Most people have at least heard of Barkerville, located east of Quesnel on a small stream named Williams Creek.
For about six years, that town was the epicentre of the Cariboo Gold Rush, which saw millions of dollars in gold extracted and the opening up of B.C.’s vast interior plateau. So, how did Williams Creek get its name?
That question opens up an interesting gold rush story about a prospector by the name of William ‘Dutch Bill’ Dietz.
Dutch Bill was a goldseeker who had tried to make his fortune in California, but who had barely broken event.
In 1859, he was working the bars on the Fraser River near Lillooet, again just managing to make ends meet, when all his gear and supplies were stolen.
He returned to Yale and worked there a while until he had enough money to purchase more gear, and in the spring of 1860, he began working his way northward.
By the late summer of that year, Dietz had made it to Quesnel Forks, where he settled in for the winter.
Not far upstream from “The Forks,” Doc Keithley had discovered gold on the creek which now bears his name, and a town had grown up at its mouth.
Keithley and several others had kept following the gold up and over the Snowshoe plateau, where they discovered some good gold on Antler Creek.
Gold strikes never remain secret for long, and by the spring of 1861, over 1,200 miners were working claims on Antler Creek, and another town, Antler City, had been established.
It had a sawmill, which produced lumber for the construction of all kinds of buildings.
One such structure was Madam Maloney’s stopping house on the edge of town. There was also a horse racing track, marked out with boulders on the flats near the town, and regular thoroughbred races were scheduled there during the summer season.
Dutch Bill, hunkering down for the winter in Quesnel Forks, undoubtedly heard about the gold strikes near Keithley Creek and up at Antler Creek.
He dreamed of striking it rich, too, and so early in February, 1861, he set out for Antler City.
When he arrived, he was already too late. There was very little, if any, ground not already staked or being mined on Antler Creek.
Frustrated and impatient, Bill decided to do some prospecting further north.
He teamed up with three other men, Ned Stout, Michael Burns, and M.C. Brown. This group followed Antler Creek up into the alpine area of Bald Mountain, crossed over a plateau, and descended into another valley.
M.C. Brown described it this way: “We crossed the divide, eventually making the headwaters of a creek. After some tiresome travelling … [we arrived at] … a place near a little gulch or canyon, where we camped for the night, building a brush shelter. On the following morning, we left to prospect the stream, agreeing to meet at night to report progress … Dutch Bill made the best prospect, striking pay dirt going $1.25 a pan. I also did pretty well, finding dirt worth a dollar or so a pan.”
Each of the four partners felt that they had found a creek with rich ground. While they were sitting around the campfire that night, they discussed what they should name the creek. Dutch Bill thought that they should call it Billy Creek, since he had found the best pan.
The others felt that was fair, but suggested that it would be better if it had a more formal sounding name, so all agreed it would be called Williams Creek, after Mr. William Dietz.
According to the popular story, which may have lost some of its accuracy in the telling and retelling, the men spent a few days on the creek, collecting some good gold.
Then they decided that three of them should return to Antler City to reprovision, leaving one behind to keep watch on the area. It didn’t take long after the men returned to Antler for rumours of their success to circulate.
Bill Dietz became aware of these rumours, so one morning very early, leaving his two companions to follow along later with the bulk of the supplies and equipment they had purchased, he set out on snowshoes to return to the creek.
His tracks were followed by dozens of gold-hungry men.
They arrived at the creek and immediately began prospecting for themselves.
Dutch Bill was devastated. He and his partners had not yet even staked out their own claims on the stream bed.
However, the newcomers, as rough as they were, did have a code of honour of sorts.
They agreed to give Bill and his party some time to stake the first four claims on the ground.
Bill and his company chose an area above the small canyon for their discovery claim. They built sluice boxes and they worked the gravel all that summer.
They were able to clean up about 200 ounces of coarse gold before the claim was completely cleaned out.
That worked out to be a share of about $1,000 for each of the four partners, about $75,000 in today’s dollars.
It wasn’t long before a new town, optimistically called Richfield, grew up on the land adjacent to the discovery claim.
Some 4,000 men swarmed over a seven-mile stretch of creek bed that summer of 1861 in a frenzy of digging.
Some claims produced 30 to 40 pounds of gold in a day.
Other rich streams were found nearby, and by the time the snows arrived that fall, the Cariboo goldfields had produced $2,666,000 in gold, over $200 million in today’s dollars.
The following year, 1862, goldseekers arrived by the thousands, from California, the eastern United States and Canada, the British Isles, Europe and China. As more large strikes were made, more towns like Cameronton, Barkerville, Marysville, and Grouse City were established next to the creek, with Barkerville ultimately becoming the major centre.
As for Bill Dietz, his discovery claim proved to be one of the poorest on the creek.
He spent a couple more years prospecting for another good strike, but poor physical health required him to leave the Cariboo.
By the winter of 1863, he was in Victoria, penniless, and suffering from chronic lung problems.
He never returned to his creek.
Bill Dietz was a man who was not afraid to take a chance, but he never seemed to have lady luck on his side.
The Victoria Chronicle perhaps summed it up when they wrote: “He had succeeded in doing much for his country and in pointing out the road to fortune for many, but he has made no competency for himself.”
The man who discovered gold on the creek which proved to be one of the world’s richest died in poverty in Victoria in 1877, his only legacy being his name on the stream which played such a major part in the Cariboo gold rush.
For this article, I relied on the writings of Art Downs, F.W. Lindsay, and a piece in the Canadian West magazine.