By the mid-1850s, many of the would-be Argonauts who had rushed to the California goldfields in 1849 and the early ’50s had either given up on the idea of striking it rich or were dreaming of better gold ground elsewhere. It appeared this dream had come true when word reached the Motherlode Region in 1858 that rich diggings could be had up north along the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Many Canadian gold miners of the day were taken aback and even angered by the sheer number of American miners who, on a whim of the flimsiest evidence, dropped everything to rush north to the Fraser. In fact, American prospectors and miners far outnumbered their Canadian counterparts in many Fraser placer locations. You see, regardless of their country of origin, for gold miners the dream never dies. It just moves elsewhere.
A small group of these transplanted California Argonauts reached the Fraser River diggings in April 1858 and began plying their trade as miners, albeit inexperienced ones. It’s often said that fortune favors the bold and that ignorance is bliss. Because this group of inexperienced amateurs managed to stumble onto what became the richest gravel bar in all of British Columbia.
The location wasn’t far from the Canadian settlement of Yale. Here the Fraser had allowed gold-bearing gravels to accumulate over millenia in a bar only about 130 feet long. Called Hill’s Bar after one of its American finders (Edward Hill), the gravels in it produced better than a troy ounce of gold per hour or more, depending on how experienced you were, what gear you used, or more importantly, how hard you worked. If for some reason the amount of gold recovered at Hill’s Bar doesn’t impress you with its richness consider this: even the greenest greenhorn armed with a gold pan could recover today’s equivalent of at least $12,000 USD for each eight-hour workday on the Bar.
Well, once word got out to the locals about the amount of placer gold being recovered from Hill’s Bar they showed up en masse to confront the American miners about taking what they considered rightfully theirs as Canadian citizens, whether Native or white. Seeing that the writing was on the wall, the American miners working Hill’s Bar decided to “share” the rich diggings with their newly acquired Canadian friends. This uneasy truce was just that and it wasn’t long before Canadian Governor James Douglas appointed a justice of the peace (the American equivalent of a Marshall Dillon) to keep the two high-strung groups of miners in line.
Like its California Motherlode counterparts, the mining boom town that literally sprang up overnight adjacent to Hill’s Bar catered to the American and Canadian miners’ basic instincts. Rot gut liquor, games of questionable chance, and ladies of even more questionable character gladly lightened the miners’ pokes. Some miners threw away a week’s hard work in gold in a matter of few hours while under the influence of the darker side. Most miners, Canadian and American alike, just shrugged their shoulders at scenes like this and went back to work at Hill’s Bar to get more gold.
Far worse than the booze, women of ill repute, and the gambling tables was the assortment of thugs, lowlifes, hustlers, con men, and murderers who flocked to Hill’s Bar to prey on the miners. Chief among the latter was one Ned McGowan. McGowan plied his “trade” on the Hill’s Bar miners only for a brief period before his misdeeds were brought to the attention of Governor (later Sir James) Douglas. Ned was eventually brought to trial in a Canadian court. In a vocal and lawyerly plea for leniency, McGowan threw himself at the court’s mercy and was rewarded by having his case dismissed after paying a small fine. However, Ned soon learned that some of the American miners were forming another vigilante committee to deal with problem children like himself. On that sour note, McGowan headed south…back to California and familiar ground.
Eventually the Fraser River rose and flooded Hill’s Bar, making it unworkable. The easiest to get gold had already been taken from the Bar anyway and few American miners had the patience to wait for the river’s water level to drop once again. Others, barely eking out a daily wage working hardscrabble placer claims elsewhere along the Fraser proclaimed that the entire rush to British Columbia was one gigantic “humbug!”
The richest gravel bar in British Columbia was first discovered and mined by Americans, not Canadians. However after the majority of Americans left the Canadians held on, building ditches to carry or divert water and running the Bar’s remaining gravels through Long Toms. Humbug or not, the Fraser River was theirs and so was its placer gold.
At the height of the Fraser River Rush in the early spring of 1858 there were as many as 25,000 American placer miners working in British Columbia. By mid-summer only around 9,000 remained.