Introduction

Index of People

First Nations Gallery

59 Mile House
70 Mile House
108 Mile House
118 Mile House
122 Mile House
127 Mile House
137 Mile House
141 Mile House
150 Mile House

Ashcroft Manor
Beaver Pass House
Cottonwood
House

Hat Creek
House

Pinchbeck Ranch
Pollard's Cornish Roadhouse

Other People

Bibliography

Cornwallis, The New El Dorado; or, British Columbia, continued

Chapter XX:
THE EL DORADO.

The detachment returned with provisions, the opossum rug and the shirts were restored, the natives sat down and fed, and we filled our pouches with gold. Such is the summary of events -- the striking incidents of an hour. Excitement with us was at a high pitch, for the banks of the river were literally strewed with gold; the natives rooted it up with sticks, and the heart of the El Dorado seemed already reached; we had only to expend a larger amount of labour in the gathering of that wealth which we had looked forward to in our most sanguine moments. All was riant as the noonday sun, and festive as the morn.

Away we dug; it was a day of eager expectation and success. One of our party made twenty-two ounces, and the others followed deeply in his wake. I, myself, with the assistance of my geological shovel, turned up sixteen small nuggets, some of them mixed with quartz, worth about two hundred and fifty dollars, and this with an amount of labour which could only be called an amusement.

The Indians were rooting up the ground for a mile on either side of us along the beach, working, to quote popular phraseology, by fits and starts, and not caring to pick up more than would purchase for them some unprohibited luxuries -- spirits being very properly disallowed to them. Nights at length set in, to afford rest to our exhausted frames, bringing with it a batch of canoes from the lower river, each laden with its half-dozen hardy, enterprising miners, who landed immediately in the vicinity of our canoe. We all hailed the arrival; there was no envy, no rivalry; we knew there was plenty of gold for us all, and we were glad to find our numbers swelled, and a community of men having affinity with ourselves, springing up around us. All was riot and revelry until a late hour on that night, as we became convivial under the influence of some excellent brandy, which the new arrivals had brought with them, and which they dealt out with a liberal hand, pro bono publico.

The natives had, before this, retired to their own encampment, and the silent night alone witnessed our corrobberri. We were now, at a guessing calculation, about two hundred and eighty miles from the river's mouth, and one hundred and forty from the mountains.

Early on the succeeding morning we were disturbed by a fleet of canoes coming down river, and manned, judging at a bird's-eye view, by about two hundred Indian warriors, all armed; we, however, rightly supposed them to belong to the same tribe as those whom we had made acquaintance on the previous day, and who had so unceremoniously paraded my shirts before the admiring gaze of the multitude. They greeted us with a wild and flexible whooping, -- a thrilling chorus of shouts and ringing cries, and landed immediately in the vicinity of our encampment. We soon saw that their intentions were pacific, notwithstanding their boisterous display of feeling, and the overwhelming manner in which they gathered or rather rushed round us after leaving their canoes. Their inquisitiveness was just as great as that which had been manifested by their brethren of yesterday; and once more every rag and implement we possessed was being paraded and hustled about. They were, however, more respectful towards our provisions than had been their brethren of the previous day, probably on account of there being no novelty attached to them; but in all probability had their been anything in our "pantry" with which they were unacquainted -- roast pig, for instance -- it would have been just as promptly seized upon, and passed from hand to hand, as were my companion shirts, and that unlucky opossum skin rug, the evident delight of all. I suspect the fascination lay in its great size, square shape, and the stitching which held the skins together. However, whatever the cause might have been, it did not alter the fact of their being in love with it, and moreover, by the grimaces and signs of invitation which they made for me to give it them, I very much despaired of being able to claim it for another night's covering. My only chance of preserving it as my own was by the exercise of moral force, and the law of kindness, which is everything, however, with the savage, for our numbers did not permit of the thought of physical resistance of their spirit of caprice; and if it had, I should have been the last in the universe to contend physically against a peaceful and aboriginal people, on whose empire we had encroached, impelled by the hope of gain, and on whose golden territory we stood as sheer usurpers, the forerunners of a civilization, which, alas! cannot fail to blast and eventually exterminate their valiant race off the face of the earth.

I knew that this was not the theory entertained by my brethren of the white skin, half of whom, by their own confession, were murderers and assassins, and that too, of a more diabolical type than were the conspirators of Paris, because they inflicted death upon the helpless and defenseless Indian, whose dwindling race bore out too melancholy an attestation of the moral wrongs which civilization had hurled relentlessly upon him; whereas, the others were secretly, but hazardously, contending against a mightier power than their own, and by which they were deservedly vanquished on the scaffold, when the heads of the guillotined fell dissevered into the basked of the executioner.

I allude to the reckless and indiscriminate slaughter of the Indians in California, which took place from the time of the first rush there in 1849, and which cold-blooded and heartless sport is even now persisted in where the red man is not altogether swept away and extinct. It is only the superior numbers of the Indian over the rude outpourings of civilization in these regions, which at present deters the Californian -- but will not always -- from as cruel and reckless a use of his revolver as stained the early annals of the country of the Sacramento with the direst bloodshed of modern times. True, the same, to some extent, may be said of the early squatters of Australia in their intercourse with the aborigines as well as the early settlers and conquerors of most other countries; but it does not tend to mitigate the crime of indiscriminate murder, merely showing that inhumanity and infamy hold more rampant and ignoble dominion in the breast of the too often morally-debased scion of so-called civilization and enlightenment, than ever loomed on the mental horizon -- the unsophisticated mind of primitive man.

Adventurers from out the pale of society never look upon themselves as the real usurpers and invaders, nor pause to consider that every encroachment of theirs is but hurrying destruction the more swiftly to the savage, ousting him of his birthright, and strewing with thorns and calamity the remaining length of his short passage to the grave.

To return to the banks of the Frazer. The river was no longer navigable, save after a portage of some half mile in length, being choked with rocks; and the waters whirling heavily as they rushed past with all the force of a torrent. The natives, however, indicated that higher up the river was smooth and deep. As yet we had only ascended, as the reader is aware, about two hundred and eighty miles from the river's mouth; we should have had to travel hundreds of miles further up, following the river's course, before reaching its source in the Rocky Mountains. Gold, however, will allure as far as man can travel or human hopes can reach, and ere long I have every expectation of hearing a report of "dry diggings," "hill diggings," and monster nuggets having been found at the base and in the ravines of the Rocky Mountains themselves.

We were a sun-burnt, motley group, as, camped together by the banks of the noisy river, we talked on many a diverse thing; of gold, of home, of murder, of love and enterprise; of bygone dangers braved, of fallen comrades and defiant foes. There was something, I thought, of the hungry beast of prey in the eager, yearning flash of each other's restless eyes, in which the fire of hardened desperation and unflinching physical bravery ever glowed, and which seemed to feed upon continual excitement. There was something embodying all the wildness of the savage and all the ghastliness of civilization in the hair-growth swarthy faces of the men, as now and again the flickering blaze of the fire round which we sat was reflected upon them, giving a look of ferocity even to repose; while the boundless waste of universal space -- the void of night --
     Hung o'er and round in solemn silent reign,
     Obscuring deep the mountain and the plain,
     The sea-like prairie rolling in the breeze,
     The giant forms of yonder rustling trees;
     The rocky river's rugged, winding way,
     The bird, the blossom, all that deck'd the day.
Occasionally the hoarse laughter of the whole party disturbed the natural solitude, -- the half-startling tones of jocose revelry rose up in the virgin air, and we were wafted on the breeze over a landscape which had hitherto reposed primeval. We were all merry on the strength of nuggets found and "dust" gathered, for the yield of to-day had been with some of us considerably in excess of the previous day's average, one man of the new comers having realized, with the assistance of a rocker, nearly five hundred dollars in dust and nuggets. His "belt" was full of the former, and two leather bags had grown pleasingly bulky under the latter. For myself, I made about ten ounces in nuggets alone -- I did not dig for dust -- my geological shovel and pan being my only artificial machinery employed.

The five hundred-dollar man was a hard, gaunt, stringy, dried-up looking Kentuckian, with a gutta-percha-coloured face, sunk into which, on either side of his nose, twinkled two all alive and piercing grey eyes. His hair was long and light, and crisped up with the dry heat of the weather, so much so that it gave me the idea of extreme fragility and brittleness. He carried a couple of revolvers, and a bowie knife, with the point of which he took the opportunity of picking his teeth immediately after supper, following which he gave us a long yarn about an old "claim" of his at Hangtown,* which yielded sixteen hundred dollars the first day, and about an Indian woman whom he shot "in the white of the eye" the next day afterwards for stealing his blanket. He seemed to glory in his crime, and was, on the whole, as brutalised a specimen of humanity and the digger, California and the world had ever presented to my individual inspection. However, his dollars were as good as any one else's, and that is the grand criterion in a new gold country. We were all more or less leathery-looking, but this wretch was, to quote popular phraseology, regularly tanned and dried, and such, that if it came to a matter of casting lots at sea, and he turned out to be the victim, the unfortunate crew would have something very like a mummy to carve. Then there were four long, slop-built, semi-civilized-looking Western States men, with heavy rifles nearly as long as themselves. High shouldered, narrow-chested, sleek-haired gentiles, with hunger seemingly personified in each other's countenances, with a paucity of pale wiry beard and moustache, they moved awkwardly about, the rifle always in the way, and bore evidence of their being better adapted to the felling of trees, and the building of log cabins, than even gold digging.

These men had respectively journeyed overland from Missouri and to California, and, moreover, had done the same thing from that again through Oregon, since the Frazer River fever set in; and were clever enough to "shirk the license" on the way. They were exactly the men for such laborious and hazardous undertakings, having always dwelt on, or beyond, the borders of civilisation in their own country; never having seen a half-dozen houses together till after they came to California, and being trained to rough it in every sense of the term. They were each provided with an axe, with which they promised to do severe execution in chopping down trees, and building up log huts on the next day, so that we looked forward to a village at once.

For the rest, our party was composed of an English "old chaw," as he once humorously called himself; a Jack tar, and consequently a Jack of all trades, let loose among the mountains. He gave us his history; miners are very free and candid in that respect, as indeed in every thing else, for there is less humbug both about them and their profession than is the case with any other class extant.

This history was a long, round-about affair, the most prominent parts of which appeared to be his running away to sea from his grandmother at Bristol; his subsequent loves and disasters, both by sea and land. On the latter he was thrown off various horses on five distinct occasions during his perilous career, all of which took place in California, the country in which he first made acquaintance with horse-flesh, and that, after clearing out of, or rather deserting, his ship, which was subsequently turned into a boarding house, in which capacity she gained more money than she could have made in voyaging. After this he had experienced a succession of "good strikes" at various diggings, which, however, were just as often followed by what he termed "a jolly spree," and so the money went. He had traveled by steamer from California, as indeed all of us had done, the party of Missouri men excepted.

Then we had three Frenchmen, partners; as also two Germans; after which the balance was made up of thorough bred, long, straight, black-haired Yankees; a surgeon, a lawyer, a conjuror, and a photographic artist; all, of course, divested of their tools, and shorn of "practice," being amongst their wide-awake number.

The reader may perhaps feel interested in learning the fate of my opossum skin rug and vermilion shirts; know then, that, failing to bestow them on the native rulers of the soil, the former still constituted my bed, and the latter my pillow, for they were faithfully replaced by the Indians after they had fully satisfied their curiosity. I attributed this to their amiability, and not to any dread of punishment they might have entertained, as their numbers were altogether overpowering, and I judged truly; although I should have considered them quite justified in appropriating them as rightful spoil had they chosen to have done so; for I am egotist enough to believe that I had sufficient magnanimity of mind and character to know and to feel that I stood up in the, till now, almost primeval territory of aboriginal dominion an usurper, and was, together with the motley crew by which I was surrounded, but too painfully emblematic, in my own mind, of the coming misery and eventual, yea, rapid extermination of the race of the Red Man -- the valiant children of the riant wilderness.

The natives had quitted the neighbourhood of our encampment before dusk, and we were thus left alone to beguile the flying hours of night as best we could. Our fire well fed with faggots burn gaily, and every crackle was a sound of welcome companionship. There is nothing like a good log fire for making a man feel at home in the woods.

Although the day had been agreeably hot, we felt the warmth which our "log burner" emitted very comforting, and knowing its effect in scaring off grizzly and other bears, we sunk into the unconscious embrace of slumber with our boots, our revolvers -- and, with me, my vermilion shirts -- under our heads, in the happy confidence of safety. And this was two hundred and eighty miles up the shelving banks of the Frazer River, and adjoining a camp of reported warlike Indians. As for the latter, I would thus as readily trust myself into their power as I would to humanity of the white skin; it is only when the savage becomes morally vitiated by his intercourse with civilisation that his unsophisticated honesty and generosity become obscured or perverted; and when he is driven relentlessly to the brink of death by force of vice and starvation engendered by his association with the white man.

It is a preposterous thing for ignorant conventional old women, and domesticated men to match, who have never wandered beyond the regions of lamp posts, rant about savages, and pray for the conversion of the heathen, and then look down upon them as degraded beings, lost in the darkness of sin and iniquity; when the fact is, that they themselves are the sinful and iniquitous, compared with which the rover of the woods is often a personification of magnanimity and virtue, while he is never degraded till he has succumbed to the blasting, withering power of a perverted and vicious civilisation, when his valiant courage and sovereign heroism forsakes him, and very soon he is no more. Ashes to ashes.

How much more noble was he than those vassals of civilisation by whom he was overrun, who would cringe into servility, and lick the dust of a petty despotism equally contemptible with themselves.

     Give me a free, wild, boundless solitude,

rises to my lips as I write, for I enjoy about as supreme a contempt for anything like servility and social snobbism as any man that ever sniffed the desert air, or ever tasted the sweets of triumphant liberty remote from the haunts of civilized man.


*In California, so called from an execution which took place there at the instance of Judge Lynch; hence Lynch law. Back to text


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