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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The sad story of John Cariboo Cameron

Those who know the history of the Barkerville gold fields will recall that the original name for Barkerville was Cameronton.
John Cameron and Sophie Groves at the time of their marriage in Cornwall

Those who know the history of the Barkerville gold fields will recall that the original name for Barkerville was Cameronton.

In fact, the cemetery just outside of Barkerville is still referred to as the Cameronton cemetery by old timers in the area.

These places were named after John Angus “Cariboo” Cameron, a man whose gold rush story is both improbable and tragic.

John Cameron was born in Scotland in 1820. In 1845, he came over to Canada with his parents and four brothers to settle on a homestead in Glengarry, near Cornwall in upper Canada.

It was not long before he began courting Miss Sophie Groves, a good-looking young lass from a neighbouring farm who was 12 years his junior.

Her parents opposed the attentions of the young man towards their daughter. They felt she was too young for him.

Around the year 1852, John heard about the California gold rush.

The lure of easy gold proved strong and he and two brothers set out to seek their fortunes. They were among the lucky few who profited from the California rush.

They stayed there for six years and made quite respectable earnings.

Then, in 1858, they heard about the gold to be had on the sandbars of the Fraser River and they headed north.

Once again, fortune was on their side, and the brothers had two good gold strikes yielding more than $20,000.

At the end of that year they returned to Glengarry, and John married Sophie, who was now a ripe old 26 years of age.

The couple had a daughter, Alice Isabel, in 1861. By this time, however, the news was filtering east about the fabulously rich diggings in the Cariboo goldfields.

John couldn’t resist and decided to head west once again. He intended to leave his young family behind, but Sophie wouldn’t hear of it.

It was a long and arduous journey. They travelled on a small steamship, the “Brother John” from upper Canada around the tip of South America to Fort Victoria, arriving there in late February of 1862.

During the trip Alice became sick and, five days after they landed, she died. The Camerons were heartbroken.

John blamed himself for not forcing his wife and daughter to stay home, but more than ever he was determined to press on to the goldfields.

During the delay in Victoria, almost all their money was spent, but fortunately they met Robert Stevenson, an old friend from Glengarry County.

He arranged for them to obtain $2,000 in credit from the Hudson’s Bay Company. John used half of this money to purchase candles which he took with him to Williams Creek, and which he later sold for $10,000.

Stevenson also offered the Camerons a partnership in his store at Antler Creek, and they eventually made a good return from this venture, as well.

But it was in gold sluicing that Cameron really put his energy.

The couple staked claims on Upper Williams Creek and later downstream near Stout’s Gulch.

They made a modest living, but fortunes were made almost daily on adjoining claims.

A partnership was formed between John, Sophie, Stevenson and four other friends.

This group became known as Cameron and Company, and it staked another six claims.

Later in the summer of 1862, John and Sophie has another child, which was stillborn.

Then, late in the fall, the temperatures plummeted to -30C. Typhoid fever broke out and Sophie contracted it.

She pleaded with John to take her back home to Glengarry. More than anything, she did not want to occupy a grave in this cold, bleak wilderness.

John promised that he would take her home, and shortly after, on Oct. 23, she succumbed to the disease.

John buried Sophie in a temporary grave at Walker’s Gulch, and then threw himself into the search for gold.

One month later, he made one of the richest strikes in the Cariboo. The Cameron claim yielded up to 100 ounces per shift and, in a matter of a few weeks, John’s share reached a staggering total of more than $100,000.

Gradually, a little town called Cameronton grew up around his claims.

But the sudden wealth meant nothing to him since his loved ones were no longer there to share it with him.

So, he set out to fulfil his promise to Sophie. John offered $12 per day plus a $2,000 bonus at the end to any man who would help him carry the coffin out to Fort Victoria.

When they set out, the mercury was hovering around -50C and there was seven feet of snow on the ground.

They took the coffin over Yank’s Peak in a raging snow storm and, at one point, had to leave it near Snowshoe Creek while they sought shelter further down the trail.

When they returned for it the next day, they had to dig it out of another five feet of snow.

All told, the group was able to travel only 72 miles in the first 11 days.

They finally arrived, exhausted, in Fort Victoria, after a 36-day trip.

John hired a metal shop to make a casket out of tin. This was placed inside the wooden coffin and filled with alcohol, in which Sophie’s body was immersed.

It was then placed in a vault, waiting for transportation to Eastern Canada.

John returned to his Cariboo claim and, by late summer, his earnings had topped $350,000. He set out for Fort Victoria once again, this time a very rich man.

On Nov. 8, he began his 12,000-mile voyage back to upper Canada with Sophie’s coffin on board.

The voyage did not start out well. The U.S. customs officials did not believe his declaration that the 400-pound casket contained his wife’s body preserved in alcohol.

It took a great deal of persuasion and several large gold nuggets to have the coffin cleared without being opened.

The customs officials believed that he was smuggling gold into the U.S.

When at last he arrived in Glengarry, Sophie was buried again in a closed coffin ceremony. Her father requested to see her face before the burial, but John refused, and so began some ugly rumours.

In 1865 John, now 45 years old, married Christy Anne “Emma” Wood.

He built her a lavish mansion and they settled down as a prosperous businessman and wife. John invested in timber, the construction of the Lachine canal and some Eastern mines.

By 1872, however, the rumours had become much worse.

People believed that the coffin contained gold obtained by John when he had sold Sophie into slavery to an Indian chief.

As the speculation mounted, John decided to put the rumours to rest once and for all.

He notified all of Sophie’s relations that he was going to have the body exhumed and invited them to come and identify her.

The tin casket was punctured and the alcohol was drained off.

The lid was removed and the gathered relatives looked upon the perfectly preserved features of Sophie.

John, however, could not force himself to look. Instead, he cried out to the small gathering: “Look at her, the innocent victim of my lust for gold.”

Thus, the rumours were laid to rest, but it was said that the grass never again grew over the grave because of the alcohol which had been drained there.

John had the coffin dug up once again and, this time, it was reburied at Summertown near the mansion that he had built with his Cariboo gold fortune.

John did not do very well with his investments. By 1886, his fortune was almost gone.

He convinced his second wife to return with him to the Cariboo but, of course, all the easy-to-reach gold was gone.

She did not stay long, but Cariboo Cameron chose to remain. He worked for a time at the Big Bend mines, then drifted up to the old diggings at Barkerville, scarcely knowing why he stayed.

On Nov. 7, 1888, John Angus Cameron died of a massive stroke, although many said it was a broken heart that did him in.

He was buried in the Cameronton cemetery.

Thus ended the sad saga of a man whose wife had two caskets, three funerals and four burials.