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Chasing the Golden Butterfly


"Iíd be a butterfly; living a rover, dying when fair things are fading away."

LATE in the month of July, 1858, I embarked on the small stern-wheel steamer Enterprise, owned and commanded by Capt. Tom Wright, for the Fraser River Gold Mines. My destination was Yale, then the head of navigation. There was no wharf at Victoria at that time, the present wharf and warehouse of the Hudson Bay Company not having been built till a year later. The little craft was lying in a small slip, alongside the old log warehouse quite recently torn dawn, and the ruins of which may still be seen if you should cast your eye over your right shoulder as you pass down the driveway to the C.P.N. wharf on your way to the water-front. the vessel was crowded with freight and passengers, and I was lucky in finding a vacant spot on the hurricane deck upon which to spread my blankets and lie down to unpleasant dreams. In the morning early we entered Fraser River and by evening pulled in at Fort Langley, a Hudson Bay post, where we remained over night. New Westminster had then no existence, a dense forest of fir ad cedar occupying the site of the future Royal City. A mile or two below Langley some speculative spirits were booming a town which they named Derby, but it was only a name. When I saw "Derby" two years later its only inhabitant was a bilious-looking old man with frayed trousers, and its only building was a warehouse that was destitute of wards and occupants. At Langley several passengers left us and several came aboard. Among the latter were Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Power. They had been at Whatcom, and on the decay of that town had crossed by land to Langley and were now on their way to Yale to try their fortune there. Mr. and Mrs. Power and I soon became close friends. They were a most estimable couple and our intimacy lasted for many years.

The passage up the river has been so often described that I shall not attempt it now. The wild scenery, of course, charmed all, and incidents of travel were novel and exciting to those who had not been accustomed to life outside of a large city. All along the river, wherever there occurred a bench or bar, miners were encamped "waiting for the river to fall," when they expected to scoop up the gold by the handful and live at ease forevermore. the result was a practical exemplification of the larks one hopes to catch when the skies fall.

At Hope we left the Enterprise, saying good-bye to our bluff and genial captain with regret, and placing our effects in a large canoe, proceeded up the river towards Yale, where we arrived at night-fall the next day, tired, wet and blue, with clothes and boots in tatters and appetites that would have been envied by a pack of young coyotes. We slept in our clothes on blankets spread on the sands of the beach that night. In the morning we cooked some bacon and boiled a pot of coffee at a neighboring camp fire, and I started out to take in the situation. The town of Yale must have contained at that time between five and six thousand people, mostly enterprising young miners and business men from California who had come in pursuit of the Golden Butterfly, which most of its devotees and admirers in the result found both elusive and disappointing.

One of the first men I ran against was Willis Bond, whom I dubbed the "Bronze Philosopher". I had known him at San Francisco, where, having brought his freedom and made some money at the mines, he established himself as an auctioneer. Bond was glad to see me and introduced me to his partner, a Yorkshireman named George Harrison. The two had built a ditch and were supplying water to the miners who were washing the bank and beach in front of Yale for gold. The next California acquaintance I saw was John Kurtz. When I last met Kurtz at San Francisco he was dressed in the height of fashion and was one of the leaders of society there-a club member, a poet, a noted wit, a contributor to the press, and one of the most popular and amiable young fellows in that big city. At Yale he wore a minerís gray shirt, his trousers were tucked in his boots, a Coltís revolver was stuck in his waist-belt, and a slouched hat of large proportions half concealed is intellectual and handsome features. I was quite taken aback at the change; but it was not many days before I was similarly attired and considered myself well dressed, too. Kurtz introduced me to his partner, a Mr. Hugh Nelson, a young man from the North of Ireland, and in every respect and under all circumstances a gentleman. I pitched my tent close to theirs, and all three became quite chummy. The friendship thus formed was maintained for many years and until death carried off both Nelson and Kurtz. I often sit and wonder if the broken links in the chain of earthly friendship will be reunited in the other world; or shall we embark upon the new existence with new aspirations and new aims into which no thought, no remembrance of our earthly career will enter. Shall we "know each other better when the clouds roll by," of shall we know each other at all?

All was bustle and excitement in the new mining town. Every race and every color and both sexes were represented in the population. There were Englishmen, Canadians, Americans, Australians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese and Negroes-all bent on winning gold from the Fraser sands, and all hopeful of a successful season. It was a lottery in which there were few prizes. The diggings proved mostly unproductive, and at least 20,000 impoverished worshippers at the shrine of the Golden Butterfly left the river before the first snow fell.

In every saloon a faro-bank or a three-card-monte table was in full swing, and the hells were crowded to suffocation. A worse set of cut-throats and all round scoundrels than those who flocked to Yale from all parts of the world never assembled anywhere. Decent people feared to go out after dark. Night assaults and robberies, varied by a occasional cold-blooded murder or a daylight theft, were common occurrences. Crime in every form stalked boldly through the town unchecked and unpunished. The good element was numerically large; but it was dominated and terrorized by those whose trade it was to bully, beat, rob and slay. Often men who had differences in California met at Yale and proceeded to fight it out on British soil by American methods. Here is a sample of many cases. A young man named Walton camped near my tent. he was apparently well disposed and quiet, and about the last person whom I should thought would do anything wicked. He left his tent one morning and strolled to town-that is, to the bench which the overlooked and still overlooks the rushing Fraser. In about and hour he returned and, walking to the river bank, washed his hands. Then he took from a sheath attached to a belt that encircled is waist a knife and washed it, too. He dried the weapon on the sleeves of his gray shirt, and returning it to the sheath, walked towards his tent. As he passed me he said, without the slightest tremor in his voice or the least excitement in his manner:

"Iíve had a fight up-town."

"Did you kill your man?" I asked, not for a moment imagining anything serious had occurred.

"No," he said, "I did better-I maimed him for life. Itís just like this, you see: I had a row with a man named Dalton in the Calaveras mines a year ago. Today he met me on the bench and drew a shotgun on me. I ran in and threw the gun up and the charge went into the air. Then I took my tendons of it, clean across; then I reached down and cut the knee tendons of his right leg, and he will be a cripple for life. He wonít shoot anyone else, I guess."

And so it proved. Dr. Fifer, the little German surgeon who dressed the arm and leg, told me the man might as well have had his hand and leg cut off for they would be useless for the remainder of his days. Dr. Fifer, I may as well remark here, was most foully murdered three years later. A man named Wall, who had been his patient, laboring under the belief that Fifer had ruined his health by malpractice, walked up to him one morning in 1861, and handed him a newspaper, saying:

"Read that, doctor."

Fifer, who was near-sighted, adjusted his spectacles and while reading the paragraph indicated the wretch shot him dead. Wall was captured at Hope, tried and executed. In his dying confession he accused a Dr. Crain, a professional rival of Fifer, of inciting him to commit the crime. Crain lost his practice and finally want away to Salt Lake, where he perished miserably by his own hand, he having been imprisoned for some offense.

Hillís Bar, two miles below Yale, was the scene of busy mining operations at this time. A narrow streak of pay-dirt on the bar proved very rich in flour-gold. This gold was so fine that you could blow it away with your breath. It was caught with the aid of quicksilver in sluices and rockers. The yield was very remunerative and the streak extended into the bench where it ran out. All efforts to trace the source of this rich deposit have met failure. It has never been found. The discoverers of Hillís Bar were a party of men who had been driven away from San Francisco by a Vigilance Committee. When news of the Fraser River gold discovery reached California these men who joined the rush and secured the richest placer claims on the river. The leader of the Hillís Bar roughs was a man named Ned McGowan. He had been a judge, a member of the legislature, a newspaper editor, and a all-round bad man in California. Had the Vigilance Committee caught him he would have been hanged, but he eluded them and came, as I have said, with many others of his class to New Caledonia, as the mainland of British Columbia was then called. One of his friends was John Bagley, a former leading politician at San Francisco, who had also been driven away. These men gathered some of their kidney about them ad proceeded to wreak their vengeance on such members of the Vigilance Committee as came in their way on the Fraser River. Many persons having been brutally assaulted and all but killed by the gang left the country lest worse things should befall them.

Now, it happened that the first Gold Commissioner at Yale was a man named Dicks, a weak and corrupt person, who proceeded at once to feather his nest by exacting blackmail from miners and others. Among other things he secured a 50 year lease of the best part of Yale and charged enormous ground rents. I exposed his conduct in a letter to The Colonist, signed "Puss-in-the-Corner," and Governor Douglas removed him from office. His successor was a bigger failure than Hicks. His name was Peter B. Channell. He laid claim to the title of Captain. He was wont to strut about in a uniform which he said he had worn in the Crimea, but several of the miners who had served in the Crimea declared that it was a sergeantís uniform. Another report said that he had been a private in the Australian Gold Escort, and that his uniform must have been stolen from that corps. Another report had it that he kept a livery-stable in California. All agreed that he was no gentleman, and therefore that he could not have been a captain in the British army. He had a wife, a fine, buxom Scotch woman, very attractive and pleasant in her ways. but kept under by her husband, who seemed to recognize in every male visitor a possible rival. Whether the stories told about him reached Channellís ears or not I cannot say, but his arrogant and oppressive conduct soon made him the most unpopular man in Yale. Whenever any of the Hillís Bar toughs came to town, which was often, Channell would don his trappings, buckle on a sword, knit his brows and strut through the street with a threatening air that was well calculated to strike terror to the hearts of the timid, while in the neíer-do-wellís he only excited a feeling of contempt.

To give an idea of the sort of man he was: One night Nelson, Kurtz, Power, E.C. Johnson and myself and about twenty others were asked to the Court House by Channell to a reception. A nice little supper was served, and in the course of it Channell got drunk. At an evil moment someone called on the Captain for a speech, when to the amazement and alarm of his guests he suddenly sprang to his feet with a wild "Hoo-roo!" He then exclaimed in stentorian tones, "Me voice is in me sword," and drawing that weapon he proceeded to cut, thrust and slash the air about his in a most dangerous manner. One of his sweeps came perilously near my head. I ducked to avoid the stroke, and then ran for the door. The others followed in confusion and dismay, without hats, coats, canes, lanterns or goloshes. The snow was deep and as we plunged down the bank in our precipitous flight, the Captain fired volley after volley of his wild "hoo-roo!" and danced a war dance in front of his quarters, swinging his sword out and slashing at imaginary aerial foes. This added to our panic, and although the situation was so ludicrous that we screamed with laughter as we ran, it was thought wise to place as much space as possible between the Captainís sword and ourselves. The next morning we went up in twos and threes and recovered our property. The Captain was not in sight, bur Mrs. Channell received us graciously, "stood treat," and apologized for "His ĎWorship," as she always referred to him, by saying that his extraordinary antics were due to a sabre cut he had received on the head in the Crimea.

The glee of the Hillís Bar gang, who were not invited to the reception, and were at first inclined to be jealous of those who had been, was unbounded. They came up to town in a body and having got drunk their comments on the "swell" members of Yale society and their host and hostesses were rich and rare and racy; In a few days Channell again appeared on the street with his sword dangling at his side and his brow presided over by the regulation official frown; but no one trembled any more. Bar man who addressed him as "Sergeant" was given ten minutes in which to get out of town. He didnít go, but stood and laughed in the magistrateís face. Another fellow bawled out to hi as he passed a gambling house, "Say, Cap., I see youíve found your voice"-pointing to the sword.

Channell, who was greatly incensed, strutted on without reply, but he discussed with Kurtz, Nelson and myself the propriety of dispatching a messenger to Victoria to ask Governor Douglas to send up a body of troops.

Humiliating as the situation had become for Channell, and gross as were the insults offered him whenever he appeared in public, there were worse in store.

It appeared that when Dicks was Commissioner at Yale, Governor Douglas paid a visit to Fraser River and while at Hillís Bar he was petitioned to appoint the only British subject on the Bar-a French-Canadian named Perrier-as police magistrate there. His limits were not defined, and so his warrants were served at Yale, although he always refused to recognize warrants issued by the magistrate of Yale on persons residing at Hillís Bar. McGowan and his friends "put up a job" on Channell. One of their friends had committed an assault and was confined in the Yale prison. A warrant for the manís arrest had previously been issued by Perrier, but disregarded by Channell, who insisted upon trying the culprit and sentencing him to jail for three months. Perrier immediately issued a warrant for Chantrellís arrest for contempt of court, and swore in McGowan, Bagley and twenty others as special constables, with orders to take the prisoner out of the jail and bring him and Channell (the latter dead or alive) to Hillís Bar. The posse, heavily armed, came to Yale in canoes, surprised the jailer and locking him in one of the cells released the prisoner. They then seized Channell, by virtue of Perrierís warrant, and conducted him in triumph through the town to their canoes. Channell was frightened half to death, and his alarm was increased when he was told that he had been recognized as a member of the hated Vigilance Committee. Arrived at Hillís Bar, Channell was arraigned before Perrier. He was convicted of contempt, fined $20 and advised by his fellow magistrate to leave the Bar instantly, as a matter of precaution. The posse reformed and conducting him back to the canoes landed him safely at Yale, firing their revolvers and rifles by way of a parting salute. On the return trip Channell and his guard fraternized and agreed to bury the hatchet, all was to be forgiven and forgotten and the two elements-virtue and vice-were to live together in peace and goodwill forever afterwards.

It had been previously arranged by the American miners that a grand ball should be given on the 22nd of February, 1859, in honoree of the birth of Washington. Bennettís gambling house, the largest building in town, had been hired for the occasion, and an orchestra of five fiddlers was engaged. The night before the ball was to be held Willis Bondís partner, Harrison, got into an altercation with a young man named Campbell, whose father was Attorney-General of Washington Territory, and shot and killed him in Bennettís hall. Harrison was taken to Victoria and while awaiting trial escaped from the old Colonial Jail, and was never seen again. The body of the murdered man was laid away after a hurried inquest, and precautions for the dance went on, uninterrupted by the gruesome event of the preceding night. Kurtz, Nelson, Power, Johnson and myself were placed on the Ball Committee, cheek by jowl with McGowan, Bagley and many others. All the married ladies in the town were invited. Mr. and Mrs. Channell were also asked. This lady was of huge proportions. The bosom of her dress was cut very, very low and her arms were bare to the shoulders. She was what would have been called a fine-looking woman anywhere. She wore, as was the fashion in those days, enormous hoops. All the ladies wore hoops at that ball, and how in the world they contrived to make their way through the crowded hall and retain their skirts will ever be a mystery to me.

Until midnight all went well. The few ladies present had no lack of partners, while most of the men were forced to dance with each other. Supper having been announced it occurred to the committee to invite Judge McGowan to preside at the first, or ladiesí table. He consented, and I am bound to say he performed the duties with grace and gentlemanly courtesy-for he could be a gentleman when occasion required. Bagley, who laid claim to good looks, and was very much of a ladiesí man, was furious at the selection of McGowan to preside, and when the ladies had left the table, fired a most offensive epithet at the chairman. The latter, who had a plate of soup in his hand, brought it down with a resounding whack on Bagleyís head. Quick as though Bagley, who also held a plate of soup in his hand, responded with a whack on McGowanís head. The plates of heavy delf flew into pieces and streams of blood and hot soup, with an occasional length of macaroni, ran down the faces and necks of the combatants, saturating their clothing. The greasy fluid penetrated to their skins and more deplorable looking spectacles than these two men, who suddenly stood in need of baths, it would be difficult to conjure up. The adherents of the men yelled with rage. Pistols were drawn and flourished and a scene of carnage seemed imminent for a few moments. Curses filled the air and the crowd in the hall soon a surging mass of excited men apparently bent on taking each otherís lives. All but one of the ladies and the musicians fled the scene as quickly as they could to prevent bloodshed, naturally turned to Channell as the representative of authority.

"Whereís the magistrate?" was asked by one of the peaceably inclined.

"He was here a moment ago," said another.

"Thereís his wife. Ask her."

The only woman who had not fled the scene was Mrs. Channell. She stood, pale and trembling, in one corner of the room, apparently motionless from fear. Even the excited rowdies respected the presence of a lady and in their smuggles left a space of several feet about her.

"Madam," said John Kurtz, "whereís your husband? In Godís name, tell me, or murder will be done."

"I havenít the slightest idea," replied Mrs. Channell, in a faltering voice.

"Allow me," said Kurtz, always polite and kind, "to escort you from this awful scene."

As she moved away a pair of boots, then a pair of long legs and finally a long body arrayed in the full panoply of war came into view. They all belonged to Channell, who, in a paroxysm of fear and laboring under a suspicion that the row had been raised for the purpose of potting him, had hidden behind his wifeís ample hoop-skirt to get out of harmís way!

The rage of the combatants was changed to mirth. I verily believe that the spectacle of the magistrate rising from the floor and hurrying from the room and out into the darkness, pursued by the hoots and laughter of the crowd prevented a tragedy. The two leaders threatened to fight a duel over the affair of the soup, but they were laughed out of their wrath and nothing more was heard of a hostile meeting.

Two days after the ball a stalwart young Irishman named Barney Rice entered Bennettís saloon and called for a drink. When served he refused to pay and walked out. The barkeeper, one Foster, followed him and as the miner moved off shot him dead. The body fell on the snow in the street and lay there for some hours. Foster fled and was seen no more at Yale, although several years later he was recognized in Arizona. This dreadful murder was the capsheaf of the judge pile of iniquity which the roughs had been heaping up for many months, and while a Vigilance Committee was forming to take charge of the town and drive the evil-doers out, Lieut.-Governor Moody, Chief Justice Begbie, and Attorney-General Cary, who had been quietly summoned from Victoria by Channell, arrived on the scene. They were accompanied by a detachment of sappers and marines, and I never felt happier in my life than when early one morning I saw the redcoats trekking along on the opposite side of the river toward the ferry crossing.

Judge Begbie proceeded to open court in Bennettís Hall, some of the table having been cleared away to make room for His Lordship. The table at which the Judge sat had the night before held a faro bank, and the table assigned to the Attorney General and Col. Moody was commonly used for chuck-a-luck by a notorious gambler named Cherokee Bill.

Summonses had been issued for McGowan, Bagley, and other offenders and they appeared in court. Their defense was that they were the objects of persecution by Channell and other officials, that they had been driven from their own land and had come to this country to reside as peaceable citizens. Judge Begbie acted with great discretion, and after a short address he dismissed all the prisoners with an expression of sympathy with their misfortune and confidence in their promise to be good. Channell was dismissed and went away and, Hillís Bar having been worked out, the rough element left the river and never came back. No one visiting Yale at this time would imagine that it was ever the scene of stormy events or the seat of a large and busy population. It is a good specimen of a deserted village, with its empty houses and its silent streets, and yet time was when it was the busiest town in the colony of British Columbia. "So passes away earthly glory."

Of the multitude I met at Yale few remain. It is appalling to think of the ravages death has made in the ranks of those hardy young men who wrought for gold among the sands of Fraser River. I shall sketch the career of only a few.

Hugh Nelson caught the Golden Butterfly, and after leaving Yale became a member of the Legislative Council of British Columbia; next he was made a Senator of the Dominion, and then Lieutenant-Governor, discharging all his duties with honor and credit to himself and advantage to the country. At Ottawa he married Miss Stanton, a lady who brought to Government House a charming personality and a winsome manner, which captivated all who were so fortunate as to be entertained there. When his term of office was ended Mr. Nelson, whose health was shattered with Mrs. Nelson, went to England, and while on a visit to Ditchely Park, in Oxfordshire, the seat of Lord Dillon, his brother-in-law, he died and was laid to rest in the family mausoleum of that nobleman. It is recorded that Queen Elizabeth visited Ditchely, in 1592, and her successor, King James I., also stayed there. The heads of several red deer shot by that monarch and his eldest son, Henry, Prince of Wales, during their visits in 1668 and 1610, adorn the walls of Lord Dillonís billiard room. Even in death Mr. Nelsonís Butterfly did not desert him.

John Kurtz captured the Golden Butterfly at Yale and Cariboo. Took it to Nevada, whence it flew away, and he never found it again. He died in Victoria twelve years ago. His was a noble character. He loved his fellow man. His heart overflowed with the milk of human kindness, and his last dollar was ever at the call of charity. Where many of us had a hundred faults he had but one; and that fault dragged him to an untimely grave, wept over and regretted by those who had enjoyed his friendship, and by those who had been the recipients of his bounty. I recall that on the day of his funeral, and while his body lay in state in Pioneer Hall, a poor widow woman, worn, and wasted by illness and the pinching of poverty, entered the room, and after gazing on the placid features for a few moments, timidly laid a little bunch of violets on the coffin-lid, and withdrew, weeping silently. It was not much, but it was all she had-the widowís mite-a tribute to the goodness of the man by whose hand she and her little ones had been fed and clothed. There is room in the world for a few more men like John Kurtz.

Wm. Power caught his Butterfly at Yale, and carried it with him to New York and South America, where it escaped. He returned to British Columbia in 1881 and found his Butterfly again on the townsite of Vancouver. Retiring with an ample fortune he died in an Eastern city several years ago. Of his amiable wife, it should be stated that she is still alive in New York City.

I brought my Butterfly to Victoria, and for many years it was my good genius. I cherished and nourished it with the care and attention of a lover. It charmed me with its brilliant colors and its gossamer wings. My close companion by day, at night I locked it securely in a vault. Everything I touched prospered-wealth, position, influence, friends, all were at my command. It just seemed as if there was nothing beyond my reach, and I reveled in my good fortune. But one day a sad thing happened. My close companion, my good genius, left my hand as I opened the vault and flew out into the open air. I followed, hoping to recover it. It went up and up until it was almost lost to view. Then it came down and down and down, describing graceful circles as it descended, and alighted upon the tramway track on Government Street. I sprang forward to grasp it, but a tram-car rolled over the spot, and my Golden Butterfly must have been smashed to an unrecognizable mass, for I saw it no more, not has any trace of it been discovered so far as I know.


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Last updated 31 August 1998.
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