Findlay Creek, Glacier, Mount Findlay
Other names: ?Akakus1
“I have just traded $100s worth of the gold round here by the Finley’s, who took out $500 since we came up (August or September early). There are not any whites up here yet, but parties have already commenced preparing ferries on the rivers to the Kootenais in expectation of a rush next season. The gold is coarse and looks well.”7
I’ve been putting off writing a post about Findlay Creek because (1) every time I come across origin stories about the Finlay family I get confused, and (2) every time I read about the origins of the Wild Horse gold rush I get confused. Time to end the confusion! (Or at least separate the confusion from what we simply don’t know) This post is something of a two parter – this week’s post on Findlay Creek and next week’s post on Toby Creek tie in together.
This Name is Spelled Incorrectly
Findlay Creek isn’t named after a single person so much as a family, and even then the family name is “Finlay” and not (ever) “Findlay”. The Finlay patriarch was Jacques Raphael (Jaco) Finlay, born 1768 in present-day Saskatchewan (then part of Rupert’s Land). Jaco’s father, James, worked in the fur trade for the North West Company, and Jaco followed his lead by becoming a clerk for the company. His mother was of the Chippewa tribe. It was Jaco who, with his wife and children, travelled over Howse’s Pass and down the Blaeberry River into the Columbia River Valley in 1806, blazing a trail in advance of David Thompson’s venture into the area in 1807.2
Jaco passed away at Spokane House in 1828, and many of his descendants lived in Washington including the Colville Valley. The exact number of children Jaco had is unclear. It was a large family, but sources differ quite significantly as to their names and birth dates, so without further information I’m not comfortable stating anything definitively.3
What the sources do seem to agree upon is that, in 1863, some of Jaco Finlay’s descendants took gold out of what became Findlay Creek. I have read that it was one of Jaco’s sons,4 or perhaps three of them,5 although I have not yet found a source that uses exact names. I lean towards it being more than one of the Finlay family, and I still hope to find a trustworthy source in terms of who they were.
Taking gold out of Findlay Creek in the quantities that the Finlay brothers did is often credited as instigating the start of the Wild Horse Gold Rush. If it seems confusing that gold discovered in Findlay Creek was supposed to have started a gold rush near what is now Fort Steele, that detail may be the most straightforward part of the whole story.
The Start of the Gold Rush
Let’s begin with the widely accepted story, which emerged years later, summarizing the start of the Wild Horse gold rush:
As we’ll soon see, this story is a bit simplistic overall, but I was able to confirm parts of it. On 7 October 1863, Mr Linklater, then in charge of the Hudson Bay Company’s post on Tobacco Plains (in the Kootenay River Valley close to the Canada/American border) wrote a letter to Mr Margary of Bannock City, Idaho, reading:
This note, published in the Boise News at the beginning of January 1864, is the only mention I was able to find of the Finlay discovery by name, so if news of their discovery “spread like wildfire” it certainly did not do so in print. Furthermore, it is significant that Mr Linklater does not appear altogether surprised that gold had been found (referring to it as “the gold round here”). This runs contrary to the idea that the Finlay discovery was unexpected and set off the rush single handed. If the story of the Finlay discovery of gold was neither as unexpected nor as widespread in print as stories of the Wild Horse Rush would have us believe, then what exactly was going on?
Gold in the Kootenays
Even before 1863, rumours about gold in the Kootenay area were relatively widespread in the American Territories. Those who had passed through the upper Columbia area, including James Sinclair in 1854, remarked that the geography looked very similar to California, while careful observers noted that “the Indians have, from time to time … brought into Colville specimens of coarse gold which they stated came from there.”8 Later reports also note that the British Boundary Commission (1858 to 1862) had brought gold quartz specimens to Fort Colville from the head of the Kootenay River.9
By the summer of 1863 there were murmurings in Colville that, “the Hudson Bay people know all about it [the gold], as they have dispatched several parties in light canoes to the scene of the reported discovery.”10 If true, this rumour would explain why Mr Linklater, being in charge of the closest Hudson Bay Company’s post to the area, did not seem particularly surprised about the appearance of gold.
Still, reports of new gold strikes were a regular occurrence in the American territories at this time, so there was a lot of scepticism that these particular rumours were true. If there were gold in the Kootenays, confirmation was needed.
In August 1863, a few months before the Finlays sold their gold, a group of Fort Colville prospectors set out to put the gold rumours to rest once and for all. They travelled to the headwaters of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers to “[confirm]… news of the rich discoveries.”11 By October, newspapers printed a report from Wells Fargo & Co, “that gold from the Kootenai mines has been brought down here [to Walla Walla] in considerable quantities,”12 and one of the men on this prospecting trip, Dr Toby, reported that the Fort Colville group, “had found very rich prospects.”13 (More on this in next week’s post on Toby Creek)
Evidence for gold was mounting. In November the same newspaper stated that, “several Frenchmen and Half-breeds, just from the Kootenay country, [said] they had a ‘good thing out there, but did not intend making it public until they had secured their claims.’”14 The identity of these prospectors is unclear. By the beginning of December, word got out that a group of Fort Colville prospectors, “regard[ed] the existence of rich gold mines on the Kootenay river as a fixed fact,” and were making plans to leave the following spring to look for gold.15
Amid all of this gold excitement, it is hard to say what the impact was of the Finlay’s sale of gold. Although the Finlays sold their gold at the beginning of October, the first and only printed record that I was able to find about their discovery of gold was not printed until the beginning of January 1864,7 and then only as a small note in one newspaper in Idaho. For those keeping track, this was after the Fort Colville prospectors had announced they were going to the Kootenay river that spring.
That being said, it is reasonable to assume that word of the Finlays sale of gold might have spread through word of mouth – perhaps the gold reported sold from Kootenai came from them. If this were the case, it is difficult to determine how much influence this news had or the extent to which the Finlays sale of gold was attributed to the Finlays by name at the time. Regardless, their discovery certainly did not start the rumours of gold or the rush to go find it: that momentum was already well underway.
In March 1864 groups began to leave for the Kootenay area, not just from Colville, but also from Walla Walla and Hell Gate.16 There were groups en route from the Fraser River, talk of a pack train coming from the Cariboo, and expectations of friends from California coming north to join the rush.17 These miners were nearly all Americans: word about the gold was slow to spread in British Columbia.
The story that later emerged about how this rush began greatly simplifies the confusion of these early weeks and months. As various groups left to go north to the “Kootenay country”, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to where exactly they were rushing to. Some of the most specific instructions printed in the newspapers pointed prospectors to, “the west side of the Kootenai and south fork of the Columbia river.”18 Even later descriptions only went so far as to describe the “Kootenay Gold Fields” as stretching north from Joseph’s Prairie (Cranbrook) to the area around the headwaters of the Columbia River.19 Neither of these descriptions are very specific in determining which creek actually had gold, in part because so few people had trustworthy information.
Some prospectors had more specific information. The first prospectors to announce that they were heading out, those from Fort Colville, would have had directions provided by the Fort Colville prospectors from the previous summer, including Dr Toby. Meanwhile an English surveyor named James Manning, who happened to be at Mr Linklater’s HBC fort when the Finlays sold their gold back in October, had immediately gone north to spend the winter close to what he now knew was a gold bearing creek – what would become Findlay Creek.20
What becomes clear from all of this confusion is that the memories of those later “Kootenay pioneers” greatly simplify the situation on the ground. Recall that the consensus in later years was that the Finlays were the first to discover gold in the Kootenay area and that this discovery set off the gold rush. This was clearly not the case.
In fact, there is so little mention found of the Finlays by name in the early stages of the rush that most of the prospectors likely left the territories without any specific knowledge of the Finlay strike. They would have learned of the Finlay strike only after arriving in the Kootenays, and that because a creek became named after them. In other words the Finlay’s sale of gold, which in autumn 1863 was just one more rumour about there being gold somewhere in the Kootenays, became much more important in hindsight.
The Rush Arrives
As prospectors began to arrive in the Kootenay region in early 1864, they found the creeks near the headwaters of the Columbia River to still be frozen and blocked with snow. Some prospectors, rather than wait up north for these creeks to open up, returned to camp along the Kootenay River closer to Joseph’s Prairie. There, sometime in March 1864, they started to prospect what became Wild Horse Creek. Those bored (and lucky) prospectors, along with those who happened to be camping nearby, had the good fortune to be the first to stake claims on what quickly became the centre of the gold rush.21
By June 1864 attention in the Kootenay gold fields focused primarily on Wild Horse and [the then named] Findlay Creek, however, as Findlay Creek remained frozen, attention focused on Wild Horse.22 Even on Wild Horse Creek the initial rush did not last long. Access to the creek bottom was quickly halted when the snow began to melt and the creek level rose.23 Even going into August the “gold rush” in the Kootenays was mostly a bunch of hopeful miners waiting around and trying to decide which one of the creeks they should hedge their bets on.24 A townsite was built at Wild Horse Creek, and many waited there.
Gold on Findlay Creek
With the early ice and snow on Findlay Creek, followed by run-off, no significant prospecting work was actually completed on the creek in 1864. In August there were just fifteen men living on Finlay’s Creek,25 most being distracted by the success down at Wild Horse or the possibility of finds on other, more accessible, creeks.
This haphazard nature of that first year prospecting Findlay Creek was followed by sporadic attention in subsequent years. There were “good prospects” reported in the summer of 1866,26 and claims on the creek in the following year (1867) were reported to have, “paid well this season,”27 with “rich diggings.”28 This seemed not to last past that year.
Another rush to Findlay Creek occurred about two decades later, in spring 1885, when “a great many of the Chinese, hitherto engaged in mining on Wild Horse Creek, decamped to Findlay Creek.”29 The excitement was caused again by promising prospects found on the creek, but the result was deemed an “utter failure.” The Chinese miners who flocked to the area, “erected substantial buildings, intended for permanent occupation, and busied themselves in sawing lumber and getting out timbers for wing-dams and machinery, etc., at a considerable amount of expense and labour. … Among other unfavorable results, the Chinamen who placed their faith in Findlay Creek were reduced to beggary, in many cases being without the barest necessaries of existence, or the means of paying for the supplies they had procured during the season.”29
In reporting on the failure of the 1885 rush, then gold commissioner A.W. Vowell concluded that Findlay Creek was not a promising location for the individual miner. As gold is very heavy it tends to accumulate in the largest quantities down alongside the bedrock. On Findlay Creek getting down to the bedrock proved to be next to impossible for the average miner, although Vowell speculated that a more extensive mining operation with greater capital for development might have more luck.
A couple of investors must have taken note of Vowell’s suggestion, as in the spring of 1886 a private members bill was put before the BC Legislature to grant a twenty-five year lease to the Findlay Creek Hydraulic Mining Company for eight miles of Findlay Creek.30 The idea was to use hydraulic mining on the creek, a more intensive form of mining than placer mining. The bill was passed with a requirement for the company to pay an annual lease for the land, and included a clause “to prevent Chinese obtaining any interest in the lease.”31 A great deal of development work was done on the venture, and machinery brought in, but it was not ultimately successful.
A Creek is Named
Regardless of whether miners heading north in 1864 knew about the Finlays success on the creek when they left home, they certainly learned about it in short order. The name “Finlay Creek” first appears in the sources I examined in May 1864.32 The first appearance I found of the incorrectly spelled “Findlay Creek” was in August of that same year, so confusion about the correct spelling of the name is certainly not new.33
The “correct” spelling of the creek has caused a great deal of confusion over the years. In the early years after it was named, the most common form in print was either “Finlay” or “Finley” Creek. The first mention of the creek made in the Report to the Minister of Mines in 1878 used the correct spelling of “Finlay Creek.”34
The trend shifted after Gilbert Malcolm Sproat used the spelling of “Findlay Creek” in his 1884 instructions for an official report of the Kootenay area.35 This report was the first such comprehensive report made about the region, particularly the Windermere Valley, and would have been referred to frequently in subsequent years. Whether due to this report specifically or some other source, after 1884 government issued documents about Findlay Creek tend to use the spelling “Findlay.”
Curiously, there used to be a different “Findlay Creek” in British Columbia. A major tributary of the Peace River up north was referred to frequently as “Findlay” (Creek or River), including in official government reports, from the 1870s onward.36 This “Findlay Creek” was named after Jaco’s father, James, but this then-common spelling of “Findlay” did not stick. The northern Findlay Creek became Finlay River, officially adopted in 1929.37
The Finlay’s discovery of gold on the creek that became named after them was, if not as central to the start of the gold rush as previously assumed, certainly important to the way the Wild Horse Rush has been remembered and written about. Even as the story about gold on Toby Creek came to be pushed aside in the narrative (we’ll get to this next week), the Finlays remained central. This despite a general lack of evidence that their discovery was as influential as the stories suggest.
That being said, it is interesting how memory works. In hindsight, as prospectors were asked to explain how the gold rush started, it is likely that even they could not recall the confusing details about the months leading up to the rush north. Prospectors from different cities across the territories came north based on a disorganized mass of rumour and evidence that there was gold somewhere in the Kootenay country. Each group, let alone each individual, would have relied upon a different set of information, and that information would have been constantly changing as individuals and groups interacted with each other.
In attempts to reconcile this chaos into a coherent narrative, the Finlay’s “discovery” of gold would have been a welcome anchor. With the benefit of hindsight, their discovery was important – after all, a creek was named after them – and as their discovery happened at some point before most prospectors arrived in the Kootenay area, it made sense to frame it as the strike that started it all. The rush had to have begun for a good reason, even if no one could have pointed to a single reason at the time, and the story of the Finlay’s gold fit the narrative. Whether prospectors actually learned about this discovery before or after they left home became blurred and unimportant.
It would be nice to know more about the members of the Finlay family involved in the gold strike, but from the resources I’ve been able to access the information has been difficult to disentangle. Even in sources from the time that refer directly to the actions of the brothers, they are referred to only as “the Finlay boys”, as if further description or differentiation between individuals is unnecessary.38 It is noteworthy that in all of these stories about the start of the Kootenay gold rush, not one includes the perspective of the Finlays themselves, and that would certainly be a welcome addition to the history!