The Fraser River Gold Rush

Print of a painting of mountains and rivers labelled
This woodblock print helped promote the Fraser River Gold Rush to prospective miners

Quick Facts
Yale, British Columbia, Canada
In February of 1857, James Douglas, the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company in British Columbia and Royal Governor of Vancouver Island shipped a modest amount of gold that had recently been discovered in the Fraser River Valley to the San Francisco Mint for processing. Word of Douglas’s shipment rapidly spread in the San Francisco area. By April, hundreds of Californians “suffering” from “gold fever” had arrived in Victoria. These men were the advance guard of an estimated 25,000-40,000 Californians who rapidly uprooted their lives and traveled vast distances into uncharted territory to extract riches from the challenging environment of Canada’s Fraser River Valley. Fort Yale, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost in the Fraser River Valley was a gateway for these fortuneseekers. Their actions would change the lives of First Nations people, alter the policies of imperial governments, devastate local ecosystems, and eventually lead to the Pig War. 

On April 4, 1858 a headline in a San Francisco newspaper read, “People Abandoning Everything for the Mines!” This was not exactly true; even as thousands of San Franciscans left their homes for Canada, they had to purchase many new things, including clothes, tools, food, horses, and transportation to get to the mines. The isolated communities in the Fraser River Valley consisted of Native American villages and Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading forts which lacked the agricultural base and stockpile of goods that could supply thousands of men who traveled there to engage in arduous and single-minded work, extracting wealth from the ground.

This issue was exacerbated by a lack of environmental knowledge. The gold miners attempted to mine in Canada the same way they had in California, which in the early stages meant looking for bars of land normally submerged by the river and sifting their stones and sand for gold when high waters receded. Unfortunately for the miners, who largely arrived in Canada in May, June, and July, the Fraser River remained too high to find significant gold until late September. That meant that almost all of the prospective miners were forced to remain idle, using their dwindling supplies or paying exorbitant prices for scarce food and material at the isolated area where gold was discovered. This led some miners to head home early and empty handed, caused others to prospect further inland where they attacked First Nations people whose homes they had invaded in search of gold, and lead other miners to turn to gambling, drinking, and prostitution to pass their idle time.

In late September, the water dropped low enough for mining activities to begin in earnest, but the gold that was found did not live up to miners’ outsized expectations. In the next few years, additional explorations would reveal that rich lodes of gold existed upstream and on tributaries, but it was clear that easy pickings were not available in the first places gold was found. If they would have waited until winter and had the endurance to work outside in the freezing cold and adaptability to move on in search of gold, many Californians would have found what they came for in Canada. Instead, they went home emptyhanded. Many also left bearing a resentment towards the British Empire and Governor James Douglas specifically; despite Douglas’s herculean efforts to deal with the rapid growth of his province with absolutely no funding from the British government (Vancouver was supposed to be self-supporting), and maintain British sovereignty in a community where American citizens suddenly vastly outnumbered British citizens, Douglas was reviled for the $5 license fee his government charged miners and regarded as a profiteer.

Just as rapidly as they had come to Canada, miners began to leave Canada. Amongst those miners was Lyman Cutlar, a 27 year-old man from Kentucky, who left Canada in the spring of 1859 with a Native American woman who he met and married during the Gold Rush. Cutlar and his new bride settled on San Juan Island, where they built a small cabin and planted crops in an area used by the British Hudson’s Bay Company as a major sheep farm. When one of the British pigs rooted up Cutlar’s potato patch on June 15, 1859, he killed it in anger. Cutlar’s actions would soon lead to a confrontation between the British and American empires, but many of the men involved in that conflict had participated in the Fraser River Gold Rush, which had shaped their understanding of US/British relations on the Northwestern frontier. 

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Juan Island National Historical Park

Last updated: August 3, 2022