Mass support in pioneer times began with a signature

Paper petitions once carried weight in the halls of power

By Ann ten Cate

What’s in a name?

On Nov. 22, 1858, more than 400 residents of Yale, B.C., signed a petition asking their new governor, James Douglas, to provide an armed escort for their shipments of “treasure” (gold) that were being sent down the river.

This petition will be one of the feature objects on display  in the exhibition Gold Rush! El Dorado in B.C. at the Royal B.C. Museum.

With tools like the Internet and social media at our fingertips, it’s easy to gain the support of the masses and drive change, but imagine how anyone managed to garner mass support in British Columbia more than 100 years ago.

Petitions in the 19th century were used the way change.org functions for us today. To draw their government’s attention to an issue, citizens would round up signatures from as many like-minded people as they could. Despite not being legally binding, actual signatures had a special weight. The sheer number of names would, at the very least, make the governor’s secretary take note when it arrived.

The petition stands nearly eight feet long and is made up of four sheets of paper complete with two long columns of spidery signatures. It comes from the B.C. Archives’ collection of Colonial Correspondence.

You can imagine that displaying such a huge document without causing damage to the artifact would be a challenge, but the Royal B.C. Museum staff has developed some innovative techniques to allow visitors to view the original document.

Visitors will also discover the fate of some of these fortune seekers through an interactive touchscreen. You’ll find that some of the petitioners were absolutely right in requesting their need for protection. Some made it away with their “pile” while others met a violent end, or simply disappeared.

Who were these people and why did they feel the need for a gold escort? All were new residents of Yale, which before the summer of 1858 was simply Fort Yale, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. The discovery of gold on the Fraser River that year brought thousands of prospectors; many entrepreneurs also flooded into the area.

Those who didn’t fancy the job of panning on the bars established businesses that supplied the prospectors instead. Yale quickly became a community of adventurers from around the world – and a dangerous place. David Higgins, who arrived in Yale that summer, described the “wild west” atmosphere in Yale:

“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.”

Moving gold dust safely on to Victoria where it could be banked and exchanged for currency was problematic. The request of the petitioners was for an armed escort not unlike those in Australia, which had faced similar problems during its 1852 gold rush.

Unfortunately for this group of concerned citizens, the fledgling, and impecunious, colonial government was not able to support the establishment of a government-financed gold escort until 1861 – when gold started pouring out of the more remote Cariboo gold fields.

This petition nails down their place in B.C.’s history – 157 years ago when 400 men, and a few women, put their names on a piece of paper.

Gold Rush!: El Dorado in B.C. opens at the Royal B.C. Museum on May 13.

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Ann ten Cate is an archivist with the Royal B.C. Museum.