The Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History: Part I

“Having disposed of our holdings on the creeks the five of us packed through the South Kootenai Pass and soon after started for Edmonton, where we heard they were mining placer gold on the Saskatchewan River. We had no very clear knowledge of where Edmonton was, and there was no one there to tell us.”[i]

– ‘Kootenai’ Brown (1865)

Gold! It was dreams of golden wealth and the promise of adventure that drew thousands of young men west to California and British Columbia in the 1800s. Although never achieving the spectacular wealth in gold of its neighbors to the west, Alberta witnessed its own gold rush in the 1860s, and over the subsequent decades many people passed through the province on their way to other mining frenzies that swept across the northwest. Many prospectors settled in the province and became leading members of Alberta’s burgeoning communities.

The First Gold in Western Canada

The 1849 rush in California brought ‘Forty-Niners’ from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Midwest who traveled overland and by sea. Ocean travel also brought Peruvians and Chileans, Mexicans, Australians, Europeans, and Chinese. In the spring of 1858, the easier diggings long since worked out in California, news arrived in San Francisco of discoveries on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers – to the north in British territory.[ii]  By July, it was estimated that 30,000 “half-wild Californians” had passed through the sedate, trading outpost of Fort Victoria on their way to the mouth of the Fraser; 3,000 having arrived in one day.[iii] Following the Fraser River upstream, those miners who struggled on and inured the hardships of cold and wet, hunger and privation, were rewarded with the richest diggings of all – in a region that became known as the Cariboo, east of present day Quesnel, roughly 100 km west of Jasper National Park.

Figure 1. The Cradle by Henry Sandham published in The Century Illustrated (monthly magazine), January, 1883 (reproduced with permission from the Prints and Photographs Division of the United States Library of Congress).

Gold in Edmonton

The presence of gold in the gravels of the North Saskatchewan was first noted by Dr. James Hector who, with the Palliser expedition in 1859, was shown small amounts of gold washed from the river.[iv] Late in Autumn of that year, a group of five miners from the Cariboo, [v] upon hearing reports of gold at Edmonton, ascended the Fraser River, and by way of Yellowhead Pass and Jasper House, arrived at the fort. The party included Americans Tom Clover and Timolean Love. Clover had been an original ‘Forty-Niner’ and would spend four years mining and prospecting the gravels of the North Saskatchewan before moving on.[vi] Love, who traveled between Fort Edmonton and Fort Garry for supplies, probably did more than anyone to create interest in the mines on the Saskatchewan with his enthusiasm, optimism, and aggrandizements. He was convinced the gold fields would soon prove themselves, bringing an influx of miners and settlement into the area. In July of 1862, 175 ‘Overlanders,’ mostly Canadians from Ontario, passed through Edmonton on their overland journey to the gold fields of the Cariboo. Love, having guided one of the groups across the plains, was no doubt largely responsible for sixty men staying behind to prospect the North Saskatchewan and its tributaries.[vii]

Gold and the North Saskatchewan Fur Trade

For over half a century the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)  fur trade fort in Edmonton had carried on its staid existence perched atop the bluffs on the north side of the river – but now the population was constantly in flux with the comings and goings of outsiders who had no stake in the fur trade economy. Most newcomers simply moved on after noting both the absence of coarse gold and a mining season that was limited to the low water months of spring and fall. And just as soon as they left, another group would arrive. Historian J.G. MacGregor noted the conflict that these new miners introduced into the North Saskatchewan fur trade: “Chief Trader Christie, sorely torn between wishing that all the miners would starve and seeing that none of them did, had a difficult time.”[viii] Over the winter of 1862-63, eight HBC men deserted to try their luck at gold-mining.[ix] Former employee Nils Martinson washed out the value of £68 sterling in twenty-five days,[x] at a time when a labourer or boatman might only make £22 a year.[xi] In the fall of 1866, 150 miners arrived from British Columbia and 500 more from Montana were expected in the spring.[xii]

Later Earnings

During the 1872 season, North Saskatchewan gravel bars continued to be worked by a dedicated few but were only averaging $7-8 a day.[xiii] The yield decreased over the years as the same gravel bars were repeatedly worked. In the fall of 1894, The Edmonton Bulletin reported earnings of only $1.50 to $4 a day.[xiv] By the mid-1890s, with the increase in settlement and waves of new immigrants arriving in the region, even with the low returns, gold mining experienced a boom. In 1896, it was estimated that there were to three to five hundred men mining on the river,[xv] many living in log shacks or crude dug outs carved from the riverbank.[xvi]

An even larger rush was about to eclipse the community when, in early May of 1897, newspapers carried details of rich gold strikes in Canada’s frozen north. Tens of thousands, an entirely new generation of gold seekers, began setting their sights on the Yukon River and Dawson City. Part II of the Lure of the Gold blog, coming out on Thursday, will explore Edmonton’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush and the later evolution of Alberta’s mining industry.

Early Mining and Methods

Most gold found in Alberta is ‘placer’ gold’ – surface deposits that occur in the gravel bars of many of the province’s rivers and streams – the heaviest concentrations occurring in the North Saskatchewan River around Edmonton. The earliest methods of mining were done by hand with pick and pan. Gold, having a relative weight greater than neighbouring sand and gravels, can be concentrated through a shaking action, with water carrying away the lighter material. Although the gold pan was invaluable for assessing prospective areas, miners soon constructed rockers and longer sluice-boxes in order to process more gravels.

The rocker, or cradle, as it was also known, was a simple apparatus of two parts – a hopper into which gravel was dumped, and a lower box three feet long by two feet wide, through which material flowed. The bottom of the hopper was often a piece of sheet metal perforated with ¼ inch holes and as water was bailed over top, the gold and finer sands dropped down into the box.  The larger gravels that remained in the hopper were then dumped out by hand. The lower box (basically a shortened sluice-box) was often lined with a woolen blanket held down by wooden riffles. Sitting on wooden rockers and set at a downward angle, the entire device was rocked by hand, which helped break up material and helped the gold to settle behind the riffles.

Figure 2. Washing gold with a ‘Grizzly’, Edmonton, 1890 (permission to reproduce image B5280 granted by Provincial Archives of Alberta). The grizzly was an early innovation in gold mining on the North Saskatchewan and is credited to long time Edmonton resident Jim Gibbons who settled in the area after prospecting in California. The grizzly was a triangular apparatus with metal bars that allowed finer materials to fall through into the sluice box while larger gravels rolled off.

After cleaning out the sluice-box, the miner was left with a mixture of fine gold and heavy, black, iron sands. Placer gold from the North Saskatchewan is fine, often referred to as gold dust or flour gold, and difficult to separate fully from the black sands. Mercury or quicksilver, easily forming an amalgam with gold, was used in the final separation process. The amalgam was poured into a porous, leather pouch, the excess mercury squeezed out into a gold pan, and the small amount of mercury that still adhered to the gold was burned away.[xvii]

Using these methods in 1868 it was reported that fifty men were at work on the gravel bars around Fort Edmonton, averaging $12-20 a day.[xviii] Supplies were hard to come by and the miners complained bitterly about the exorbitant prices charged by the HBC; a sack of flour cost $30 and tea cost $3 per pound.[xix]

Miners and Their Legacy

The history of gold prospecting in Alberta is recorded directly on maps and indirectly in the stories and influences of early prospectors and pioneers. Gold River runs just north of Lac la Biche, the Gold Bar district winds along the North Saskatchewan in southeast Edmonton, and Gold Creek flows past the small community of Frank in the Crowsnest Pass. Here are a few early miners who left their marks on the province.

Sam Livingston and Calgary

Arrivals at the Calgary airport are greeted by a 3 m tall, bronze bust of Calgary pioneer, Sam Livingston, who was first attracted to Alberta by the prospect of gold. Livingston came over the Kicking Horse Pass in 1864 with a party of 14 prospectors destined for Edmonton.[xx] After mining gold on the North Saskatchewan for a few seasons, he headed south becoming a trader, and eventually homesteaded along the Elbow River in what is now southwest Calgary.

Tom Clover and Edmonton

Tom Clover was a Missouri native and veteran of the California gold rush of 1849.[xxi] After hearing of gold at Fort Edmonton, he and his party ascended the Fraser River, arriving at Fort Edmonton in 1859. The Cloverdale and Clover Bar neighbourhoods owe their names to him and the section of river that he worked in the 1860’s. Several early Edmonton businessmen also started out in the gold fields of California and British Columbia including Jim Gibbons, Ed Carey, William Cust, and Donald Ross.

Figure 3. Former gold miners played major roles in many of Edmonton’s first businesses. Pictured here are early gold prospectors Jim Gibbons, A.D. Osborne, and Donald Ross in an advertisement for an Edmonton-based cigar company. Image EA-10-1074 reproduced with permission from the City of Edmonton Archives.

Lamoureux and Fort Saskatchewan

Across the river from the city of Fort Saskatchewan is the village of Lamoureux. Brothers Francis and Joseph Lamoureux, originally from Québec, both ended up in California and then the Oregon Territory before migrating north to goldfields of the Cariboo. Hearing of opportunities along the North Saskatchewan River, they set off by horseback and arrived in Edmonton in the fall of 1872 and were the first to settle in the area that now bears their name.[xxii]

Brosseau and Two Hills

Edmond-Hector Brosseau was born in Québec in 1843, although he grew up across the border in New York State. During the Civil War, he served as a scout in the Union Army before the lure of gold drew him west to California and British Columbia. Brosseau prospected for gold along the Peace River and later settled in St. Albert outside Edmonton and became a successful merchant.[xxiii] In 1902, he moved downriver along the North Saskatchewan; a small hamlet, 120 km east of Edmonton (just north of Two Hills) is named for him.

Henry Davis and Peace River

Henry Fuller Davis, or ‘Twelve Foot Davis’ as he came to be known after taking out a small fortune in gold from a 12 foot fraction of a claim in the Cariboo, was born in Vermont in 1820.[xxiv] Davis spent many years as a gold miner in the west, and the last thirty years of his life as a much loved trader in northern Alberta. Upon his death in 1900, he was buried atop a bluff with a commanding view of the Peace River Valley and the town of Peace River below.

John ‘Kootenai’ Brown and Waterton

Born in Ireland in 1839,[xxv] Brown served briefly with the British Army in India before striking out for the gold fields of British Columbia in the early 1860’s. [xxvi] In 1865, with Edmonton in mind, his party left the East Kootenays, crossed the mountains into Alberta and made their way east. Lost on the plains near present day Medicine Hat, they fended off a Blackfoot attack but the party split up and Brown continued east to Red River. After working as a mail rider, army scout, buffalo hunter, wolfer and trader, he returned west and homesteaded in what is now Waterton Lakes National Park. A pioneer in conservation, Brown served as the Park’s first Superintendent and continued as a park ranger until his death in 1916.

Stay tuned for Part II of the Lure of Gold blog in the Heritage Art Series. You can learn more about the Heritage Art Series here.

Figure 4. Gold Rush by Brandi Lee Hofer, 2018. The early gold rushes in North America are captured in historic accounts and black and white photographs that sometimes mask the emotion, excitement, and daunting prospects that awaited bold fortune seekers. This image captures the colour and youth of an early American gold miner in the 1840s, many of whom came north to B.C. and then Alberta; they helped shape Western Canada’s history along the way.

Written by: Michael Donnelly, freelance historian

Related Post: Edmonton’s River Valley: The Glitter of the Gold Rush


[i] Vancouver Daily Province, Tait.  March 8, 1924, p. 12.

[ii] Bancroft, Hubert Howe.  1887.  History of the Pacific States – of North America.  Volume XXXII.  British Columbia 1792-1887.  The History Company, Publishers, San Francisco.  p. 439.

[iii] Bancroft, Hubert Howe.  1887.  History of the Pacific States – of North America.  Volume XXXII.  British Columbia 1792-1887.  The History Company, Publishers, San Francisco.  p. 360.

[iv] Tyrell, J.B.  Gold on the North Saskatchewan River.  Transactions of the Canadian Mining Institute, Toronto, 1915, p. 161.

[v] The Edmonton Bulletin, May 19, 1917.  pg. 15.

[vi] Berry, J.P.  Clover Bar in the Making, 1881-1931.  1931.

[vii] MacGregor, J.G.  1967.  Edmonton a History.  Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.  p. 60.

[viii] MacGregor, J.G.  1967.  Edmonton a History.  Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.  p. 65.

[ix] The Nor’-Wester.  June 30, 1863.

[x] The Nor’-Wester.  December 11, 1864.

[xi] Goldring, Philip.  “Labour Records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1821-1870.”  Archivaria 11, 1980/81.  53-86.

[xii] The Nor’-Wester.  March 2, 1867.

[xiii] The Manitoban.  Interview with Alfred Burrows, June 15, 1872.

[xiv] The Edmonton Bulletin, October 29, 1894.

[xv] The Edmonton Bulletin, March 11, 1897.

[xvi] Ream, Peter T.  1974.  The Fort on the Saskatchewan – a Resource Book on the Saskatchewan and District.  Metropolitan Printing.  p. 207.

[xvii] James Blower, 1971.  Gold Rush, Toronto: Ryerson Press, p. 122.

[xviii] The Edmonton Bulletin, February 28, 1881.

[xix] The Narrative of Jim Gibbons Alberta Historical Review, Summer 1958, p. .4

[xx] Lyn Hancock, 2012.  The Ring, Lantzville: Lyn Hancock Books, p. 81.

[xxi] Naming Edmonton – From Ada to Zoie, Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, pg. 56

[xxii] Joseph A Lamoureux, 2000.  Les Lamoureux – The Pioneers, Ft. Saskatchewan: Dependable Printers, p. 150.

[xxiii] Tracey Harrison, 1994.  Place Names of Alberta – Central Alberta Vol. III, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, P. 36.  

[xxiv] J.G. MacGregor, 1952.  The Land of Twelve Foot Davis – A History of the Peace River Country, Edmonton: Applied Arts Products Ltd, P. 209.

[xxv] William Rodney, 1969.  Kootenai Brown – his life and times, Sidney: Gray’s Publishing Ltd, p.13.

[xxvi] William Rodney, 1969.  Kootenai Brown – his life and times, Sidney:  Gray’s Publishing Ltd, p. 37.

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