Some Chinese gold rush history

1863 was the most profitable year of the gold rush.

1863 was the most profitable year of the gold rush, with more than $4 million in placer gold being taken from the creeks and rivers of the Cariboo gold fields.

During that year, and for several years after, gold seekers continued to flood into the area, but the surface diggings on most of the creeks had been mined already.

In several places, hard rock mines were begun in order to get at the gold depoits on the bedrock, some 30- to 50-feet below the surface.

In other places, hydraulic mining began to gain in popularity, where many tons of gravel were washed away in order to obtain relatively small amounts of gold.

Rumours abounded of gold “up north” and many of the gold seekers moved on to the Stikene and the Cassian regions, looking for easy pickings.

Only the hardiest (some would say the foolhardiest) men remained, determined to find a little gold and at least break even.

Enter the Chinese miners.

A great many of theme moved in to rework the discovery claims in the goldfields and to set up small sluicing operations.

By the spring of 1867, it was estimated there were some 200 Chinese miners in the Cariboo River area between Quesnel Forks and Keithly Creek.

By 1869, when the first provincial census of the 80,000-square mile Cariboo region was conducted, there were 919 white males, 69 white females and almost as many Chinese — 720 males and six females.

Most of these people could be found in the Quesnel Forks, Keithly Creek, Barkerville area, with a few others in the Quesnel, Wells, Stanley corridor.

During the next decade the number of Chinese in the gold fields had doubled, and the white population had declined by half.

Provincial laws passed in Victoria encouraged this population to shift. Restrictions on Chinese people were so severe that many chose to move to the rural areas where they could avoid official harassment, yet still earn a reasonable living.

Even so, the law did not favour the Chinese. White mine labourers earned $6 per day, while the Chinese earned $3.50 for the same job.

The government collected claim fees from the Chinese ($15 per year versus $5 for whites), yet they were not allowed to vote.

They were prevented by law from purchasing Crown land, so many were, by necessity, squatters.

All Chinese males over the age of 14 were required to pay an annual “head tax” of $10.

Provincial legislation covering the registry of births, deaths and marriages specifically excluded Chinese and Indians.

B.C. in the latter half of the 19th century was truly a racist society, yet somehow, the Chinese stayed on, worked hard and prospered.

They were, in fact, often respected and admired for their work ethic and their diligence by the whites, who lived and laboured alongside them.

William Stephenson, the government agent at Quesnel Forks from 1877 to 1900, reported that “as a class, they are industrious, sober and economical. They are not lazy, drunken, extravagant, or turbulent; they do not openly violate the laws, but they will evade them in every possible way.”

Mining is a dangerous occupation, and during the 1800s there were no safety standards.

Over the years, many Chinese people lost their lives through accidents, exposure to the elements, disease, murder and even suicide.

In the Quesnel Forks cemetery alone, there is a central Chinese section, where up to 40 Chinese men, and a few women were buried.

The Chinese belief was that the soul could not rest, and was doomed to wander the earth until the person’s bones were returned to the birthplace in China.

Thus, representatives of the Chinese Hospital Association, headquartered in Victoria, would keep records of all Chinese burials in the province.

After 10 years they would arrange with the local officials or government agents to have the grave dug up.

The bones were then separated, dried in the sun or in small sheds (you can still see the small bone shed in the Chinese section of the Quesnel Forks cemetery), cleaned, then placed in a cloth bag.

These bags were tagged with all the pertinent information related to the deceased — name, age, date of death, place of birth, etc. (This information had been written on a piece of cloth, sealed in a bottle and placed in a coffin at the time of burial).

When eight to 10 bone bags had been filled, which could take up to four or five years, they were placed into a wooden bone box, which was then transported by freight wagon to Victoria.

In Victoria, these bone boxes were stored in a cement enclosure at Harling Point while awaiting the next ship to China.

The boxes were opened, and the individual bone bags were each placed in a crockery container, then repacked in large crates.

A ship would arrive, offload its cargo, then load up these crates and take them back to Hong Kong.

There, the Tung Wah hospital was the main distribution centre, and the crockery containers were forwarded to their final destinations.

Prior to 1928, the remains of all deceased Chinese people were exhumed and returned to their birthplace for permanent burial.

However, in the 1930s, the government of China began to discourage the practice of returning bones home.

Then, the war with Japan came along, followed by the Second World War, and the shipments stopped altogether.

The Chinese Hospital Association attempted to revive the tradition again in 1944, but the bone warehouse was broken into and the contents vandalized.

The remaining bones were buried in a Victoria cemetery, and the bone shipments never resumed.

The next time you visit Quesnel Forks, have a look at the old cemetery.

You will see the bone shed and several empty graves in the Chinese section — a reminder of an interesting piece of gold rush history.