Atlin Goldrushers buying miner’s licenses at Custom House in 1898, Victoria, B C. Photo By John Wallace Jones. Wikimedia Commons
o protect the fur trade – the main interest of its enterprise – the Hudson’s Bay Company maintained a policy of not advertising gold discoveries. Small quantities of gold had been reported by traders in the 1830s and, at some HBC posts, gold became a currency in local trade, though the practice was not common.
The Fraser Goldrush
In 1856, members of the Tranquille tribe brought a large trove of gold to HBC’s Fort Kamloops. A large poke of the gold found its way to James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island and Chief Factor of the Company’s Columbia Department headquartered at Fort Victoria. He had the gold shipped to San Francisco for smelting. Some historians have suggested he did so to spread news of the gold find, provoking the Fraser Gold Rush.
Reports of the finds in what was then known as New Caledonia hit California at a time of economic depression. The California Gold Rush was 10 years past its peak and miners sat idle in San Francisco. News of the strike spread like wildfire, along with Douglas’ injunction that access to the goldfields could only be obtained through registration at Fort Victoria. American miners had been appearing more and more frequently on British soil and Douglas felt he needed to take action to preserve New Caledonia for the Crown. His decision to register the gold miners at Fort Victoria forced Britain’s hand on the status of the British mainland north of the 49th parallel which had remained unincorporated since the Oregon Treaty of 1846.
Victoria as Boomtown
In 1856 Douglas’ decreed gold rushers required licenses issued at Victoria. The supply and transportation of thousands of prospectors was a boon to Victoria’s merchants, shipyards, and the owners steamship, captains, and crews. To enforce the licensing decree Douglas stationed the armed steamship Beaver in the mouth of the Fraser.
The steamship R.P. Rithet was one of the many steamboats constructed in Victoria to transport licensed gold miners from Victoria up the Fraser River to Fort Langley and Fort Yale.
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Steamers overloaded with Americans, Chinese, Britons, and Europeans equipped with little more than gold pans and the clothes on their back, headed north to Victoria for their prospecting licenses, along with entrepreneurs and others seeking to profit from miners. Literally within weeks during the spring of 1858, Victoria, a “sleepy English village” of a few hundred people, was transformed into a tumultuous tent city of some 30,000. All but 3,000 of the prospectors hailed from the United States.
The Cariboo Goldrush
British Columbia had two big gold rushes – one in 1858 on the Fraser River and the other in 1862 in the Cariboo district. During each, tens of thousands of men (and a few women) sailed north from San Francisco to land in Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island, not far from Fort Victoria. The miners came first to Victoria to obtain valid “mining licenses” which permitted them to prospect for gold. It must have been a chaotic situation, not unlike the scene 36 years later when licenses were being issued in Victoria for the Klondike gold rush of the Yukon.
Just imagine. In 1858 Fort Victoria was tiny. No more than 500 immigrants lived on southern Vancouver Island, and these were mainly Hudson’s Bay Company employees, farmers and their families.
Within two months the population grew to over 20,000. Almost overnight, Victoria became a tent city as miners camped while they purchased their mining licenses, and all the supplies – equipment, food, clothing, they would need for their journey to the gold-fields.
People came from all over the world. Some travelled from Scotland, England, Germany and even from China. Most came north from San Francisco after the California gold rush ended. They came by ship because there were no roads linking the Fraser River or Cariboo as yet. They came to make their fortune in the fantastic new land of the Cariboo!
Becoming a miner in the Cariboo was not an easy task. Just getting there was a challenge. First you had to get to Fort Victoria. Many miners came from San Francisco on overcrowded, unsafe ships that had been brought back from scrapyards in order to cash in on the huge number of people rushing northward for this next big gold rush. These crowded ships were the first taste of the hardships that the would-be miners would face on their journeys.
Once a miner made it to Victoria and had purchased a license and supplies, he might have taken a paddlewheeler across the Strait to New Westminster. Most likely though, to keep costs down he paddled a canoe with four or five other hardy, adventurous people. From New Westminster paddlewheelers moved up the Fraser River to Fort Yale, which was as far as the steamers could travel.