In the fall of 1858, William Kirkman arrived at Victoria, Vancouver Island. He once again caught gold fever and left with the other fortune seekers to brave the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia. There is one key point that needed to mentioned about his life as a gold miner. It is clearly present that up to this point Kirkman was not one of the best miners ever to prospect any given area. But it should be pointed out that he always showed up late to the gold rush!
In California, the prominent times for the gold strikes were the early 1850’s after the big strike of 1849. He appeared in California in the fall of 1854 and he had his fare share of luck, but yet he was a few years behind the others. Even when he traveled to Australia after hearing of all the glorious stories about their strikes he may have been to late. Gold was discovered in that colony in 1851 and he landed there in December of 1857. This point was made clear because Kirkman arrived in British Columbia at the right time. The gold rushes of the Fraser River Valley began in the years of 1858 to 1859.
As soon as he arrived to Vancouver Island, there were many stories that were being distributed around the area. Boat loads of miners were already returning from the Fraser River and men anxiously awaiting passage to the gold rushes were asking them what was out there in the Lillooet Country. Kirkman indicated, “Some said the Indians were killing every one they could catch. Others said no such thing. Some say plenty of gold, others no such thing.” Who could one believe? It did not matter. Kirkman was going up the river to the Lillooet Country in the first week of December.
The Lillooet valley was the home of the Lillooet Indian tribe. _____, a Bridge River-Lillooet historian, stated, “Situated at an unusual congruence of several mountain and desert gorges with diverse climates and geology, Lillooet occupies a natural gateway connecting the central and upper Fraser Canyon and the Cariboo Plateau to the Coast.” Lillooet is the closest town near the head of the Fraser River where many miners prospected for gold.
Kirkman acknowledged that mining in this region would be very expensive, yet rewarding in the long run. He stated, “Every pound I take will cost me ten pence or four pound sterling per hundred weight.” The miners so far have been to the highest point on the trek, but Kirkman believes that they will only go higher next spring. “You will see that a reaction has taken place, but I think that next spring there will be a rush here again.” A prophetic Kirkman was correct. In the spring and summer of 1858 the number of gold seekers were between 25,000 and 40,000.
This area of British Columbia was in a definite transitional stage of history. When the first arrival of the gold miners arrived in Victoria, B.C. on April 25, 1858, the citizens were startled by the four hundred and fifty rugged men that stepped foot off the ship. This number of men exceeded the number of the total population of Victoria (Sterne 11).
Kirkman had a feeling that this land of gold would be something special. Kirkman predicted, “I think there will be a great colony built up here very soon. I see that Parliament is taking it up in earnest. We have a good many commissioned officers here. I would much rather chance this place than Australia.” He was correct in forecasting the future, because four days after writing the letter with this prediction, the Colony of British Columbia was officially established on November 19, 1858.
Kirkman left the city of Victoria as a miner with six months of provisions with him. He took all of his money with him and the journey cost him two hundred and fifty dollars to make it to the Fraser River. When he got to the Bridge River he found no diggings of any sort. He admitted, “I thought I was gone in as they say in this country. But where shall I go-California, Australia, Sandwich Islands, or the States? I have tried and all to no avail. I am determined to stay by this country as long as a white man was in it. Though most every body was leaving and cursing the country.” One thing that he wasn’t in life and that was a quitter.
Kirkman’s expedition party consisted of eight men with two horses loaded with grub for each man. They were two hundred miles from civilization and had to keep going to find the river’s bed. The group’s excursion lasted twenty-one days and they calculated it as fifteen miles per day. Kirkman and his party came to a place where Indians had paid gold in“gallon quantities” There were several good claims and the average miner would make about forty dollars per day. A disappointed Kirkman wrote, “I could not get one (a good claim) as well as many others without going further as there were about forty men there before us and they got all the ground.”
Kirkman and his men moved onward where there was some difficulty along the way. Along the river men could be seen taking an axe to the forest and clearing the forest. This was a priority because the trail needed to be cut for the miners to ascend the river in some dense parts. He noted that this was the Quesnell River area that by January 1863 had become unprofitable. “Seeing so much hard work before me, I offered my provisions for sale and made eighty dollars,” a frustrated Kirkman confessed. This would be the last time that he would try his luck with gold seeking.
By this time Kirkman was thirty-one years old and he was coming to realize that he might not make it rich with a quick fortune. He had seen many places in the world and prospecting for gold did not bring him much luck. His next decision would change his life forever. Kirkman bought more goods and got up a party of ten men and started again to Lillooet. He stated, “I am determined to try my hand at something milder than gold hunting. The first thing offered itself was a small drove of cattle which myself and a friend bought and opened a Butcher shop.” He devoted the next twelve months to this occupation and did pretty well, but he knew that he could do much better.
One of his partners bought a piece of property four miles from a nearby town and they thought they could make a fortune in less than no time in making a bridge. These two enterprising young men believed they would build this bridge across the notorious Fraser River. This was a tremendous undertaking, but they knew it could be very prosperous in the long run. Prospectors needed a way to cross the Fraser River to search for gold and many times they would have to find a place where the water was low or look for a bridge. This is where Kirkman and his partner supposed it could become profitable since they would charge a toll to cross their bridge.
Kirkman got a charter from the government and was on his way with deliberate intentions. The men commenced work and it cost a total of ten thousand dollars to complete the structure. It only took five days to finish the project, but the inevitable happened. Kirkman remembered, “A few (Curleys) men pulled the whole structure down. The bridge was erected but not capped and bolted. It was (held) by ropes to keep it to its place. One of the ropes got slack and the men were taking in the slack and pulled it over breaking it to atoms as it fell on the ice a distance of sixty feet. Now I was ruined.”
A devastated Kirkman once again had bad luck thrown his way. The property that he possessed was seized by his creditors and sold under “The Hammer”(judge) that received two shillings in the pound sterling. He was now seven thousand dollars in debt and luckily he had some great friends that helped and encouraged him in his misfortune. He had to find another occupation to help pay his debts. One man bought two thousand dollars worth of horses for him and Kirkman engaged in one of the hardest occupations to earn a living. He became a packer and traveled to many treacherous locations throughout the Cariboo region. Many of these areas were still unexplored and the packers were to take provisions to the prospectors in the camps. Kirkman described:
“This is very laborious business. One must be out in all kinds of weather and to sleep under a roof is out of the question. We put about two hundred and fifty pounds of grub on each horse and the distance from here to Cariboo is three hundred miles. We make about four trips in the season going or coming every day from April to November and not on roads like you have at home (England). No the greater part of the road the horse is up to his belly in mud. I tell you it is dreadful work though it pays.”
In one of his letters, he boasted of one of his adventures to Cariboo. In July of 1862 he and a friend wanted to travel to the town as fast as possible on good horses with provision. They started on July 19th and returned on August 7th making seven hundred miles in eighteen days. He admitted that there were many men who could beat that time, but it was a great time for a beginner.
Kirkman was still in debt for some time, but he made enough money to pay off his debts. With an early winter in 1862, he lost some money as he was caught in the snow like many others in the region. He owned thirteen valuable horses and lost about hundred dollars in the process when some of the horses died. Kirkman was upset because he was planning to sell all of the horses in the end to pay off his debt. In the meantime he was still working as a butcher and a farmer on the side with his partner. Even though he faced many setbacks, Kirkman always looked at the good in everything and was pleased about where his wanderings had taken him.
Kirkman enjoyed the surroundings of the Fraser River Valley and told many stories of the Indians. He described, “I suppose you (his family) have heard awful stories read in the papers of wild Indians and murders. Well we have had a few white men murdered here by Indians but very few. I think the Indians of British Columbia are the best tribe ever known.”
He even explained that he had a young Indian boy traveling with him for three years and in the town of Lillooet, which is the name of the tribe, there were six or seven hundred of them living close to the town. The Indians of the vicinity ate with some of the townspeople and many of the white men had Indian women for wives. Kirkman enjoyed a very comfortable life along the Fraser River. He wrote, “I have always lived of the best British Columbia could afford. I like the country and should remain here until I make some money or rest my bones here.”