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The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (2/7)- The Canadian Rockies

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(continued from The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (1/7): The Seven Seas)


The Adventures of Kootenay Brown (2/7): The Canadian Rockies


The Cariboo Goldfields


It did not take long for Brown and Vowell to realize that the Cariboo was a wild and perilous place more akin to the lawless American west than to a typical British colony. Throughout the course of their prospecting, the two partners became increasingly wary of the desperadoes who roamed the goldfields, intent on preying upon unsuspecting miners. This danger presented itself starkly in the summer of 1862, just several months after Brown and Vowell arrived in the Cariboo. On July 26, 1862, three Jewish storekeepers- “Dutchy” Harris Lewin, Charles Rouchier, and David Sokolosky; who were travelling south to New Westminster from the Cariboo- were shot to death and robbed of their jewelry, watches, hats and a combined sum of $13 000 cash. The murderers were caught many years later in Montana and were subjected to American justice.

Like many others before them, the prospecting and mining efforts of Brown and Vowell were largely unproductive. Sometime in the late summer or early fall of that year, Vowell cut his losses and returned to Victoria. Eventually, Vowell would become the Gold Commissioner in the Kootenay Mountains and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for British Columbia. Unlike his partner, Brown decided to spend the fall and winter in the Cariboo, specifically in the settlement at William’s Lake.

Sometime in October, 1862, when he was spending the night at Williams Lake House on Williams Lake, Brown witnessed a deadly shootout between two rivals. He wrote:

“I was at Williams Lake House for the night and there was a big crowd. As usual a monte game was in progress, but because it was a slack season in mining the stakes were small. Gilchrist, a professional gambler, was dealing Spanish Monte. Now to make this story clear, I’ll have to go back to San Francisco. It appears that some years before this night… Gilchrist had a dispute in a card game in Frisco with another man whose name I cannot recall. The two pulled guns but were separated by friends. They, however, vowed that if they ever met again they would kill on sight.

While Gilchrist was playing inside the saloon at Williams Lake House, his enemy from San Francisco rode into camp. A man who knew them both said to the newcomer: “your old enemy is inside dealing Monte.”

After the stranger had put his horse away he came into where the game was in progress, but Gilchrist did not notice him as he was “keeping” the game. The visitor approached the table and threw down a twenty dollar gold piece on a card. This was rather in excess of the amounts that were being played that night so Gilchrist looked up to see who had plunked down the gold. Instantly, both pistols were pulled. The newcomer missed and somebody threw up Gilchrist’s arm, and his bullet missed the man he intended it for, but flew across the room and struck a young Englishman right in the forehead, killing him dead.

Most of us, when the shooting had begun, made for the doors and windows, and the room was partially cleared. When we saw the young fellow fall we rushed back. The trouble maker from ‘Frisco managed to get his horse and got away, and we never saw him again. Gilchrist, the man whose shot found a victim in the Englishman, came back with his six shooter in his hand.”

Gilchrist’s case came before Judge Matthew Baille Begbie. In his report to the Colonial Secretary buttresses, Baille identified the unfortunate “Englishman” in Brown’s account as an Irishman named Pearce, and Gilchrist’s adversary as a man named Turner. He summed up the case by stating, “This would have been of course “death by misadventure” in California- in England, Gilchrist would probably have been hung- in British Columbia it is not perhaps an altogether unsatisfactory result that Gilchrist was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to Penal servitude for life…”

Several months after the shootout, in the winter of 1862, Brown left Williams Lake for a time and went trapping with another prospector in the area. In about three months, Brown and his partner made about $3000 (currently equivalent to approximately $70 000 CAD) trapping marten. After spending the rest of the winter in William’s Lake, Brown used the money he had acquired to start another mining venture in the spring.

Brown’s subsequent mining venture in the spring of 1863 was moderately successful. He used the profits to fund another mining venture the following year which was completely unsuccessful. At the end of the 1864, Brown had little to show for his toil in the Cariboo other than his stories. In his own words:

“I had no money when I went into Cariboo and I had none when I came out in 1864, but I had a little fortune for a while in between. Like thousands of other miners I made and lost a fortune in two years. When I left Williams Creek I had fifty cents in my pocket; my clothes were in rags; I had no shirt and no socks, but I had a pair of good boots. When I got to Boston Bar, a little village on the Fraser River, I still had fifty cents in my pocket.”

Brown left Williams Creek by way of the south-flowing Fraser River in hopes of finding employment. Upon arriving in Boston Bar (about 65 km north of Hope, British Columbia), he joined a crew of swampers. This crew was charged with transporting provisions and supplies from Boston Bar up the Fraser River to Kanaka Bar (a small village about 15 km south of Lytton, British Columbia). Said Brown of the job:

“It was no easy job, but, while it took a good man to do it, no man wanted to do it unless he was broke and down on his luck. From Boston Bar up river for twenty-five miles was a mad channel of white water. Huge canoes made of cedar logs, carrying five tons of cargo… had to be cordelled- that is hauled with a rope by the crew on shore- all the way. It took four days to make the twenty-five miles up stream from Boston Bar to Kanaka Bar…

We were paid $6 a day and board on the boats on the Fraser River, but the work was no sinecure. Sometimes the boat would stick and we would have to take the cargo ashore and “pack” it with hand straps a couple of miles or more over the sides of mountains impassable to horses and wagons.”


Wild Horse Creek


Once Brown had earned enough money from his job hauling goods from Boston Bar to Kanaka Bar, he travelled further down the Fraser River to New Westminster and outfitted himself with a coat, suspenders, pants and a hat. There, in BC’s first capital, 26-year-old Brown found employment as a Constable in the Colony of British Columbia’s Civil Service.

Almost immediately after his induction into the Civil Service (in June, 1865), Brown was dispatched to newly-discovered goldfields of Wild Horse Creek, located deep in the interior. He set out for his post, travelling from New Westminster up the Fraser River to Fort Hope (present-day Hope, British Columbia). From there, he took the route that would eventually become the Dewdney Trail, travelling east from Fort Hope through Vermillion Forks (present-day Princeton, British Columbia), Rock Creek, present-day Grand Forks, present-day Trail (Trail, British Columbia, is named after the Dewdney Trail that would later run through the area), present-day Cranbrook, and ultimately to Wild Horse Creek (near present-day Fort Steele, British Columbia). The journey likely took around 15 days.

As soon as he arrived at his post, Constable Brown discovered that the Wild Horse Creek goldfields were as wild and lawless as the Cariboo with which he was so familiar. The ex-miner quickly discovered three counterfeiters who were making purchases with imitation gold dust, and confronted them accordingly. Brown recounted this incident in later writings:

“Three men came into Wild Horse and succeeded in passing several thousand dollars worth of bogus gold dust. It was an amalgam composed of 75 percent copper, 5 per cent lead and 20 per cent gold. It was a very good imitation…

Well, these three fellows- Kirby, Conklin and a third whose name I forgot… these three brought in the amalgam, bought goods and paid for them with it. They were pointed out to me at once and I marked them as suspicious-looking characters. When it was discovered that a lot of bogus nugget were in circulation on the creek, I went to arrest the three strangers. They were living in a one-roomed cabin and I knocked at the door. Getting no reply, I burst open the door and Kirby grabbed for his gun. I had him covered and I called out to him: “Throw up your hands or I’ll make a lead mine of your carcass.”

While I was getting Kirby out of the cabin, the other two escaped. After putting my prisoner under lock and key, I organized a posse and we were not long in locating Conklin and his pal, both of whom were also put behind bars. Just after this happened and before the prisoners could be brought to trial, I… left Wild Horse Creek. My successor, whom I recommended to Judge Cox as a suitable man for the job, had a streak of bad luck with the three men I left him in the jail.

Among the pieces of good advice I offered the young fellow was never to allow more than one prisoner out at a time and never, on any account, to turn his back on a prisoner. I regret to say that one morning he thoughtlessly disregarded this advice and let all three out at a time to wash for breakfast. He turned his back for a moment when Conklin “put the mug on him” (threw his arm under his chin and held his head back) then gagged and tied him. Then they took his horse and what money he had, his clothes and his gun and made a clean get away. The jail was in a lonely apart of the creek and their escape was not known till the butcher called for the meat order. He knocked at the door but got no response. Returning with a blacksmith, the lock was pried off and on entering they found the constable bound and gagged in a cell, but the cells of the prisoners were empty. A search party was organized but no trace of the desperadoes was ever found.”

According to a letter from Peter O’Reilly (the Gold Commissioner in the Kootenays at that time) to Arthur Birch (the Colonial Secretary), the three counterfeiter were named William Kirby, Joseph Konklin, and Ozias Harvey. In a later letter to New Westminster, O’Reilly demanded the resignation of the young constable by whose negligence the conmen escaped, whom he identified as Constable Lean.

Shortly after the incident, Brown resigned from the service, ostensibly due to a substantial reduction in pay resultant of the Colony of BC’s 1865 budget cut. After his resignation, Brown, along with four other men, purchased and briefly worked on a claim on Wild Horse Creek. The venture was unsuccessful. After selling their claim to Chinese labourers (who had been working on the Dewdney trail), Brown and his companions struck out for Fort Edmonton (present-day Edmonton, Alberta). There, they planned to prospect on the North Saskatchewan River. In Brown’s words:

“I had been placer mining in the Cariboo district of British Columbia for two years and came down to Wild Horse Creek, where with four others I staked a claim near the mouth of the creek. It was not “panning” very well, so we sold out to a company of Chinamen for one hundred dollars apiece and one horse. We took twenty-five chips apiece and gambled for the horse- and I won…

Having disposed of our holdings on the creeks, the five of us packed through the South Kootenai Pass and soon after started for Edmonton, where we heard they were mining placer gold on the (North) Saskatchewan River. We had no very clear knowledge of where Edmonton was, and there was no one to tell us.”

(continued on The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (3/7)- The Canadian Prairies)




  • Kootenai Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney


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