Most of us have heard of the explorer Simon Fraser, who in 1808 navigated the great river which now bears his name.
After he retired from the North West Company, he settled in Cornwall, Ont., where he married in June of 1820.
He and his wife, Catherine, had nine children, one of whom died in childbirth.
Fraser farmed and worked in mills in the area, but he barely made ends meet, and he died poor in 1862 at the age of 86.
The fourth of Fraser’s five sons, John, became a land surveyor.
After his father’s death, he headed west to prospect for gold in the Cariboo.
By the time he arrived in the gold fields, virtually all the land was claimed, but his training as a surveyor ensured that he had a skill to rely upon, and he found his services much in demand.
In his diaries, the Welsh miner, Harry Jones, writes: “In the spring of 1865, I met a man by the name of John A. Fraser, a surveyor who visited the owner of a mine, Mr. David Grear, very often. One day, Mr. Grear employed Mr. Fraser to survey a piece of ground where a shaft was to be sunk, and told me to go and help him, which I did. After this, we became very friendly.”
He goes on to say that they used to talk of many things — of home, of schooling, of gold and of family. It was during these discussions that he learned that John was the son of Simon Fraser. John was one of the leading citizens of the Cariboo.
He was a member of the Methodist Church choir, which had the reputation of being the best in B.C.
He was not a drinker and a carouser, he was honest and sincere, although a little shy, and he was well-respected in his surveying business dealings.
Jones left Williams Creek some time that June to prospect on Begg’s Gulch. When he returned a couple of months later, he found that John Fraser had moved into a small cabin across the creek from Cameronton, and was sharing it with a roommate.
Fraser invited Jones to come and visit him, and they took up where they left off, talking about politics, business, family and the like.
“We would meet once or twice a day, and I never saw anything the matter with the man. He was as normal as could be, and he was of sound mind.”
One day, however, two letters arrived for Fraser via the B.C. Express.
One letter informed him of a mortgage foreclosure and the other let him know that the girl to whom he was engaged had married another man.
Fraser was devastated. He went back to his cabin, and over the next few days, his mental health began to unravel.
Harry Jones writes: “At this time, I bought a share in the Australian mine which was situated at the north end of town.
We took water into our flume from Williams Creek. The head of our flume where we diverted water from the creek was about 300 feet upstream from our shaft house, and in direct line with Mr. Fraser’s cabin.”
It was Jones’ job every morning to turn up the volume of water entering the flume from the creek.
One morning, as he was working, the man who stayed with Mr. Fraser passed him on the way to town to buy some bread.
He said that he was in a bit of a hurry to get back, since he had left Fraser alone in the cabin.
He asked Jones to keep an eye on the place, and if Fraser came out, to observe which way he went, because Fraser had “shown signs of insanity in the last few days.”
After the roommate had left, Jones did see Fraser come out of the cabin. He walked about 20 feet, then stopped for a few seconds, and went back inside.
When the cabin mate returned, Jones told him what he had seen.
The man thanked him and returned to the cabin.
Jones writes: “When the man got up to the door of the cabin, he let a horrified yell out of him. I rushed across the creek and up to the cabin. There were two or three other miners there, too, as they had been standing a short way from the cabin talking together. The roommate sent one of these men for Doctor Chipp.”
From the doorway, Jones come see Fraser’s body lying in a pool of blood.
He had taken a pen knife and cut his own jugular vein.
When the doctor arrived, he examined the scene and declared Fraser to be “dead by his own hand.”
Sometimes back then, just as today, the pressures of life caused people to make unfortunate and impetuous decisions.
The real tragedy in John Fraser’s case was that two days after he took his own life, they struck it rich on a claim in which he had heavily invested.
My thanks to the diaries of Harry Jones and the writings of F.W. Lindsay for this one.
Barry Sale is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Weekend Advisor.