Stuart Jones dreamt about hoisting sacks full of gold dust onto horseback even while he was cleaning out the stalls in Betwsycoed, a village in northern Wales. He imagined panning for gold on the Fraser River in British Columbia, finding nuggets as large as his fist.
Occasionally, the horses would nudge his hand or his mother would call his name and for a brief moment he was stirred out of his reverie. At first she wouldn’t hear of him leaving the farm, but after hearing him talk about this new land for hours on end, she relented and Jones departed with seven other young men from his village, every one of them eager to join the gold rush in the Fraser River.
The seven stuck together because of camaraderie but also none of them spoke English except for a few words and most had never heard it spoken in conversation by people with as many accents such as when they boarded the ship at Southampton, England.
The ship was crammed full of people who talked about all the gold that had been found. Some read aloud from a newspaper that reported someone had made $830 from eight days worth of gold dust. Jones talked to everybody he encountered, practicing his English at every opportunity.
When they arrived in Fort Victoria, after months at sea. There was news that the Hudson Bay Company, which controlled the right of way on many of the trails, was offering food and horses to those who were willing to help build a trail that was promised to be a faster route to the gold diggings.
Jones and a few other Welshmen gathered around and talked about it. The Fraser River was impassable at this time of the year and they would have to wait anyway before embarking up the Fraser in canoes. Once they left Fort Victoria they would be charged a mining licence was five dollars a month. On the other hand, if they signed up to carve out a trail in the wilderness, they could pay twenty-five dollars, get the equivalent amount in supplies, plus free transport to the gold diggings. Jones and three of his friends from Betwsycoed volunteered to go.
From Victoria, they travelled by a steamboat called the Umatilla across the Strait to the mainland. The ship that they had sailed on for months was luxurious compared to the Umatilla. The boat didn’t contain any cabins or mattresses and even blankets were lacking. Some people slept on top of a table in the saloon; everything was covered in coal dust that had drifted in from the deck or off clothes and boots, although most of the prospectors didn’t seem to mind. Jones stepped around others and found a spot on the floor that wasn’t occupied.
The next day, Jones stood out on the deck and was admiring the snow-covered peaks overlooking the Fraser valley when the wind changed as the steamer puffed out plumes of black smoke from its coal-fired engine. Without warning, sparks from the smokestack fell down and one of them burnt a small hole in Jones hat.
Jones saw a map pinned to the wall and on it someone had written “Lofty Mountains” in several places.
When they disembarked the Umatilla at the mouth of Harrison Lake, there were canoes at the ready. Jones had never been in a canoe but these were as wide as some of the rowboats he had been in and many times as long. In a short time, they were paddled out in canoes to Port Douglas at the northern end of Harrison Lake. They were hemmed in by lofty peaks, each of their tops covered by thick snow. In the valley it was hot and there wasn’t a breeze to cool down.
Jones was surprised at the number of people who were there already from every kind of nationality he could think of – there were French, Germans, Danes, Chinese, Africans and Mexicans, Americans and British folks, all standing around waiting in the warm August sun.
A representative from the government gave a speech about the expectations. He identified himself as the commissary.
“You’ll be working in groups of twenty-five. Each group will select a captain who will then report to the Commander,” he said, turning to a man standing beside him who gave a curt nod.
“He in turn will report to me about weekly food rations and I will see that those needs are met.”
There were some murmurs of discontent and Jones looked around at the doubtful faces on some of them. Apparently, the word ‘rations’ was not appealing.
“What about the pack horses and mules?” One of the gold seekers yelled out from the crowd.
“We have about ten pack horses here, and more will be arriving shortly. In the meantime, if you want to be at the upper gold diggings by the fall, then I urge you to commence immediately. It should only take you six weeks at the most.”
In the beginning there was some squabbling about who would be included in the group, but the Commander was a former military man and no nonsense type who had the final say and everybody ceased to argue for a while after that. Jones was separated from his other Welsh friends at this point and for a while he was disheartened.
On the first day, Jones was assigned to a team and their Captain was Hughes. Hughes was given one unnamed packhorse which Jones called Lofty. Some teams were assigned the task of clearing the brush while others were given the duty of hauling aside the trees.
“It has to be wide enough for a cart!” one of the Captains shouted.
For many of the men, including Jones, it had been their first time in months doing hard labour and they were tired before supper. The air was close and thick with the heat and none of them bothered with blankets as they slept on the open ground.
The next morning Jones legs were stiff and sore. Others felt the same as him and some wondered if they had fallen ill, but as it turned out it was just their ‘sea legs’ that were giving them trouble.
Lofty wasn’t getting enough grub to eat despite all the hard work he was doing and Jones felt obliged to tell the Captain. Jones could see that Lofty was a riding horse not a pack horse.
One of the men in the group was a Chinese fellow named Ah Ming who agreed with him.
“Far easier to carry supplies like this,” he said as he hoisted a pole to his shoulders with buckets of supplies on either end. Ming knew many words in Chinook and Jones occasionally asked him the meaning of this word or that.
Over the course of the next few days, the teams switched places and Jones’ group was at the front, sweating with parched throats. It didn’t matter what language they were used to speaking because they only managed grunts anyway and more often than not, for some of them they could make a point with their fist much more quickly and emphatically. Captain Hughes disciplined members of the group on occasion and some of them simply headed back.
By the end of the first week, their group was down to twenty men and Lofty. The team in advance had ‘discovered’ a small hot springs and Jones felt refreshed and clean. He found a cool stream nearby and washed down Lofty while the others rested. The horse nuzzled his ear gently.
The terrain became soft and by day’s end they were covered in spatters of mud and all their attention was focussed on slapping mosquitoes.
“We’re almost at the Tenas Lake!” Hughes announced.
It was a relief to hear the news that they were making progress up the trail. Day after day, Jones had kept his eyes on the task at hand – clearing brush that the others were chopping down.
Everyone gathered at the edge of the lake. “We’re going to get canoes around and take the supplies first,” said Captain Hughes. “I want to talk to you, Jones.”
Jones waited at the shore with the horse and after Hughes had everyone organized and lined up for their turn in the canoe, he took Jones aside.
“We’re running short on food so I want you to go back to Port Douglas and get some more. How long do you think it would take?”
“Not more than a couple of days at the most,” Jones said.
Hughes patted him on the back and Jones left with nothing more than the handful of grub he had on him. At first he thought he could ride quickly, but the trail had been roughly cleared; there were still lots of branches and tree roots strewn about that made the trip half hazard.
A few hours later, it started to rain and although the trees formed a canopy overhead, water was making its way onto the newly cut trail. Evening was fast approaching and dusk was settling in when Jones saw a dark, furtive shape.
Startled, Lofty drew back and Jones had to coax him forward. In spite of his uneasiness, Jones kept up a relentless banter in Welsh, more to calm himself. Jones couldn’t help but feel that he was being watched. Straining his neck to look around, he didn’t see any movement except the bending of leaves as the rain spattered. Still, the feeling that there was something or someone following him in the shadows didn’t go away and he was beginning to wonder if he was just seeing things.
It was getting late, so Jones found a dry spot and tied up the horse and settled down for the night. Jones heard the sound of twigs snapping and when he opened his eyes he found himself looking at a large creature approaching. It was covered in fur and it stood on its legs like a human. Except it wasn’t a human. The creature stood still for a moment then turned and disappeared.
The image of the animal was still vivid in his mind when he reached Port Douglas and discovered much to his surprise that there were many men who had just arrived off the boat. He told them about about the strange creature that he had seen earlier up the trail and they told him it was probably a black bear. Jones wasn’t convinced.
“The team is running out of supplies,” Jones said. He told them Captain Hughes had sent him down to get supplies and food.
“You’re going to need at least three hundred pounds, where are you going to get that around here?”
Jones walked around the camp until he found the Commander, sitting at a row of hewn logs that doubled as a table, having something to drink. After Jones explained the situation, the Commander furrowed his brows as if he had trouble understanding him.
“There is a strict protocol that must be adhered to, I can’t just hand out supplies on any person’s request, it must come from the Captain himself.”
“But sir, the men are working on the trail and are going hungry! They’re working on the trail to Cayoosh!”
Jones got up and was walking away when a dour-faced man approached him. He worked for the Hudson Bay Company, he said.
“I overheard you saw a creature earlier, would you mind telling me about it?”
Jones was about to launch into his story, when he stopped himself. “Do you think you could help me get some supplies for the team up there? They’re going hungry.”
“You’ll get your money’s worth of supplies once the trail has been built, isn’t that what they told you?”
Jones nodded, “but what about the food and the mules they promised?”
“Hah! Always slow in coming, but it will come. I can remember many stories of wanting for food, myself and going to sleep wondering if the Chief hadn’t forgotten about his charges. But there’s always ways of getting the word out. Now, tell me about this creature?”
Jones relented and described in detail what he saw and was surprised at his reaction.
“You saw a sasquatch!” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Very few people have ever seen one. They are such mysterious creatures, there are some who even question their very existence! I was with Alexander Caulfield Anderson when he saw one not far from Fort Hope. Truly remarkable.”
Early the next morning before dawn broke, the HBC man woke him. The man put a finger to his lips and Jones put his boots on and strode out after him.
“I’ve got your horse loaded down with goods and a pack for yourself.”
Jones hoisted the pack to his back, it must’ve weighed at least a hundred pounds, but the weight was a comfort.
“Thank you sir!”
They shook hands once more and Jones headed out on the trail with Lofty. In the pre-dawn light, he imagined the sacks were full of gold dust.
Note: This painting by E.J. Hughes (1913 – 2007) was commissioned by the B.C. Telephone Company to commemorate the Province’s centennial in 1958 and it appeared on the telephone directories that year. The S.S. Umatilla was one of the first sternwheelers to ply the waters of what became British Columbia and the first on the Fraser River. When she arrived in Yale on July 21st there was much excitement:
“There was a rumour gaining circulation that a little sternwheeler was on her way up the river. Everybody was soon on the lookout and canoes were sent beyond the bend in the river to ascertain the truth of the report. Soon we learned by the shoutings along the banks of the river and the continuous discharge of guns and pistols, that the report was true; whereupon, there was the greatest rejoicing and pleasure manifested by everyone, and powder was burnt amidst the wildest excitement.”