Chapter Two: “I think that the country is full of gold”

The land to which the Black Californians had been invited was one of the last parts of North America to feel the impact of European expansion. Lying north of the Columbia River, west of the Rocky Mountains and south of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest was at the farthest extent of four empires: Russia, Spain, Britain and the young United States.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia was content with Alaska. Spain had withdrawn to California, leaving Britain in possession. The British, however, were soon obliged to share part of the Northwest with the United States. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the remoteness of the region and the lack of settlers kept the two powers from conflict over its resources, though both sides expected an eventual confrontation for mastery.

But the Pacific Northwest was little known, and explorers’ reports portrayed it as grim and uninviting. The interior was a labyrinth of mountains and rivers, sparsely inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The mainland, known as New Caledonia, had a coast of islands and inlets creating seventeen thousand miles of shoreline in the five hundred miles between Puget Sound and Alaska. Dark, dense forests of hemlock, cedar and fir mantled the mountains right down to tidewater, interrupted only by steep rivers falling violently into the sea.

Captain George Vancouver, who mapped much of this coast in 1792, found it beautiful but depressing. Describing the coast near the site of the city that would one day bear his name, he wrote:


The low fertile shore we had been accustomed to see, though lately with some interruptions, here no longer existed; their place was now occupied by the base of the stupendous snowy barrier [the Coast Mountains], thinly wooded, and rising from the sea abruptly to the clouds; from whose frigid summit, the dissolving snow in foaming torrents rushed down the sides and chasms of its rugged surface, exhibiting altogether a sublime, though gloomy spectacle, which animated nature seemed to have deserted.


Barrenness was a mistaken impression. The coastline teemed with life. The rivers and sea were filled with millions of salmon, halibut, cod and other fish. Schools of herring were so dense that they could be literally raked from the water. Countless shorelines contained “clam gardens,” a sophisticated form of mariculture by which Indigenous peoples cultivated butter clams and other shellfish. The forests were full of deer, edible plants and berries.

As Vancouver himself learned, the peoples of the Northwest Coast had developed complex societies, with technologies advanced enough to make good use of the resources of land and sea. The Haida of Haida Gwaii, for example, built ocean-going canoes in which they hunted whales and ventured as far south as California to trade and raid.

While the coastal nations’ metallurgy was chiefly limited to copper, they were familiar with iron—obtained through trade with Asia or by salvage of shipwrecked Asian vessels—and they were master craftspeople and brilliant artists in wood.

Vancouver found in the Indigenous peoples “an ardent desire for commercial transactions,” and his arrival marked the beginning of a long period of commerce that was to make the development of the Northwest radically different from that of other North American frontiers. Too remote to be conquered and converted to Christianity, not yet seriously weakened by European diseases, the Northwest Coast peoples had developed extensive trade networks over centuries and easily incorporated European goods into their economies.

These cultures had for centuries supported one of the largest populations north of Mexico. Smallpox from Mexico had probably reached the region at least once before Cook and Vancouver did; before that disaster, the BC coast may have supported a population as high as 200,000. When Vancouver arrived, the natural wealth of food and timber was supporting a coastal population estimated by anthropologist Wilson Duff at 86,000—one-third of the total Indigenous population of British North America.

The coastal peoples were not only numerous, but also rich. Two or three months’ work produced enough food to sustain a family all year. What was not locally available could be traded for, whether up and down the coast or from the interior. (When North West Company fur trader Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific coast in 1793, he simply followed long-established trade routes.)

Given a high standard of living, the coastal peoples became renowned artists. Their societies were rigidly stratified, but one could rise in power and status by potlatching—ceremonially giving away huge amounts of goods. Even women could and did rise in status by this method. Potlatching satisfied ambition, distributed wealth, strengthened community ties and created work for traders and artists. European goods increased the wealth, permitting—indeed, demanding—even greater displays of opulence.

For more than a generation, therefore, trade with Europeans enabled the Northwest Coast peoples to enrich their own cultures artistically, economically and politically. But they were increasingly dependent upon European goods and weapons.

Unlike their neighbours in Oregon and California, however, the Pacific Coast nations did not collapse under the weight of growing numbers of White settlers. The Northwest was for a long time thinly peopled by Europeans as a direct result of the gigantic enterprise known as the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

Since 1670, the HBC had enjoyed a trade monopoly over a region known as Rupert’s Land—a vaguely defined wilderness including most of what is now Canada west of Lake Superior and east of the Rockies. In 1821, the British government granted the company the right to trade west of the Rockies in two districts: New Caledonia in the north and Columbia in the south. In effect, a vast portion of North America became the private property of a single corporation. The American West was overwhelmed largely by adventurers, entrepreneurs and pioneers whose individualism took it close to anarchy. The Northwest, by contrast, was run by clerks—organization men in an almost military hierarchy, working for a corporate employer in London.

Company traders had no desire to exterminate the Indigenous peoples, who after all were the HBC’s chief suppliers of furs and its chief customers for trade goods. The company made a policy of supplying first-rate merchandise in exchange for furs, and where it had a monopoly it refused to sell liquor; the traders knew that alcohol was bad for business.

Neither did the company want to encourage White settlement. Settlers would bring an inevitable challenge to the company’s monopoly and its eventual displacement as the regional government. For years, therefore, the only White people living permanently in the Northwest were HBC employees.

The threat of American “manifest destiny”

This convenient arrangement couldn’t last. American expansion into the Columbia district was rapid, and—from the standpoint of the British and Indigenous inhabitants—the quality of the newcomers was alarming: “worthless and lawless characters,” one Englishman called them.

In Oregon, the southern part of the Columbia district, the Americans quickly formed a provisional government that excluded the French-Canadian settlers on the Columbia River. They appealed for US annexation and talked seriously about driving out of the country any White man with an Indigenous wife.

By international treaty, English and Americans were guaranteed equal access to the Columbia district, so the HBC could do nothing to hinder the newcomers. Surviving largely thanks to the HBC’s generous assistance, the Americans ungratefully threatened to storm and loot its supplies at Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia from modern Portland, Oregon. To the HBC traders, these Americans must have seemed very much like those who had taken Texas from the Mexicans a decade or so earlier.

In 1846 the boundary between British and American territory was set at the 49th parallel. But the few hundred British subjects north of the line saw no real obstacle to the Americans if they chose to take over everything up to 54º40′ north latitude—where Russian Alaska began. The Americans knew it too; “manifest destiny” soon put two-thirds of Mexico in American hands, and nothing stood in their way if they chose to take the British Northwest.

If Britain were to hold the Northwest, some kind of political entity had to be created. Reluctantly, the company agreed to the establishment of a crown colony on Vancouver Island in 1849. (The mainland remained HBC territory for several more years.) Virtually every White man in the new colony was a company employee and did as the company ordered. As a result, the first governor, Richard Blanshard, came out from England unprepared to deal with the situation. He found he could do nothing unless his actions suited the HBC. In less than a year, he resigned. London recognized reality and was obliged to appoint as the next governor the man who had been the de facto ruler of the Northwest for years: James Douglas, the company’s chief factor on the coast.

No one in the British Empire was better qualified for the job. Douglas’s knowledge of the country was based on twenty-five years’ experience. His administrative skills were great; even his pomposity, arrogance and autocratic style of government were assets in dealing with Indigenous and White inhabitants alike. Had anyone else attempted to govern the new colony in the 1850s and 1860s, it is likely that British Columbia—perhaps all of western Canada—would have become American territory right up to 54º40′.

James Douglas was born in Demerara, British Guiana, in 1803. His father was a Glasgow-born merchant who had settled there to run his family’s sugar plantation. Little is known of James Douglas’s mother except that she was Creole, almost certainly of mixed White and African ancestry. Though Douglas and his brother and sister were illegitimate, his father recognized them as his and provided for their upbringing after he left the country and married a Scottish woman.

Douglas was therefore sent to school in Scotland, and after a solid education he sailed to Canada in 1819 as a clerk for the North West Company—fur traders in competition with the HBC. Within a year he was actively involved in the fierce rivalry between the Nor’Westers and the HBC along the Churchill River in what is now northern Saskatchewan.

Tall, rugged and muscular, Douglas was physically and temperamentally suited to a hard country. The circumstances of his birth were no disadvantage; the fur traders cared more about profits than their employees’ backgrounds. Both companies had often employed Black, Indigenous and Metis workers. The Nor’Westers fired Douglas’s brother for “stupidity” while Douglas himself rose rapidly.

He transferred to the HBC when it absorbed the Nor’Westers in 1821. In 1825 the company sent him across the Rockies to Fort St. James, in New Caledonia, where he soon married the half-Indigenous daughter of the chief factor.

While much of his work was no doubt unexciting and routine, Douglas showed that he could think fast and act decisively. The company made and enforced New Caledonia’s laws, and when the young clerk learned that a murderer was hiding in a nearby village, he is said to have entered the village and dragged the man out by the hair. According to one version of the story, Douglas personally blew the man’s brains out. Other accounts say he allowed his assistant to execute the criminal.

But Douglas had a talent for cynical frontier diplomacy as well. Once, when a local nation was angry about some minor incident, Douglas smoothed things over by issuing large amounts of biscuits and molasses. “Dear me, dear me,” he murmured as the feasters forgot their grievance, “what a lot of good a little molasses can do!”

In 1830 the company sent Douglas south to Fort Vancouver, where he was to spend the next twenty years. His superiors already saw him as a man likely to rise, though he endured snubs from proper Englishmen who disapproved of his marriage “according to the custom of the country” to a half-Indigenous woman. James and Amelia Douglas were not formally married until 1837.

Douglas worried more about land-hungry Americans than about snobbish Englishmen. By the end of the 1830s, it was clear that they would eventually displace the British from the Columbia district. In the 1840s, Douglas—by now a chief factor—recommended that the HBC move its headquarters to the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

The company agreed, and in 1843 Douglas personally supervised the building of Fort Victoria. Six years later, after the Columbia district was handed over to the US, the new fort did become the HBC headquarters on the coast. The British Colonial Office made Victoria the capital of the new crown colony.

When Douglas became its second governor in 1851, the colony’s prospects were poor. Under the terms laid down by London, the company had to charge one pound sterling per acre to prospective settlers, who in turn had to guarantee to put a certain number of people on the land. This was a strong discouragement to growth, since anyone could obtain 640 acres in Washington Territory for nothing, and land in Oregon was only a few cents per acre.

In addition, the Crown recognized the Songhees Nation’s possession of the land, and Douglas was obliged to buy it from them before he could sell it to Europeans. The Songhees leaders accepted “371 blankets and a cap” and likely had a very different understanding of the deal’s terms. But Douglas had very little money available for buying land. So growth was stymied by the poverty of the government.

As long as population growth was slow, Douglas did not feel much pressure to carry out London’s terms for establishing political institutions in the colony. The government was supposed to consist of a governor, an appointed council and an elected assembly. Before he left, Governor Blanshard had appointed the council—Douglas and two others—but his successor preferred to run things himself while rarely consulting the council. The lack of settlers permitted him to postpone creation of the elected assembly until 1856, and then only because the Colonial Office directly ordered him to do so.

Totally opposed to universal suffrage, and unfamiliar with democratic institutions, Douglas set stiff property qualifications for voters and candidates. No one could vote for an assemblyman without owning at least twenty acres of land, or run for a seat without “300 pounds sterling worth of freehold property or immoveable estate.” In the three electoral districts outside Victoria, this meant that candidates took their seats unopposed, and in Victoria itself the election of 1856 was decided by a handful of votes.

“A goldfield of incalculable extent”

In the early years of his administration, therefore, Douglas ruled as an autocrat and had to deal single-handedly with events. One of his first challenges came in 1851, when gold was discovered in the islands of Haida Gwaii, off the northern mainland coast. Miners from California swarmed to the islands, and Douglas—though he had no right to do so—asserted the rights of the Crown over the islands. London belatedly supported his measures.

Though the American presence in Haida Gwaii was transient, Douglas had seen—as he had when based on the Columbia River—how quickly his southern neighbours could occupy any part of the Northwest Coast. A few years later, he faced a similar, but much more serious, predicament.

In 1855, a few American prospectors began working their way up the Columbia River into New Caledonia. The next year they found gold, though in small amounts, and still more miners filtered across the border. When they moved on to the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, they began to find real paydirt.

Rumours of the strikes soon reached Douglas in Victoria, along with samples of ore, but word did not stop there. By March of 1858, the American settlements on Puget Sound were deserted after reports reached them that miners were making up to fifty dollars a day from the Fraser’s gold-rich sand bars. This time, Douglas was convinced that a real rush would soon be underway. As he himself told one group of miners a few months later, “I think that the country is full of gold, and that east and north and south of Fraser’s River there is a goldfield of incalculable extent.”

Douglas knew that the news would reach San Francisco within days and would lure huge numbers of Americans into Victoria en route to the mouth of the Fraser, across the Strait of Georgia. Many would stop in Victoria; others would settle down on the mainland, where the Hudson’s Bay Company was still the only form of authority. Late in 1857, Douglas had—quite illegally—proclaimed Crown ownership of all mines on the mainland; he required prospectors to pay twenty-one shillings (about five dollars) “to dig, search for, and remove gold.”

As in the case of Haida Gwaii, the Colonial Office praised him after the fact “for acting . . . with promptitude and intelligence” and promised that New Caledonia would soon receive colonial status.

In the meantime, Douglas was on his own. A repetition of the American takeover of Oregon looked very likely. As Douglas warned London, “If the majority of immigrants be American, there will always be a hankering in their minds after annexation to the United States. . . . They will never cordially submit to English rule, nor possess the loyal feelings of British subjects.”

The British population of Vancouver Island was only about one thousand, with fewer than five hundred in Victoria itself. They would scarcely counterbalance the newcomers. In addition, Victoria was contending with a permanent labour shortage. It was a nuisance now, but it would be paralyzing when the Californians flooded in.

The lack of skilled manpower was so severe that when a small military detachment was sent out to survey the international boundary that spring, Douglas told London that the soldiers would be hard to accommodate:


The floating population of this Colony have, with very few exceptions, wandered off to the newly discovered diggings at Thompson’s River, and there will therefore be great difficulty, unless the mines prove a failure, in engaging local [White] labour. Indian labourers can however be engaged in any number required though it would not be advisable to employ a large proportion of that class of labourers, as they are a rather unruly force, requiring very close and constant supervision.


What the colony needed, obviously, was a sizable group of hardworking settlers who were not Americans—settlers who would be loyal to the Crown. And it needed them in a matter of weeks.

Aware of events in San Francisco, Douglas must have known of the growing discontent of its Black community. Here was a relatively large, cohesive group of industrious people. Since the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, slavery had been upheld and even free Black people had been denied the hope of citizenship in their native land. Such people would certainly not feel “a hankering in their minds after annexation”; if they settled in British territory, they could serve as a useful counterweight to the American influx Douglas expected.

It seems likely, therefore, that Douglas himself sent the invitation that Captain Nagle presented to the San Francisco Black community in mid-April 1858. No one else in the colony would have had the authority to do so. No one else would have seen the urgent need for such settlers. And no one else would have dared to extend such an invitation without Douglas’s knowledge and approval.

The invitation arrived at the precise moment when the Black Californians were poised to act. It was decisive. Within a few days of Archy Lee’s release, he and the rest of the Pioneer Committee stepped off the Commodore onto British soil.