"Gold! There's gold on the Fraser!" The cry rang out across the harbour, through the streets of San Francisco and out to the goldfields that had been mined almost dry. Miners, hungry for a big strike, called back "Where's the Fraser?" and began packing their gear.

Even without knowing where it was, news of any gold strike "was enough to send hundreds of men into the wilderness to make their fortunes or to die in the attempt," as miner Thomas Seward wrote. When the news of gold strikes in New Caledonia (now British Columbia) trickled out in 1850, it sent the first stream of miners to the area. There were only a few hundred settlers at Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island then, mainly Hudson's Bay Company employees. Its population doubled overnight with the influx of miners after the first gold was discovered in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Before the 1858 Fraser Gold Rush, the population of New Caledonia was between 40 000 and 50 000 people, mostly Aboriginals. Europeans had arrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Britain established Fort Victoria in 1849 to assert its sovereignty in the West after the loss of territory in the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, which established the American/British boundary at the 49th parallel.

In San Francisco, as miners abandoned their shantytowns, merchants with dreams of striking it rich by provisioning them went bankrupt. Ships intended to transport miners to the California goldfields rotted in the harbor. The San Francisco press lamented the impact on the economy of such a rapid drain of people from the state. San Francisco's loss was New Caledonia's gain. The first wave of miners from California arrived at Victoria on April 25, 1858.

The BC gold rushes were an extension of the 1848 California gold rush, which was winding down by the mid-1850s. The HBC, the governing body of the area, did not welcome miners or settlers. They wanted no truck with anything that would upset the fur trade's delicate balance. News of gold strikes was quelled and anyone who found gold was encouraged to sell it to the HBC. The presence of gold was kept secret until a sample of 800 ounces was sent to San Francisco in 1857 for assaying. Then the cat leapt out of the bag. Miners rushed to the island, only to discover that getting out Queen Charlotte gold was more trouble than it was worth.

Prospecting for Alluvial Gold by William Hind (courtesy Provincial Archives of BC/PDP-02612).

Fuelled by gold fever, the miners turned to the mainland when gold was discovered in the Fraser River, just waiting to be plucked from the icy water. They discovered that the two-day crossing of the Strait of Georgia was only the beginning of their difficulties when they faced the treacherous, swift-flowing Fraser. The river claimed many victims before the rush ended.

Men driven by the lust for gold spawned stories of greed and murder. In New Caledonia, the reputation of the unruly 49ers preceded them. The British government, to avoid the lawless conditions of the Californian and Australian goldfields just a few years earlier, was quick to establish New Caledonia as the colony of British Columbia. James Douglas, HBC governor and the sole authority on the West Coast, proclaimed the Crown's authority and announced a system of mining licenses. The unauthorized removal of gold would result in criminal and civil prosecution.

Law and order was established in the nick of time. Between April 1 and November 30, over 27 000 men left San Francisco for the Fraser. Californians watched the eager men rush off to pan their fortunes from streams in a foreign land, while newspapers sang a "chorus of regret" about the loss of the goldfields in the border dispute of 1846. Harper's Weekly wrongly predicted that "all that is worth having in the land of foreigner will soon pass under the talon of the America eagle" and lamented "what a blunder it was to make such a fuss about '54'50 or fight,' and then to be satisfied after all with 49'."

The period of prosperity didn't last long. By the mid-1860s, the gold rush collapsed and British Columbia sank into a deep recession.