On March 13, 1862, a passenger bound for the goldfields stepped off the steamer Brother Jonathan in Victoria and brought death to tens of thousands on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia. The miner had smallpox.
Smallpox spreads easily from one person to another, and soon it spread through the city, over to the capital of the mainland colony of British Columbia and then accompanied the miners inland to the gold camps. It also spread into the aboriginal encampments around the town, and the citizens of Victoria ordered the Indians away. Aboriginal people returned to their villages up the coast, taking smallpox with them. By the time the disease ran out of fresh blood, perhaps half the native people in the region, some 30,000 people, had died from it.
Up in the goldfields, in August of that same summer of 1862, Billy Barker challenged the common wisdom and sunk a shaft 17 metres (52 feet) down to the ancient creekbed beside what came to be called William’s Creek. He found one of the richest veins of gold in the colony of British Columbia. A new, Cariboo Gold Rush was on!
Unlike the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858, the Cariboo was hundreds of kilometres from the nearest steamship dock, and the distance in between was criss-crossed with powerful rivers and deep canyons, studded with jagged mountains, and divided between thick rainforests and parched semi-desert.
Despite this, Barkerville quickly grew up around Barker’s mine and was soon bigger than the capitals of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, with some 10,000 people in the area. Everything and everybody had to walk there or be carried in on people's backs or their pack animals, and that meant it was incredibly expensive. At a time when people earned $2.50 a day in Victoria, in Barkerville a pound of flour cost $2.50, a shovel $14, and a pair of rubber boots $35.
The colony faced a challenge of supplying the mines in order to get the gold, so a road had to be built. But the road had to cross the territory of independent Aboriginal people who did not welcome what seemed to them to be an invasion. In the case of the Bute Inlet route, building a road led to a bloody confrontation with the Tsilhqot’in people.
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