Gold Rushes

Hardrock GOLD deposits have been found throughout the world and have always required specialized skills and complex, expensive equipment to exploit. It was the discoveries often by Native people (Northwest Coast, Plateau and Subarctic) of free (or placer) gold which could be inexpensively worked by amateurs that sparked excitement and publicity, and hence gold "rushes."

Gold Rush Phenomenon

Placer gold was found in commercial quantities mainly in the western CORDILLERA region, from California to Alaska, where a series of gold rushes occurred in the mid-to-late 19th century. Gold rushes could not exist before the era of the telegraph, mass circulation newspapers and steamboats, and after 1900 no substantive alluvial goldfields remained undiscovered. In the same period there were side rushes to other Pacific Rim countries; minor rushes also occurred elsewhere in British N America (in Nova Scotia, SE Ontario and SW Québec), but no significant placer mining occurred in these regions.

Rushes involved a period of discovery - accidental or by roving fur traders and prospectors - of placers in paying quantities; word of this spread, first locally, attracting other prospectors and their suppliers. Then, depending on the quality of the goldfields, word was carried farther afield by outbound prospectors and through the commercial press, resulting in an even greater influx of goldseekers and adventurers into the gold-bearing territory. The search for and discoveries of free gold in the gold rush era followed a roughly northward drive from California, where a massive gold rush occurred in 1848-49, and into Oregon, Washington and British Columbia territories in the next decade.

First Rushes

In British Columbia, excitement over HAIDA discoveries of free gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii] in 1851 led to extensive prospecting throughout the other coastal islands and the lower mainland. Gold discoveries in the lower and middle FRASER RIVER, THOMPSON RIVER and Bridge River areas led to a brief but precipitous rush to the vicinity of Yale in 1858 (see FRASER RIVER GOLD RUSH), affecting Coastal SALISH and CHILCOTIN peoples. The Fraser River Gold Rush was followed by small gold rushes to the Boundary (Rock Creek), Similkameen (Wildhorse Creek) and Thompson River (Big Bend) districts. To the north into Chilcotin and CARRIER territory, a major boom occurred between 1860 and 1866 (see CARIBOO GOLD RUSH).

Meantime, other prospectors had been searching the territory in the EDMONTON region, along the BOW, RED DEER, N SASKATCHEWAN and McLeod rivers, where short-lived, fairly localized rushes occurred. Fired by the Cariboo finds, prospectors began a serious assault on the northern cordillera region. To the E, they panned their way along the Finlay and Parsnip rivers and down the PEACE RIVER to the FORT ST JOHN region; to the W, they worked up the SKEENA and Omineca River, touching off the Omineca rush in 1868.

They then entered the difficult territory N of it, approaching the CASSIAR Mountains via both the LIARD and STIKINE rivers. At Dease Lake, a major strike led to a rush to the heart of Cassiar country in 1872. The latter 2 rushes involved many TSIMSHIAN, TLINGIT, Carrier, SEKANI, KASKA and TAHLTAN.

Klondike Gold Rush

Closing in on what they believed to be the single, massive source of the other placer goldfields, the "mother lode," goldseekers and their suppliers moved into central Alaska-Yukon, working their way up the YUKON RIVER. Worldwide publicity given to the discovery of large gold nuggets on Bonanza Creek on the Klondike River (wholly in Canadian territory) in 1896 led to the most famous rush of them all, the KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH (1897-98), and there followed smaller rushes to Nome, Alaska, and to ATLIN in the NW corner of BC. These northern rushes dramatically affected the lives of many of the native population and virtually destroyed the HAN, who had occupied the DAWSON area.

Gold Rush Society

The majority of prospectors and miners, as well as many of the entertainers, merchants, packers and speculators who participated in each of the gold rushes, were whites from the Pacific coast region, especially California. There were also numerous native people and CHINESE who participated in casual labour, guiding, freighting, mining, prospecting and provisioning. But men (and some women) from the more settled parts of N America and other parts of the world participated as well, especially after 1858 and if deep placers, hence, more permanent operations, were discovered.

Placer Mining

Placer mining technology was worked out in the California goldfields and spread from there. The discovery and early gold-rush phase for any placer goldfield involved PROSPECTING, panning and surface sluicing. The surface sandbars and gravels could be worked by individuals with little capital. These usually yielded only fine gold. Once the most accessible deposits were exhausted, and if no subsurface placers were uncovered, the area was largely abandoned, although white, native and Chinese men and women continued to take placer gold from the bars and beaches of the Fraser, Thompson and Bridge rivers, streams in the southern interior, in parts of the Cariboo, along the Skeena and in the Omineca, Cassiar and Atlin fields right into the 1930s.

More Sophisticated Mining

Coarse gold (or nuggets), which was more valuable than fine gold, was situated in deep placers. If there were "underground pay streaks" to be exploited, a second phase of developments occurred. Miners used picks and shovels to open small holes and pits; they then sank shafts into the beaches and hillsides, and processed the gravel and muck in a complex arrangement of sluices. This involved the use of more labour, and more complex and expensive technology - much of it factory-made - and increasingly greater supplies of water and wood; and this in turn required the formation of partnerships and limited companies, and the establishment of more permanent living, supply and administrative centres.

This phase, too, was short-lived. In a few cases where significant alluvial deposits were exceptionally rich, as was the case in the Klondike and to a lesser extent the Cariboo fields, much more capital-intensive hydraulic or steam-dredging operations were eventually undertaken; these required not only sophisticated, capital-intensive mining technology but also separate, highly organized systems for water supply and control, for which the organization of large companies was required.


Gold rushes did little to increase the world supply of gold or to make individual miners wealthy, and unless they were exceptionally rich and possessing workable quartz veins, most made no permanent contribution to MINING. The gold rushes did serve to open large territories to permanent RESOURCE exploitation and settlement by whites. The popularity of the Klondike goldfield was exploited extensively by Canadian immigration officials and western commercial interests to advertise the potential of the Canadian West as a place to settle. For the native population of BC and the Yukon, this intense scramble for gold provoked native-white violence, particularly in the FRASER RIVER CANYON and Chilcotin country, and coupled with the rapid development of resource-based industries and settlement that followed in its wake, brought about the swift imposition of systems of authority which were essentially alien and destructive of their own.

The gold rushes had an impact even on those who were not directly involved, for they provided a popular theme for so much writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the US. The gold rush theme was included in everything from dime novels to the classic works of fiction by Jack London, the poetry of Robert SERVICE and early motion pictures, such as Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush. The more recent literature on gold rushes is more along the lines of historical narratives (see Pierre BERTON) and personal reminiscences which employ a less dramatic perspective. BARKERVILLE, Dawson, WHITEHORSE and Edmonton each host annual celebrations of the gold rush days.