Gold in the Pacific Northwest

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/06/2004
  • Essay 7162
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The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sent would-be millionaires on a quest for treasure throughout the West. By 1900, major strikes had been made in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, and western Canada. Although prospectors found relatively little gold within the borders of what is now Washington state, their very presence, as they rushed from one rumored bonanza to another, created new patterns of transportation, settlement, and commerce. Miners traveling to gold fields on tributaries of the upper Columbia River in the 1850s stimulated development along the lower Columbia. Walla Walla was the largest town in Washington in the 1860s and 1870s because of its position as a supply center for mines in north central and southern Idaho. Spokane boomed as a result of discoveries in northern Idaho in the 1880s. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 yanked Seattle out of a recession and transformed both the city’s infrastructure and character. Gold rushes were defining events not only for the places where the gold was found, but for the places the miners passed through in search of gold.

“Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills”

News about the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley leaked out to the Oregon Territory (which then included present-day Washington) months before it spread around the world. In July 1848, six months after the first nuggets were dug out of the mud at Sutter’s Mill, the brig Honolulu dropped anchor in the Columbia River off Fort Vancouver. The captain tried to buy the fort’s entire stock of mining gear, under the pretext of supplying coal miners. The locals didn’t buy the story. By late fall, when East Coast newspapers began trumpeting the news, a sizeable proportion of the able-bodied men among the territory's settlers were already trying their luck in California.

The major rush began in the spring of 1849, after the mountain passes had lost enough snow to permit overland travel from the East. Tens of thousands of “Forty-niners” (also known as “Argonauts,” because they were searching for a version of the golden fleece) flooded into California. Farmers left their fields, merchants their stores, printers their presses. In Georgia, which had had its own gold rush in 1828, so many young men headed west that local mines shut down because of lack of manpower. An official of the United States mint, which operated a branch in Georgia at the time, begged the miners to stay home, saying there was “more gold than man ever dreamt of” lying undiscovered in their own hills and ridges. His words reportedly inspired the classic phrase that became associated not with Georgia but with California: “Thar’s gold in them thar hills.”

By 1852, more than 200,000 gold seekers had managed to reach California. Among them were two-thirds of the adult white males in the Oregon Territory. Most returned home without any gold. Those who stayed found that a more likely path to fortune lay in mining the pockets of the miners.

Much of the food and lumber to feed and house people in the boomtowns of California came from the future states of Oregon and Washington. Timber was both plentiful and easy to ship by sea to the growing city of San Francisco, which morphed from a sleepy fishing and farming village of 800 people in 1848 into a metropolis of 60,000 by 1860. New flour mills, sawmills, orchards, farms, and towns sprouted in the Northwest to meet the demands from the mining districts. Wheat that cost 62 cents a bushel at a mill in Oregon Territory sold for $9 a bushel in California. Apples brought $1.50 each. Ships jammed the Columbia River to take on wheat, lumber, and other goods for shipment to Californians, who could now pay handsomely for imports from the Northwest.

Conflict on the Way to Colville Gold

Those who went broke in California had many opportunities to search for gold elsewhere. There was a rush every year from 1850 to 1873 and sporadically after that into the early 1900s, with major strikes in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Alaska, and Canada, and lesser ones in Oregon and Eastern Washington.

Two disappointed miners from northern California found gold in the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon in December 1851. During the next several years, as prospectors pushed eastward across the Cascades, strikes were reported in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, on the Colville River in Northeastern Washington, and on the Fraser River in British Columbia. Boomtowns sprang up almost overnight, new roads were carved out to reach the distant sites of those strikes, and the Native American inhabitants of lands across the Northwest were shoved aside by non-Indian prospectors eager to get to the gold fields.

After the discoveries on the Colville River were made public in 1855, hundreds of miners began pouring across lands freshly reserved by treaty for the Yakama Tribe (spelled "Yakima" in the treaty) on their way to the Colville strike. Yakama Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877) had been the last of the inland tribal leaders to agree to treaties imposed by Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), the first governor of the new Washington Territory. Kamiakin resisted the treaty partly because of his concerns about the increasing number of miners who were crossing Yakama lands en route to the diggings. He signed, in June 1855, only after Stevens assured him that whites would not be allowed to trespass on reservation land.

But the flood of non-Indians across Yakama land continued unabated. Angered by reports of would-be miners who were not only trespassing but stealing horses and abusing Indian women, the Yakama retaliated by killing six miners in one incident and two more in another, along with an Indian agent who was sent to investigate the earlier attacks. The United States military responded with force in October 1855, setting off a three-year conflict that became known as the Yakima Indian War.

Indians in California and in southern Oregon, as well, tried to fight off miners invading their lands, in a familiar cycle of provocation, retribution, and retaliation. In every case, treaty rights were no match for gold fever.

Fraser River Fever, 1858

As each gold rush cooled off, individual prospectors moved on, searching for greener (or more golden) pastures. Some of them followed the upper Columbia River into Canada, where rich deposits were found in 1858 on the gravel beds of the Fraser River in British Columbia. Although modest in comparison to the California gold rush 10 years earlier, “all normal activities ceased temporarily; soldiers deserted their posts, sailors their ships, and farmers their plows, to try their luck on the golden river” (Johansen, 265).

Thousands of miners traveled to the Fraser by way of Victoria on Vancouver Island, turning what had been a provincial outpost in British Columbia into a bustling supply center. Many other miners used Seattle or Bellingham as a jumping off point. Still others traveled upriver on the Columbia from The Dalles, moving north from there through the Cowlitz, Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys. They all needed food and supplies, which several settlements jostled to supply.

News of the strike came just seven months after construction had begun on the Whatcom Trail, connecting Bellingham with the Canadian border. An estimated 10,000 miners swarmed into Bellingham Bay, expecting that the trail would be an easier and shorter route than the alternative through Canada. Among the local businesses to profit was Thomas G. Richards and Company of Whatcom (founded, ironically enough, by three San Franciscans). The company soon outgrew its wood-framed store and replaced it with a two-story brick building -- the first brick structure in Washington Territory.

In May 1858, the road builders reached the Nooksack River, near the Canadian border. Unfortunately, as far as Whatcom County merchants were concerned, even better gold fields had been found farther east. Local citizens raised money and hired an engineer to extend the Whatcom Trail to the new fields, but meanwhile, the Canadian government ordered that all prospectors in British Columbia obtain mining permits in Victoria. Thereafter, the Fraser boom bypassed Puget Sound altogether.

Meanwhile, the Fraser River brought a measure of prosperity to a small non-Indian settlement at The Dalles. In the 1840s and 1850s, emigrants traveling on the Oregon Trail ended the overland portion of their journey at The Dalles, below a set of furious rapids that the explorer William Clark (1770-1838) described as an “agitated gut” when he encountered them for the first time in 1805. Overland travelers loaded their wagons onto rafts or barges at The Dalles and floated downriver the rest of the way. The gold discoveries provided an impetus for travel on the river above The Dalles. By that point, a small portage railway had been built to carry passengers and freight around the rapids. Despite the high costs of using the portage, The Dalles became an important outfitting point for miners hoping to find “pay dirt” on the tributaries of the upper Columbia.

Biography of a Gold Digger

Like many others who fell victim to gold fever in the mid-nineteenth century, Emory C. Ferguson found little more than sand and gravel on a quest that took him from his home in Westchester County, New York, to California, Canada, and the Okanogan country in northeastern Washington.

Ferguson struck out for California in 1854, at the age of 21. After two years of fruitless prospecting, he took what was left of his stake and bought a small general store. When that failed to pan out, he sold the store, bought a steam-powered saw, and went into the lumber business.

After hearing about the Fraser River strikes in 1858, Ferguson sailed for Bellingham Bay and from there went overland on the Whatcom Trail as far as he could, and then by canoe to the diggings. When he arrived, in late autumn, snow was already covering the gravel bars on the Fraser. He returned to Puget Sound and settled in at Fort Steilacoom for the winter. When he heard about a proposed army road to connect Steilacoom with Bellingham Bay, he filed a squatter’s claim on the north bank of the Snohomish River. As historian Norman H. Clark put it, Ferguson was “confident that as the first white man there, he could win a ferry franchise, open a store, file a homestead claim, and make a good living on military traffic while a town grew around him ...” (Clark, 53).

The road did pass Ferguson’s store, but it was little more than a horse trail, and the army refused to pay the civilians who built it until a military inspector verified that wagons could actually travel on it. Ferguson helped the builders disassemble a small wagon, pack it piece by piece on horseback over the trail, and reassemble it in front of his store. They sent word to an army inspector, who traveled (by canoe) to what Ferguson was now calling Snohomish. The inspector reported that he had indeed seen a wagon that had come over the road. The army paid the contractors for their work, but shortly thereafter it abandoned both Steilacoom and Bellingham.

By August 1860, “Ferguson’s own appetite had sharply reduced his supplies, and his trade was bringing him more leisure than profit” (Clark, 55). Then he heard rumors that gold had been found in the Okanogan Valley, in the northeastern corner of Washington Territory. Reasoning that the Okanogan was just across the Cascade Mountains from his store, he decided that if he could find a pass through the mountains, he could convince miners to go to the new strike by way of the Snohomish River (and his store) instead of the Columbia. He packed most of what was left of his merchandise on four horses and, with a friend and an Indian guide, followed the Snohomish into the mountains.

“It was a terrible ordeal -- they had to cut the trail with axes -- but they did cross the summit and find a way down to the Wenatchee River,” Clark reports. “Going down was even worse than going up -- they had to swim the horses at almost every crossing -- but they finally reached the Columbia and pushed up the plain to the Kettle Falls, where the excitement seemed to center. But it was by then late autumn, and they found only a few miners, most of them profanely disconsolate” (Clark, 55).

Ferguson returned to Snohomish, where he had no valid claim to the land, no money, no merchandise, and no customers. He stuck it out, nonetheless, and eventually prospered, albeit modestly, as a bartender and saloon owner, postmaster, justice of the peace, probate judge, county commissioner and auditor, legislator, and superintendent of schools.

Gold (and Silver) in Idaho

In early 1860, an Indian trader named E. D. Pierce found “color” on a creek feeding into the Clearwater River, in what is now north central Idaho (then part of the Washington Territory). The site was well within the boundaries of a reservation set aside for the Nez Perce Indians under a treaty forced on them five years earlier by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. The discovery set an uncontrollable stampede of fortune hunters onto Nez Perce lands. Rather than enforce the treaty, federal officials negotiated a new one in 1863, reducing the reservation to one-tenth its original size. The Indians’ refusal to comply with the terms of this hated treaty contributed to the Nez Perce War of 1877, an ill-fated rebellion led by Chief Joseph (1840?-1905).

Reports of gold in the region had been circulating since the late 1850s. Captain John Mullan, overseer of the construction of the Mullan military road between Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, Montana, tried to squelch the rumors out of fear that workers with gold fever would desert him and retard progress on his road. When it was completed in 1860, the 624-mile road was scarcely more than a pack trail. Even so, it became a main artery for travel to the Idaho mining districts.

The discovery of gold in Idaho put Walla Walla on the map, at least figuratively. The town boomed with miners and people who hoped to get rich from miners: merchants, bankers, packers, freight haulers, adventurers, and what one early historian called “the usual per cent of gamblers and others of the sporting fraternity” (French, 404). By 1861, it was the largest community in Washington Territory, with some 3,500 citizens. Among its other amenities, Walla Walla boasted the territory’s third newspaper, the Washington Statesman; readers often paid for their subscriptions with gold dust.

Another major beneficiary of the Idaho gold rush was the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which combined portage railroads with a fleet of steamboats to control traffic on the Columbia River and its tributaries. The company, organized in 1860 through a merger of several smaller companies, operated a 14-mile railroad that skirted the rapids from The Dalles to beyond Celilo Falls. In 1862, it built a six-mile railroad at the Cascades of the Columbia, the final obstacle to navigation between the upper and lower river.

Boats traveling upriver carried prospectors, merchants, and gamblers on their upper decks; axes, picks, shovels, tents, food, whiskey, and other gear were stored on the lower decks. Boats heading downriver carried passengers and gold. In 1861, the company transported 10,500 passengers and 6,290 tons of freight upriver, bringing back an average of $400,000 a month in gold. The volume more than doubled the next year, after new strikes were made in the Boise Basin in southern Idaho.

It was an expensive transportation system, partly because the cargo had to be loaded and unloaded numerous times in the switch from boat to railroad and back again -- at least 10 times under the best conditions, and up to 14 times during low-water seasons. Because there was no timber near the river east of The Dalles, wood to power the steamboats had to be carried to fueling stations. As historian Dorothy Johansen pointed out, “The company followed the rate policy common to all transportation companies and charged all the traffic would bear” (281-82).

Prospectors continued to look for gold in Idaho but the next big strike involved silver. In 1885, a prospector named Noah S. Kellogg discovered an outcropping that would lead to Idaho’s mother lode: the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine -- one of the richest veins of lead and silver ore in the world.

Located in the Coeur d’Alene mining district, the Bunker Hill and its related concentrating and smelting facilities left an indelible imprint on the economy and environment of northern Idaho. It also transformed the nearby community of Spokane Falls, Washington, (which shortened its name to Spokane in 1891). Spokane became a strategic transportation and financial hub for Bunker Hill and other mines in the Coeur d’Alenes. The town boomed as a result, its population tripling from fewer than 10,000 in 1890 to more than 36,000 in 1900 to nearly 105,000 by 1910.

The Bunker Hill complex closed in 1981, but the site remains one of the most polluted areas in the country. Despite years of cleanup efforts coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency, heavy metals deposited during a century of mining and smelting continue to leach into the Coeur d’Alene drainage area. Among the affected waterways is the Spokane River. As a result of contamination from heavy metals, sewage, and agricultural runoff, the Spokane is now listed as the sixth most endangered river in the U.S.

Klondike Gold Rush, 1897

The last great gold rush in North America was sparked in August 1896 when three prospectors exploring the vast Yukon River drainage in western Canada stopped to rest beside Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. As they dipped their canteens in the water, they saw specks of shimmering gold, "caught between the rocks like cheese in a sandwich," they said (National Parks).

The news spread quickly in the Yukon Territory. The town of Dawson sprouted almost overnight at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. One year later -- on July 17, 1897 -- the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle with 68 lucky miners and two tons of nuggets and gold dust.

More than 100,000 people headed for the Klondike gold fields during the next two years. Seattle was the embarkation point for nearly two-thirds of them. They paid dearly for transportation, subsistence, and supplies. It cost an estimated $1,000 to get to the Yukon with the proper equipment. During the first month of the rush, merchants in Seattle sold more than $325,000 worth of goods to miners headed north. Every available steamship was pressed into service to transport miners and their gear to Skagway, Alaska, where the trail to the diggings left the coast and turned inland. The Moran Brothers shipyard in Seattle hurriedly built 12 river boats for the Yukon trade. Anticipating a continuing bonanza, the Northern Pacific Railroad spent $1 million improving its facilities on Puget Sound.

The U.S. Assay Office in Seattle received an estimated $18 million worth of gold from the Klondike districts by the end of 1900. Such an infusion of wealth stimulated businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest. Some of Seattle’s most venerable businessmen got their start during the Klondike gold rush, including John Nordstrom (1871-1963), who used money from a disputed claim to open a shoe store; George H. Bartell (1868-1956), whose drug store flourished during the boom; and Joshua Green (1869-1975), who made his first fortune transporting miners and their gear to Alaska.

The rush also gave Seattle needed capital for the development of roads, water and sewer systems, and other civic necessities. Steel and lumber industries flourished, fed by a demand for more buildings. Seattle's ports became hubs for shipbuilding and international trade. Newspapers touted Seattle's virtues and helped draw more newcomers to the Northwest. In these and other ways, gold provided the bedrock for an era of prosperity that lasted well into the twentieth century.


Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest (NY: Harper & Row, 1967); Carlos A. Schwantes, Columbia River: Gateway to the West (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 2000); Jim Attwell, Columbia River Gorge History (Skamania: Tahlkie Books, 1974); Hiram T. French, History of Idaho: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People and Its Principle Interests (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1914); Katurah Mackay, “All That Glitters,” National Parks, July 1, 1999, p. 39; James Brooke, “Less to Celebrate at This Gold Rush Anniversary,” The New York Times, March 22, 1998, p. 1.
Note: This essay was revised on April 18, 2017.

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