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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The story of Richard Willoughby

Richard Willoughby was probably one of the most prolific and luckiest prospectors
Richard Willoughby in 1858. (Reprinted from F.W. Lindsay’s “The Cariboo Story”)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

In previous columns I have written about Cataline and Gun-a-Noot, both of whose names are found on streets in a modest subdivision off the Dog Creek Road.

In that same area, there is another road, Willoughby Place, which carries another name that has Cariboo Gold Rush connections.

Richard Willoughby was probably one of the most prolific and luckiest prospectors who ever came to the goldfields. He was born in Boone County, Missouri, in May of 1833.

By the age of 16 he had become an experienced scout and frontiersman, finding action and adventure throughout the Great Plains and along the Texas border with Mexico.

In 1852, when he was just 19 years old, he led a large wagon train of more than 400 people on a 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to California.

It was a slow and difficult trip through hostile territory, but the group completed it successfully.

In California, Willoughby did some gold mining, and found a modest amount, but he was young and craved more adventure, so he organized prospecting and mining forays into the disputed territories of Arizona and New Mexico.

Many of his fellow gold seekers were killed on these sorties.

After travelling into Nevada and then back to Missouri where he joined another wagon train to the west, Willoughby again found himself in California.

He took up mining once more, and did well at it.

In 1858, he heard rumours of big gold strikes to the north on the Columbia and Fraser Rivers.

He wanted in on this new adventure, but it was impossible to book passage on a boat from San Francisco. Rather than put his name on a waiting list, Willoughby sold his California mining claims, bought 50 pack and saddle horses and supplies, organized a party of 20 other miners and headed out overland in March of 1858.

The journey was long and difficult, but by the end of May, the group had reached the U.S. military fort at Vancouver, Wash.

There, he and his party were pressed into service by General Steptoe, becoming involved in several skirmishes with the local native bands.

The following spring, Willoughby and his group continued the journey.

They stopped briefly in Fort Kamloops, then pushed north, crossing the Thompson River at what is now Savona. He travelled up the Bonaparte River to Hat Creek, and prospected Marble Canyon. Then he and several of his party decided to push over to the Fraser River to prospect the sandy bars.

Once there, they built rafts to take them down river from bar to bar.

At Hell’s Gate, Willoughby tried to convince his men to abandon the rafts and continue downriver by an overland route.

They would not listen to him, so he set out along on foot.

The rest of the party attempted to run Hell’s Gate. Almost all of them drowned.

Willoughby made it all the way down to Yale. By late 1860, he was working Emory’s Bar, and had taken out $20,000 in gold (more than $1.2 million in today’s prices).

He became quite well known in Yale, and during his time there, he was one of the founders of the Lowhee Society, a secret group established to protect the gold miners.

Unfortunately, Willoughby invested his new-found wealth in a barren bar and he lost every cent, so he set out prospecting again, moving slowly northward.

In the late spring of 1861, he arrived in the Cariboo, broke, but full of optimism. He did some panning near Quesnel Forks, then he moved on to Keithley Creek where he picked up a few ounces of gold.

Then it was over Yank’s Peak to Williams Creek, which was fully claimed, so he moved west to Burns Creek.

He convinced the storekeeper there to grub stake him to food and clothing and off he went.

He found a small, unnamed stream and set up camp.

The place turned out to be brimming with gold.

Willoughby named it Lowhee Creek and staked his ground, which he named the Discovery Claim.

As the story goes, he then walked back to the Burns Creek trading post and threw a poke of gold onto the counter to settle his account.

The storekeeper asked where the gold had come from, and Willoughby assured him it was from Williams Creek.

However, the storekeeper knew what gold from Williams Creek looked like, and this was totally different.

Willoughby refused to disclose the location of his find.

He purchased a new load of supplies then waited until dark to return.

As he set out, he knew he was being followed. When he arrived at his claim, long after midnight, he waited for those trailing him to catch up.

He called out: “Is everybody here?” “Not yet” was the reply.

“There’s a bunch more strung out behind.”

Willoughby waited until all the stragglers had caught up and then said: “Boys, this is it. I am standing on my claim. You can begin staking your own.”

By daybreak, the entire creek was alive with miners hammering in claim posts.

From his Discovery Claim between July 27 and Sept. 8, 1861, Willoughby dug out 3,037 ounces of gold from a strip along the creek that was 400 feet long and 12 feet wide.

Much of the gold was in nugget form, the largest one weighing 10 ounces. The creek, which lies southeast of Wells and drains into Jack of Clubs Lake, was less than two miles long, but it yielded nearly $3 million ($180 million in today’s prices).

Willoughby took out more than $70,000 from his claim, then sold out for an even larger amount. Having made his fortune, he decided to get out of gold mining and he moved down to New Westminster, where he spent the winter of 1862 relaxing and playing his violin for dances.

Willoughby was not the sort of man who could remain idle for long. He purchased a pack train and a sawmill. He financed Francis Barnard to start up the BX Express Company.

In 1867 he started up a cattle ranch near what is now Chilliwack. In all of these ventures he did well, but the lure of gold was strong for him, so 1869 found him mining once again in the goldfields of Cassiar, where he took out more than $12,000 in profits.

By 1875, Willoughby was prospecting around Wrangell, Alaska.

The following spring he was at Sitka, and that summer, he was digging claims along the Yukon River.

Finally, Willoughby discovered a large gold deposit at Nome, Alaska, and that is where he settled down.

He died there in 1904, leaving an estate of more than $200,000 ($12 million in today’s prices).

Throughout the history of placer mining only about one in 10 prospectors were ever successful at making a living.

Richard Willoughby was one of those fortunate men who struck it rich not once, but several times over.

His was a real success story as he followed the gold rush from California all the way up to Alaska.

For this article, I have relied on the writings of Art Downs and F.W. Lindsay.