There is a long history of gold mining in the Lillooet region, although the Fraser River Gold Rush of the 1850’s is recognized as the largest gold rush in British Columbia’s history.
In 1856, the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, sent a sample of ore to San Francisco, California. After news spread of the mineral-rich land, the British Crown claimed all gold mines and deposits in the Fraser and Thompson River districts. Although Governor Douglas issued a proclamation in 1857 , he did not discuss the ownership of the gold with the indigenous people of Lillooet.
It is estimated that approximately 5000 people lived in and around Lillooet before the gold rush began. In just a few months, somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people flooded the area in search of gold and riches. Although the British claimed the right to the gold in the territories, people seeking gold in the region didn’t abide by this ruling. Gold miners did not recognize the indigenous or British claims to the gold.
It is difficult to estimate how much gold was taken from Lillooet land. There are rough estimates that the Colonial Government produced versus independent banker estimates.
The Lillooet people not only helped newcomers to navigate the rivers but also gave them food when they had nothing to eat. It was their belief that they could benefit from honest trading with European settlers. Being mostly male, the First Nations people had hopes that the foreigners would soon return to their homelands and families.
Starvation was a serious issue for the people who had relied on the Fraser river for salmon to feed the entire community over the winter months. The years previous to the gold rush, salmon was scarce. Now that the area was overpopulated there wasn’t enough food for the Aboriginal communities and the miners. Eventually, the non-Aboriginal began to steal food from the Lillooet people, forcing them to have no choice but to take up arms and protect their crucial and very limited food. It was in June of 1858 according to Douglas’ account, that he traveled along the Fraser River where foreigners would post camps in order to attempt to defuse tensions from both sides.
Even after having their lands torn up along the riverbeds, mountains and even changing the natural flows of the sources of water, the Lillooet people held up peace which lasted throughout the rest of the year. That wasn’t the case in other areas along the rivers. Some of the miners began preventing the people from accessing their own rivers and sources of salmon. The miners would burn down local villages, destroy homes, sexually assault the women and even commit murder; all without any regard for the British governing laws. The Lillooet people took up arms to protect their villages, women, lands, and rivers. By means of defending what was theirs to protect, they killed some of the miners and with it broke the peace between the two.
Douglas would attempt through his peace missions to regain peace throughout the region and met with the Chiefs of the Thompson River. He promised that the laws of the British governments would be enforced among the foreigners and as a sign of trust, canceled some of the questionable mining rights to some of the land. Peace treaties were signed between the British government and the First Nations saying that First Nations people have jurisdiction over their own people and the British government over foreigners to the land.
It wouldn’t take more than a few years for people to move on from the area, with them the gold taken from the land. Today Lillooet is a strong community, surrounded by beauty although sadly still impacted by the long history of what was lost and stolen.