The Cowichan River is about 7 kilometres long, originating in Cowichan Lake, and flowing east to Cowichan Bay.
The Cowichan River has been known to be gold bearing since the early 1800’s and has never been worked in any formal manner. The banks, bars, and streambeds have all given up gold from the river’s mouth to its source. The gold is derived from the erosion of quartz veins along it’s course.
Gold has always had a powerful lure, and therein lies a tale of a hunter who used gold for bullets.
Apparently a Ditidaht man had found an outcropping of gold-bearing quartz while out hunting in the mountains beyond Cowichan Lake. Being short on ammunition, he took chunks of the gold and formed them into musket balls. Hearing of this, special constable Samuel Harris, led an expedition up the Cowichan River during the summer of 1860.
Tomo Antoine, a one-armed top guide for the Hudson’s Bay Company, led the group. Of Iroquois and Chinook heritage, Antoine had been born into the HBC fur trade. In 1856, he took an interest in a woman from a local tribe near present-day Duncan and her offended husband-to-be, shot Antoine, the bullet ripping through his arm and entering his chest. A local medicine man saved Antoine’s life, but doctors in Victoria could not save his arm. The shooter was apprehended by British authorities, convicted and hanged. Antoine became a sworn enemy of the peoples in the region and could never return.
The July 1860 trip up the Cowichan River was Harris and Antoine’s second attempt. The two had tried it in February, the season’s early flooding thwarted their attempt. On both trips the team panned for gold, finding enough flecks to encourage them to push on further. After 11 days they reached Cowichan Lake, and soon located the Ditidaht village where they expected to find the hunter who made the golden bullets.
The plan was to find the man and have him lead them to his hidden gold mine. The Ditidaht, however, had more urgent things on their mind, as their community was suffering from a deadly outbreak of smallpox. The chief offered the group a deal. The tribe would help the men and let them prospect on Ditidaht territory, but only if they first returned with smallpox medicine.
The team agreed and hurried back down the river to gather supplies, returning by mid-August. The medical supplies were enough to stop the spread of smallpox. The gold, though, proved more elusive, as the man who knew of its whereabouts had died in the smallpox outbreak.
Disappointed, the team explored the shores of Cowichan Lake for signs of gold. Harris found enough colour to file a positive report, but by then another gold rush had hit, turning the attention to the Cariboo, and then on to the Klondike. Eventually, the bullets were forgotten, and the gold in the Cowichan area remains unsolved.