The People of the Cariboo Gold Rush

Sir James Douglas

James Douglas
James Douglas
Why wasn't the Cariboo an absolute chaos during the goldrush? All the ingredients were there: lots of miners from all over Europe and North America, far from families, governments, and other civilizing influences, desperate for gold. They didn't have roads or courthouses or post offices when it all started. The Cariboo should have been a dangerous, scary place. There were some fights and murders, but it wasn't "wild". Why not? Because of James Douglas (1803-1877), Governor of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, known as "the father of British Columbia."

Governor Douglas was born in British Guiana into a "Scotch West Indian" family. He spent most of his career working in the fur trade in what is now British Columbia, for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). At Fort St. James he married Amelia Connolly, daughter of the "chief factor" of the fort and his First Nations wife. In 1851 Douglas was appointed the second Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island. Hard-working, intelligent and well-read, confident and decisive, Douglas was in many ways an ideal governor - though some called him vain and autocratic.

When gold was discovered on the Fraser River in 1857, there was no British colony in the area yet, just a few HBC forts. Douglas was worried that the Americans coming up to find gold would take over the territory. He wrote to his boss in Britain, the Colonial Secretary - but in those days when messages travelled by horse and sailing ship, it took months for a message to get to Britain and back.

So Douglas went into action. He proclaimed that people could only claim mines if they took out licenses under his control, as the representative of British authority. He hired policemen, drew up mining regulations, and visited the diggings himself. Imagine Douglas appearing in a formerly lawless mining camp, with fewer than 40 men as back-up, announcing that this was British territory and that "no abuses would be tolerated, and that the Laws would protect the rights of the Indians no less than those of the white men." Douglas was certainly brave! He wrote to a friend that he had never before seen "a crowd of more ruffianly looking men." But he won those men's respect and they even obeyed his command to give three cheers for the queen.

In 1858 Britain created the new crown colony of British Columbia and made Douglas the Governor - he and Chief Justice Matthew Begbie were sworn in together at Fort Langley. Douglas started appointing other government officials, such as Thomas Elwyn, to help keep law and order in the goldfields. To ensure provisions would be available for miners he encouraged trade and farming, and built the Douglas Trail and the Cariboo Wagon Road. Douglas did everything he could to ensure that commerce and travel relating to the gold rush happened mainly on British rather than American territory, and that British law ruled the Cariboo - and he succeeded.

In 1864 Douglas stepped down as governor and was knighted as a reward for his services. After some travels abroad he retired to Victoria and devoted the rest of his life to his family. He is buried in Victoria's Ross Bay Cemetery.