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Insider’s Scoop: Gold Rush! at Canadian Museum of History

By Chris Lackner

The Gold Rush! has come to Ottawa.

Haida box by Bill Reid, 1971. Courtesy Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Haida box by Bill Reid, 1971. Courtesy Royal BC Museum and Archives.

While you can’t get rich, you can check out the shiny new exhibit, Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia, at the Canadian Museum of History, April 8 to January 2017.

For an Insider’s Scoop, we talked to John Willis, curator of economic history at the museum:

Q: What will surprise visitors about this exhibit?

A: The fact that such a gold rush, of massive proportions, occurred in Canada, on its West Coast, 50 years before the Klondike.

The fact that some were willing to travel so far in order to get the gold: some trekked overland the entire distance from (central) Canada; others came thousands of miles from Europe, China, and elsewhere in Eastern Canada (the Maritimes for example).

The distances that have to be travelled within B.C. on terrain that is both rugged and spectacular (this comes out in the videos) this will surprise and impress visitors.

The fact that one could make a living not by prospecting for gold but by selling to and living off those mining the gold.

town-web

This photo depicts the main street of Barkerville just before the 1868 fire that destroyed the town. Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Q. Why is this exhibit important? 

A: First, it establishes the importance of the 1858 and 1862 gold rushes in the making of modern B.C. history. The era transformed indigenous societies and overturned the traditional fur economy of the Hudson Bay Company. In its wake came a new type of society devoted to exploiting land, natural resources, farmland; fostering trade and building cities. Through this exhibition the society of B.C. is trying to come to terms with its history. This includes the admission tragic errors made in the past vis-à-vis indigenous nations.

Second, the exhibit shows the importance of the larger Pacific sphere to the making of B.C. history especially in the gold rush era. What happened in California, Australia and Hong Kong had considerable bearing on how B.C. got roped into this gold rush economy.

Third, the exhibit touches on the quirks of human behaviour in a gold-rush setting. Men and women (but mainly men) travel by the tens of thousands to one destination or another intending to make it rich quick by mining the gold.  They are carried away by an enthusiasm for the riches promised by gold.  Men suffer from gold fever that sets them on a path to the gold fields, however distant. That path was referred in the newspaper of the day as a “highway to insanity.” As a collective mania, the psychology of gold fever does resemble the kind of up and down and sometimes foolish human behaviour associated with the stock market.

Wheel and flumes at the Davies claim on William’s Creek, 1867. Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Wheel and flumes at the Davies claim on William’s Creek, 1867.
Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Q: What are your favourite aspects of, or artifacts from, the exhibition?

A. I enjoy seeing the life size version of the B.C. Express company stagecoach that dates from the era and was used on the Cariboo Road. The vehicle is in excellent shape, it was lovingly restored in the late 1980s.  And it can’t help but conjure up images of the old west.  coachThe freight saddle or aparejo positioned in a display window opposite the stage coach belonged to a local hero, French-born Jean Caux, nicknamed Cataline.  It is interesting for it reminds us of the challenges of getting freight into and out of the rugged and mountainous B. C. interior.

There is an explicit recognition of things Chinese: a picture of Hong Kong harbour full of ships circa 1860, and later in the exhibition a display of exquisite Chinese artifacts (fan, game pieces, pipe, mud-treated silk garments, shoes etc.).

Turnagain Nugget is the largest existing gold nugget ever found in British Columbia: it weighs 1,642 grams (52 troy onces) and is approximately 4.2 cm high, 18.1 cm wide and 9.2 cm deep. Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archive.

Turnagain Nugget is the largest existing gold nugget ever found in British Columbia: it weighs 1,642 grams (52 troy onces) and is approximately 4.2 cm high, 18.1 cm wide and 9.2 cm deep. Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archive.

A huge and engaging painting,  Slim Jim or the Parson Takes the Pot,  shows a group of men playing a gambling game of cards. A probable con-man disguised as a priest has surprised his fellow players by winning the hand. The picture reminds us that all forms of gambling were popular in gold-rush communities, where there were men (only) and money a plenty.

The painting is so big that the box in which it came barely fits, height-wise, in the corridor of our museum

Finally the Pemberton dress, a beautiful silk-dress, with its budding hoop skirt and delicate engagements (frills that go up the sleeves), which dates from the B.C. gold-rush era, reminds us that women were present in this society — as entrepreneurs, supporters of culture, as instigators of all kinds of business and community activities. The theme is well carried in the book by New Perspectives on the Gold Rush; as well as in the exhibition catalogue: Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia.

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