Finding Gold Mountain on the Fraser River

By Eagle Glassheim, Professor and Head, UBC Department of History


From a raft on the wide and powerful Fraser River, the stone chutes of Browning’s Bar were easy to miss.  The rock piles looked like the remnants of a small landslide, or maybe the deposits of the meandering river bed millennia ago.

I was rafting the Fraser in early June with a group of 20 historians, geographers, archeologists, and an ethno-musicologist.  Sponsored by UBC’s Departments of History and Geography, as well as the UBC Faculty of Arts and SFU Department of History, the 2019 Canadian History and Environment Summer School spent two days on the mighty Fraser in search of gold.

We were prospecting for bits and pieces of the river’s mining history that reveal a more expansive and inclusive story of resource extraction, migration, and colonialism in early British Columbia.  With the help of our guides, we learned how to look for the stories of gold mining in the landscapes of the Fraser, as well as the signs of Chinese and Indigenous miners who staked and worked scores of Fraser claims from the 1850s into the 1900s.

In the nineteenth century, Chinese migrants to the Pacific Coast called the region “Gold Mountain,” referring both to the much-storied gold deposits of California and British Columbia, but also to dreams of economic opportunity in North America.  Chinese miners came to the Fraser River as early as the 1850s and built intricate stone sluices to separate gold flakes and dust from enormous quantities of rock and silt. The hand-built sluices of Browning’s Bar may be hard to see at first glance, but they are among the best-preserved remnants of nineteenth-century mining technologies in British Columbia.

It takes multiple disciplines and perspectives to recover these histories.  The Fraser Corridor Heritage Landscape Project has brought together archeologists, geographers, and historians to excavate the stories of Chinese Canadian miners in archives and at sites like Browning’s Bar along the Fraser.  In their 2015 report, the project’s researchers, including UBC’s Henry Yu and Sarah Ling, make a compelling case for heritage preservation of several mining sites near Lillooet and Lytton BC.

It’s vitally important that we recover and commemorate these stories of BC’s diverse past.  I’m grateful to our guides, John Haugen,  Michael Kennedy, and Sarah Ling, for showing us how to distinguish a sluice from a pile of rocks; and where to look for evidence of Chinese and Indigenous pasts so often obscured by settler-colonial narratives of BC’s history.

Special thanks to Matthew Evenden (UBC Geography) and Tina Loo (UBC History), who organized this year’s Canadian History and Environment Summer School on behalf of the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE).

Photos by Eagle Glassheim