Gold Rushes

Gold rushes occurred in the mid-to-late 19th century, primarily along North America’s West Coast, from California to Alaska.

Paddle Steamer
An old paddle steamer used in the Yukon by the gold miners of the last century (courtesy Colour Library Books Ltd.).
Klondikers Buying Miners
Klondikers buying miner's licences at Customs House, Victoria, BC, 21 February 1898. Much of the early business done in the colony resulted from gold rushes to the interior (courtesy British Library).
Barker, Billy
Cornish sailor Billy Barker made one of his richest strikes in the Cariboo Gold Rush (courtesy PABC/HP-2428).

Gold rushes occurred in the mid-to-late 19th century, primarily along North America’s West Coast, from California to Alaska. In Canada, key events included the Fraser River, Cariboo and Klondike gold rushes. The rushes led to permanent white settlement along the west coast, and also displaced and marginalized many of the Aboriginal communities in the region.

Gold Rush Phenomenon

In the mid-to-late 19th century, placer gold was found in commercial quantities mainly in the western Cordillera region, from California to Alaska, sparking a series of gold rushes. (The word “placer” refers to a deposit of sand or gravel containing gold and found in a stream or river bed.) Discoveries aside, this phenomenon was also a product of technology emerging at the time gold rushes could not exist before the era of the telegraph, mass circulation newspapers and steamboats, and after 1900 no substantive alluvial goldfields (i.e. gold found in deposits left by streams or rivers) remained undiscovered. In the same period there were side rushes to other Pacific Rim countries; minor rushes also occurred elsewhere in British North America (in Nova Scotia, Southeastern Ontario and Southwestern Québec), but no significant placer mining occurred in these regions.

Rushes involved a period of discovery accidental or by roving fur traders and prospectors of placers in paying quantities; word of this spread, first locally, attracting other prospectors and their suppliers. Then, depending on the quality of the goldfields, word was carried farther afield by outbound prospectors and through the commercial press, resulting in an even greater influx of gold seekers and adventurers into the gold-bearing territory. The search for and discoveries of free gold (i.e. pure gold) in the gold rush era followed a roughly northward drive from California, where a massive gold rush occurred in 1848-49, and into Oregon, Washington and British Columbia territories in the next decade.

First Rushes

In British Columbia, excitement over Haida discoveries of free gold in Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands) in 1851 led to extensive prospecting throughout the other coastal islands and the lower mainland. Gold discoveries in the lower and middle Fraser River, Thompson River and Bridge River areas led to a brief rush to the vicinity of Yale in 1858 (see Fraser River Gold Rush), affecting Coastal Salish and Tsilhqot’in peoples. The Fraser River Gold Rush was followed by small gold rushes to the Boundary (Rock Creek), Similkameen (Wildhorse Creek) and Thompson River (Big Bend) districts. To the north into Tsilhqot’in and Dakelh territory, a major boom occurred between 1860 and 1866 (see Cariboo Gold Rush).

In the meantime, other prospectors had been searching the territory in the Edmonton region, along the Bow, Red Deer, North Saskatchewan and McLeod rivers, where short-lived, fairly localized rushes occurred. Fired by the Cariboo finds, prospectors began a serious assault on the northern Cordillera region. To the east, they panned their way along the Finlay and Parsnip rivers and down the Peace River to the Fort St John region; to the west, they worked up the Skeena and Omineca River, touching off the Omineca rush in 1868.

They then entered the difficult territory north of the Cassiar Mountains via both the Liard and Stikine rivers. At Dease Lake, a major strike led to a rush to the heart of Cassiar country in 1872. The latter two rushes involved many Tsimshian, Tlingit, Dakelh, Sekani, Kaska and Tahltan people.

Klondike Gold Rush

Closing in on what they believed to be the single, massive source of the other placer goldfields the "mother lode" gold seekers and their suppliers moved into central Alaska-Yukon, working their way up the Yukon River. Worldwide publicity of the discovery of large gold nuggets on Bonanza Creek on the Klondike River (wholly in Canadian territory) in 1896 led to the most famous rush of them all, the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-98), and there followed smaller rushes to Nome, Alaska, and to Atlin in the northwest corner of British Columbia. These northern rushes dramatically affected the lives of many of the Aboriginal population and virtually destroyed the Han, who had occupied the Dawson area.

Gold Rush Society

The majority of prospectors and miners, as well as many of the entertainers, merchants, packers and speculators who participated in each of the gold rushes, were white people from the Pacific coast region, especially California. There were also numerous Aboriginal and Chinese people who participated as casual labour, guiding, freighting, mining, prospecting and provisioning. Men (and some women) from the more settled parts of North America and other parts of the world participated as well, especially after 1858 and if deep placers and therefore more permanent operations were discovered.

Placer Mining

The technology used to mine placer gold was developed in the California goldfields and spread from there. The discovery and early gold-rush phase for any placer goldfield involved prospecting, panning and surface sluicing. The surface sandbars and gravels could be worked by individuals with little capital. These usually yielded only fine gold. Once the most accessible deposits were exhausted, and if no subsurface placers were uncovered, the area was largely abandoned, although placer gold continued to be taken into the 1930s, from the bars and beaches of the Fraser, Thompson and Bridge rivers, streams in the southern interior, in parts of the Cariboo, along the Skeena and in the Omineca, Cassiar and Atlin fields.

More Sophisticated Mining

Coarse gold (or nuggets), which was more valuable than fine gold, was situated in deep placers. If there were underground pay streaks to be exploited, a second phase of developments occurred. Miners used picks and shovels to open small holes and pits; they then sank shafts into the beaches and hillsides, processing the gravel and muck in a complex arrangement of sluices. This involved the use of more labour, and more complex and expensive technology much of it factory-made as well as increasingly greater supplies of water and wood. This in turn required the formation of partnerships and limited companies, and the establishment of more permanent living, supply and administrative centres.

This phase, too, was short-lived. In a few cases where significant alluvial deposits were exceptionally rich, as was the case in the Klondike and to a lesser extent the Cariboo fields, much more capital-intensive hydraulic or steam-dredging operations were eventually undertaken; these required not only sophisticated, capital-intensive mining technology but also separate, highly organized systems for water supply and control, for which the organization of large companies was required.


Gold rushes did little to increase the world supply of gold or make individuals wealthy, and most miners made no permanent contribution to mining. The gold rushes did serve to open large territories to permanent resource exploitation and settlement by white people. The popularity of the Klondike goldfield was exploited extensively by Canadian immigration officials and western commercial interests to advertise the potential of the West as a place to settle. For the Aboriginal population of British Columbia and the Yukon, this intense scramble for gold provoked violence with the white population, particularly in the Fraser River Canyon and Tsilhqot’in country. This violence, coupled with the rapid development of resource-based industries and settlement that followed in its wake, brought about the swift imposition of systems of authority alien to Aboriginal communities in the region, with devastating impacts on traditional ways of life.

The gold rushes had an impact even on those who were not directly involved, for they provided a popular theme for writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the US. The gold rush narrative was included in everything from dime novels to the classic works of fiction by Jack London, the poetry of Robert Service and early motion pictures, such as Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush. The more recent literature on gold rushes is often along the lines of historical narratives (see Pierre Berton) and personal reminiscences which employ a less dramatic perspective. Barkerville, Dawson, Whitehorse and Edmonton each host annual celebrations of the gold rush days.

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Further Reading

  • W.P. Morrell, The Gold Rushes (1941); W.J. Trimble, The Mining Advance into the Inland Empire (1944).

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