Julie Ferguson writes:
After dinner one night in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mess hall in Victoria, men sat transfixed as James Douglas, governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, emptied a few shiny yellow grains onto the white tablecloth. It was gold from the mainland. “I’ve seen this before,” he said. “A couple of years back, a few natives began trading small amounts to the HBC outposts in the interior.”
A few weeks later, Douglas produced a large bottle half-full of placer gold that Aboriginal people had collected from the sandbars of the North Thompson River. Jaws dropped. “If this news spreads, Victoria will be overrun,” Douglas warned. “We are woefully unprepared.” Conversation erupted around the table and continued long into the night. It was spring 1857.
A year almost to the day that Douglas had impressed the diners in the mess with gold dust, the first prospectors hell-bent for the gold fields sailed into Victoria harbour. The Douglas family, dressed in their Sunday best, had just stepped from church and stood in astonishment as gold-hungry men disembarked from a dilapidated ship. The boisterous crowd, four hundred strong from San Francisco, scrambled ashore with picks and shovels swinging from their shoulders, and knives and firearms shoved in their belts. They wore slouch hats over long, unkempt hair and were none too clean.
Other worshippers crowded round the governor pressing for information. Douglas was evasive, trying not to alarm the Victorians. He guessed the first boatload of prospectors outnumbered the residents two to one and knew what it foretold. Tens of thousands infected with gold fever would soon roar through the small backwater on the farthest edge of the British Empire. Time had run out. Douglas told his family and neighbours to go home and walked over to the miners to deliver a speech of welcome and warning.
The illustration above, depicting the first gold rush ship to arrive at Victoria, is titled "Ho! for Fraser River". It appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine in December 1860. The artist was identified only as "Stephens".
© Julie H. Ferguson 2010