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Shifting the lens on Sooke's gold rush: Part I

“The gold will speak for itself.” The quote is typically attributed to Leech, but researcher and soon-to-be-author Bart van den Berk has a copy of the letter from Robert Brown, dating back to 1864, showing that the words came from Brown and not Leech.   - Britt Santowski
“The gold will speak for itself.” The quote is typically attributed to Leech, but researcher and soon-to-be-author Bart van den Berk has a copy of the letter from Robert Brown, dating back to 1864, showing that the words came from Brown and not Leech.
— image credit: Britt Santowski

In looking back into any historical event, the view can shift depending on the lens.

In considering the gold rush in Leechtown, a familiar lens is that which is seen when looking at events through the experiences of Peter Leech, the commander at the time of the discovery of gold.

Dr. Patrick Perry Lydon’s book, The Gold Will Speak For Itself, is a collection of documents that have appeared over time, with primary focus on the contributions of Peter Leech, after whom Leechtown and Leech River are named.

One of Sooke’s avid researchers is shifting the lens, turning the view away from Leech and towards John Foley, who was an expert gold panner on that expedition. Gold-panning hobbiest Bart van den Berk asserts that, beyond leading the expedition, Leech had very little to do with it. John Foley, on the other hand, had everything to do with it.

“I’m of the opinion that a lot that has been written about Leechtown over all these years — the history — that has a lot of misinformation in there,” said van den Berk. Some of this misinformation is tracked on his website (leechtownhistory.ca), under the Documents section on the Report page.

But first, let’s step back and review the story of the discovery of gold in them-thar hills of Sooke.

The basic story

Cast members included expedition Commander Robert Brown, expedition leader Peter John Leech, and expedition member John Foley (among others, but Foley will become a central character in the van den Berk’s version of events). Brown, Leech and Foley were all members of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (VIEE). They, along with seven others, led to the finding of gold and the establishing of Leechtown.

On June 7, 1864, VIEE set out on a ship and sailed from Victoria to Cowichan Bay. There, the expedition members disembarked and began their quest. By July they had reached Sooke, and expedition leader Robert Brown went to Victoria to get supplies. Brown put Leech in charge. In July, the expedition was finding trace amounts of gold along the Sooke River and later found “payable” gold (amounts worth panning, enough to make a living) along what would be later known as Leech River.

Within a month, the boom was on. According to the Wikipedia page, “By August 14 of that same year, 227 mining licences had been issued and by the end of the year there were 6 general stores and 3 hotels in business along with 30 saloons.”

Within 10 years, the gold was extracted and the town residents had packed up and gone.  As Lydon records in his book, what was left of the town a decade after the initial discovery of gold, “fire swept the town…, levelling the rows of buildings.”

The famous BCHA speech: “The gold will speak for itself.”

Fast forward 64 years, and all the members of the expedition are deceased.

On October 1, 1928, there was an unveiling of a Memorial Cairn at Leechtown.

According to the 1929 BC Historical Association’s Fourth Report and Proceedings booklet, (which you can find at http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/bchf/4th_bcha.pdf), “[a]mong those present was Mrs. Fanny Faucault, of Walhachin, B.C., daughter of Peter Leech, after whom Leech River and Leechtown were named.”

Fanny Faucault was a public persona of sorts, described in Dr. Patrick Lydon’s book, The Gold Will Speak For Itself, as “a child prodigy [who] played at the local opera at the age of 12.” She was a well-liked artist, and van den Berk suggested that the 1928 speech of Leech at the unveiling may have hyped his involvement as his daughter was in attendance.

“My guess is that, because of that, Leech was very much glorified,” speculated van den Berk. “Not enough credit was given to the other members of the expedition.”

A part of that might be attributed to the fact that Leech was the only expedition member who continued to reside in Victoria.

In his speech at the unveiling of a commemorative cairn, BC Historical Association president John Hosie attributed the founding of Leechtown to Peter Leech. Later in his speech, Hosie quotes the now-infamous line, “The gold will speak for itself,” and referenced its source as a letter supposedly written by Leech.

Did those words, “The gold will speak for itself” really come from Leech?

“The fact is Leech never said those words. It was Commander Brown who said those words.” Van den Berk has the journals, the news article, and a copy of the original letter from Brown, showing, definitively, that those words came from Brown, not Leech.

“Since that speech has been put on record, it is one of the most … used and famous historical articles about Leechtown,” comments van den Berk. “It is also easily accessible for readers and researchers. … Researchers found that record and took the accuracy of that record pretty much for granted.”

That the document comes from the prestigious BCHA adds heavily to its credibility, along with the fact that the speech was given by the association’s president.

Part 2 next week.

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