Tag: Gold Rush

Name that Hero


I’m working on a new story with an “interesting” hero. He’s a medical doctor in a gold rush town. He is highly skilled but has no bedside manner. He has red hair that sticks up in a halo around his head. His childhood was marked by abandonment – mother died, series of housekeepers, father oblivious to child.

He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. He and his father lived together in the family home and worked together in the family practice. There were no women in their lives. My hero had been in love once, but she’d walked out on him.

His life seems set on its course and he has given up on feeling lonely. This is just the way it is.

Stuff happens– don’t want to give away the story– and he heads west, ending up in Prospect. He’s the only doctor for miles around so no one argues with his dictates, even though his patients grumble at his high-handed methods.

For some reason, I want to name him Rupert. It’s an odd name, but, in my mind, it suits him.

Here in British Columbia we have a town of Prince Rupert and when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their holdings to the Dominion of Canada, the area was called Rupert’s Land. Both were named in honour of a cousin of Charles 1, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Prince Rupert’s family fled civil unrest when he was a baby. He grew up in exile, then landed at the court of his English royal relatives as an adult,  He was a skilled horseman and soldier, fighting for the Royalist cause against the Roundheads. He was also a businessman who became the first governor of the  Hudson’s Bay Company.

Other Ruperts include

The name seems to have been much more popular in Britain than in North America.

So, what do you think? Could you fall in love with a hero named Rupert?

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Gold Fever

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.

Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.

As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost.  Many more falling into the latter category than the first.  As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.


An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.

One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.

By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.

“I’m English Bill,

Never worked and never will.

Get away girls,

Or I’ll tousle your curls.”


Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.

This time, luck did not smile.  He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.

This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life.  The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia.  With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province.  He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”




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The Not-So-Wild West

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!”

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Law on the Frontier

As part of my research, I’m reading real life stories of the Northwest Mounted Police.  Our public conscience sees the Mounties as glamorous, romantic figures, the essence of heroic, stoic, dogged, upright, committed and brave.  The truth is, the myth and the reality aren’t that far apart.  In the late nineteenth century one man was often assigned to bring law and order to vast areas of wilderness, to deal with murderers, thieves, drunks and claim-jumpers over hundreds of square miles.  It wasn’t uncommon for a single policeman to travel 1000 miles by horse and canoe to bring a prisoner to stand trial in a courtroom.

In 1858, when the Fraser gold rush brought tens of thousands of prospectors, many of them heavily armed, into the British Columbia interior, the miners outnumbered the police by over one thousand to one, the rule of law reigned.  What the Mounties couldn’t do by superior numbers, they accomplished with personal courage, reputation, skill and good will.  One of the reasons for the red coat, was that it symbolized the crown.  At that time Queen Victoria was held in high esteem, especially by the native population.  The Mounties, by fair dealing, established good relations with the aboriginal population.  Even when they had to arrest a native, his people believed he would receive a fair trial.  There are many instances where natives have worked with the police to track a criminal and bring him to justice.

Men in the field (it was all men at that time.  Women were first admitted to the RCMP in 1974) took short cuts that wouldn’t be permitted today, like searching a cabin without a warrant, but given the magnitude of their task, they must be forgiven a few technical leniencies.  If the search produced evidence of wrongdoing – like a murdered man’s wallet – the culprit was arrested.  If no evidence came to light, there was no arrest.

Since many of the men who volunteered for Sam Steele’s police force were scions of noble families in England, it is hard to imagine the loneliness and isolation they must have felt being the only lawman in a vast territory.  Yet they persevered and did their duty.  When the Colonial Secretary visited the Wild Horse Creek mines in 1882 he remarked that “I found the Birish Columbia mining laws in full force, all customs duties paid, no pistols to be seen and everything as quiet and orderly as it could possibly be in the most civilized district of the colony . . . much to the surprise and admiration of many who remembered the early days of the state of California.”

In our cynical age, it is popular to scoff at Duddly DoRight, but I’d rather trust my safety to a determined, methodical, dogged servant of the law, intent on doing the right thing, than on some wise-cracking talk-show host, bent on raising his ratings.

Mounties and other police are still dying to” Maintiens le Droit” (hold the right).  We owe them our thanks and admiration.

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The Gold Trail

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. From the Canadian National Archives.

We are so used to fast, scheduled, reliable means of transport that it is easy to forget that only a generation or so has passed since travellers relied on horses and boats, were subject to the vagaries of weather, rough trails — or no trails at all — and a guide.  We look at the maps of the gold rush towns and forget that those towns didn’t exist when hopeful prospectors left home and comfort to brave the unknown in the hope of a lucky strike.

In my research into the various gold rushes in Canada, I came across this list of helpful hints for the trail.

  1. Don’t waste a single ounce of anything, even if you don’t like it.  Put it away and it will come in handy when you do like it.
  2. Don’t eat ice or snow.  Go thirsty until you can melt it.
  3. No man can continuously drag more than his own weight.  Remember that this is a fact.
  4. Keep your sleeping bag clean.  If it becomes inhabited, freeze the inhabitants out.
  5. A little dry grass or hay in the inside of your mitts, next to your hands, will promote great heat.
  6. When your nose is bitterly cold, stuff both nostrils with fur, cotton, or wool.
  7. Don’t catch hold of your gun barrel when 30 F. degrees below zero is registered.  Watch out or getting snow in the barrel.  If you do, don’t shoot it out.

Some of these hints are obvious.  Touch metal at minus 30 F degrees and it will freeze your skin to the metal.

Freezing the lice or fleas or bed bugs that might have taken up residence in your sleeping bag makes sense.  It also indicates that fleas and lice and bed bugs were to be expected in trail conditions.  Yuck!

The prohibition against drinking snow is because the extreme cold would lower body temperature and could lead to hypothermia.

I wouldn’t want to try to drag more than my own weight for one hour, let alone 12 hours on a rough trail but gold seekers were often mad with gold fever and needed reminding of common sense rules.  As to the weight of the packs, prospectors were required to carry one ton of goods before they could pass the NWMP post that marked the entrance into Canada.  The requirement was put in place to protect the miners who would have faced starvation in the harsh winter months if they were inadequately supplied.  The Chilkoot Pass, one of the most popular trails into the Klondike was too steep for pack animals, so the men had to carry their supplies themselves, necessitating several trips up the 1500 steps carved into the ice of the pass.

Considering the hardship prospectors faced in their quest for gold, the “trail hints” seem far too gentle.

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Peter O’Reilly

— The Queen’s Man

In real life people who know they are “right” can be mightily irritating, but in history, people of strong convictions shape events. Such a man was Peter O’Reilly, gold commissioner of Fisherville, British Columbia, in 1865.

The discovery of gold in the Kootenays launched a rush of hopeful miners, many American, up every river and creek of the colony. (British Columbia was still “British” at that time. It joined Canadian Confederation in 1871) These men brought an anti-British attitude and a rowdy, lawless life-style from the American mining camps. Saloons, gambling, fist-fights and shootings accompanied the flood of fortune-seekers, who rejected any curb on their actions, legal or otherwise. They particularly objected to paying government licence fees for their claims and for goods brought across the line.

Into this atmosphere waded Peter O’Reilly, a feisty Irishman and former member of the Irish Revenue Police. Backed up by Governor James Douglas, O’Reilly was determined to impose British rule over all of British Columbia, especially the gold camp of Fisherville. On a Sunday morning he called his first meeting with the miners, jumped onto a bench under a flagpole carrying the Union Jack and declared, “Boys, I’m here to keep order and to administer the law. Those that don’t want law and order can get out, but those who stay with the camp, remember what side of the line the camp is on. If there is a shooting in Kootenay, there will be a hanging in Kootenay!”*

His oratory didn’t bring about immediate civility in the gold camp, there were still grumblings about fees and duties, but there were no shootings.

In later years, roads, railroads and the NorthWest Mounted Police ensured the rule of law in British Columbia, but in the early days, it took men like Peter O’Reilly, men of courage and conviction, to face down a rowdy mob and impose order in the wilderness.

O’Reilly went on to serve as a county court judge, in the Legislative Council of BC and as Indian Reserve Commissioner. His home in Victoria,  Point Ellice House,  is now a heritage site.

* pg. 16 Fort Steele – Gold Rush to Boom Town, by Naomi Miller, Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd. 2002.

Other Sources:

Federal and Provincial Collections of Minutes of Decision, Correspondence and Sketches

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