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dave obee Victoria's roots are in San Francisco

By Dave Obee

April 14, 1858 -- 150 years ago tomorrow -- was a pivotal date in the history of Victoria, although it is doubtful that anyone living here at the time would have realized it.

That's because all of the action was far to the south of us, in the most important city on the entire West Coast -- San Francisco. On Wednesday morning, April 14, 1858, the steamer Constitution arrived in San Francisco after a five-day voyage from Puget Sound. The U.S. revenue cutter Jefferson Davis also arrived, after a 10-day voyage from Port Townsend.

The two ships brought with them the latest news about the gold finds being reported on the Fraser and Thompson rivers, way up north in the British possessions. The San Francisco newspapers rushed to get that news into print.

The Daily Evening Bulletin quoted Capt. A.L. Hyde of the Jefferson Davis, who said that reports of major gold finds on the Fraser were substantially correct. He said he had been told that the Hudson's Bay Company had shipped 200 pounds of gold dust to London.

The Bulletin also carried an excerpt from the Puget Sound Herald, published in Steilacoom, Washington territory, that said the gold was being found on the surface, so no digging was necessary. Hyde and the Steilacoom newspaper had both obtained their information from passengers and crew members on the Sea Bird, a vessel that was serving the communities along the Juan de Fuca Strait at the time.

That is the way that news made its way around in those days -- people with first-hand knowledge would tell others, who would tell others, who would tell newspaper editors. Then, the newspapers from one community were carried to another community by ship or stage or whatever, and the newspapers in the second community would reprint the information.

It could take weeks for news to make the rounds. Someone with information about the gold fields would need to get from there to the coast, which could take a couple of weeks. Then the news would have to be passed on to someone on a southbound boat, which would then take five days to get to San Francisco.

But when the news finally hit San Francisco, it was impossible to contain the excitement. There had been talk for a few weeks about the gold finds in the British territories, but when the two vessels arrived on April 14, the news spread quickly, and miners started packing so they could be on the next steamer heading north. They knew they would not be the first to get to the gold.

"Quite a number of persons are leaving Steilacoom for the new gold mines of Frazer's and Thompson's Rivers, in the British possessions," the Bulletin reported. "The steamer Columbia recently took up several miners from San Francisco, bound for these diggings, and the people about Puget Sound considered them only the advanced guard of a greater immigration."

American military posts in the Puget Sound area reported that men were deserting in order to get to the mines as soon as they could. The Bulletin also said that the discoveries had caused a general stampede on Vancouver Island, with people heading for the mines.

Quoting Hyde again, the Bulletin said that he had seen letters from parties who had gone to the mines, and all of them wrote favourably about them. They advised their friends to follow them, but to be sure to bring enough provisions.

"They write, also, that they are making from $8 to $20 a day, at surface diggings. As yet they have nothing but pans to wash with. They think that with toms they could average as high as $50 per day." (A tom is similar to a sluice box.)

Hyde was confident that the gold fields offered great potential. "He has no doubt that the discovery of gold in this section will open both to the business man, mechanic, laborer and farmer a great field, as wages must advance and the demand for every article increase rapidly," the Bulletin said.

Hyde's comments -- especially what he said about the amount of gold that had been extracted -- served to confirm what had already been reported in the San Francisco newspapers. There had been several stories since the start of 1858, all referring to the potential for vast riches in the British possessions.

On March 10, for example, the Bulletin reprinted a story from the Portland Standard published on March 4.

It quoted two men who had obtained about 50 ounces of course gold from the Shuswap country, which was identified as comprising "the streams emptying into Thompson's River from the south. Thompson's River is a subsidiary of Frazer's River."

"The gold they washed principally from the banks of the river, and it was everywhere abundant, wherever there was earth to hold it," the story said. On March 19, the Bulletin carried an excerpt from the Olympia Pioneer that said "much excitement exists on Vancouver's island in consequence of the alleged discovery of rich gold deposits to the northward, in the British possessions."

The Pioneer reported that Fort Langley had been almost deserted by men heading for the Fraser, and that the Hudson's Bay Company blacksmith in Victoria was working day and night manufacturing picks and shovels for the mines.

On April 6, the Bulletin published a letter from someone in Port Townsend, who said miners would surely average $10 a day.

Still, it wasn't until April 14 that the news captured the imagination of the masses. With confirmation from a government official, the gold-seekers of San Francisco made their plans.

Posted April 13, 2008


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