sir James Douglas. From a portrait by Savannah