Chapter Eight: “Have we any rights in common with white men?”

Late in June 1858, a canoe was found drifting down the Fraser River, not far from its mouth. In it was a Black man near death from seven stab wounds.

He was the second cook of the small steamship Sea Bird, which had been carrying miners up the Fraser when it struck a sandbar near Yale. Her passengers had continued on foot while the crew decided what to do next. Some chose to stay; others, including the cook, hired local guides to take them back downriver. The cook had been the only passenger in his canoe, and when the party camped overnight his escorts had stabbed and robbed him.

Somehow he managed to escape in the canoe, but he was too seriously wounded to do anything but let the current carry him. Taken to hospital in Victoria, he died within a day or two, probably the first Black casualty of the gold rush.

Other Black pioneers had better luck. English journalist D.W. Higgins, who would eventually take over the British Colonist from Amor De Cosmos, recalled arriving in Yale, the metropolis of the Fraser Canyon, in July 1858. He immediately met an old acquaintance:


One of the first men I ran against was Willis Bond, whom I dubbed the “Bronze Philosopher.” I had known him at San Francisco, where, having bought his freedom and made some money at the mines, he established himself as an auctioneer. Bond was glad to see me and introduced me to his partner, a Yorkshireman named George Harrison. The two had built a ditch and were supplying water to the miners who were washing the bank and beach in front of Yale for gold.


They would meet again, most notably in an episode of espionage and intrigue in Victoria during the US Civil War.

Like thousands of others, Higgins and Bond had crossed the Strait of Georgia in canoes, rowboats—anything that would float. Once on the mainland, they could either walk the hundred miles to Fort Hope or labour upriver against the Fraser’s strong current.

At Yale the Fraser Canyon narrowed to a turbulent river of white water. “About one-fourth of the canoes that attempt to come up are lost in the rapids,” one early prospector noted. Governor Douglas himself, in May 1898, reported to London that “many accidents have happened in the dangerous rapids of that river; a great number of canoes having been dashed to pieces and their cargoes swept away by the impetuous stream, while of the ill-fated adventurers who accompanied them, many have been swept into eternity.” This was the fate of a Black miner, nine Chinese miners and a White miner in November 1860, in a mishap at China Bar Riffle. Only one man, another Black miner, escaped alive.

The alternative to the river passage was hardly safer: to creep along narrow trails on the steep slopes of the canyon, with a long drop to the rocks and rapids below. “We had to pass where no human being should venture,” Simon Fraser wrote of the canyon route in 1806. It was no better fifty years later.

Facing these hazards, the miners welcomed Douglas’s 1858 project to build a road bypassing the worst of the route. Several hundred miners, including some Black men, built the road from Harrison Lake to Lillooet for only the cost of their food. These were no small wages; poor transport meant staggering costs for supplies in the Interior. Beef was twenty cents a pound in Victoria, but a dollar a pound on the Fraser. Fifty cents’ worth of tobacco in Victoria brought six dollars in the gold country. The new road helped to bring prices down very quickly.

The Indigenous peoples living near the Fraser Canyon were understandably alarmed at the invasion of thousands of strangers, many of them violent. They began to pick off the miners one by one. Many American miners en route to the Fraser were fighting a bloody war against the Indigenous peoples in Washington Territory, and news of the battles no doubt aggravated matters on the Fraser.

So did the arrogance of the Americans. The Indigenous peoples knew them as the “Boston men,” and they had never been trusted as “King George’s men” had been. By midsummer of 1858, conflict with the Indigenous nations had become critical. Several bodies had floated down the Fraser to Yale. Twenty-two out of twenty-six miners in one party had been killed in a running battle up the canyon.

Daniel Marshall, in his book Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New El Dorado, shows just how serious the American threat had become. Americans were not just coming through Victoria. Others went the long way around, from eastern Washington to the Thompson River and the Okanagan. Not only did they outflank Douglas, they came as well-armed private armies of prospectors who’d fought Indigenous peoples all the way from California. Their intent was to deter Indigenous resistance or to wipe out the resisters.

Having shot their way to the Fraser River, these armies continued with bitter skirmishes from Fort Hope to Yale. The Americans staked their claims and named them: Texas Bar, American Bar, Boston Bar and so on.

Worse yet, they simply seized or destroyed Indigenous resources. Some prospectors formed companies, took over local streams and lakes and diverted their water into flumes that could wash the gold out of the Fraser’s sand and gravel. In the process, they destroyed the salmon spawning grounds that Indigenous peoples had relied on for thousands of years.

James Douglas, after decades of experience with Indigenous peoples, understood their predicament, but could only appeal to the Colonial Office in London for more soldiers, marines and warships. London, in turn, advised him to appease the Americans. The last thing the British wanted was a war at the far side of the world where the Americans would have all the advantages.

Determined not to let matters get out of hand, Douglas himself led a party of British sailors up the river. He soon found, however, that the miners had already dealt with the problem: several hundred of them, heavily armed, had marched up the Fraser in a show of force and had then concluded peace treaties with the local nations.

The implications of their action were quite as serious as the Indigenous peoples’ hostility, so Douglas seized the opportunity to assert the Crown’s authority over “the motley population of foreigners now assembled on the Fraser” by setting up a court at Fort Hope to try a miner charged with murder. After the trial he spoke to a gathering of three thousand miners and later reported that they gave “three cheers for the Queen, but evidently with a bad grace. There is a strong American feeling among them, and they will require constant watching until the English element preponderates in the colony.”

Douglas especially disliked the Americans’ tendency to take the law into their own hands. He therefore appointed a number of “Stipendiary Magistrates”—all British subjects—to keep order in the mining camps.

These men acted as the local gold and lands commissioners, tax collectors and even coroners; none had any legal training. Each, however, was jealous of his authority, and when two of them came into conflict in the winter of 1858–59, the result was a small war. Not a shot was fired; it was a comic opera affair, though—like the Pig War—serious in its overtones.

The episode began on Christmas Day, 1858, when an American miner named Farrell walked from his claim at Hill’s Bar to Yale, a mile or so upriver. There he got drunk and pistol-whipped a Black barber named Isaac Dickson. Farrell then staggered back to Hill’s Bar while Dickson lodged a complaint with Mr. Whannell, the Yale magistrate.

Whannell issued a warrant for Farrell’s arrest and sent it to Hill’s Bar to be served on the miner. Hill’s Bar had its own magistrate, a man named George Perrier, who resented this invasion of his domain. He issued his own warrant—for Dickson’s arrest. Perrier’s constable tried to apprehend Dickson right in Whannell’s court; Whannell promptly jailed the constable on a charge of contempt of court.

Perrier now issued a warrant for Whannell’s arrest, and this time it was served by a whole posse. Its leader was an American named Ned McGowan. He had been in serious trouble with the San Francisco Vigilance Committee for his role in a murder (someone had even shot at him as he boarded ship for the BC goldfields). Annoyed by the squabble between the two magistrates, McGowan took Perrier’s side and marched into Yale. He freed the Hill’s Bar constable, invaded Whannell’s court and arrested him. The furious magistrate was bundled into a canoe and taken downriver to Perrier, who fined his colleague fifty dollars for contempt of court.

McGowan was now the real authority in Hill’s Bar, and he took advantage of his position to beat up a man who had been with the vigilantes in San Francisco.

British miners on the Fraser were shocked at these events and sent semi-hysterical reports to Victoria: “Yankee Rowdies defying the law! Every peaceable citizen frightened out of his wits! Summons and warrants laughed to scorn!”

Douglas promptly dispatched HMS Plumper, armed with a small howitzer, to restore order. Aboard was Colonel Richard Clement Moody with a company of his Royal Engineers, a hundred sailors and British Columbia’s first judge, Matthew Baillie Begbie.

The arrival of this force was a turning point in BC history. Had Douglas not acted decisively, McGowan might have turned his comic opera revolt into a genuine takeover and become the de facto ruler of the goldfields.

While most of the party halted at Fort Langley, Colonel Moody and his Engineers entered Yale. A mob of American miners greeted him by firing revolvers over his head. “If it was to try my nerves,” he later wrote, “they must have forgotten my profession. I stood up, and raised my cap and thanked them in the Queen’s name for their loyal reception of me.”

Finding the urbane colonel unintimidated, the miners relaxed a little and Ned McGowan decided to give himself up. He and his followers must have realized that they were as trapped by geography as by Moody’s soldiers. Surrounded by range after range of mountains, the Fraser canyon offers no easy exit except the river itself. With a determined government in control of the Fraser’s lower reaches, the miners were bottled up.

A day or two later, Judge Begbie arrived. He was much like his patron, Douglas: big, arrogant and sometimes self-dramatizing. As a lawyer in England, Begbie had had indifferent success. Now, at thirty-nine, he was in his true element for the first time. With his Vandyke beard, his penetrating glare and his judicial robes and wig, Begbie made a powerful impression on the rebel miners.

He promptly fired Perrier and his constable, reinstated Whannell and imposed a heavy fine on McGowan. McGowan responded by inviting the judge home for a drink, and Begbie was glad to accept. The two men then toured the diggings, on the very best of terms.

Despite this cordial conclusion to “Ned McGowan’s War,” the government felt it had proved, as Colonel Moody put it, that “in the Queen’s dominions an infringement of the Law was really a serious matter, and not a sort of half joke as in California.”

That was not the last time the barber Isaac Dickson found himself in a dangerous predicament. D.W. Higgins describes an incident involving a notorious American gunman named Tom O’Neil and Dickson:


There was a little negro barber at Yale who was known as “Ikey.” He was a saucy and presumptuous creature, with a mischief-making tongue in his head. Into Ikey’s shop one day entered Tom O’Neil.

“Barber,” quoth he, “I want yer to shave me.”

“Yeth, sah,” said Ikey, “take a seat.”

“And barber,” continued Tom, drawing a revolver and placing it across his knees, “if yer draw so little as one drop of blood I’ll shoot yer.”

The barber, fortunately, did not cut the vagabond, and so escaped with his life. In narrating the incident Ikey said: “If I’d a cut that man ever so little I made up my mind that I’d cut his throat from ear to ear. It would ha’ been my life or his’n, and I was shore it wouldn’t a been mine.”


For years after his arrival in the goldfields, Judge Begbie went on demonstrating that any infringement of his concept of “the Law” was serious indeed. He gained a reputation as “the hanging judge,” but more from his fiery rhetoric than from his sentences.

In one of this most celebrated eruptions, he chastised a jury for bringing in a verdict of manslaughter when premeditated murder had been proven: “You, gentlemen of the jury, you are a pack of Dalles horse thieves, and permit me to say it would give me great pleasure to see you hanged, each and every one of you, for declaring a murderer guilty only of manslaughter.”

In another murder case, the accused was found not guilty, prompting an earnest appeal from Begbie: “The jury in their infinite wisdom have declared that you are not guilty of sandbagging the deceased. In return for this I would simply state that you would do me an inestimable favour if, after leaving the court house, you sandbag each and every one of that jury, and see that not one escapes. . . . You can go.”

Few juries risked Begbie’s displeasure, however, and he generally ran his court as he pleased. While he allowed American lawyers to represent their countrymen, Begbie refused to allow Canadian-trained lawyers to argue their cases before him. (This may have been a personal idiosyncrasy, but it probably appealed to many English miners, who called the Canadians “North American Chinamen.”) Begbie’s word was indeed law, and the colonial government gave him complete freedom.

The miners moved steadily up the Fraser in 1859 and 1860 and began to fan out into the river’s tributaries. They were sure that somewhere lay a rich lode, the source of the fine gold washed downriver into the Fraser’s sand bars. In 1861 a party of miners discovered that lode on Williams Creek, in the Cariboo country east of the Fraser. A new rush started at once, and Black men took an active part in it.

Before long, Williams Creek was the site of a string of mining towns including Richfield, which became the administrative centre of the Cariboo, and Barkerville, which for a time was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.

Mining here was no simple matter of gold pans and sluice boxes. The gold of Williams Creek was usually well below the surface, so miners had to dig shafts and pump them dry. No individual could meet the enormous capital costs of shaft mining, so miners formed scores of companies to exploit the new bonanza. Some of these companies were made up partly or entirely of Black miners; one such group, though inexperienced, made twenty to forty dollars a day on Horsefly Creek in 1863.

Black settlers prospered both in mining and in meeting miners’ needs. They included William Allen Jones, an Oberlin graduate who was one of Barkerville’s first dentists as well as a miner; he was also among the first to apply “hydraulic” techniques to gold mining, using jets of water to blast hillsides into a slurry from which gold could be extracted. His brother Elias Toussaint, also an Oberlin graduate, mined in the Barkerville area.

Other Black professionals in the area included the caretaker of the Barkerville courthouse, a restaurant owner named Steele and the irrepressible Isaac Dickson, who had moved upriver from Yale. The Elevator, a Black newspaper published in San Francisco, had a Barkerville correspondent and distributed copies in the Cariboo.

As in Victoria, a few of the Black pioneers in the Cariboo were involved in serious crime. A Black man named William Laura was stabbed to death in the Fraser Canyon in 1860, but his case was unusual. In the summer of 1863, when Judge Begbie made one of his regular sweeps through the region, holding court on horseback or in tents, he reported with self-satisfaction:


There has not been a single crime of violence committed in the Cariboo since my arrival in June last—till three days ago, when one [Black man] was so insulted by an allusion to the fact of his day before yesterday’s breakfast being unpaid for, that he drew a knife and made two or three desperate stabs at the waiter (also a [Black man]). The plaintiff and defendant were both among the blackest men you could see. The rascal might have committed murder—manslaughter at least—but luckily the waiter was the stronger of the two, and when the prisoner saw the blood flowing pretty freely he got frightened & tried to escape. It was the only case of stabbing that has occurred. The jury might very well have found a felonious intent which would have given him 10 to 15 years. They took the lighter view of the matter however—so I gave him three years.— He is a good cook I believe, & [Chief Inspector of Police] Brew will find him useful at New Westminster in that capacity.


Sometime in the mid-1860s, Wellington Moses arrived in the Cariboo. His marital problems may have been the cause of his leaving Victoria: his wife (whose slightly odd appearance and behaviour had been noted by Sophia Cracroft) had attempted to drown herself in Victoria harbour in 1862. When rescued, she had claimed that her husband had left her for another woman.

If so, Moses never mentioned the fact in his diaries, and we have no record of another marriage or relationship. After wandering up and down the Fraser for a few years, he settled in Barkerville. Here he ran a sort of barbershop and dry-goods store, offering everything from ladies’ shoes (“No more cold feet!” his ads promised) to his own renowned Hair Invigorator, which he advertised in both the Cariboo and the Victoria papers:


TO PREVENT BALDNESS, restore hair that has fallen off or become thin, and to cure effectually Scurf or Dandruff. It will also relieve the Headache, and give the hair a darker and glossy color, and the free use of it will keep both the skin and hair in a healthy state. Ladies will find the Invigorator a great addition to toilet, both in consideration of the agreeable and delicate perfume, and the great facility it affords in dressing the hair. . . . When used on children’s heads, it lays the foundation for a good head of hair.


Although a single treatment cost twenty-five dollars, he had a steady stream of customers for it and some offered testimonials to its effectiveness in curing baldness.

Like most of the Black pioneers in the gold country, Moses led a quiet, uneventful life. Most of his diary entries deal with the weather and his financial accounts, and little more.

On one occasion, however, he helped to send a man to the gallows for murder.

In the spring of 1866, Moses had travelled south to New Westminster, and on his return late in May he became the travelling companion of a young Bostonian named Charles Morgan Blessing. Leaving their steamer at Yale, the two men continued on foot toward Barkerville, about four hundred miles north. (A stagecoach had been in operation since 1864 but was probably too expensive for the barber and the aspiring prospector.)

At Quesnelmouth they encountered another man, James Barry, who was also looking for company. Moses planned to break his journey for a few days; Blessing, however, was impatient to go on. As Moses later testified, Blessing was a timid man who distrusted most people, and he had reservations about Barry. He was carrying fifty or sixty dollars—not a large sum, given the cost of living in gold country—and he worried about being robbed. Blessing’s appearance may have made him seem more prosperous than he was: he sported an unusual tie pin, with a gold nugget naturally shaped like a man’s profile.

Overcoming his fears, Blessing left with Barry after agreeing to meet Moses at Van Winkle, a mining camp on the road to Barkerville. When Moses reached Van Winkle, he found no sign of Blessing and went on to Barkerville. A few days later he met Barry in the street.

“What have you done with my chummy?” Moses asked.

“Who? Oh, that [fellow]. I have not seen him since the morning we left the mouth. I left him on the road. He could not travel; he had a sore foot.”

Moses saw Barry twice more, and each time asked about Blessing; the third time, Barry “looked savagely” at him and muttered something under his breath.

One day in October, Moses was shaving a customer and noticed the man’s tie pin. It was obviously Blessing’s: a nugget with a man’s profile.

“Where did you get that?” Moses asked.

“From a hurdie,” the man replied. The hurdy-gurdy girls of the Cariboo dance halls were understandably popular in a country with few women. Moses in turn was popular with them, since he stocked ladies’ clothing and perfume, and often lent the girls money. He soon found the hurdie, who told him James Barry had given her the pin some time ago.

Now alarmed and suspicious, Moses went to Judge Cox in nearby Richfield. By coincidence, a report had just come about the discovery of Blessing’s body, not far from where he and Barry had last been seen together. Blessing had been shot once, in the back of the head, and his body had been concealed in some dense bush some forty yards below the trail.

As soon as news of the murder became public, Barry disappeared. On the strength of Moses’s information, Judge Cox sent Constable John Sullivan out to track him down. Sullivan knew that Barry was surely heading south and rode cross-country to try to intercept him at Soda Creek. He was too late: Barry had caught the stagecoach from Soda Creek to Yale.

Had he left a day or two earlier, Barry would almost surely have escaped, but as it happened, the telegraph line from New Westminster had just been completed as far as Soda Creek. Sullivan sent the first message south, describing Barry to the authorities at Yale. When they took him off the stage, Barry gave a false name; undeceived, the local constable sent him back north.

As Sullivan took custody of the fugitive, Barry asked what he was charged with, and who had laid the charge. Sullivan replied that he would be told the details when they reached Richfield.

“It is the coloured man, Moses the barber,” Barry said. “He was always asking me what had become of a man who had come up with me, and last I got vexed and told him, ‘I was no caretaker of that man.’”

Barry was jailed until the next assizes, in July 1867. Judge Begbie heard the case, including the testimony of Wellington Moses. He identified several personal items that had been found on Blessing’s body, including a knife, watch and pencil case. He also recalled that before leaving with Barry, the young man had said to Moses, “My name is Charles Morgan Blessing. Be sure to recollect it if anything should happen to me in this country.” He had also mentioned having fifty or sixty dollars left.

Other witnesses confirmed that Barry had been broke in Quesnelmouth but had been spending money in bars and on the hurdy-gurdy girls in Barkerville and Cameronton.

Though all the evidence was circumstantial, it was certainly enough to convict; the jury took only an hour to find Barry guilty. Next day, Begbie summoned the prisoner and asked if he had anything to say before sentence was passed. Barry began an incoherent story about leaving Blessing with a stranger while he himself went on with a party of Chinese travellers. Then, as if realizing it was futile, he said, “This is all the statement I want to make.” As Begbie concluded in his report of the trial, “Sentence of death was then passed in the usual way.”

Barry’s death warrant, with its official seal pressed into black wax, was issued on July 16. Three weeks later he was hanged at Richfield. Moses, meanwhile, had taken up a collection to give Charles Morgan Blessing a proper funeral in Quesnel and to put a headstone and railing on the young man’s grave.

That grave is now British Columbia’s smallest provincial historic site. As well, a memorial plaque to Blessing stands on Highway 26 between Quesnel and Barkerville.

Wellington Moses rarely came to public notice after the Blessing case, but Christopher Herbert reports that in 1870 Moses was charged with sexually assaulting an Indigenous woman, known as Full Moon, after getting her drunk. For this he was fined fifteen dollars, with five dollars to be paid to the woman as compensation for the damage he caused to her dress.

It is possible, Herbert suggests, that Moses also served in the Barkerville volunteer fire department. But this is conjecture, based on an 1869 photograph of the firefighters with Moses clearly visible behind the front row—and wearing no uniform. Apart from this, however, we have no evidence that he breached the colour bar that in Victoria had kept Black volunteers out of a similar group.

Most of the Black residents in the Barkerville area were far less prominent than Moses, but Isaac Dickson—the veteran of Ned McGowan’s war, who had nearly become the Sweeney Todd of British Columbia—enjoyed considerable popularity. “Dixie,” as he was known, had a quick sense of humour, and in the columns of the Cariboo Sentinel he used it to poke fun at life in the goldfields. In our own genteel era, dialect humour has unpleasant overtones of racist humour at the expense of Black people, but a century and a half ago, when peoples from all over the world tried to live together in North America, it was an accepted means of mixing laughter and social criticism. Isaac Dickson showed talent in the form.

In the first of his two letters, in 1865, Dickson opened with his compliments to the editor and his hopes for the newspaper’s success:


It gibs me much pleasure indee to see genelman ob your cloth on Wiliams Crek dis air season, an’ hope, sar, de indefatable entarprice an’ de talen I sees ’splayed in de columbs ob yer valable jernal will meet wid its juss rewad, dat is, dat de paper will pay big; . . . take de culed fren’s adwice ’bout looking arter No. 1.


The barber went on to offer more advice:


I dont dout, sar, de paper will ’tain heap dat’s headfying and instructin to de miners ob dis counry, but dont flatter yerself, mister editer, dat de teeching will be all on your side ob de kitchin, an’ emneting from yer own valable resaucers ’tirely, coss if yer does yer slip up on dat air ’rangment, you get darn sight to larn from de poplation ob dis garden ob ’Lestials [Celestials, or Chinese men], Injuns, white men and culed genelmen, an’ darn sight to see dat’ll sprise an’ muse yer.

Dere’s de breed ob dogs dat nabits dese regons, dey’s a curosity dey is demselves; nobody in dis worl eber seed sich a lot ob carnines togeder, or eber heerd sich a noise as dey makes; dey’s de bery ’centrated ensense ob bliss dey is, ’specially when dere’s a muss ’mong dem, dey seems to lib on musses, yet dey propgates offal fas.

Arter de dogs dere’s de udder animal dat puzzles me ’markable, de genelman dat goes round all de day wid hans in de pocket an’ puts on de frills; dont know how him lib, yet ’peers to get all de fat bones to pick, so some folks say him lib on BOOKS, on DECK, if dats de case him offul vegtarian, an’ grate charity of Capin Cox [Judge Cox] to change him diet, an’ sen him below [to prison in New Westminster].


Dixie also offered the editor and his readers advice on self-defence:


Dere’s de style of pugilistickism in dis counry, bery headfyin an’ ’musin; if eber you get in a muss, mister editer, neber tink to get out ob it on de squarr, if yer do yer gon in shure, pick up trifle like de axe, crowbar, or anyting ob dat sort dat’s not too hard, dat’s de style, if deare’s noting ob dat kine round de boot berry good substute, or shub de tum into de corner ob his eye, and be sure de eye cums out ’fore de tum den when its out kick it in ’gain wid de boot, dat de style Maria.


He praised the hurdy-gurdy girls:


Dere’s de Dush gals, dey’s purty smart gals, mister editer, to hold dere own in dis counry, poor gals, I hope dey may continy to do so; de stokeepers is offul down on ’em, coss dey krell all de dimes, bully for de gals, deys’s on it, you bet, on de make I means, sar; de sloon keepers, dere offul down on de gals too, coss dey draw de boys, and draw de dollars; but de sloon keepers oughter know dat de dance gals aluss took better dan anyting else in Californey, de meenus man will spen a dollar for a dance, coss “him dearly lubs de lasses, O.”


Politics was as intense in the Cariboo as in Victoria:


I hear de boys say dere’s to be a ’lection at de Mouth soon, I hope, sar, yer goin to put de best man in, de culed genelman de best, but as de ’jority ob de boys is not culed genelman, best for de counry’s good to put in de white man, assiss de subjecs, mister editer, ob dis loyal counry to get good resprentives. Hopin dese few ’marks will fine yer well, an’ rum for ’sertion in yer valable columbs,

I am, yours in brudderly ’fliction,



The editor was understandably glad to learn from Dixie that “de ’tilligent culed population on dis crek, days ’pointed me de litary cracker to sen ’butions to yer valable jernal,” and commented: “Our correspondent’s contributions will always be most acceptable.”

Other Black pioneers in the Cariboo included relatives of Mifflin Gibbs: his younger brother Isaac was there in the late 1860s, and so was “R. Gibbs,” who may have been Isaac’s wife. We know almost nothing of this period in the family’s history. Presumably they came west after Mifflin had established himself and his wife in Victoria, but Mifflin himself says nothing about it in his autobiography.

Modern visitors to Barkerville see a quaint little village surrounded by forested hillsides. Barkerville in the gold rush was built from trees clear-cut from those hillsides, and it was a dreary, muddy and inflammable little boom town. Like most other residents of Barkerville, the Gibbses suffered in the disastrous fire that destroyed the town in September 1868. John Anderson, the local correspondent for The Elevator, remarked that several Black residents had lost their homes and businesses: “Among the sufferers are our friends W.D. Moses, I.P. Gibbs, and Miss Hickman. Mrs. R. Gibbs saved her things, but lost her house.”

Whether Mrs. R. Gibbs was the wife of Isaac Gibbs is unclear; Wayde Compton, in Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, believes she was Mifflin Gibbs’s sister-in-law. But he says she was born in 1808, which would have made her close to twenty years older than Isaac Gibbs, who must have been born sometime in the late 1820s. A likelier birthdate is 1813: her burial records at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria indicate that she was sixty when she died in 1873.

Compton also describes Rebecca Gibbs as a “washerwoman” (which was also Maria Gibbs’s occupation after her husband’s death in 1831), but it seems unlikely that Isaac Gibbs—whatever his own occupation in Barkerville—would have allowed his wife to do such work. The correspondent names her in a separate sentence, which suggests she was not a close relation.

Whatever her relationship to the Gibbs family, she was certainly the Rebecca Gibbs whose poem on the great fire was published in the Cariboo Sentinel and later reprinted in The Elevator:


Come ye many sufferers and testify with me
How this village flourished in the year of sixty-three;
Although it did lack nothing in the year of sixty-four,
It then sustained a thousand, aye a thousand men or more.

Still years roll on, until it reaches sixty-eight,
And we are still together, and with you I share my fate:
We hear distressed mothers and children in the street—
Inhabitants of Cariboo, why should we then not weep.

The Almighty architect, though wicked we have been,
Looked down and smiled upon us, when we commenced again;
We viewed this waste land village, with all her wealth and pride
As Sodom and Gomorrah—this cannot be denied . . .


Rebecca Gibbs was also the author of an 1869 poem, “The Old Red Shirt,” which evoked the unhappy outcome of most miners’ dreams of wealth:


A miner came to my cabin door,
His clothes they were covered with dirt;
He held out a piece he desired me to wash,
Which I found was an old red shirt.

His cheeks were thin, and furrow’d his brow,
His eyes they were sunk in his head;
He said that he had got work to do,
And be able to earn his bread.

He said that the “old red shirt” was torn,
And asked me to give it a stitch;
But it was threadbare, and sorely worn,
Which show’d he was far from rich.

O! miners with good paying claims,
O! traders who wish to do good,
Have pity on men who earn your wealth,
Grudge not the poor miner his food.

Far from these mountains a poor mother mourns
The darling that hung by her skirt,
When contentment and plenty surrounded the home
Of the miner that brought me the shirt.


The status of Black people in the Cariboo was a complex one. Three ethnic groups—White, Black and Chinese—had suddenly occupied land held for centuries by Indigenous peoples. The newcomers, moreover, were overwhelmingly male and relatively young. This made for an explosive mixture, but racial conflict never broke out on a large scale.

The Black residents found themselves from the start in a relatively privileged position compared to the Chinese and Indigenous populations. Christopher Herbert, in his study of the racial relationships of the Cariboo, says Black people made up only about 4 per cent of the newcomer population. They spoke English, dressed like White people and strongly supported British rule. Those who didn’t mine tended to stay in traditional Black occupations like barbering and laundering. So they presented less of a challenge to the White pioneers than did the Indigenous and Chinese residents.

As a result, the Cariboo Sentinel was much less hostile to the local Black community than was the British Colonist in Victoria. The Sentinel certainly used racist epithets in its stories, and occasionally made a disparaging attack on Black individuals. For example, an 1870 report in the Sentinel had this to say about the theft of a Black woman’s property: “On Tuesday night last the house occupied by Mrs. Ann Wheeler (colored), Richfield, was broken into and a trunk abstracted containing clothing and jewellery valued at $400. At the time of the robbery, the ‘fair’ lady was enjoying the hospitality of a distinguished colored resident.”

Wheeler responded by posting an advertisement in the next issue of the paper, asking for the return of “deeds and other papers” taken in the robbery. She also asserted that at the time she had been in the company of a White friend, by implication a lady.

So while the White residents might criticize and ridicule their Black neighbours, the neighbours were ready to defend themselves in the same media.

The Aurora Mining Company dispute

One incident shows the uncertain status of the Cariboo Black community: In the Aurora Mining Company dispute, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, out of personal bigotry or sheer pigheadedness, ruled against a company made up of Black and White partners.

The case was complicated, but the chief issue was whether the Davis Company (made up of Black and White partners) had a claim to some land on Williams Creek that had been left unstaked by the White-owned Aurora Company. When the Davis Company struck gold on the claim, Aurora went to Judge Cox to assert its prior claim.

Cox ruled in favour of Davis. Aurora ignored his ruling and dug a shaft on that claim; now Davis appealed to Cox and again was upheld. The owners of the Aurora Company then took the case to Begbie.

At the end of May 1866, Begbie agreed with Aurora’s request for an injunction against the Davis Company that compelled the miners to stop working the disputed claim. Since he was elsewhere in the Cariboo at the time, Begbie ordered Cox to issue the injunction in his capacity as “Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court.” Cox refused, saying he held no such post and adding that he would resign it if he did.

Begbie promptly reached a decision that startled everyone. Claiming that there was no evidence that Aurora had failed to stake the claim by the deadline, he observed: “The stakes are still standing there. I went on the ground myself and saw them a few days before the case came on in order to satisfy myself. I have not the slightest doubt that the stakes were put in by the 8th August.”

As if aware of the frailty of his own argument, Begbie went on to demolish it himself by adding that whether or not the land had been staked, everyone knew it belonged to Aurora and that Davis had no right to claim it.

Having warmed to his task, Begbie now ruled that the land would indeed be divided between the two companies. He based his decision on the fact that in August 1864, the Davis Company had been all Black, and on the theory that the Black miners had knowingly “jumped” the claim. The White miners who had later bought out some of the Black partners had not known of the jump, and therefore received roughly one-third of the disputed claim. Aurora got the rest; the Black miners got nothing.

Having established this landmark of British Columbia jurisprudence, Judge Begbie went on his way. But several hundred miners gathered at the Richfield courthouse two days later, in the first public meeting ever held in the Cariboo, to protest the decision. They were furious at the unfairness of the ruling and alarmed at its implications: they now held their claims not according to law but according to Begbie’s whim. To make their views known, the miners passed three resolutions:


Resolved—That in the opinion of this meeting the administration of the Mining Laws by Mr. Justice Begbie in the Supreme Court is partial, dictatorial, and arbitrary, in setting aside the verdict of juries, and calculated to create a feeling of distrust in those who have to seek redress through a Court of Justice.

That this meeting pledges itself to support the Government in carrying out the Laws in their integrity and begs for an impartial administration of justice. To this end we desire the establishment of a Court of Appeal, or the immediate removal of Mr. Justice Begbie, whose acts in setting aside the Law have destroyed confidence and are driving labor, capital and enterprise out of the country.

That a Committee of two persons be appointed to wait upon His Excellency the Administrator of the Government with the foregoing resolutions, and earnestly impress upon him the immediate necessity of carrying out the wishes of the people.


Before the meeting ended, one of the White partners in the Davis Company was asked to speak. He was Frank Laumeister, a miner already famous for his attempt to introduce camels as pack animals in the Cariboo. Laumeister was understandably angry.

“Mr Chairman and Gentlemen,” he told the miners,


I have actually nothing to say. I am one of the victims, and stand victimized. Judge Begbie granted us a jury to try our case, that jury was sworn in and rendered their verdict and I was satisfied they had done what was right. Judge Begbie, however, came out two days afterwards with a sort of revelation, he sent the jury’s verdict overboard and instead of giving us half the ground . . . he gives us just about a quarter. We were advised by our counsel, who is an honourable gentleman, that the Judge would decide as a friend between the parties, and he certainly gave us a sample of his friendship. He threw out our coloured partners from any participation whatever in the ground, but these [Black men] shall not suffer any loss by me. If there is only a dollar comes out they shall have their pro rata share.


Laumeister and another miner were then chosen to take the meeting’s resolutions to New Westminster. When they presented them to Arthur Birch, the administrator of the government, he gave them little encouragement: Begbie would certainly not be removed, but an appeals court might be set up after Vancouver Island and British Columbia were united as a single colony.

The Black partners in the Davis Company were understandably bitter, and one of them protested in the Sentinel:


Sir,—Permit me to ask the following questions through your valuable paper.

First—Have we as coloured men the right to pre-empt ground for mining purposes?

Second—Have we any rights in common with white men?

Third—Why were our interests taken from us and given to white men?

I bought my interest in the Davis co’y and expended $2,900 before I received one cent out of said claim, and the dividends I have received . . . have been appropriated to pay my debts in this colony, but just at the time I was about to be rewarded, I have been deprived of that portion of the Davis claim which would pay. I have taken some pains to spread abroad the equality we as colored men had, in the laws of an English colony, and am proud to say I found no difference until now.

Poor Marshall lost his life coming to the Cariboo to look after his small interest in the Davis co’y, the only pittance he had left after 6 years hard work in this colony, and the only means of support for his family. His wife and four children are more in need of the money than those to whom it was given. There are about fifty colored men in and about Cariboo, the greater portion of whom are miners, and the quicker we know our position in this colony the better for us. Respectfully yours, COLORED MINER.


Christopher Herbert describes the editor’s response as “a rather peculiar statement”: a complaint about “violation of miners’, not Black, rights.”

Another response to “Colored Miner” came from “D.L.,” another Black man, defending Begbie: “[I do] not think that one holding the position that Hon. Chief Justice does could be biased with any feeling respecting color.” The judge might be wrong, D.L. argued, but British law was not systemically biased against non-White people. D.L. also thanked Laumeister for his position while reproving him for his use of racial epithets.

Unfair though it was, the Aurora decision seems to have been an isolated incident, magnified by Begbie’s status and power. In general, the Black miners, workers and businessmen of the Cariboo enjoyed considerable integration with the White residents. Christopher Herbert argues that this was because the Black men were less “other” than the Chinese and Indigenous men.

“Blacks took advantage,” says Herbert, “of the Whites’ fear of Chinese difference to spatially, socially and economically integrate within the White areas of the towns.”

Politics also played a part in the White elite’s acceptance of the Black population. Herbert says: “the town elites welcomed Blacks who were strong supporters of the social order . . . while fearing oppositional populist or republican-leaning Whites.”

But while Black settlers benefited from being familiar to the White population, and could look down on the Indigenous and Chinese communities quite as unfairly as they themselves were looked down on, they could also create access and opportunity for other marginalized communities. Herbert cites Wellington Moses, who acted as a kind of banker for two Indigenous people, Johnny and Annie. This gave them entry to the town economy that would otherwise be impossible. Other Black-owned businesses served all customers, of whatever race.

Black pioneers were involved in a lesser gold rush in 1864, within a few miles of Victoria. An exploration team was making a preliminary survey of Vancouver Island’s natural resources; near Sooke, about twenty miles west of Victoria, a group under Peter John Leech found gold in a small stream. The news didn’t spark an immediate rush, but four Black men—Samuel Booth, George Munro, John Tyril and William Dyer—formed a company and began serious prospecting on the newly named Leech River.

Booth soon found a nugget as big as a hen’s egg. The prospectors staked their claims, after which Booth and Munro took the steamer from Sooke to Victoria. The nugget was displayed in the Wells Fargo office, and within a few days many empty houses and stores showed signs explaining, “Gone to Sooke.”

For a year or two, Leech River produced a reasonable amount of gold, and several prominent Black settlers established themselves there. Willis Bond, orator and house-mover, returned to mining for a while, and Mifflin Gibbs made at least one visit. Richard H. Johnson, formerly an officer in the African Rifles, built the Mount Ararat Hotel near the Leech River in the winter of 1864–65. Its good food and well-appointed rooms were praised by Governor Kennedy, Douglas’s successor, and the hotel did well for a time. But the diggings never compared with those of the mainland, and by the early 1870s the only prospectors still at work in the area were two Black men and a few Chinese miners.

More slowly, but just as predictably, the fabulous wealth of the Cariboo also dwindled. From a crowded boom town, Barkerville shrank to a backwater; other settlements were deserted altogether. The gold seekers, Black and White, drifted on. Only a few remained to ranch, cut timber or mine coal.

Of this population, a few were Black: Wellington Moses, for one, lived in Barkerville until his death in 1890. William Allen Jones, the dentist and hydraulic miner, also stayed. His brother Elias returned to Oberlin in 1892; for an alumni update in 1895, he described himself as a “Gold miner—Since [1892] at Oberlin Ohio, doing nothing.”

Most of the Black miners made enough money to launch new ventures—or made nothing. Some of these men took up farming, and on Saltspring Island, forty miles north of Victoria, they helped to build a community that has survived to this day.