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Barkerville and the Cariboo Goldfields

By Richard Thomas Wright

Cariboo Gold Rush: The Stampede that Made BC

By Art Downs, editor

The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of Gold-fields of British Columbia

By Agnes C. Laut

Review By Mica Jorgenson

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 154-56














Given the centrality of the 1862 Cariboo Gold Rush in the history of the province of British Columbia, it has understandably been the subject of much popular writing. Agnes Laut’s The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia, Art Downs’s Cariboo Gold Rush: The Stampede that Made BC, and Richard Wright’s Barkerville and the Cariboo Goldfields are part of this tradition, having been reprinted year after year perhaps because, as Diana French argues in her foreword to Laut’s The Cariboo Trail, they are among the “better ones” (1). Laut (originally published in 1916) and Downs (containing material first published in 1914), demonstrate the possibilities and the pitfalls of reprinting early twentieth-century history, while Wright’s detailed popular narrative provides a modern account of Cariboo Gold Rush history that reflects the steadily improving academic understanding of this event.

Both Laut and Downs sketch a broad outline of the discoveries that brought miners steadily up the Fraser River while touching only briefly on Barkerville itself. Laut has a much longer section on the “Overlanders” (39-60), but in general both are short, entertaining, accessible texts told from an early-twentieth century perspective. The authors see “Indians” as incompatible with progress and women as peripheral, despite French’s assertion that Laut’s gender results in a “woman’s perspective” of the rush (4). Both books also struggle with the need to portray a disorderly frontier as somehow respectable: Downs hints heavily at the sexual activities of German hurdy-gurdy girls, and yet insists that “at the same time their morals were above reproach”(47). Laut reassures her readers that “a woman was as safe on the trail as in her own home,” and that “a Chinaman or Indian could be as sure of justice as the richest miner in Cariboo” (62-63). Although such statements are potentially revealing as to the particular ideological needs of the early twentieth century, neither of the editors has chosen to speculate on what might have motivated the original authors to portray the history of the Cariboo Gold Rush in such a way.

The major difference between the two books is that while Laut’s 1916 words have been preserved in close to original form in The Cariboo Trail (with the exception of French’s brief foreword), Downs has annotated heavily and added primary sources from 1858 and 1862-63 (a letter by Franklin Matthias and extracts from Dr. Walter B. Cheadle’s journal). Downs originally put Cariboo Gold Rush together in 1987 out of excerpts from British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present, Volume Two, a 1914 history by Judge F.W. Howay and Provincial Librarian and Archivist E.O.S. Scholefield (5). In light of their early twentieth century origins, both French and Downs begin with the disclaimer that the occasionally derogatory language of the original authors has been left intact in an effort to preserve the “flavour” of the times; however, in Downs’s work the inconsistent application of editorial commentary makes his disclaimer ring hollow (Laut, 4; Downs, 7). While Downs has gone to great lengths to reword or explain parts of the original narrative, some inaccuracies have been allowed to stand without comment, for example, that gold was first discovered in 1856 by an Indian on the Thompson River (14). This selective correction makes the uncorrected aspects of his story, such as the unedited portrayal of First Nations as “savages,” problematic. Paradoxically, while Downs observes in his introduction to the Cheadle journal that “in the early 1860s, Canada was dramatically different from the country it is today,” he makes no such statement about his 1914 source (83). Indeed, the addition of Cheadle’s diary combined with Downs’s selective editorializing creates the impression that Howay and Scholefield’s work can be read as an ordinary secondary source. But Howay and Scholefield’s 1914 writing cannot masquerade as modern history, no matter how skilled the editor. This is particularly true considering that far less fraught popular and academic histories of the Cariboo Gold Rush are now readily available.

Richard Wright has been the most successful popular historian of the Cariboo Gold Rush, first with Discover Barkerville in 1984, republished in 1993 as Barkerville, Williams Creek, Cariboo: A Gold Rush Experience, before appearing in its current form as Barkerville and the Cariboo Goldfield. Wright has carried out Cariboo Gold Rush research in archives all over the world, and his detailed knowledge of Barkerville’s past is unparalleled. To reflect his most recent research, he has considerably expanded the historical content in the newest version. The new book is divided into three parts. The first covers the rush for gold up the Fraser River (the same ground covered by Laut and Downs); the second describes gold rush society in and around the mines; and the third provides a walking tour.

Wright strongly identifies with characters such as the Overlanders and the Cariboo poet James Anderson; thus, despite stating that he has “enjoyed telling the stories of little-known people,” he tends to follow the example of his early twentieth-century predecessors in placing prospectors at the centre of his narrative (9). After briefly painting a broad picture of gold rush society, Wright first addresses “the discoverers” (the usual suspects including “Doc” Keithley, William Barker, the Overlanders, and John Bowron) before moving on to women, Chinese, and blacks. To his credit, Wright has greatly expanded and updated his sections on the Cariboo “minorities” since the last edition of his book. Most notably, he has added an entire section on First Nations. Such additions reflect his own and recent academic work on the gold rush’s more peripheral participants.

In a history often plagued by anecdote, Wright provides refreshing accuracy and thorough explanation. For example, while estimates of Barkerville’s population have sometimes reached the tens of thousands, Wright has consulted mining licences and government tallies to conclude that there were far fewer. Demonstrating a keen critical awareness of the wider historical context, he further speculates that inflated population numbers are likely the product of officials and merchants who stood to benefit from the perception that the Cariboo was more heavily populated than it actually was (54). The only drawback to his work is that the balance between detailed history and tourist handbook is uneasy. The historical content may be too dense for the casual reader while the walking tour and lack of footnotes prove frustrating for the professional historian.

These three books demonstrate the range of popular history currently available on British Columbia’s gold rush origins. Downs and Laut provide short and easily digestible narratives — so long as readers acknowledge when they were written and take their contents with a necessarily large grain of salt. While Laut and Downs are most useful for what they reveal of early twentieth-century perspectives, Wright provides a more comprehensive and straightforward guide to the events of the rush that many popular and academic readers will find useful.

The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia
Agnes C. Laut (foreword by Diana French)
Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2013. 96 pp. $12.95 paper
(First published in 1916 in Toronto by Glasgow, Brook & Company)

Cariboo Gold Rush: The Stampede that Made BC
Art Downs (editor)
Victoria: Heritage, 2013. 144 pp. $9.95 paper
(First published in 1987)

Barkerville and the Cariboo Goldfields
Richard Thomas Wright
Victoria: Heritage, 2012. 272 pp. $19.95 paper
(First published as Discover Barkerville: A Gold Rush Adventure [Vancouver : Special Interest Publications, 1984]).