Special to the Tribune Advisor
During the height of the Cariboo gold rush, the living and working conditions were appalling. In a previous column, I mentioned the Company of Welsh Adventurers, a group of 26 men who made the trip to the goldfields on foot from New Westminster in 1863. They were led by Captain Evans, a demanding, no nonsense, ex British Army officer.
The youngest of this company, Harry Jones, kept a diary which gives a considerable amount of insight into the lives these men lived and the hardships they faced.
These were very religious men. They believed in God and worship was not only necessary, it was required.
Each Sunday, on their long trek to the goldfields, they would halt for the day and hold prayer meetings. This one day in seven was a day of rest.
Every other day, they held morning and evening devotions, no matter how difficult conditions might be.
This healthy respect for religion bonded the men together and helped provide a vehicle for the great bean strike late in the year of 1863.
Captain Evans had been losing money. It cost a good deal to stake claims, to buy equipment, to construct a water wheel and shelter, and to pay wages, as minimal as they were.
He had been advised to shut down the water wheel before freeze up, but he had not heeded the warnings, and now the workings had frozen solid.
On top of all that, no gold had been found in the dirt worked from the claim to date. Captain Evans was in a foul mood.
In order to cut down on expenses over the winter, the captain decided to cut back on food for his men.
Breakfast and lunch consisted of beans, a bit of some kind of meat, and tea, while supper saw bread and butter served along with the beans, meat and tea.
By cutting out the flour and butter, the captain could save some money, but, as Harry Jones wrote: “It made us feel like a lot of prisoners, and that we were on the deck of a ship in the slave trade.”
On Sunday, after the morning prayer meeting, the men discussed their situation. A delegate, Mr. Williams, was selected by the men to speak with Captain Evans. Williams informed him that the men would no longer work for him unless the food improved.
The captain lost his temper, jumped up, and addressed all the men, telling them “in strong words that we all knew where the trail was,” and pointed at the door. In a couple of minutes, all of his workers had left.
Quickly realizing his mistake, Captain Evans ran after the men, imploring them to be reasonable and not to leave the company.
He told them he was willing to listen to their complaints and he offered to go to his house if they would discuss the matter again amongst themselves.
So, another meeting was held. The demands that were agreed upon were pretty simple: first, to have bread and butter on the supper table; secondly, to have other food occasionally rather than beans; and thirdly, to let the men have some say in the running of the company.
Two delegates, J.R. Jones and Harry Jones (the diarist) were selected to go and speak to the captain.
This time, the delegates were met with open arms.
They were congratulated for being chosen, and were treated with respect. Jones writes: “Of course he agreed to grant us all we asked for, and in company with us, left the house to meet the men and thank them very warmly for deciding to remain with him.”
Jones goes on to say: “I can assure you the men were glad to stay as they were not anxious to hit the long road of 400 miles without food or funds or friends to look for other work.”
That afternoon, true to his promise, Captain Evans took Mr. Williams over to Van Winkle where he purchased several bags of lour, some butter, and some turnips. The incident did cause some resentment, however. In the captain’s own diary, he refers to the men as “those mutineers,” and in another place as “ungrateful wretches.”
Much later, after the company had disbanded, he saw some of the men sitting hungry beside the road, and he commented with some satisfaction that”they had brought this plight upon themselves.”
As a post script, shortly after the great bean strike, during the especially ahrd winter of 1863, half a dozen of the men were struck down sick with severe pains in their arms and legs.
Captain Evans was about to bring in a doctor when an old Scottish prospector dropped in for a visit.
He told the captain that the men had scurvey, and he advised them to drink some tea made out of spruce needles.
The captain followed the old miner’s advice (it didn’t cost him anything, either, for the advice or the spruce needles) and after four or five days, all the men were well enough to leave their beds and return to work.
After that, all the men in the company drank no less than 12 cups of spruce tea a day.
They nicknamed the old prospector “Doctor Spruce” and they were most appreciative that he had saved them from a lot of suffering and perhaps even death.
This story describes what happened to a well-organized, relatively well-funded group of men.
We can only imagine the hardships that the single goldseekers endured, many of whom were totally unprepared for the conditions that nature would throw at them.
It has been estimated that up to 20 per cent of those who set out for the goldfields lost their lives in their quest for riches.