By delving into the story of a little-known war in the Fraser Canyon, historian Daniel Marshall is for the first time writing the full history of the Fraser River Gold Rush. And it’s a history which has not seen the light of day until now.
“I can’t say it’s revisionist history because there’s been nothing written. It’s brand new. The Fraser River Gold Rush there’s been little bits and pieces, there’s some little popular histories, some academics of the past like Dr. Margaret Ormsby,” he said.
Marshall traces his fascination with the gold rush back to Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History, as well as a personal connection to what was at its time the third largest mass migration of people in search of El Dorado. Marshall’s own ancestors, who ‘chased the golden butterfly’ to California and then up North, joined anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 who descended upon the Fraser Canyon in 1858.
Marshall first began to see the full history of the gold rush and the little-known war come to life as he uncovered a rich source of archival material south of the border. He wrote Claiming the Land: The Making of a New El Dorado, published in June, after decades of work on this history including his participation as an expert in Hope filmmaker Eva Wunderman’s 2009 documentary Canyon War: The Untold Story.
If past historians relied heavily on colonial dispatches and other colonial records which told the East-West story of Canada, Marshall delved into newspapers, diaries and letters which unearthed the North-South history.
Tales of Indigenous women and others finding gold on the banks of the Fraser spread like wildfire to the miners of California, broke and hungry for another rush. They poured over the 49th parallel, which at the time wasn’t even marked on the ground and the British presence in B.C. was marginal at best, bringing with them genocidal ideas about Native populations well-practiced from the violence and murders of Indigenous people during the California rush.
“Native peoples are seen to be somewhat subhuman. Many of these miners have that notion that a good Indian is a dead Indian. And this is what sweeps across the border,” Marshall said.
In response to the massive influx of miners, many prepared to kill to get to the gold, and the rape of an Indigenous woman by miners, the Nlaka’pamux people began to fight back. Marshall recounts the words written by one miner, as he wrote of headless bodies floating down the river. Both sides began to prepare for war.
Both sides have peacemakers to thank for avoiding an all-out war which could have led to U.S. troops making their way into the Canyon. They were Captain Henry Snyder, who in August 1858 underwent a 10-day campaign forging treaties with Indigenous chiefs from Yale to Lytton, and Chief David Spintlum, who Marshall describes as a ‘great orator’ able to convince the chiefs of the Nlaka’pamux Nation against all-out war.
Without the peace forged by these two unlikely allies, this part of Canada very well could have ended up as part of the United States. Certainly, more blood would have been shed.
By documenting this history as completely as Marshall has, the stories which were largely unknown now get their place in the sun. Indigenous people were the discoverers and first miners of gold on the banks of the Fraser, trading the resource with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and their leaders were both powerful fighters and peacemakers.
“We’re trying to build new, more inclusive, narratives, for the historical unfolding of this province and this country, with the ultimate aim of building some better equity, some fairness, some re-dress for Indigenous peoples.”
Claiming the Land is published by Ronsdale Press.
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