GOLD ON THE COLUMBIA
The first report of a mineral occurrence in the Upper Columbia Basin was that of British naturalist, David Douglas. While accompanying an HBC trading party in 1825, he reached Kootenay Lake and either observed, or more likely was shown, the prominent outcrops of “chicamon rocks” by the local Indians. British Columbia historians have assumed that the Hudson’s Bay men had shown the local Indians how to break off chunks of the galena outcrop above the lake on the Riondel peninsula, and melt them in a fire to cast bullets for their muskets. It may have been that the Sinixt and Kootenay Indians had shown the HBC men. The fact that the Indians had mined galena from outcrops east of Northport, WA before they were “discovered” by American miners, suggests that it was the aboriginals, rather than the HBC men who began the mining of galena in a small way. All of these deposits of galena (lead sulfide), they called “Dead Medicine,” their term for musket balls.
The chief factor at Fort Colvile from 1833 – 1844 was the educated and energetic Archibald Mc Donald. Learning of the Kootenay Lake lead deposit from his men, he visited it personally in September, 1844 to determine its value. He drew a map of the location, collected a number of samples, and sent them down the river to Dr. John McLaughlin at Fort Vancouver to be forwarded to England for assay. In his letter to HBC Governor James Douglas, he describes the location.
“The ore is picked up on the 2nd eminence of the Presque-Isle at “A”, about 100 feet high. There is something of a crater at top, and ‘tis from the debris or heaving up of old, covering the land side of the conical hill that the ore is found in loose lumps among the earth…I cut my initial in a large tree along side…”
Chief Factor McLoughlin forwarded the samples to Archibald Barclay, the Secretary of the Company, in London with his observations in a letter of November 23, 1844.
“From a small portion of the metal tested here, a considerable quantity of very fine soft lead was obtained; but our mode of analysis was not sufficiently accurate to detect the traces of any more precious metal.
“It is not probable that mining operations could be carried on to advantage at Flat Bow (Kootenay) Lake, the distance being about 600 miles from the sea coast, and the water navigation so difficult and dangerous that the metal would have to be transported with pack horses more than half the distance by land. The mine is also on the south side of the Columbia River, and will therefore, in all probability, eventually fall within the limits of the United States Territory, and, if the reported mineral wealth of that part of the country becomes known to the Americans, it will raise its value, and may become an additional motive with their Government to make good their claims.”
Several things are clear from this letter. Mc Loughlin, if not Governor Simpson and the HBC, already accepted that the British would eventually have to cede the land south of the Columbia to the Americans. But as long as the status of dual sovereignty endured, it would be best to keep knowledge of any mineral deposits in the District of Columbia confidential, lest it arouse the cupidity of the Americans.
A source of lead for musket balls was a significant find in the Northwest. All HBC lead was coming from England by ship, and a local source would be a source of considerable profit for the company. But the letter also indicates the impracticability of exploiting the deposit since the Bonnington Falls and rapids of the Lower Kootenay River blocked the usual HBC transport by bateaux, and a portage of about 30 miles by pack animals would be required around these obstructions.
A discovery of lead might be kept confidential within the Company, but gold was a different matter. The news of the rich gold strikes in California was being discussed all over the Northwest in the 1850s. Dozens of HBC employees deserted to join the parties of men heading south for the California diggings. A few, still loyal to the company, or unwilling to leave their families and ranches in the Washington Territory, wondered. Was it worth heading south to join the rush, or might there be gold on the Columbia or its tributaries? The HBC posts in the Interior had been supplied with small sample of gold nuggets from the California diggings. These were shown to employees and Indians and the question asked: Had they ever seen anything like this? The possibility induced Fort Colvile teamster Joseph Morel, who was gathering driftwood on the shore of the Columbia in 1854, to experimentally wash out a few pans of gravel.
In the Northwest 1854 was one of those years when one era comes to a close and new one opens. In that year the fur trade in the Northwest was dwindling owing to a reduced demand for beaver pelts. The HBC was more and more turning to its farms, coal mines, and sawmills to try to develop a trade in flour, coal and lumber with the growing market of Americans to the south. Two events in the same month metaphorically signalled the change. On September 27, in Oregon City, that most intrepid of all the HBC fur traders, Peter Skene Ogden slowly slipped from life. In the same month, HBC teamster Joseph Morel and his fellows found placer gold in the gravel bars and rock crevices of the Columbia River near Ft. Colvile.
Placer gold consists of the particles and nuggets eroded out of the quartz ledges in the mountains by glacial and water erosion. They are carried downstream by any fast running current of water, but being heavier than sand or rock, are dropped to the bottom whenever the current slows down. What had been found in the California rivers in 1848 were the accumulated nuggets and grains of gold that had been caught in rock crevices on the bottoms of the river, and underneath gravel bars on the insweep of curves of the river where the water runs more slowly than on the outsweeps. This was what Morel and his fellow miners were looking for in the late summer of 1854 as they probed the rock crevices of the Columbia during low water and and dug into the gravel bars at the river bends.
The first few flakes of gold shining up from the HBC men’s pans were enormously and immediately consequential for the region. A gold strike could not be hidden, no matter what the HBC policy might be. Gold miners (the secretive Mexicans aside) cannot be silenced; they will pour out their take for the day on the saloon bar to impress their cronies. All that fall, excited men from Fort Colvile dug into the Columbia river bars, working slowly upstream. The treaty of 1846 had set the British – American boundary at the Forty-Ninth Parallel. Exactly where that line intersected the Columbia was a matter of guesswork. The crude instruments available to Colvile Chief Factor, Angus Mc Donald suggested that border would fall somewhere close to the confluence of the Pend Orielle and the Columbia, but a precise determination would have to await the arrival of the Boundary Commission surveyors. Meanwhile, a man named Walker, part Indian, found gold on the Pend Orielle, a large tributary of the Columbia. The swift running Pend Orielle, on joining the Columbia, slows down to the rate of the larger river, and drops its gold. Here the richest bars were found. Men digging these gravels were making $4 to $10 per day, better than a month’s wages for most. Two hundred ounces were taken from the Columbia that season. It was bought by Chief Factor Angus Mc Donald at Ft. Colvile for $12 per ounce. That autumn it was discreetly sent overland by pack train on the 1849 HBC trail to Ft. Hope, and on to Victoria the next year. As it turned out, the Pend Orielle diggings were a bare half mile inside British territory, and became the first mining entry into the Canadian portion of the Upper Columbia Basin. Just across the Columbia from these rich diggings and a quarter mile upstream, the HBC men began construction of a new post, Fort Shepherd, in 1856, on British soil, from which they hoped to control any commercial entry into the British Columbia.
The post was needed at once. The news was out: there was placer gold on the Upper Columbia. Men rushed north from Walla Walla and from the exhausted diggings in California, and in the spring of 1855 the first Colvile Gold Rush was underway. That year the Columbia, the Pend Orielle, and their tributaries were lined with men, almost all Americans, digging the gravels for the gold that lay along the bedrock. The mining era on the Upper Columbia had begun.
But this Columbia mining was being carried out by a largely American force, in an area chiefly served by American merchants whose merchandise came up the easy military wagon roads from Walla Walla and White Bluffs on the navigable Middle Columbia. The isolated HBC Fort Colvile (and after 1856, Ft. Shepherd), were linked to Victoria only by the old HBC Brigade trails over the rugged Cascades, one from Osoyoos Lake and the other from Kamloops. These were crude horse trails with no bridges, no easy switchback gradients, and dangerous in the extreme. The fur brigades and special expresses always took extra horses along; it was not uncommon to lose half their stock on the terrible mountain descents which were taken by the Indian packers straight down in a wild slide. Until some dependable, year round, link with the Coast could be established, the Columbia mines would remain largely an American operation.
The Pend Orielle diggings were located approximately where the boundary was believed to be located, as the river ran east from its mouth on the Columbia and no one possessed an instrument capable of accurately establishing latitude within a few hundred yards. However, in 1859, British Army Captain John Palliser’s “British North American Exploring Expedition” was making its way west into British Columbia with the intention of reuniting its scattered parties at HBC Fort Colvile. Captain Palliser himself came down the Kootenay River from Kootenay Lake to the Columbia. Traveling down river he stopped at Fort Shepherd where he was asked by the HBC men at the fort and the miners from the Pend Orielle to take an observation to determine definitively whether the Fort and the placer grounds were actually in British territory as supposed. Palliser took his observation and finding Fort Shepherd to be 3/4 of a mile ( 1.2 Km) within British Columbia, reported,
“While I was observing, a circle of Scotchmen, Americans, and Indians, surrounded me, anxiously awaiting my decision as to whether the diggings were in American territory or not; strange to say, the Americans were quite as much pleased at my pronouncing in favour of Her Majesty, as the Scotchmen, and the Indians began cheering for King George.”
George III had been dead thirty-nine years, but was still fixed in the Indian imagination as their protector against the “Bostons.” The Americans’ gratification had much to do with the fact that many of the Pend Orielle miners were deserters from the U.S. army. The long tradition of the Kootenays as a refuge for disaffected Americans begins with the Pend Orielle miners in 1859.