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Gold Fever in BC: Boomtowns and Hanging Judges

March 18, 2015

This is the final installment in our 3-part series about the Gold Rush era in the Fraser River Basin. Don’t miss our earlier posts on Cariboo Camels and Women in the Gold Rush.

Miners flocked in their thousands to the Fraser River basin. Illustration by J. Ross Browne from Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1860. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We often think of the 21st century as the age of travel, but did you know that many communities in the 19th century were just as cosmopolitan? The Fraser River and Cariboo Gold Rushes brought thousands of hopeful miners from all over the world to British Columbia. Existing communities such as Victoria and Fort Langley exploded in size and entire towns seemed to pop up overnight. In the 1860s, one of these new mining communities was Barkerville. This Gold Rush boomtown was once considered to be the biggest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. People of many different backgrounds, cultures, languages, and ethnicities were suddenly thrown together in the pursuit of wealth – sometimes with volatile results. Barkerville’s Chinese community was particularly large, boasting a population as large as 5000. The town also attracted Americans of all ethnicities, Australians, Europeans, Hawaiians, Mexicans, and Aboriginal people from near and far. Of course, Barkerville was no social utopia; racism was both widespread and institutionalized in Gold Rush-era B.C. Yet these early West Coast boomtowns provided a glimpse of our future province; a place where, despite immense challenges, people from all over the world could come to chase dreams and opportunities.

Sir Matthew Begbie via Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Matthew Begbie via Wikimedia Commons.

The life of Sir Matthew Begbie is a good example of the fascinating lives led by many in the Gold Rush era. Born in 1819 on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Begbie was the son of a British army Colonel. He spent his early life there until his family moved to Great Britain when he was 7. After studying mathematics and law at university, he established a successful legal practice in London. In 1858, he was recruited into the service of the Empire, and traveled to B.C. to become the new colony’s first Supreme Court Judge. Begbie was a rather enigmatic figure who reportedly enjoyed sketching, learning Aboriginal languages, and even performing opera.

Miners at the "Mucho Oro" (Much Gold) gold mine near Barkerville, 1868. Photo by Frederick Dally.

Miners at the “Mucho Oro” (Much Gold) gold mine near Barkerville, 1868. Photo by Frederick Dally.

Begbie roamed throughout B.C. as a travelling judge (very few permanent courthouses existed in the province at the time, and it is believed that he once held a court session whilst riding a donkey), but he spent a significant period of time in Barkerville. Although Begbie is now sometimes thought of as an infamous “Hanging Judge,” among contemporaries he had a reputation as someone who could maintain justice in the booming but unruly Gold Rush towns. Begbie’s colourful life would not have been out of the ordinary in diverse Barkerville. Although international travel might be faster and more reliable today, most of us still haven’t seen as much of the world as the participants in B.C.’s Gold Rushes.

Want to learn more about the Gold Rush? Register for our Gold Fever! event on Saturday March 21 at the Fraser River Discovery Centre. 

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