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 riverbed.) Discoveries aside, this phenomenon was also a product of technology that emerged at the time. Gold rushes could not exist before the era of the telegraph, mass circulation newspapers and steamboats.
After 1900, no substantive alluvial goldfields (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 Quebec), but no significant placer mining occurred in these regions.
Rushes involved a period of discovery — either 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. This resulted in an even greater influx of gold seekers and adventurers into the gold-bearing territory. The search for and discoveries of “free gold” (gold obtained through placer mining) followed a roughly northward drive from California. A massive gold rush occurred there in 1848–49 and spread into the Oregon, Washington and British Columbia territories in the next decade.
Illustration by J. Ross Browne from "A Peep at Washoe" in Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1860.
First Gold Rushes
In British Columbia, the Haida people discovered free gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) in 1850. This 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 the summer of 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 districts. The Cariboo Gold Rush in Tsilhqot’in and Dakelh territories to the north occurred between 1860 and 1866.
Prospectors had also been searching the territory in the Edmonton region, along the North Saskatchewan River, where a short-lived, fairly localized rush 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 1869.
Prospectors 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 1874. The Omineca and Cassiar rushes involved many Tlingit, Sekani, Kaska and Tahltan people.
Klondike Gold Rush
Closing in on what was believed to be the single, massive source of the placer goldfields — the “motherlode” — gold seekers and their suppliers moved into the central Alaska-Yukon area, 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). Smaller rushes followed to Nome, Alaska, and to Atlin in the northwest corner of British Columbia. These northern rushes dramatically affected the lives of the Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 in places where deep placers — and therefore, more permanent operations — were discovered.
The technology used to mine placer gold was developed in the California goldfields. 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. However, placer gold continued to be taken into the 1930s from the bars and beaches of the Fraser, Thompson and Bridge Rivers, as well as 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. It also led to 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.
Between 1848 and 1898, the worldwide production of gold tripled. The gold rushes in Western Canada during this period had relatively little impact on the Canadian economy, but they did serve to open large territories to permanent resource exploitation and settlement by White people (see also Resource Towns). The popularity of the Klondike gold rush was also exploited extensively by Canadian immigration officials and Western commercial interests to advertise the potential of the West as a place to settle (see History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies). Barkerville, Dawson, Whitehorse and Edmonton still host annual celebrations of the gold rush days.
For the Indigenous 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 (see Fraser Canyon War). This violence, coupled with the rapid development of resource-based industries and settlement that followed in its wake, resulted in the swift imposition of systems of authority that were alien to Indigenous communities in the region and had devastating impacts on traditional ways of life.
The gold rushes provided a popular theme for writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the United States. 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 The Gold Rush (1925). The more recent literature on gold rushes is often along the lines of historical narratives, such as those of Dawson City native Pierre Berton, and personal reminiscences that employ a less dramatic perspective (see also Pierre Berton on the Klondike Gold Rush).