The Fraser River Gold Rush
An Immigrant Letter of 1858
Translated and edited by C. A. Clausen (Volume VII: Page 47)
In the spring of 1858 the news swept out from the north that a new El Dorado had been found along the bars of the Fraser and Thompson rivers of British Columbia. Naturally these tidings found eager listeners in California, where thousands of miners had been at work ever since the fabulous days of '49, only to find, as the decade drew to a close, that the rich placer deposits were rapidly being exhausted while their own pockets remained empty. In April the exodus from California started and it continued with ever-growing force through the following months. "It was at its height in June, when nearly ten thousand adventurers are said to have left San Francisco for the Fraser River; during the first ten days of July six thousand more sailed; it is estimated that the total number who came by land and water was between twenty-five and thirty thousand."
The transports usually landed at Victoria, British Columbia. Then began the difficult part of the journey, since the gold-seekers had to ascend the rough and little-known Fraser River for about a hundred and sixty miles. "The first-comers transported themselves as best they could. Some built boats for the journey; some hired Indians with their canoes; some obtained passage in a tramp 'plunger' or sloop, to Langley and trusted to the future for the remainder of the way."
Still others crossed into American territory, as the following letter shows, in hopes of securing passage either
by water or by land to the nearest bars along the Thompson River. The town of Whatcom, which "sprang up as if by magic" during the summer of 1858, did not develop into a great city as the hopes were then, but in time it was incorporated into the city of Bellingham, which has today a population of about thirty-five thousand.
The letter translated below is that of a Norwegian immigrant who journeyed from San Francisco to Washington Territory in the summer of 1858 on his way to the gold mines. It was written at Whatcom just before he set out for the Fraser River and it was sent to Norway, where, about two and a half months later, it appeared in the Stavanger Amtstidende og Adresseavis.
That the deposits along the Fraser and its tributaries proved to be very rich is well known. "For a time the placer mines of Cariboo repeated the history of California in 1849, and then came a gradual exhaustion, not, however, before some $50,000,000 worth of gold had been extracted."
The part played by the Norwegian immigrant letter-writer in this chapter of western mining history is unknown, however. Indeed, we do not know his name. He was a native of Bergen, and the letter itself discloses the fact that he had spent some time in San Francisco before he was caught by the current of the northern gold rush. It reveals him as a keen and interested observer of what he met in his new surroundings and as an intelligent recorder of what he observed. It gives a vivid picture of the gold rush in process and records the amazing effects of that rush upon a little frontier town that knew the stimulus of a sudden boom. Not the least interesting aspect of the letter is the fact that it was published in a Norwegian newspaper in the fall of 1858, thus giving a contemporary old-world community an opportunity to view through the letter-writer's eyes the strange scene that was being enacted in western America.
A transcript of the letter as published in the Stavanger newspaper was secured by Mr. Theodore C. Blegen in Norway in 1928-29.
AN IMMIGRANT LETTER OF 1858
[Stavanger Amstidende og Adresseavis (Stavanger, Norway), September 30, 1858]
WHATKOM, WHATKOM COUNTY,
July 12, 1858.
I arrived here after a pleasant journey of five days by steamer from San Francisco, a distance of eleven or twelve hundred English miles. On our way we stopped at Victoria, the capital of the English possessions or of the Hudson's Bay Company, which is located on Vancouver Island. Over four thousand men had recently arrived there, most of them from California. They were camping out under their tents, since there were not enough small steamers or other vessels to take them up the Fraser River. Only one steamer was available, which carried merely two or three hundred passengers at a time. Under these circumstances I, with several others, preferred to walk to Whatkom, which is located on American soil. This town, not quite two months old (before this time only two or three houses were found here), had sprung up so quickly because of the fact that this point is conveniently located near the new gold mines, which will be easily accessible from here both by water and land as soon as the new road through the woods is completed. The above-mentioned trail is finished for a distance of 150 English miles. According to the last reports they hope to complete it up to Thompson River in two or three weeks. It is something new and very interesting for me to note the life and activity that unfolds itself here in connection with the building of hundreds of houses, and to observe the energy with which trees are cut down and burned to make room for the new town and new farm lands. Every moment one of the mighty trees crashes to the ground, causing a trembling and roaring as if an earthquake had passed.
I have now stayed for almost two weeks in Whatkom with a
Norwegian by the name of Severin Gullicksen, who is a gunsmith by trade and a partner of Klipzey. I knew him in San Francisco. Gullicksen has been in Whatkom a month and a half, or almost since the founding of the town. As yet he is practically the only gunsmith here, and has during this short time earned more, according to what he himself says, than a whole year's strenuous work would have netted him in San Francisco. Certain it is that if Whatkom becomes one of the large cities (as there are reasons to expect), then he will become an independent man merely because of the building lots which he was so fortunate as to secure at the outset for a mere trifle. The people who came a week before Gullicksen secured lots for nothing, against the promise to build on them. In order to give you an example of how easy it is to earn money in this country if one merely has a little cash and some initiative, I will mention what Gullicksen has been offered for the lot alone on which his newly-built house stands: namely three thousand dollars, which, however, he has declined. Six weeks ago it cost him fifty dollars. I have unexpectedly fallen in with the musician B. He also wants to go to the gold mines to dig for gold.
Washington Territory and the adjoining English possessions are exceedingly fertile and beautiful country. High mountains covered by fir and spruce trees, besides all other species of trees that grow in Norway, such as birch, maple, and so forth, give the land a northern and homelike appearance. The blows of hammer and ax are heard all day long until far into the evening, and consequently houses spring up in a few days as if by magic. This town presents a peculiar view at present. Here and there by the side of large wooden buildings tents are pitched. In places tents are so numerous that a stranger would at once conclude that soldiers were encamped there. Immediately below Gullicksen's a doctor took up residence in a tent day before yesterday; and in front of an adjoining tent he has had these words painted in big letters: MEDICAL OFFICE. Every day steamships come and go, bringing passengers from San Francisco. Most of the passengers have hitherto landed in Victoria. Still there is at times so great a jam in the main street that a
person finds it difficult to elbow his way through. In short, all signs indicate that the story of 1849 will be repeated. Three days ago two steamers from San Francisco landed no less than three thousand passengers in Victoria in one day. As soon as the trail is completed the migration will undoubtedly flow into this town. No less than five gambling houses have been in operation every day including Sundays. They were, to be sure, closed last Sunday as a result of protests and complaints brought by a number of citizens to the sheriff, who is still the highest civil authority here.
There are Indians in great numbers round about Whatkom. They are peaceful and good-natured. Many of them are big, good-looking, well-built people. Some of the men have dressed up in coats and trousers. The rest, both men and women, go about wrapped in fiery red blankets. They are particularly fond of these startling colors. The site upon which the town is now being built seems to have been especially favored by the Indians, because their huts are still standing in many places. It strikes one as queer to see these Indian huts entirely surrounded by clusters of houses; but very soon they will disappear into the outskirts of the town. It is illegal to sell or give whisky to the Indians; nevertheless some of them are seen under the influence of firewater. They are then entirely transformed from good-natured beings into noisy and uncontrollable semi-savages. They can be seen gambling all day long in front of their huts; and they are well supplied with gold and silver money. I myself saw two Indians sit and play for sixty dollars in gold, consisting of three twenty-dollar pieces. There are said to be Indians who possess several thousand dollars, presumably secured by gold mining, because here there is gold everywhere, yes, even under the ground. It is well known that gold can be found anywhere in the area where Whatkom is now being built if one only wants to dig, but it is so fine and so meager in quantity that it does not repay the trouble.
A couple of miles from Whatkom a new town is also being built, which is called Schome. At this place the water is deeper and the ships can lay to. Halfway between these two towns
there is a rich coal mine, so this territory has all possible advantages and will become a wealthy land. The weather is exceedingly fine. One is free from the unpleasant wind that always arose every afternoon in San Francisco.
Today I am setting off with three good companions whom I have been fortunate enough to meet. It will be a trip of about two weeks to reach the gold mines. I will not have time to write any more.
<1> Fredric W. Howay, Early History of the Fraser River Mines, vii (Victoria, 1926).
<2> Howay, Fraser River Mines, viii.
<3> Encyclopedia Americana, 4: 557 (revised edition, New York, 1929).