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Review

The Trail of 1858: British Columbia’s Gold Rush Past

By Mark Forsythe, Greg Dickson

November 4, 2013

Review By Daniel Marshall

After the California and Australia gold rushes, the Fraser River rush of 1858 was considered the third great exodus of gold seekers in search of a New El Dorado. At the time, it was said: “Never, perhaps, was there so large an immigration in so short a space of time into so small a place.”[1] Not only was the Fraser rush the impetus for the formation of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, but significant Native-Newcomer conflict had effectively broken the back of full-scale Native resistance in both British Columbia and Washington State. Surely an event of this magnitude might receive the scholarly attention of our academic institutions – especially during this, the Province of British Columbia’s sesquicentennial – and yet, compared to the immense outpouring of California gold rush literature during the Golden State’s sesquicentennial in 1999, there has been no such attention given to this formative and cataclysmic year in our history.[2]

This being the case, the CBC Radio One authors Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson must be given both hearty congratulations and sincere thanks for their book The Trail of 1858: British Columbia’s Gold Rush Past. In many ways, the book is Forsythe and Dickson’s personal journey of rediscovery through British Columbia’s gold rush past, assisted by the memories and anecdotes of CBC listeners, wide-ranging contributions from both popular (Branwen Patenaude, Sonny McHalsie, Mike Cleven, et al.) and academic (Cole Harris, Patricia Roy, Mike Kennedy, Daniel Marshall et al.,) historians, in addition to the recollections of descendants of British Columbia’s pioneer gold rush society. 

While The Trail of 1858 follows a well-known chronological path of events and personalities (Governor James Douglas, Judge Matthew Begbie, and so forth), the narrative is clearly revisionist in tone and in its attempt to provide a more inclusive story. As former lieutenant-governor Iona Campagnolo stresses in her foreword, “perhaps it is time for our province … to incorporate the story of the human family who have lived here since time immemorial” (7), and this is exactly what the authors have sought to accomplish in stressing the themes of First Nations history and multiculturalism. Considering that just fifty years ago these critical themes were non-existent in the province’s centennial celebrations (which continued to promote a largely Eurocentric story), it is clear that the authors saw the need to provide an updated narrative – one that highlights the active agency of indigenous gold mining and discovery, with the active resistance to non-Native gold seekers forming just one aspect of the darker legacies of the rush. In addition, there is the acknowledgment that British Columbia has not just become a multicultural province but, rather, has been one for 150 years. A myriad of races and ethnicities flooded the goldfields in 1858, including Asian, Central American and South American, European, and Anglo- and Afro-American peoples. In many ways, Forsythe and Dickson have provided a popular history that often counters the self-legitimating discourse of previous BC historiography through the inclusion of previously forgotten voices.

As a fifth-generation British Columbian whose own Cornish ancestors joined the rush from California, I was particularly pleased to find evidence of other people who can trace their roots back to 1858 in the many CBC listener contributions that are found throughout this volume. Though we are comparatively few in number, such traces of the gold rush are still to be found hidden throughout the province!

There are two important caveats to mention in this otherwise impressive popular volume. First, while not academics, the authors have grappled with the often confusing nomenclature of First Nations people and places, using a variety of both archaic and modern spellings. For instance, the Nlaka’pamux Nation is variously referred to as the “Couteau” (a fur trade era designation) or the Thompson people without the readers being informed that they are one and the same. Presumably, time did not permit for standardizing the spelling according to modern-day equivalents. Second, throughout, there are occasional errors with respect to historical accuracy that might have been remedied with a bit more research and vigorous editing. For example, the authors state that “Fort Victoria, the only ocean port, was the gateway to the diggings” (14), thus forgetting that there were three competing ports in American territory: those at Port Townsend as well as Whatcom and Sehome in Bellingham Bay. On more than one occasion “Kumsheen” rather than “Camchin” is given as the Native name for present-day Lytton (52-53). And while James Douglas negotiated treaties on Vancouver Island, the authors are mistaken in their assertion that the governor undertook to establish treaties on the mainland “when he could” (45). Though Douglas was certainly giving verbal guarantees to indigenous people – promises largely unrecorded – there were no instances of treaty-making before, during, or after the 1858 rush.

These few caveats aside, the authors have prepared an impressive BC 150 commemorative book that reasserts the importance of the gold rush to our historical understanding of the province and the proceeds of which are to be donated to the British Columbia Historical Federation. Now, if we just could commence emulating the important work of academics in California and Australia with respect to the gold rush experience, perhaps the world would rush in once more – this time in the form of international conferences and comparative studies devoted to exploring this signal event. And, quite possibly, The Trail of 1858 will indeed serve to spark renewed interest in the subject. 

[1] Alfred Waddington, The Fraser Mines Vindicated (Victoria: Paul de Garro, 1858), 16-17.

[2] See Daniel Marshall, “No Parallel: American Miner-Soldiers at War with the Nlaka’pamux of the Canadian West,” in Parallel Destinies: Canadian-American Relations West of the Rockies, ed. John M. Findlay and Ken S. Coates (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).