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The rush to Canada’s Fraser River

The Descent of the Fraser River, 1808
The Descent of the Fraser River, 1808
C.W. Jefferys

It was not until the spring of 1855 that the memory of the Gold Bluff scandal had receded sufficiently in the minds of miners to allow more wild tales of wealth to sway men’s judgment. This time is was the Kern River excitement. No one knows exactly how it began but newspapers ran extravagant accounts of huge gold deposits in the headwaters of the river. One report said a Mexican doctor showed up in Mariposa with many large nuggets and told a tale of how he and four companions had found them near the source of the river. According to the doctor the lowlands around a small stream were covered in nuggets of pure gold and the hills above gleamed with outcroppings of quartz veins. Indians had jumped his party and only he had managed to escape with his life and one sack of gold. 5000 men soon rushed to the Kern River and explored it from start to end. They found a little gold of poor quality and only a few quartz deposits that might make a man wages. After a few months the tide turned and men rushed away from the Kern River as rapidly as they had gone there.

By 1858 most of the placer gold in California had been mined, leaving a large number of men who had lived by the placers underemployed. These men were now ready to believe any story that would continue the life they loved. So, when reports came in that the gold discovered a hundred miles from the mouth of the Fraser River in British Columbia would rival the discoveries of 1848-49, men rushed north in droves. The steamboats left San Francisco crowded with miners and a great number of sailboats joined them. Within four months 23,000 people, or 6% of California’s population, went north. Real estate values in San Francisco fell to half their former worth and plummeted to almost nothing in the gold towns. For a time it looked as if California was about to transport itself to Victoria and the straight of Juan de Fuca.

But when the high water of the Fraser River fell enough to allow prospecting it was discovered that, while there was some gold, the stories had been greatly exaggerated. By July those close to the scene knew how big a mistake the rush north had been and by September it had become a subject of ridicule. The disgusted adventurers returned to California. All of them had spent a great deal of money and many had sacrificed their property in order to make the journey. But all of the property and most of the money remained in California. After the initial reaction business was now better than ever and the price of real estate had climbed higher that it had been before. Even the men who had gone to the wild, rugged reaches of the Fraser River recognized and appreciated the superiority of California and returned to the gulches and flats they had left resolved to settle down forever.

John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush. For more about John and his writing visit