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Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado

By Daniel Patrick Marshall

March 7, 2019

Review By Mica Jorgenson

Daniel Patrick Marshall’s Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado attempts to stake original intellectual space in a crowded field. Although Marshall proves that the Fraser River remains rich ground for transnational research, his argument gets bogged down in old historiographic trenches.

The book is a revised version of Marshall’s 2000 dissertation by a similar title (“Claiming the Land: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to British Columbia,” UBC). The originality of Marshall’s work is the astute observation that the Fraser River properly belongs with the history of the wider Pacific Slope region. Marshall explains that Canadian confederation and ongoing conflicts between indigenous people and the state has its roots in “an epic telling of violence” (xiii) across the “imaginary boundary” between Canada and the American west (238).

Armed with his Pacific Slope archives, Marshall deals mercilessly with the contradictory colonial myths of 1858. Marshall sets the gold rush’s origin stories side by side, subjects each to a careful critical analysis, and then wrings them out for what they can offer his argument (25-35). Veterans of BC gold rush history with find this section both informative and deeply satisfying.

The book’s sixth chapter (“Mapping the Eldorado”) is an especially important contribution to gold rush literature. Here Marshall has compiled a list of the Fraser’s gold-bearing sand-bars (189), which he uses as evidence for map-making as a tool for indigenous erasure(197). Marshall concludes by revealing that British names later replaced Californian ones during the Cariboo Gold Rush and confederation (200). The speed of this revolving door of place names is powerful evidence for the connection between mapping and power in BC.

Given the persuasiveness of Marshall’s argument about names, his reproduction of westernized names for indigenous people is puzzling. For example, Marshall uses Chief “Spitlum,” even after telling the reader that the man’s name was Cexpe’ntlEm or Sexpínlhemx (175). This is not the only place where Marshall’s narrative stumbles on indigenous issues. Claiming the Landrevolves around three overlapping worlds: fur trade, Californian, and British.  Marshall leaves out an “indigenous world” because “indigenous people cannot be isolated as a separate ‘story’ since they were such integrated players in the fur trade world,” and that “sources from indigenous peoples themselves have been largely lost to time” (9). Neither assertion is convincing.

The book’s poor integration of indigenous source material becomes a hinderance at the moments when Marshall extensively quotes from miners’ accounts and colonial records without sufficient critical interpretation. One of the most galling examples comes after an extensive quote from the Aboriginal Protection Society (245). “Here was the first opportunity to acknowledge Indigenous title in British Columbia,” Marshall argues – meanwhile missing his own opportunity to acknowledge Indigenous expertise on their own territorial rights.

The effect is exacerbated by Marshall’s heavy-handed portrayal of indigenous apocalypse (xiv). First Nations of the Fraser River “were overrun and ultimately overpowered,” Marshall explains (18). The arrival of the miners “broke the back of indigenous control” (145). Such totalizing language seems counter to Marshall’s own assertation that he has “smoked, drunk, and shared food and good times” with members of the very bands for whom the gold rush supposedly violently annihilated (10). Marshall is falling back into the well-worn ruts of BC’s colonial historiography when he concludes that indigenous conflict was “inevitable” and suggests that, without the temperate hand of the HBC, “anarchy” and “chaos” might have ruled (240-241).

The central problem with Claiming the Land is that it gets caught between rip-roaring gold rush narrative and academic think-piece. The density of the narrative and its lengthy digressions into the weeds of Canadian historiography will make it inaccessible to all but the most devoted gold rush enthusiasts. Canadianists meanwhile are in danger of overlooking Marshall’s more original insights for its old-fashioned lionization of the gold rush’s usual (white) suspects – James Douglas, Matthew Begbie, and William Hind, among others.

If Marshall hoped to write a “substantial revisionist history of…1858,” he has been digging up the wrong creek (244). If his sources have original geographic scope, they ultimately come from the same old colonial genre. Nevertheless, the bookcontains enough analytical nuggets to make it a valuable addition to the shelf of BC historians. Hopefully Claiming the Landprovides a foothold for future books less conservative in their re-writing of the Fraser River and its transnational and indigenous past.

Publication Information

Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado 
Daniel Patrick Marshall
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2018. 400 pp. $24.95 paper.