First Nations miners were the first to pull gold from the mighty and turbulent Fraser River in 1857. Gold had accumulated in the river bars of the Fraser for many thousands of years, and once the First Nations people of the area realized how valuable this element was to the British, they began to mine it and trade their gold for other supplies. This worked well until the secret of this gold leaked out.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company sent 800 ounces of gold to a mint in San Francisco, the miners in California learned of the gold in the Fraser. The news travelled far and wide, causing a rush of miners to visit the Fort Yale region. Public announcements of the finds changed the future of Victoria and B.C. The estimated settler population in Victoria in 1858 was approximately 500, but as news of the gold spread, within two months more than 30,000 gold miners descended upon the Fraser Valley through Victoria, where they first had to get a mining license. The majority of the miners were from the California gold rush of 1848, although their were some from Britain, Canada, and other parts of Europe.
More than 300,000 people had participated in the California gold rush (1848-1855). This gold rush was chaotic, and the region plagued by lawlessness and racism, particularly against the First Nations people. Before the California gold rush, Aboriginal people outnumbered the settlers 10 to 1. Within five years, the settler population was nearly double that of the local Aboriginals. Aboriginal people were physically attacked, evicted from their traditional lands, and were subjected to poor working conditions in the gold mines or excluded from the gold rush profits altogether. The experience of Aboriginal people during the Fraser Canyon gold rush was no better.
As an estimated 30,000 gold seekers moved into the Fraser River Basin, the impact on the local Aboriginal people was immense. Salmon stocks were depleted, road building, and construction of boom towns caused damage to water quality and animal habitation. The Fraser River gold rush replaced the fur trade as the dominant B.C. industry, bringing with it secondary industries such as coal mining, forestry, and fishing. These boom-economy changes resulted in a short period of prosperity, but by the middle of the 1860’s the colonies were in a recession.
Governor Douglas, aware of the lawlessness and exploitation of minority groups during the California gold rush, was determined not to have the same thing happen in British Territory. Another concern for Douglas, was the influx of mostly American miners would result in an “anti-British element” in the area leading to the annexation of the mainland to the United States. To prevent this from happening, a second crown colony was created on the mainland in 1858, the colony of British Columbia.
Douglas promptly took control of the new mainland colony, making every miner purchase a mining license, and who would also be subject to British law. He gained support from British sailors, a force of Royal engineers, and an eccentric but very efficient British judge, Mathew Baillie Begbie.
Judge Begbie was the only judge in the British territory at the time, travelling by horseback delivering British justice throughout British Columbia. Considered both fair and firm, Begbie’s nickname was the “hanging judge” and his reputation brought fear of being tried before him. Court was held anywhere convenient-in taverns, cabins, or even outdoors. If someone were found guilty of murder, they would be hanged immediately. The death penalty was a mandatory sentence for anyone committing murder at the time. Begbie was known to defend the rights of First Nations people and protect them from the miners. He was fluent in several First Nations languages, including Shuswap and Chilcotin, earning the respect of the First Nations people who nicknamed him “Big Chief.”
During the Cariboo gold rush, Yale was the starting point for transportation on the Cariboo Wagon Road. The Cariboo gold rush spurred the need for a road to be built to the Cariboo regions, and, in 1862, Yale was to become mile zero of the new road being installed by the Royal Engineers. The first six miles north of Yale, proved to be one of the most difficult, where steep canyon cliffs had to be blasted level, and wooden bridges were built over small gullies.
The next few miles north of Yale consisted of a varying and challenging landscape. Near Yale was Alexandra Suspension Bridge, the first bridge of its type in the west. Forty-four miles north of Yale lay the steepest ascent on the wagon road where travellers climbed far up Jackass Mountain. The mountain receiving it’s name from the many pack animals that fell to their death by stepping of the road plunging into the river canyon.
From Yale, wagons and mule teams would begin their month long 373 mile (600 km) trek on the 18 foot (5.4 m) wide trail. Mile zero is marked today with an official monument in Yale’s Front street.