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  • McGowan's War: The Birth of Modern British Columbia on the Fraser River Gold Fields
  • John Lutz
McGowan's War: The Birth of Modern British Columbia on the Fraser River Gold Fields. Donald J. Hauka. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2004. Pp. 256, illus., $24

This history of knavery, intrigue, filibustering, and war in colonial British Columbia is more proof that Canadian history is not boring. It has some flaws in contextualizing the events in question, but when it focuses on the interwoven lives leading to 'McGowan's War,' it is well researched and a page-turner.

Donald Hauka is the first to write about these events in detail, but not the first to apply the misnomer of 'war' to these events. 'McGowan's War,' boiled down, was a clash between magistrates in the Fraser Canyon goldfields in 1858 and January 1859. Behind the clash, and the dispatch of a party of British soldiers and sailors to restore order, lurks murkier and larger questions of American filibustering and vigilantism, transplanted from the Sodom of 1850s San Francisco, and the ability of Britain to keep British Columbia British.

What makes the book is the building to the titular events. With short biographical sketches, Hauka brings each of the players to the short stretch of the constricted Fraser Canyon near Yale, and it is a cast of knaves and heroes worthy of a Shakespeare, or given that it is more about battle by bureaucracy, perhaps a Tolstoy.

Ned McGowan, a charismatic ne'er-do-well who briefly served as a judge in San Francisco's turbulent period of vigilante rule, was usually on the wrong side of the law. The Fraser Canyon in 1858, like San Francisco, lacked an entrenched system of law. McGowan used his silver tongue, charming personality, and his 'law and order' clique from San Francisco to bring one of the magistrates appointed by James Douglas into his orbit. When the magistrate in the adjoining settlement of Yale aligned [End Page 699] with the rival 'Vigilance Committee,' the stage was set for one magistrate to jail the other. More interesting, James Douglas, the governor of the adjacent colony of Vancouver Island, had no legal authority to appoint these magistrates. In the midst of all this, the colony of British Columbia was created (19 November 1859) and the newly minted Lieutenant Governor Richard Moody and Chief Justice Matthew Begbie were dispatched with a military escort to sort out this tempest. Hauka argues that if the slightest hitch had developed, it would have prompted an American annexation.

There is a war in this book, but not McGowan's. Hauka devotes a chapter to the Fraser River War, which set the stage for the main event. This arguably was a war in which paramilitary armies of goldminers organized themselves into a campaign to drive out or force a peace with the Aboriginal people of the Fraser Canyon. Hundreds of 'warriors' were involved on each side, many Aboriginal villages were destroyed, and dozens, perhaps more, killed on each side. Hauka is the first to write about this outside of theses and a journal article, and this alone is a compelling story that needs to be told. The expansion of Canada included few 'Indian wars,' but this was one of them, conducted largely by Americans in the decade between the setting of the forty-ninth parallel as the boundary with the United States and the creation of a British colony.

The weakness of Hauka's book is the larger context in which he sets the story, and this seems largely the result of reliance on other popular or dated historical sources. For example, he relies on Peter C. Newman's swashbuckling story of the Hudson's Bay Company in bc as an authority instead of Richard Mackie's scholarly 1997 Trading Beyond the Mountains, and so gets himself in a muddle claiming that Douglas, head of the hbc, wanted to discourage settlers to preserve the hbc's lucrative monopoly while at the same time suggesting Douglas deliberately set off the Fraser River Gold Rush to increase the value of his own and hbc holdings in Victoria. Both are doubtful propositions. He relies on...


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pp. 699-700
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