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Barkerville: the Chinese gold rush

People walking down Barkerville's main street with Asian umbrellas.

Historians estimate that thousands of Chinese worked in Barkerville during the gold rush, about half the town's population.

Photo: Inconnu

Li Zhao

Barkerville is a small historical town in British Columbia’s central interior. Although little known, it nevertheless marked the glorious era of the Gold Rush in the early days of Canada's history. Pioneers from China left their mark there.

A long-time member of the city's board of directors, Ms. Lao Xiaohong has done a lot of volunteer work to preserve the historical remains and artifacts of the Chinese presence in this gold city as well as their economic and cultural contribution.

We had the opportunity to talk with Lao Xiaohong about Barkerville's past and present.

History of Barkerville

Black and white photo of Barkerville's main street with a carriage in the center and people on the terraces of wooden houses.

Barkerville's main street in 1869

Photo: La Presse canadienne

A name inspired by a great discovery

Barkerville is located approximately 750 km northeast of Vancouver, an eight and a half hour drive.

The benefit of driving there, Lao says, is that you can enjoy spectacular wilderness and drive along many historic sites on the way.

However, if driving doesn't seem appropriate for such a long trip, you can also take a flight to the small town of Quesnel, 80 km west of Barkerville, then rent a car or get a taxi, the latter option being more expensive.

According to Ms. Lao, Barkerville was founded in the late 1850s, following the great discovery of a British prospector.

Back then, 30,000 prospectors and gold miners from around the world frantically invaded the Fraser Valley, where it was believed gold could be found in abundance. However, as the gold deposits dried up rapidly, this rush was short-lived and soon the dream faded.

Black and white photo of a group of men gathered on Barkerville's main street. Some are standing and some are on horseback.

A group of armed men prepare to leave for the Cariboo Gold Escort, the largest shipment of gold bullion on the Cariboo Road. Photo taken in 1865 on Barkerville's main street.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / CHARLES GENTILE

Those who could afford it migrated to other parts of the country in search of new deposits. As for the poorest and those who were ruined, they simply disappeared from the story.

In 1862, in the mountainous Cariboo area (a vast region in central British Columbia), British prospector William 'Billy' Barker (1817-1894) became famous for extracting 2 kg of gold in a few hours.

Listen to the interview in Chinese here:

Although the claim was exaggerated, the fact remains that William Barker became rich almost overnight. In a very short period of time, many gold miners settled upstream and downstream of its excavation.

In just a few months, everyone agreed to give this gold field community the last name of the British prospector. That's how Barkerville was born.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong

The story goes that the wealthy William Billy Barker lent huge sums of money at a loss to other gold prospectors, who were not as lucky as he had been.

His generosity and expensive lifestyle in hotels and saloons in Victoria and Barkerville forced him to return to prospecting some time later.

But in vain, Barker died penniless and was buried in Victoria, in an area of the cemetery reserved for the poor.

Chinese immigrants: key players in Barkerville's Gold Rush

People are watching an art show in front of a wooden house. We also see two flags raised: the Canadian and the Chinese.

Tourists in Barkerville, British Columbia

Photo: RCI

Lao Xiaohong explains that by quickly becoming famous, this small town attracted people from all over the world, including a large number of Chinese explorers.

Of course, all these newcomers hoped to find gold, make a fortune or, at least, somehow fit into the local economy to earn a living.

In 1863, realizing that a significant number of Chinese people had settled in Barkerville, the very old Hongmen society founded a branch there. This Chinese Freemasonry had for public mission to help the local Chinese community both materially and spiritually.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong

A number of Chinese people were lucky enough to find gold and make money in Barkerville. But the results were not the same for all.

First, there were a limited number of concessions. Then, the gold deposits had been exhausted by the excavations of successive miners.

The first settlers had taken it all. So all others could hope to find was a bit of gold powder on the floors of the saloons.

The first Chinatown in Western North America

Barkerville was the most prosperous gold-rush town of all, says Lao Xiaohong.

At its peak, it had 5,600 inhabitants, half of whom were Chinese from California or who had migrated directly from China.

In Barkerville, the Chinese worked in the service and support sectors: grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and motels, tea rooms and lounges, general stores, packaging, transportation, etc. Some also owned ranches and small agricultural businesses.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong
The wooden entrance door of a Chinese restaurant

A Chinese restaurant in Barkerville

Photo: RCI

In 1866, the Chinese company Kwong Lee & Co., which had warehouses and a network of subsidiaries in several gold mining towns, acquired retail and wholesale licenses in Barkerville.

Thanks to these acquisitions, the company was able to create and supply many general stores with rice, tea, cigars, matches, clothes, blankets, boots... and even prescription drugs based on analgesic and antispasmodic substances.

The gold rush in Barkerville had created a high demand for business and led to rapid population growth.

Listen to the interview in Chinese here:

Ms. Lao goes on to say that today, 3,000 Chinese doesn't seem like much, but at the time it represented a large part of the population.

Barkerville even had its own Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in Western North America, with its own restaurants.

At the end of the Gold Rush era, about a quarter of the Chinese people returned to China. The vast majority of the others left Barkerville and settled in other parts of the country.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong

Barkerville, a historical park

Adults and children examining bowls

Tourists looking for gold in Barkerville

Photo: RCI

Time has passed and gold has run out. The history of gold mining in Barkerville has come to an end after decades of glory.

Now, Barkerville has become a relic of a bygone era. This large historical park offers tourists a glimpse into the atmosphere of the 19th century Gold Rush and an opportunity to understand this fascinating chapter of Canadian history.

There are no more inhabitants in Barkerville. All those who lived there have moved to neighbouring cities.

A trip through time and space

People in a horse-drawn sleigh on the snow

A winter scene in Barkerville

Photo: RCI

As a member of Barkerville's board of directors, Ms. Lao Xiaohong has visited the historic city on several occasions. She explains that each of her visits has deeply moved her.

Every time I go there, she says with emotion, I have a strong sense of belonging, as if I were in the 19th century.

It's like entering a movie. History is well preserved there. Chinatown signs are still in place, as well as the shops and restaurants used at the time. By visiting them, people can feel part of this past life.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong

And to remind us of what cultural life looked like during the gold rush era, there is the Barkerville Theatre with its wooden stage and its miners watching the show in the hall.

A man plays a banjo, a woman plays a fiddle and another woman dances in front of the entrance to a theater as tourists enter the building. The musicians are dressed in traditional 19th century clothing.

Barkerville Royal Theatre

Photo: RCI

Ms. Lao Xiaohong goes on to explain that the history of the Chinese in Barkerville is closely linked to that of all other gold miners. The Chinese were an integral part of this community, making the city a very diverse place, full of Chinese and European relics.

In short, going to Barkerville is a bit like travelling through time and space.

A historical site

A wooden building with Chinese signs on it

The Chee Kung Tong building in Barkerville, British Columbia, Canada. It was originally used by the Chee Kung Tong organization, a benevolent association for recent arrivals from China. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2007 because it illustrates the community building among immigrant Chinese labourers and merchants in new settlements throughout Canada in the 19th century, and it is a rare surviving example of a Chee Kung Tong structure in Canada.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Jerrye and Roy KLOTZ MD

In 1868, Barkerville celebrated the first anniversary of the Dominion of Canada, a term first used at the time of Confederation in 1867.

In 1880, at its peak, Barkerville had 5,600 inhabitants, half of whom were of Chinese origin.

Ms Lao Xiaohong points out that the board of directors of Barkerville, responsible for the management of this historic city, created a new position of multi-cultural member in 2005. This decision reflects the importance given to the history of Chinese Canadians.

In 2007, adds Ms. Lao, the Canadian government designated the Chee Kung Tong Building (the Chinese Freemasonry lodge) as a National Historic Site of Canada.

This building illustrates the sense of belonging of Chinese immigrant workers and traders. Traditional ceremonies and celebrations were held there to maintain the connection between the diaspora and China. It also served as a meeting place to discuss communal affairs.

In April 2008, Barkerville's Chinatown was also recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada, a milestone in the history of Chinese people in Canada.

In March 2017, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Barkerville to officially recognize the contribution of Chinese Canadians to British Columbia's rich cultural, historical and economic mosaic.

People dressed in traditional 19th century clothing lead a tourist parade down a street in Barkerville.

A parade organized in Barkerville

Photo: Thomas Drasdauskis

Ancestral remains

A large number of artifacts and relics, found in the ruins of ancient Chinese buildings in Barkerville, showed that at that time, 75% of Chinese residents were originally from south of the Yangtze River (the longest river in Asia, the third-longest in the world and the longest in the world to flow entirely within one country).

Barkerville also has a Chinese cemetery. In recent years, Chinese organizations have raised funds to restore it.

Canada-China Year of Tourism 2018

Ms. Lao Xiaohong concludes by reminding us that 2018 was the China-Canada tourism year, and that the historic city of Barkerville is undoubtedly an exciting place to visit.

A large provincial park, with many recreational facilities, enables visitors to enjoy many outdoor activities.
A quote from Lao Xiaohong

Barkerville Historic Town and Park

Barkerville in numbers :

  • City and park surface area: 457 hectares
  • Annual visitors: between 50,000 and 60,000 people
  • Number of collections: more than 200,000 pieces (18,500 of which are Chinese artifacts)
  • Historic buildings: 107
  • Major events organized each year: between 15 and 18
  • Number of camping sites: 161
  • Members of Bakerville's board of directors: 14 + 1 Honorary Patron
  • Full-time employees: 17
  • Part-time employees: 4
  • Temporary employees: 11
  • Commercial licenses: 15
  • Professional tourist guides: 7
  • Contribution to local economy: $20 to $25 million per year
  • Annual operating expenses: between $3 million and $3.5 million

For more information, visit www.barkerville.ca (new window) or call toll-free 1-888-994-3332.

With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping Canada and the world, Barkerville had to adapt. It has recently set up virtual and interactive tours to discover the city. They are available on their website.

Translation and adaptation by Mathiew Leiser

Li Zhao