Historian Daniel Marshall takes two groups of modern-day adventurers on a voyage down the Fraser River on August 25, 160 years ago to the date when all-out war was between U.S. miners and the Nlaka’pamux Nation was a very real possibility. Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard

B.C. historian reveals the untold story of the Fraser Canyon War in new book

Daniel Marshall delved into U.S. archives to piece together this rich, and sometimes bloody, history

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.

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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.

“It’s a fascinating story and it’s an untold story. It’s a story that needs to be told. And this story is found, I found increasingly, by following the paper trail south of the border,” he said.

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.

RELATED: Gold Rush returns to the Fraser Canyon

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.

A blockade of the river by the Nlaka’pamux Nation forced miners off of their fertile river banks in August. As miners assembled militias in the lower canyon, the grand council of the Nlaka’pamux Nation met in Lytton.

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.

“Thank goodness for Capt. Henry Snyder and Chief Spintlum because they forged this peace that ended the Fraser Canyon War but it was against great odds,” including at least five militia units, one of whom, the Whatcom Guards, called for a ‘campaign of wholesale extermination’.

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.

“As much as James Douglas certainly can be seen as a father of British Columbia, and he is, Chief Spintlum is too. So that’s what we’re trying to do here,” he said.

“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.”

RELATED: A monumental piece of history in the Fraser Canyon

For Marshall, this is done by educating the public and bringing them along with you.  

“For most of the public, their knowledge of these things is only as good as maybe the stories their families have shared with them in the past, the kind of books they may have read in the past when they were young…Once you give the actual story, the documented story, most people think ‘wow, really?’ and most of them want to see some sort of effective redress of these issues.”

Claiming the Land is published by Ronsdale Press.


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Daniel Marshall with the first book to delve into the brief but powerful Fraser River gold rush, and the war between California miners and local Indigenous people which is still very much an unknown story for many. Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard

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