The 'Ned McGowan War'
by Gordon Smith, 1874-1951, journalist, civil servant
(Source: Personal Writings of Gordon Smith. Located at British Columbia Provincial Archives, Victoria. Accession no.: MS-0383)
The Ned McGowan war was one of the episodes of the rose dawn of settlement in British Columbia that time the rash of miners to the Fraser River In 1858 brought about transition of this western country from fur-trading preserve to the colony which later became the Province of Britiah Columbia.
"The Ned McGowan war", the old-timers called it, - but, though it brought a force of marines and bluejackets, and the new-landed advance-guard of the Royal Engineers, with a field- piece, accompanied by Colonel Moody and Chief Justice Begbie hurrying to Yale there was not a great deal of 'war.' It even more bloodless than the ordinary South American revolution - but it loomed large at Victoria, the then seat of Government.
Then the rush occurred to the Fraser in 1858 that part of the country; known then as New Caledonia was an unorganized territory held by the Hudson's Bay Company as part of its far flung trading domain of Rupert's Land which it held by virtue of the charter which King Charles gave to his cousin and admiral, Prince Rupert, in 1670 giving him domain over all lands not held for any Christian prince. Governor Douglas, who was Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, wbich has been declared a colony in 1849 and chartered to the Hudson's Bay Company - he was also head of the fur company - promptly assumed jurisdiction over the mainland, made ordinances for governance, and appointed officials to represent him.
At Yale he appointed Capt Peter Whannell, a Crimean veteran, who was quite a character. He usually wore a tattered uniform which had served him in the Crimean campaign, and, with shake on his head and sword buckled to his side, he carried on the duties of Magistrate at Yale. At Hill's Bar, about two miles away on the other side of the Fraser - scene of some rich diggings where quite a colony of miners also formed - there was another Magistrate, Richard Perrier and both were jealous of their jurisdiction.
Yale, which had soon superseded Fort Hope when the river steamers made it the 'head of navigation', was then a bustling little town of two or three thousand people, and Front Street - now a grassy sward with part of the store wall of one of the stores only marking where it stood since the fire of 1881 swept it away - was then a busy place. It was built up on one side only facing the river, and every second structure was a saloon or gaming house, which were thronged night and day, and life was replete with excitement.
The population was mixed - made up to large extent of miners and others who came north from California, where the excitement following upon the days of Forty-nine had waned and the finds on Fraser River attracted the Californians in thousands. One of the ringleaders of the community at Hill's Bar was Ned McGowan, who was quite a character and won quite a reputation as a "bad man'. He was one of those, who in the heyday of the law-breakers at San Francisco, aroused the ire of the Vigilantes and had been in hiding from them when he made his way north to the Fraser River, where he surrounded himself with bo boon companions who worked with him at Hill's Bar, and when "Ned McGowan's men" went to Yale for a night out then Yale could find added excitement, and a few extra fights and brawls. For a time the vision of Capt. Whannell clad in his uniform, with his sword buckled to his side, was enough to keep the brawlers in some semblance of order - but they soon found that the Magistrate was all froth.
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