By 1850, the North American fur trade was in decline.
The beaver hat was out and the silk was in - on the finest heads in Europe.
|James Douglas protected the interests of Britain and the Hudson's Bay Company at the start of the British Columbia gold rush in 1858. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
As the value of the beaver pelt declined, another of Canada's natural riches would take centre stage and lead to the development of a new Canadian territory.
One day a native trapper took a drink from a western river and unexpectedly pulled out gold. The incident triggered a gold rush along the Thompson River.
The word quickly spread. On one Sunday in April 1858, 450 prospectors arrived in the harbour at Fort Victoria, a Hudson's Bay Company fur trade post on Vancouver Island. They were on their way to the gold creeks on the mainland. Over the next four months, 30 thousand people would pass through Fort Victoria with dreams of riches.
James Douglas, the very proper Hudson's Bay Company factor, quickly assessed their character.
"This body of adventurers...
are represented as being, with some exceptions, a specimen of the worst of the population of San Francisco: the very dregs, in fact, of society," wrote Douglas.
As American gold seekers poured into Hudson's Bay Company territory, Douglas realized he had no real authority over them. He feared that the land the prospectors staked could become American.
"If the country be thrown open to indiscriminate immigration, the interests of the empire may suffer, from the introduction of a foreign population, whose sympathies may be decidedly anti-British, and if the majority be Americans, strongly attached to their own country and peculiar institutions," wrote Douglas.
Although he had no authority to do so, the fur trade acted as if he were governor of a British colony and took bold action.
Douglas declared there would be no prospecting without a license and he would issue the license on behalf of Queen Victoria.
"All persons who shall take from my lands within the said districts any gold, metal, or ore containing gold, without being duly authorized in that behalf by Her Majesty's Government, will be prosecuted both criminally and civilly as the law allows," decreed Douglas.
On August 2, 1858 Queen Victoria declared the Hudson Bay territory west of the Rockies a British colony.
She called it British Columbia, and named James Douglas its first governor.