Chapter 5 - Miners’ Angels and Dance Hall Queens

A cold wind sighs through the evergreens. They cast deep, gloomy shadows across the old burying ground on the outskirts of Barkerville where weathered wooden headboards, time-darkened stone and rusty wrought iron straggle along the steep hillside. Almost 750 kilometres north of Greater Vancouver by road, this lonely little cemetery is where the luckless of Cameronton and Richfield staked their final claims—although by the 1880s those mining camps were gone, absorbed by Barkerville, the now-restored Cariboo boom town just up the road that is one of British Columbia’s famous tourist destinations.

Alturas Gold Mining Co. in Stout’s Gulch, near Barkerville, circa 1868, by photographer Frederick Dally. BC Archives A-04919


This old graveyard is one of BC’s most important pioneer historic sites, for here lies the flotsam and jetsam of the gold rush in whose crucible of greed, brutality, courage and vision the province and its destiny were forged. And there are few more poignant reminders of the roles that women played in that grand adventure than the simple memorials raised to those who came in search of fortune and found only six feet of cold ground.

Dance hall girls, circa 1900. They bestowed their favours for $1 a dance and a commission on every drink they could coax besotted
 miners to buy. Glenbow Archives NA-3439-3, NA-3439-2 and NA-3439-1

There is Jessie Heatherington, the “Scotch Lassie,” debauched by a drunkard husband, abandoned and then murdered by an unknown assailant. And Marie Hageman, who probably came to work in the saloons, bestowing her favours for $1 a dance and a commission on every drink she could coax from a besotted miner. There’s Margaret Blair, a much-loved wife who died giving birth to her fourth child at the desperately young age of 21. There’s Isabella Hodgkinson, the camp washerwoman whose epitaph, “Sleep, Bella, Sleep,” is her husband’s bittersweet farewell to the wife who rose every day before dawn. And there is Janet Allen, “Big Jennie,” the saloonkeeper who “dressed like a man, drank like a man and died like a man” in a carriage crash but for whom every flag flew at half-mast and who was eulogized in the Cariboo Sentinel as “nurse and friend to the miner” for her kindness toward the sick, injured or distressed.

Glenbow Archives NA-3439-2

These women were among the remarkable few carried by the gold-crazed tide of humanity that flooded up the Fraser River in 1858, spilled along its tributaries and seeped across the mountain passes, opening the remote and barely known regions of the Chilcotin, the Cariboo, the Kootenays and the Cassiar to European settlement. They came by steamboat and pack train from California, like Nellie Cashman. Born in Ireland the year before the great famine, she later immigrated to Boston, followed the California gold rush to San Francisco and then went on to BC, where she ran boarding houses and restaurants. The “Angel of the Cassiar” was legendary for her good works with the poor, the sick and the indigent.

Glenbow Archives NA-3439-1

Although Nellie never married—“Why child, I haven’t had time for marriage. Men are a nuisance anyhow, now aren’t they? They’re just boys grown up,” she told an American reporter—when her sister Fannie died, she raised five nieces and nephews. Yet the Angel was as tough as any sourdough. In 1874, she and six men packed more than a tonne of fresh supplies through deep snow to Dease Lake to avert an outbreak of scurvy and at the age of 78 she mushed a dog team 750 kilometres in Alaska. She died of pneumonia in Victoria in 1925 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery with the Sisters of St. Ann where her gravestone reads: “Friend of the sick and the hungry and to all men. Heroic apostolate of service among the western and northern frontier miners. Miner’s Angel.”




Nellie Cashman, circa 1874: The “Angel of the Cassiar” ran boarding houses and cared for the sick. BC Archives D-01775

Others, no less tough than Nellie Cashman, came overland from the Prairies, struggling from valley to valley. The most famous of these was Catherine Schubert, born in Ireland in 1835. Four months pregnant, with three children aged one, three and five in tow, she and her husband Augustus set out for the Cariboo from Fort Garry in 1862 with a party of gold seekers later known as the “Overlanders.” It was a perilous journey beset by hardships. Two drowned and the rest almost starved. But Catherine survived and while travelling down the Thompson

River by raft she went into labour. She was cared for by the women of a First Nations settlement and her baby girl, Rose, was the first non-aboriginal citizen to be born in BC.

Lottie Mabel Bowron and company enjoying a sleigh ride. Lottie was born in Barkerville in 1879 and became inspector of social welfare for about 800 female teachers, most of whom worked in rural one-room schools. BC Archives C-09760


“That was almost heaven. . .”

I used to waken in the morning to the sound of rushing Williams Creek and the song of the anvil from the O’Neil blacksmith’s shop across the street and the sound of Billy Hodgkinson’s pack horse with a bell carrying milk up town from the milk ranch down the road.

Another cheery sound was the water dripping into the water barrel in the wood shed. This had to be brought from the springs on the hillside in overhead wooden troughs and to the backs of the various homes by smaller troughs. Can’t you hear the arguments and tempers rising on wash day when the first house took more than its share of the precious water?

On the cold, cold days the sound of the frost and snow crackled beneath our feet and the sidewalks as we ran home from school for our lunches. On those bitter days mother usually had a big pot of hot pea soup on the stove in the front room. Most of the house had to be closed off to keep us warm.

I recall the anxiety lest the snow should not have gone by May 24th so that we girls might wear our summer dresses for the usual picnic at Joe Mason’s meadows up at Jack O’Clubs Lake.

And then the lovely walks with Mother up to Richfield, through Chinatown, past Stout’s Gulch and the canyon, where Billy Barker sank his shaft. The walk was to bring my father home. His office was in the old courthouse. . .

The exciting arrival of the stage on Thursday evening and its departure Saturday morning—everyone was excited when the stage came in—the children watched for it behind the church—then the cry being carried from one child to another—“Here, here’s the stage, here’s the stage.”

If you’ve never travelled by the “BX” Barnard’s Express then you’ve never travelled. Four days from here to Ashcroft—the lovely, spirited horses, the heavy red coaches. And to get to sit next to the driver on the box—that was almost heaven.

—Lottie Bowron, a native of Barkerville whose father, John Bowron, was an Overlander, quoted in Barkerville: A Gold Rush Experience, by Richard Thomas Wright


The catalyst for all these adventures—and more—can be traced to February 1858, when James Douglas delivered 800 ounces of gold dust from the Thompson River to the Hudson’s Bay Company. When that gold was refined at a San Francisco mint, prospectors who had played out their diggings or had bad luck in California drifted north. On April 25, 1858, the American ship Commodore arrived at Fort Victoria, population less than 300, carrying 450 passengers bound for the goldfields. By the end of August, 1858, 20,000 people had arrived in Victoria and another 13,000 were moving into the Lower Mainland from the American side of the 49th parallel. In 1858, those miners took 106,000 ounces of gold from the Fraser River system, an amount worth more than $50 million at today’s prices and a discovery of mind-boggling richness for its time.

Ann and Rose Williams wash dishes at the Nettie L. mine in Ferguson in the Kootenays. Opportunities for women to work for wages were limited. Mattie Gunterman Photo Vancouver Public Library VPL 2266

It was essentially a male invasion—by 1861, there were still only 192 non-Native women living on the mainland, an area the size of Western Europe—and this distorted demographic resulted in what historian Adele Perry describes as an intensely homosocial culture. It was a society, she says, that continued to circumscribe women’s lives in traditional ways. In an economy dominated by resource extraction and back-breaking labour, women’s opportunities to work for wages were severely limited. A few entrepreneurs found themselves in business running laundries, boarding houses, saloons, bakeries and eating establishments or making clothes.

The Flynn brothers and their wives at the Williams gold claim at Mosquito Creek in the Cariboo, 1903. BC Archives A-03838

Others took positions as governesses or teaching in public schools for pitifully small salaries that encouraged them to marry as quickly as the opportunity arose. Some were recruited as “hurdy-gurdies” who nominally provided dances and socializing for a fee but were often forced to provide sexual services on the side, although more than a few wound up married to former clients.

For all but the establishment elite in Victoria, life was hard, dangerous and unforgiving, as the grave markers at Barkerville attest. And yet, by the time these women were laid to rest, the social and demographic landscape of BC had been utterly transformed and a new province had been born, phoenix-like, amid the ashes of their endeavours.

The Hotel de France in Barkerville, circa 1863. Life was hard, dangerous and unforgiving, as the grave markers in the town attest. BC Archives A-02051



German dancing girls, known as hurdy-gurdies, Barkerville, 1865. They provided dances for a fee, but often were forced into sex. BC Archives G-00817

“Brought to America by some speculating, conscienceless scoundrel . . .”

Hurdy-Gurdy damsels are unsophisticated maidens of Dutch extraction, from “poor but honest parents” and morally speaking, they really are not what they are generally put down for. They are generally brought to America by some speculating, conscienceless scoundrel of a being commonly called a “Boss Hurdy.” This man binds them in his service until he has received about a thousand per cent for his outlay. The girls receive a few lessons in the terpsichorean art, are put into a kind of uniform, generally consisting of a red waist, cotton print skirt and a half mourning headdress resembling somewhat in shape the topknot of a male turkey, this uniform gives them quite a grotesque appearance. Few of them speak English, but they soon pick up a few popular vulgarisms; if you bid one of them good morning your answer will likely be “itsh sphlaid out” or “you bet your life.

The Hurdy style of dancing differs from all other schools. If you ever saw a ring of bells in motion, you have seen the exact positions these young ladies are put through during their dance, the more muscular the partner, the nearer the approximation of the ladies’ pedal extremities to the ceiling, and the gent who can hoist his “gal” the highest is considered the best dancer; the poor girls as a general thing earn their money very hardly.

—letter to the Cariboo Sentinel, September 6, 1866 (quoted in British Columbia: A Centennial Anthology edited by Reginald Eyre Watters)


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