Although a few of the Americans moving west in the 1840s had seen gold panning practiced along the the mountain streams of North Carolina and Georgia, it was the Mexicans who were the first miners in the west.    A great silver rush began in Mexico in 1543, and in the next ten years more silver was produced than had been seized in the Spanish Conquest.   Mexico had a school of mines from 1792, while up until 1849 the United States had not a single public assayer.

In the European monarchical tradition, gold and silver were “Royal Metals,” belonging to the Crown.   Miners might be licensed to extract them, but the Crown would then take from them  its “Royal Fifth.”   This seizure was bitterly resented, and miners sought to evade it in whatever way they could.   Within the settled parts of Mexico, a discovery of mineral had to be “denounced” to the local authorities, the equivalent of staking a claim.    And from that moment the miners were subject to close supervision to ensure that the “Quinto,” or “Royal Fifth” did not escape the Crown.    A wealthy or well connected mine owner might induce the authorities to look the other way by judicious bribery, but poor miners with no influence at the Vice Regal Court were  subject to harassing  exactions by local authorities as well as the forfeiture of the “Quinto.”    They had but one recourse.   

The Court of Spain had drawn the “Rim of Christendom” at the boundary of Arizona and New Mexico with Sonora and Chihuahua.    The lands north of that line were declared to be “in partibus infidelorum,” the lands of the infidels.    These lands were to be entered only with military escort to protect the traveler from hostile Aboriginals, and in the case of miners, to seize their “Quinto” for the Crown. 

To evade these forfeitures, a system of clandestine mining in the frontier regions evolved.

Each spring, quiet groups of Mexican miners would set out from their wintering places at Sonora or Chihuahua City to slip over the “Rim of Christendom” without escort, and once in the Indian lands, would hire Apache Indians as guides and interpreters to secure peaceful passage through the Aboriginal lands.    These clandestine Mexican miners moved surreptitiously, avoided contact with the American fur trappers, and mined in total secrecy, closing their workings at the end of each season, so that others would not find them.    Old Spanish/Mexican workings have been found in all of the Southwest states as far north as Utah and Wyoming.

When the gold seekers of 1849 entered California they found the Mexicans already in place, washing the gold from the gravel bars of the Sierra.   James Marshall is credited with the “discovery” of gold in California, but the clandestine Mexican miners had been quietly removing California gold for some time.  The same was true in Colorado in the 1870s; the Mexican miners were already on the silver deposits when the Americans arrived, and were the only ones who knew how to extract silver bullion from its ores.     The Americans learned their mining techniques from the Mexicans, but it was not in their nature to adopt the characteristic Mexican secrecy about their work.    There was no “Quinto” in America; minerals found in the earth could be claimed in full by the man who dug them.   In the absence of existing regulations, the California miners made their own “Miners Law,” establishing number and size of claims permitted each man, days of work — Sunday was sacrosanct — and the means whereby claims might be held, sold or leased. 

When the California miners heard the news of a gold strike in British Columbia and headed north, they were to cross, at the 49th Parallel, another rim, the “Rim of Republican Institutions,” and enter into a British possession, where the Monarchical Doctrine still held: gold and silver were “Royal Metals,” and belonged absolutely to the Crown.

The tiny Colony of Vancouver Island was then ruled by “Old Squaretoes,” Chief  Factor James Douglas, of the  Hudson’s Bay Company, which operated the only stores Governor Douglas permitted to exist.    As well, he was Agent Manager for the Puget Sound Agricultural Company which operated the HBC farms and ranches.  Further, as Land Agent for the HBC, he was the sole seller of lands in the Colony.   The Colonial Office had sent out Richard Blanshard as Colonial Governor, but poor Blanshard had found that there was no Governor’s house for him; he had to board and room at the HBC post.   As he was not an employee of the HBC he had to pay the full 300% markup on any purchased.    As well, Governor Blanshard found he had no servants, no police, no judge, nothing whatever with which to set up an administration.   After an ineffectual year in which he was barely tolerated by the HBC, and without a private fortune,  he acknowledged defeat and went back to England.    James Douglas, “Old Squaretoes,” was then named Governor by default.   Thus, with all the economic power in the colony absolutely in his hands, Chief Factor Douglas now had all political power delivered to him as well.    He ruled with a legislative council he had appointed, consisting of himself, John Tod, former HBC Chief Trader at Fort Kamloops, and Captain James Cooper who had begun farming with some Kanaka labourers brought from Hawaii.   There was also a single immigrant in the colony, Captain Grant, who began farming outside Victoria.

It was tight little company Colony, 3000 miles from Hong Kong, the nearest British base, and 2000 miles from Canada over a wilderness which had only foot trails and canoe routes for communication.    San Francisco was its market for hides, dried fish, potatoes and livestock, and the Colony functioned as an economic satellite of California, only politically British. 

There was scant immigration.   Governor Douglas, and the Colonial Office, fearing American annexation, if U.S. settlers poured in to set up their own government as they had in Oregon, framed the immigration rules specifically to keep out Americans.   To discourage them, the price of land was set at £1 (appx. $5) per acre, with a minimum purchase of 20 acres.   For every hundred acres purchased, the settler must bring with him at his own expense “five single men or three married couples” to work the land.   It was a Squire and Tenant society that the Governor Douglas sought to reproduce in his colony, a little England.   But at the same time, any English freedman could step across the 49th parallel, become naturalized as an American, and select land in Oregon or Washington for 25¢ per acre.   And this was what many HBC employees, having completed their term of service, chose to do.   There was no profit in freedmen farming Vancouver Island; the HBC’s Puget Sound Agricultural Company was furnishing all the local market could absorb; an independent farmer had no market unless he exported his produce to the U.S. or Hawaii.

  The HBC indentured labourers on the Company’s farms and mills earned £17 per year (about $85), while the going rate for free labor was £70 ($350) per year.  As a result, many of them deserted to the American Territories.   The Colony was loosing as many immigrants as it gained; the immigration policy was a failure.   “Old Squaretoes” apparently liked it that way.    He was absolutely in charge, and was determined his Colony should stay as it was: British, orderly, and respectful of its betters.    Only one factor could change that, the Americans, and Governor Douglas feared and hated them.


  To the south, in California  by 1850, were tens of thousands of restless miners whose claims were no longer yielding “an ounce a day,” the minimum deemed sufficient to support one man.   They were beginning to filter north, seeking new gold fields.    There had been reports of gold finds in the Queen Charlotte Islands, north of the Colony.   On August 18, 1850, the unfortunate Governor Blanshard had written to Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey,

“I have seen a very rich specimen of gold ore, said to have been brought by the Indians of Queen Charlotte’s Islands.”

The HBC officers at Fort Simpson had got hold of some California nuggets and had asked the Indians if they had seen anything similar.   The Indians said that they had, and some weeks later an old Indian woman came in with a 21 ounce specimen of gold in quartz.   The next year, following the Haida Indians’ directions, the HBC men found at Mitchell Harbour on the west coast of Moresby Island, a vein, 6 inches wide in quartz, striking northwest, parallel with the coast.   The HBC men had come prepared with powder and chisels and blasted out the vein.  But the Haida Indians, quite naturally supposing themselves to be the owners of the mineral, would rush in after each blast, pick up all the gold they could, and carry it off with cries of triumph.   They defended their right to do so with drawn knives, and harassed the HBC men at their work.    The handful of company men felt this work was proving to be too hazardous, and after sone days work, fearing bloodshed, they withdrew.

However, the news of gold on the Queen Charlottes leaked out and in 1851 two ships set out from Puget sound with 60 American miners headed for the Queen Charlotte discovery.

The Queen Charlotte Islands were not part of the Vancouver Island Colony.   They were claimed by the British and the HBC had the exclusive right to trade with the Haida who lived there, but beyond that, Douglas had no legal authority.   The Puget Sound miners found small pockets of placer gold, but harassed by the warlike Haidas, and disappointed by their meagre takings, gave up.

The following year Governor Douglas learned that six ships had set sail from San Francisco with 500 men bound for the Queen Charlottes.   He communicated his anxiety to the Colonial Secretary in London,

“These vessels are chartered by large bodies of American adventurers, who are proceeding thither for the purpose of digging gold; and if they succeed in that object, it is said to be their intention to colonize the island, and establish an independent government, until by force or fraud, they become annexed to the U.S.”   

The six ships were real and bound for the Charlottes, but any plan to colonize the island was most probably Governor Douglas’ hostile fantasy.   Placer gold miners have very seldom been colonists.    The Californians’ object was to find gold, to dig it, and to take it back to San Francisco to spend in high living.   The idea that they might try to colonize a wilderness of islands where there was not a thing to buy with their gold, was absurd.    Governor Douglas obviously wanted to exclude all foreigners from the gold fields, and he was angling with the Colonial Office for authority to do so.

          The Colonial Office, not wishing to anger the Americans by excluding them, but concerned that some authority be placed over these nomadic miners, made “Old Squaretoes” Lieutenant Governor of all the British lands west of the Rockies, but it specifically required him to treat all nationals equally with the British.   With this new authority, Governor Douglas hastily imported a set of Australian mining regulations and proclaimed them for the Queen Charlotte Islands.   The doctrine of the “Royal Fifth” had lapsed in England, but precious metals were still the property of the Crown and could be mined only by licence from the Queen’s representative.

The Australian regulations now proclaimed for the Colony, the islands, and the mainland, required a miner to pay the government $3.00 per month for a license to mine gold, and claims could be no greater than 12 ft. by 12 ft., one to a man.

To further discourage the Americans, Governor Douglas recruited HBC men to go north at once, establish themselves on the vein and face down the Haidas.   When the U.S. ships arrived they found the one vein of gold taken over by the HBC men, and unable to find any other deposits, they sailed for home, not bothering to put in at Victoria to pay their licence fees.   The danger past, Governor  Douglas and his tight little colony lapsed back into the accustomed somnolence of English colonial gentlemen.


5 thoughts on “THE MINING ERA OF THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Bill Laux – Chapter 4

  1. Very interesting history! When people dismiss the Victorians’ “Great Man” approach to studying history, this is a good example of why that approach still has some validity. In this case, the reverse side of the coin, as rather than achieving great things, Governor Douglas seems to have single-handedly retarded the progress of the entire region.

    Liked by 2 people

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