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Haphazard History: The Cariboo

Today, we know the Cariboo region as the lands from Clinton north to Hixon or so.

Today, we know the Cariboo region as the lands from Clinton north to Hixon or so, bounded on the west by the Fraser River, and on the east by the Cariboo mountains.

In the gold rush days the Cariboo region was not quite as large or well defined. It included the area north of Quesnelle Forks and west to Quesnel, but not Williams Lake or 150 Mile House.

In those days “the Cariboo” was synonymous with the gold fields area.

Have you ever wondered how the Cariboo got its name and its unique spelling? Most historians agree that “Cariboo” is simply a mispelling of caribou, which were plentiful in the area in the early 1860s and which provided a reliable food source for most of the early prospectors.

In fact, in the Victoria newspaper, the “British Colonist” dated Nov. 11, 1860, an article appeared which stated: “The name Cariboo is derived from a species of reindeer abounding in this section,” and which concluded “It was the killing of one of these animals on the North Fork of the Quesnelle River, by some Canadian miners, early in the summer, that the name was first applied to that section and it will no doubt be adopted by the government.”

That article clearly misspelled the word caribou, and it appears that the strange spelling stuck.

Less than a year later, Governor James Douglas, in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle in England, wrote “The Cariboo country, in speaking of which I have adopted the popular term and more convenient orthography of the word … the country having been so called from its being the favourite haunt of that species of deer kind.”

So the Cariboo area was named after a species of reindeer. Or was it?

There is another story, told by many of the early Barkerville miners from the early 1860s about William Cox, who had been appointed Magistrate for the Barkerville region.

Judge Cox was an Irishman who was known to have a drink or two and who was a bit of a practical joker.

During those early days he stayed at the McInnes boarding house in Cameronton, and the proprietor of the place, Alexander McInnes was a garrulous man who also liked to play practical jokes.

One day, early in the winter of Judge Cox’s first season in Barkerville, one of the miners shot a large caribou bull, and after gutting it, left it on the hillside while he returned to camp to get help to pack it out.

Upon hearing about this, Judge Cox, who was certainly no marksman, expressed a keen desire to go on a caribou hunt.

McInnes, when he heard this, formulated a plan.

He arranged for the miner who had shot the caribou and some friends to stand the now frozen animal at one end of an open hillside, close to a tree.

Behind the tree, the miner would hold a rope attached to the carcass. Judge Cox would be led to the area, and when he fired his rifle, the miner would pull on the rope and the animal would fall over.

Everything went as planned until Cox fired. His aim was so poor he almost hit the miner behind the tree.

Several shots later the animal went down. Judge Cox was ecstatic, thinking he had killed the animal, but the miner was not so pleased, and he couldn’t keep quiet about the incident, so the truth came out.

The incident soon became the talk of the town. Judge Cox was mightily embarrassed, both about the trick played upon him and about his shooting skills.

McInnes had a great laugh and treated Cox to several drinks. However, for the next few weeks, the miners would laugh and chant “Cariboo, Cariboo, Cariboo-boo-boo!” when they saw the Judge.

He took the ribbing well, but forever after, he was known as Cariboo Cox, and thus, the region which he was responsible for administering became known as the Cariboo.

Two very different stories about the origins of the name Cariboo.

I like the second one. How about you?