The Gold Escort at Barkerville in 1863. (BC Provincial Archives photo)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY PODCAST: The Gold Escort

When gold was sent from the Cariboo to San Francisco to be refined, the secret was out

By mid 1858, it had become evident to Governor James Douglas that he had a stampede of goldseekers on his hands.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had known about gold finds on the Fraser River since early in 1856, and they had kept word of this to themselves, quietly sending gold which had come in on trade to Fort Langley for safekeeping.

However, when the Company had amassed some 800 oz. of gold, they sent it to San Francisco to be refined, and the secret was out. Some 30,000 prospectors and entrepreneurs passed through Victoria and Fort Langley during the spring and summer of 1858.

James Douglas had three major concerns. First, since most of the newcomers were American, he feared that they would make an attempt to take over the territory in the name of the U.S. Secondly, he worried that there was insufficient policing for the influx of people, some of whom were rather shady characters.

He did not want to see a repeat of the “wild west” mentality and accompanying violence which had plaqued the California gold rush. The third problem was that Douglas’ colonial government was virtually broke. He wanted to find ways to cash in on the influx of men, as well as on transportation, assaying, and taxation of the gold extracted from the diggings.

At Douglas’ urging, the British parliament passed legislation creating the Province of British Columbia in August of 1858, with Douglas as its first Governor. That addressed his first concern. The British government also sent a contingent of Royal Engineers from England to enforce British law, to survey land, to construct roads and to erect community structures such as government offices, jails, and official residences. That took care of the second problem.

To address the third issue, James Douglas himself began to implement creative ways of “mining the miners.” For example, he ordered a ship to be anchored at the mouth of the Fraser River which sold prospecting licences to every prospector who was making his way upriver.

He imposed taxes on all equipment sold in the outfitters’ stores, and he also charged levies to hotels, rooming houses, and roadhouses. He declared that all mining property was Crown controlled, requiring staking and registration.

For about two years, Douglas considered the idea of a gold escort. This would be a paramilitary force created for the sole purpose of carrying gold from the current diggings to government assay offices at New Westminster or Victoria. In 1860, the Gold Commissioner for the Cariboo, Philip Nind, made a formal request to Governor Douglas to institute such a service. He argued that it would strengthen the government’s presence in the goldfields as well as providing a service to returning miners, who were easy prey for robbers.

In July of 1861, at the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush, James Douglas gave official consent to the formation of a colonial Gold Escort. A troop of a dozen men, in smart new uniforms, heavily armed and well mounted was assigned to the command of Thomas Elwyn, a former British Army Officer and Chief Constable at Yale. Douglas considered him “peculiarly suited for the task” by reason of his knowledge of the country and his previous military experience.

On July 9, 1861, the British Colonist newspaper reported:

“The route of the escort will be from New Westminster to the Forks of Quesnel River via Port Douglas and Cayoosh [Lillooet]. Ex justice Thomas Elway … will have charge of the route from Cayoosh to the Forks, and will be accompanied by a sergeant and four soldiers of the Royal Sappers … The escort from Cayoosh to Douglas [Port Douglas at the head of Harrison Lake on the trail to Lillooet] will be under the Charge of Mr. Hankin and two mounted policemen.”

The plan was that the gold escort would pick up gold from miners along the route for consignment to the coast (for a fee) until claimed by the owner. The cost was one shilling (about .50) per ounce of gold. The whole concept was not well accepted by the miners. There were already carrying companies such as Barnard’s Express and Dietz & Nelson which had excellent records transporting gold. As well, many of the miners preferred to send their gold to San Francisco, where they got a better rate of return. After working hard to get the gold, most were reluctant to let it out of their possession and chose to carry it out themselves. Finally, the government refused to guarantee safe delivery of the gold, something that the freight companies did routinely.

On its first trip in 1861, the Gold Escort made it only as far as Lillooet before turning back. Only $10,000 in gold dust was transported. Later that summer they tried again, making it all the way up to Williams Creek in the Cariboo. The miners there, however, really distrusted the gold escort. Thomas Elwyn took it upon himself to personally guarantee safe delivery and fair compensation. Despite his efforts, only $30,000 in gold was brought down to New Westminster.

A final trip was made in the fall, once again going only as far as Lillooet, and a mere $10,000 was brought back. When the cost of the venture was calculated, it turned out that the three trips had cost the government close to $30,000, and they took in less than $1,000 in fees. It was not the financial boon that James Douglas had envisioned.

To add to the financial woes, a number of officers quit when Mr. Hankin ordered them to perform menial tasks such as cleaning and polishing his boots and looking after his horse and tack. He also refused to fraternize with his men, even at meal times. The final straw was that the Gold Escort could not match, or even come close to the delivery times achieved by the freight companies.

The whole undertaking would likely had died a quiet death if it weren’t for a well publicized robbery in 1862. That summer, two merchants who were carrying $12,000 in gold from Keithley Creek to Quesnel Forks were murdered. Public pressure for better policing and security in the goldfields gave James Douglas an opportunity to resurrect the Gold Escort, and he did just that in June of 1863.

This time, it was a larger force of 15 men. Gone were the fancy uniforms and the paramilitary trappings, but the men were tough, well armed, and competent. Two banks had established branches in Barkerville, and it was anticipated that they would use the escort to transport bullion. What could go wrong?

When the Gold Escort arrived on Williams Creek that summer, they soon found out that very little had changed since 1861. The miners still distrusted a government operation, especially one which would not guarantee against loss. They still preferred to take out their gold themselves or to trust it to the existing freight companies. After six weeks, the escort convoy returned to the coast, carrying only $40,000 in gold. This trip had cost some $12,000, and the receipts were only $1,250.

A second trip was taken, with much the same results. This one brought back $95,000, of which $70,000 was consigned by the Bank of British Columbia. The other bank flat out refused to ship with the escort. The returns to the government for this trip were a mere $3,000.

One final trip took place in the fall of 1863. A total of $78,000 in gold was brought out, of which $63,000 belonged to the Bank of B.C. This proved to be the final trip for the Gold Escort. Although the goldfields of the Cariboo had produced about $4 million that year, not quite five per cent of this gold had been transported by the escort. It was quietly disbanded.

In total, this scheme cost the colony almost $80,000, which in today’s dollars would be about $1.6 million. The Gold Escort was an experiment which never did meet expectations or provide the hoped for benefits to the young colony. It is now a little known footnote in the colourful and interesting history of our province.

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