Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England. Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.
Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner. Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me. As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”