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McGowan’s War: The Birth of Modern British Columbia on the Fraser River Gold Fields

By Donald J. Hauka

Review By Daniel Marshall

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 144-5

IN 1858 TENS OF thousands of non-Native goldseekers rushed to the Fraser River in search of gold, a substantial number of them being American citizens who paid little heed to British sovereignty in the region. The events of 1858 precipitated numerous instances of Native-white conflict as well as the formation of the Crown colony of British Columbia, previously a fur trade preserve of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). This tumultuous gold rush is the focus of Don Hauka’s book, as is his assertion that the presence of one goldseeking individual – the American Edward McGowan – threatened to precipitate war through filibustering and to claim the colony for the United States. Hauka’s central premise is that “Modern BC was born of political crisis created by a sudden rush to exploit a rich natural resource and by the need to keep the territory out of the hands of the Americans” (3). I would agree with Hauka, but at times the author has made undocumented assertions to support his view – assertions that are not supported by the historical record. 

For instance, Hauka is of the opinion that Governor James Douglas was responsible for devising the Fraser rush for the purpose of profit (22). He also asserts that Douglas had calculated each aspect of the rush through promotion in Pacific Northwest newspapers and shipment of gold to San Francisco, thereby manufacturing the “Fraser River Fever” that ensued (23). The evidence does not support this claim. In fact, if one consults colonial correspondence for the period, one finds that Douglas initially attempted to prevent the Fraser rush, concocting a plan to reserve all the profits of goldmining for the HBC in alliance with its longstanding Native trade partners. The HBC’S operations had already suffered the adverse effects of the 1849 California gold rush, and it viewed the impending Fraser rush with a great deal of trepidation. 

Hauka has depended largely on the glorified reminiscences of Edward McGowan (“Reminiscences,” Argonaut San Francisco, 11 May -13 July 1878). It is true that there were many filibusterers on the Fraser in 1858-59 (veterans of the Mexican-American War, Nicaragua filibusterers, and the like), and certainly British officials were anxious about them. While mining at Hill’s Bar, McGowan had apparently entertained notions of furthering American Manifest Destiny. As McGowan recalled: “We had arranged a plan, in case of a collision with the [British] troops, to take Fort Yale and then go down the river and capture Fort Hope … This would, we supposed, bring on the fight and put an end to the long agony and public clamor – through the press of the country – that our boundary line must be ‘fifty-four forty or fight.'” There is some evidence for McGowan’s plan. John Nugent, McGowan’s friend, was appointed by President James Buchanan as a special agent to the Fraser River to monitor US interests in the region; however, surprisingly, Hauka makes no mention of his official report [Message of the President of the United States communicating the report of the special agent of the United States recently sent to Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia. Ex. Doc. No. in: 1859). If he had done so, then a greater degree of evidence would have been found in support of his view. For instance, Nugent’s extensive reconnaissance report appraised the military capabilities of the colonies, particularly the Royal Navy at Esquimalt and the “military or naval force the British authorities [had] in the vicinity of the [Fraser] river.” The agricultural potential was also assessed, along with timber, coal, and, of course, gold. In addition, he levelled substantial criticism against the HBC and its “oppressive” system of licences and taxation, its monopoly control of navigation of the Fraser River, and the fact that it had apparently encouraged First Nations to resist the influx of American miners. 

Nugent also believed that Americans had been denied their right to proper representation in the court system of the Colony of Vancouver Island, and he pledged “the intervention of their own government for the redress of their grievances and the protection of their rights” (Victoria Gazette, 13 November 1858). Luckily for Douglas, Nugent concluded: “The Americans, it is true, were in sufficient force any time within the first six months to make successful any movement on their part towards the seizure of the colonies … [but] the two colonies of Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia really offered no inducements sufficient to render them worthy of even a temporary struggle.” The inclusion of the above information would have substantially aided Hauka’s argument. 

As a non-academic work, McGowan s War offers a good narrative of the events of 1858, bringing to life the principal characters of the Fraser River gold rush, and Hauka’s refashioning of this well-known story is particularly sensitive to the presence and role of First Nations. Also, the book will undoubtedly introduce a much broader audience to the clash that occurred between British, American, and First Nations interests – a lively story to ponder while travelling the Fraser River corridor in search of the origins of the BC colony.