Ned McGowan, Hill's Bar and the Fraser River Gold Rush

For one brief historical moment in 1858, the most important spot in British Columbia was a gravel bed in the Fraser River about two kilometres south of Yale. It was only 45 metres long when the river was low (and invisible when the water rose). It was called Hill's Bar.
For one brief historical moment in 1858, the most important spot in British Columbia was a gravel bed in the Fraser River about two kilometres south of Yale. It was only 45 metres long when the river was low (and invisible when the water rose). It was called Hill's Bar.

For one brief historical moment in 1858, the most important spot in British Columbia was a gravel bed in the Fraser River about two kilometres south of Yale. It was only 45 metres long when the river was low (and invisible when the water rose). It was called Hill's Bar. Around it sprang a raucous improvised town of the same name.

The spot's potential had been discovered in early April by a small band of amateur prospectors who were former San Francisco firefighters. Soon a party of first nations men and women appeared to protest the intrusion. As a result, the two races shared the bar, albeit so uneasily that James (not yet Sir James) Douglas, the governor, had to appoint a justice of the peace to preserve order.

After only two months, the strange spontaneous community of Hill's Bar was home to about 400 people, all of whom appeared to be making money. When Douglas arrived he met the eponymous Edward Hill who proudly showed him the result of six hours' work that morning: "very nearly six ounces of clean float gold, worth $100 in money, giving a return of $50 a day for each man employed" in retrieving it.

Miner Bill Phinney attempts to make his fortune at a claim at the Caledonia Claim near Williams Creek, BC (courtesy BC Archives/A-353).

Like Hill, most miners on the Fraser were Americans: 25,000 of them over the course of the year. They stood for the collective desire to break free of government authority, while Douglas, and the administrators soon sent out from England, represented the need to impose order (far too much of it, in the American view). The total of Americans included not only the American-born but also Britons and Europeans who had become americanized in the California rush of 1849.

In the summer of 1858 as the river began to rise, large numbers of disaffected or disillusioned miners were pulling out, headed down river towards their homes. So there were only about 9,000 men left working the bars when the water levels began to drop at the end of the summer and newcomers started arriving. They built sluices - long wooden aqueducts that directed water flow down riffled troughs filled with gravel from the river, letting hydraulic power do much of the shovelling, so to speak. Sluices that didn't draw on the energy of quick-flowing streams were powered by undercut waterwheels that acted as pumps.

Being so rich, Hill's Bar was the scene of various unpleasant incidents and crimes, most of which were usually laid at the feet of American citizens. Gambling was one factor in the atmosphere of violence, especially as many and perhaps most of the miners were armed with Samuel Colt's "revolving pistols."

Even the tax collector far down at Fort Langley complained gunshots rang out through the night. But a different level of lawlessness could be traced to professional criminals who viewed the rush as an opportunity to fleece. Their leader was Edward (Ned) McGowan (1813-1893), a classic sociopath: charming, bright, articulate, persuasive, and immoral.

McGowan had arrived in the colony not long before, following an astonishing career on the other side of the border, where he had once practised law. At another stage, he was the superintendent of police in Philadelphia, but left the position after being implicated in a bank robbery.

Scandal and the promise of easy pickings naturally took him to the California gold rush. Such was the unsettled state of public life in San Francisco that he became a judge. While on the bench, he was named as an accessory to murder.

He was wanted by the local vigilantes, who identified him as "the chief of the vultures." But he fled to Mexico and stayed there until the threat blew over. When he returned to San Francisco, he began to publish a newspaper so outrageous it was closed down by the city police. By the time, a few months later, when news from the Fraser was growing louder, McGowan had acquired, by what means can only be imagined, a mining claim at Hill's Bar.

Here the story gets complicated.

In August, news reached Douglas that a large party of whites had been massacred by first nations people (when in fact only two people had been killed).

Douglas cobbled together an expedition consisting of himself, a geologist, some Royal Marines and engineers, and assorted support personnel and hangers-on. They set out for the diggings, determined to instill the rule of law. Also accompanying Douglas was his new friend and admirer, Donald Fraser of The Times of London.

Fraser found, in general, miners earned more than they could've done otherwise, but living and social conditions, even in places where miners had put up proper cabins, were primitive.

At one bar, Fraser found "a gang of miners dining on fried bacon and potatoes cooked à la Maître d'Hotel, eating out of the frying pan in which the edibles were prepared, set upon the stump of a tree. [The diners] were a jolly lot [for whom the] mixture of 'chaff' and drunkenness are evidence of success [as with the case of] an old rascal from Australia in that state of brandy and water known as 'mellow.'"

Nonetheless, serious labour was going on there. The miners had dug a canal 3.2 kilometres long into which they had diverted a stream to work two sluices, with five others in the planning stage, to be fed by waterwheels. Residents said they each washed an average of $100 in gold a day (compared with between $2 and $5 for the Frenchmen, Irish and Americans close by, for nature is capricious this way).

The men at the diggings questioned Douglas about mining legislation, but, as Fraser wrote, "discussions soon turned into a series of assertions, denials, arguments, explanations, and replications [that] were never heard before. One quoted Californian laws, another Australian, and a third the 'law of all nations' [...] The governor endured it all like a stoic."

Unlike most of the other bars, with their scattering of tents, lean-tos and huts - places of dwelling but not of commerce - Hill's Bar had become a miniature town, albeit one whose residents often welcomed visitors by repeatedly discharging pistols in the air. It was there the Douglas party encountered a white woman, "the first seen on the river since we left Fort Hope."

She was, in Fraser's words, "a fair-haired comely little woman who ran the crude restaurant there." Its sign, made out of what had been one of her undergarments, bore the message "Boarding by the Meales."

The spelling was typical. Hanging over the bakery was a sign that read "Brad and pajues." This, Fraser explained, as "a sort of French-English for 'bread and pies.'"

When asked about being one of the few women in the community, the restaurateur replied, "The men were all very brotherly."

Fraser pretended to believe her, and asked about the rest of the female population.

"There are not many sisters to be sisterly," she replied.

After Hill's Bar, Douglas and his group travelled the short distance to Fort Yale to deal with the aftermath of the alleged massacre. They found Yale, as Fraser put it, a place with "a very bad reputation for gambling, drinking and violence of every kind, and gave the governor more concern than the whole of the rest of the mining country."

Until qualified judges could he sent out from England, special magistrates were appointed. One of them was P.D. Whannell, a prospector who asserted he'd held a captain's commission in cavalry regiments in Australia and India.

His former commanding officer informed the police chief in Melbourne that Whannell had left the mining region of Australia in November 1856, abandoning his wife and children for another man's spouse and evidently becoming a saloon keeper in a California mining camp.

At first, Whannell was welcomed by the assistant commissioner of Crown lands at Yale. But soon the two fell to accusing each other of drunkenness and official misconduct. The commissioner launched an inquiry before being dismissed for bribery.

In the meantime, Whannell reported to Douglas that a gambler named William Foster had shot and killed a miner, Bernard Rice, and fled to Hill's Bar to take refuge under the protection of McGowan.

The town of Yale, circa 1900. The gold rush in British Columbia led to the birth of many small towns across the province (courtesy BC Archives/C-1324).

In a related matter - please bear with me here - McGowan and his gang stormed the jail at Yale and, in a moment of high spirits, freed a prisoner.

The prisoner was Henry Hickson, the constable at Hill's Bar, who Whannell had imprisoned for contempt of court and later dismissed from his post.

But George Perrier, Whannell's opposite number as magistrate at Hill's Bar, reinstated Hickson and issued a warrant for Whannell's arrest. To serve it, Perrier swore in a posse consisting of Ned McGowan and members of his gang. Using a trusted courier, Whannell communicated all these events in a letter to Douglas, begging for military assistance at once.

What a mess. Poor Douglas, feeling he had no choice if he were to prevent generalized violence, sent his handful of military personnel, only some of whom reached the destination in a timely manner, as the river was now choked with ice.

The Crown ruled that, the law of averages being what it is, Ned McGowan was innocent for once, as he was only following direct orders from Perrier, who had given McGowan and the McGowanites status as special constables. Douglas was also informed Whannell, having missed the chance to apprehend the gambler Foster for the murder of the miner Rice, instead held Foster's partner and a servant as material witnesses and refused to free them even after Foster crossed the border, putting himself beyond the reach of British justice.

Whannell was also accused of misbehaviour in the matter of Isaac (Ikey) Dixon, an African-American barber at Hill's Bar, who had filed an assault complaint against two white men. Whannell had issued warrants for the pair but put Dixon in jail lest he get cold feet about testifying. When the two defendants were brought to trial in Perrier's courtroom, Whannell, in his hatred of Perrier, refused to release poor Dixon. Instead, he arrested the court officer sent to collect him.

McGowan and his posse, bristling with revolvers, went to Yale and arrested Whannell, who was hauled before Perrier and fined $25 for contempt. Walking in Yale shortly thereafter, McGowan recognized a former member of the vigilance committee that had threatened to lynch him in San Francisco. He assaulted the man on the spot and was arrested.

McGowan's rascally charm and legal background served him well in the proceedings that followed. While pleading guilty and professing contrition, he also lectured the others in attendance - American miners - on the virtues of British law and those who administer it. The court let him go with a fine. Soon the notorious scoundrel returned to California.

In recent years, it's been argued McGowan was in fact guilty of a far more serious matter of which he was not accused, much less charged with: plotting to overthrow the legitimate colonial government of British Columbia with a view towards its annexation by the United States.

The story of Hill's Bar makes me think of the great 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1905-75). Like many of her predecessors, she devoted a great deal of intellectual energy to the question of what an ideal form of government would be. She held to neither the libertarian view (that the least amount of government is best) nor the authoritarian one (the greatest amount). Rather, she preferred the briefest. She looked fondly to ad hoc and transitional governments, the sort that spring up out of necessity immediately following a revolution but before the ratification of a constitution.

She said she believed the combination of extremes found in such situations holds out the best hope for personal growth and individual freedom. She gave considerable thought to how such conditions could be made permanent (later admitting they cannot).

One wonders what she would have made of Hill's Bar, a place she undoubtedly never heard of, one whose life, while too violent, was also much too short.

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