The Fraser River Gold Rush and the Founding of British Columbia

The year 1858 is the single most important year in British Columbia’s history. It was on 2 August of that year that an imperial act established the mainland colony of BC under the authority of Governor James Douglas. Beginning that spring, the Fraser River Gold Rush unleashed a chain of events that culminated a dozen years later in British Columbia joining the new Canadian Confederation (see British Columbia and Confederation). Without 1858, it is very possible there would have been no British Columbia, but rather an American state. Without 1858, Canada today might not extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“Ho! For Frazer River” [sic]

Illustration by J. Ross Browne from "A Peep at Washoe" in Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1860.

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Background

From the perspective of Britain with its vast empire, the area that is now British Columbia counted for little. It was too far away and of too little value to interest the mother country. The future British Columbia’s settler population had stagnated at under 1,000. The Oregon Treaty with the United States in 1846 gave the future province to Britain, but apart from declaring Vancouver Island a colony in 1849 and handing it over to the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to administer, nothing much ensued.

In contrast, change was in the air south of the border. Ever since Lewis and Clark looked upon the Pacific Ocean in 1805, Americans were determined to cross the continent. Beginning in the early 1840s, settlers poured west over the Oregon Trail. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States acquired from Mexico the land that would become California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Nearer to the international boundary with Britain, the Americans set up military forts at strategic points and violently suppressed Indigenous people who refused to surrender their land. Between 1853 and 1860, the population of Whites in present-day Washington and Oregon ballooned from about 17,000 to just over 63,000. Many believed it was only a matter of time until the United States extended its reach north to Russian America, the future Alaska. There matters stood when news leaked out of the discovery of gold in sandbars of the Fraser River. The first arrivals in the spring of 1858 were mostly experienced miners from the California Gold Rush of 1849. Some estimates put the total coming that year at 30,000.

Events seemed to be going America’s way. Miners began passing resolutions that could become the pretext for asserting sovereignty. The United States sent a special commissioner to the area to protect its citizens from what was perceived as harsh treatment by the HBC. The commissioner’s report to Congress declared that it was only a matter of time before the territory came under American control. In fact, he was so certain of that outcome that he believed no special effort was needed to make it happen.

Soda Creek

The gold rush town of Soda Creek, on the upper Fraser River, in 1863.

(courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

British Columbia Becomes a Colony

What the Americans did not count on was that the gold rush forced Britain’s hand. This distant part of the world was not as useless as it had seemed to be. Sir James Douglas, a fur trader who governed the colony of Vancouver Island, acted on his own initiative to keep the gold rush from spinning out of control, but he could do so for only so long. On 2 August 1858, Britain declared the mainland a separate British colony, named British Columbia, with Douglas in charge. Over the next months and years, Douglas acted forcefully to maintain order and provide access to the goldfields.

These actions did not stem American interest. The international boundary ran through the middle of the channel separating Vancouver Island from the mainland, but no one knew precisely where it was. In 1859, the so-called Pig War on San Juan Island (near the Vancouver Island capital of Victoria) gave the military commander south of the border the opening he sought. He sent in his forces and reported optimistically to the commander‐in-chief of the US army: “The population of British Columbia is largely American and foreigners; comparatively few persons from the British Isles emigrate to this region. The English cannot colonize successfully so near our people; they are too exacting. This, with the pressing necessities of our commerce on this coast, will induce them to yield, eventually, Vancouver’s Island [sic] to our government. It is as important to the Pacific States as Cuba is to those on the Atlantic.”

While the escalating confrontation between the American military and the Royal Navy was soon referred to arbitration, the events signalled that the future province was up for grabs. By the mid-1860s, the Fraser River Rush had run its course. The good times were over and the number of miners was falling dramatically. The colonies had run up a huge debt from building roads to the goldfields. To save money, Britain folded the Vancouver Island colony into its British Columbia counterpart in 1866.

British Columbia Coat of Arms
(artwork by Karen E. Bailey/courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

American Annexation Interest

The long-term future of the United Colony of British Columbia became much debated. Most of those of British background favoured the existing situation. Arrivals from within British North America looked to entry into the new Canadian Confederation, created in 1867 out of the three British colonies of the Province of Canada (which became Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Others sought annexation to the United States (see Annexation Association).

American expansionism again came to the fore. In 1867, the day after the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867) received royal assent, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, which renewed its interest in the intervening land mass. The American secretary of state was convinced that “our population is destined to roll its restless waves to the icy barriers of the north.” (See also Manifest Destiny.)

The US consul in Victoria reported enthusiastically that “the people of Vancouver Island, and of British Columbia, are almost unanimous in their desire for annexation to the United States.”

Britain may have been tempted to give in to American desires. At the time of the Alaska sale, it was negotiating reparations with the United States for having allowed the Confederate South to build warships on British territory during the recently concluded American Civil War. The US secretary of state proposed to take British Columbia in settlement. Britain was reluctant to do so because the Royal Navy had recently moved its Pacific Coast headquarters north from Valparaíso, Chile, to Esquimalt, just outside Victoria and close to coal deposits that could service its steamships. To give up British Columbia would inconvenience the Royal Navy.

However, the Americans persisted. After visiting Victoria in August 1869, the US secretary of state reported confidently that British Columbians were generating petitions in favour of annexation. In the end, two petitions were completed with only 104 signatures in total. While causing a flutter in Congress, no further action was taken and the surge abated.

British Columbia Flag
(artwork by Karen E. Bailey, courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

Britain Asserts Authority

In the meantime, Britain took the initiative. It continued to be interested in colonies only so far as they benefitted the mother country, something a struggling British Columbia seemed unlikely to do. From Britain’s perspective, the best course lay in joining its remote possession to Canada as soon as possible. In 1869, a new governor was appointed to cajole the colonial legislature to set demands for entry into Confederation. Since 1858, commitment to British Columbia as a distinct entity had taken shape. That commitment expressed itself in different ways.

Exasperated with British indifference, Attorney General H.P.P. Crease toyed with a declaration of independence: “What do you say to a large English Kingdom here west of the Rocky Mountains… If they despise us at home… [can] we be the worse off as an entirely separate Country?… All the armies in the World could not get into the Country if we defended the only passes… I can readily imagine a great future.”

The most fervent proponent of Confederation, future premier Amor de Cosmos, expressed the general sentiment during the debate on terms of entry: “I stand here not as a Canadian, but as a British Columbian; my allegiance is due first to British Columbia.” The terms negotiated for entry into Confederation included a transcontinental rail line and payment of the colony’s large debt.

The sequence of events beginning in the spring of 1858 concluded on 20 July 1871, with British Columbia becoming a Canadian province (see British Columbia and Confederation). The excitement of the gold rush followed by the proclamation of the colony of British Columbia had not assured the future, but they made it possible. British Columbia in 1871 was still a very fragile place. While large in size — more than twice the area of Washington and Oregon combined — its settler population was minute, at one-tenth their roughly 110,000. The occasion of BC150 provides a powerful reminder not to take our province for granted, be it yesterday, today, or tomorrow.


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Further Reading

  • Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (University of British Columbia Press, 1997).
  • Patricia E. Roy and John Herd Thompson, British Columbia: Land of Promises (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson, The Trail of 1858: British Columbia’s Gold Rush Past (Harbour Publishing, 2007).
  • Jean Barman, The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (University of Toronto Press, 1996).
  • Barry M. Gough, Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809 (University of British Columbia Press, 1980).
  • Frank Rasky, The Taming of the Canadian West (McClelland and Stewart, 1967).
  • Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (University of British Columbia Press, 1992).
  • Daniel Marshall, “Claiming the Land: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to British Columbia” (University of British Columbia, 2000).