Cariboo Gold Fields

John Jessop - Overlander ~ Adventurer

John Jessop was heading west, submitting to his spring restlessness and the scent of adventure in the wildly circulating reports of the “golden sands and almost fabulous wealth on the banks of the Fraser River.” He was 29 years old and for the past four years had taught school in Whitby, Canada West. It was time for a change. If there was no gold out there, there would be something else. And so, as he later wrote in newspaper accounts, “In the early spring of 1859 an adventurer passed over the partly ballasted Northern Railroad from Toronto to Collingwood, with knapsack, Bowie knife and revolver, and took passage on board a small iron steamer called the Rescue, on her first trip to the head of Lake Superior.”

The late 1850s were turbulent times for the colonies destined to become Canada. Newspapers wrote of the west, the fur trade areas of Rupert’s land and the new west coast colonies of Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia. When gold was found on the Fraser River in 1858, British Columbia became more than a fur empire. Merchants, politicians and American and British expansionists alike saw the need and desirability of a route linking this rich area with the populated eastern townships. There was talk of a confederation of settlements and colonies. The Pacific outposts suddenly had importance, and to those willing to make the journey and the sacrifices they offered a new life.To a young school teacher the lure was irresistible. John Jessop headed west.

John Jessop was born in Norwich, England, June 29, 1829, and emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1846. They immigrated as ballast, crammed into the holds of timber ships that would otherwise return empty. For the first few years young Jessop worked at lumbering, printing and journalism. In 1853 he enrolled in Ryerson’s new Normal School in Toronto, graduating in 1855 with a First Class Certificate. He then taught school in Whitby for four years.

Resigning his position in 1859, Jessop joined the several hundred men who, over the next few years, crossed Canada by land to British Columbia. These men shunned the long, expensive sea voyage and headed west directly, earning the name “Overlander”. British Imperialist Jessop went them one better. He tackled the route of fur brigades and solitary plainsmen across the Canadian Shield and the southern plains, avoiding the easier route through St. Paul, Minnesota, to Fort Garry. Jessop chose “…a route on British soil, between the eastern and western colonies of the empire.”

Jessop’s land journey began prematurely when he and his six companions had to disembark the Rescue on the ice of Lake Superior some distance offshore at Fort William. They purchased provisions for a five-week journey and a North canoe, hired a half-breed guide and an Indian steersman—and then waited three weeks for the ice to break up.

From Fort William they took the Kam-Dog Route over the formidable Hauteur de Terre, the Height of Land, from where streams flowed west into the frontier. Their route, plagued by clouds of black flies and mosquitoes, took them through the heart of what is now Quetico Provincial Park. Midway, provisions ran out and Jessop realized their planning had been optimistic. Then on one of the many fatiguing portages, they found a sack of peas dropped by the fur brigade. “Pea soup,” Jessop noted, “was a cuisine that can hardly be recommended as a permanency.”

The fur posts of the Shield were also short of provisions, so short, in fact, they were unable to feed the transients. So with only a few fish from an Indian band they paddled on empty stomachs down Rainy River through the intricate Lake of the Woods course into the rapid-filled Winnipeg River. They reached Fort Garry on June 13, after two months of travel, paddling for 28 days, over 49 portages, accompanied by a hunger approaching starvation. Their adventure had just begun.

At this same time “The Fraser River Gold Hunting and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition” was underway from St. Paul, Minnesota. The expedition’s name suggests its diversity of interests. Under the leadership of Colonel William Nobles its purpose was to locate a route west benefiting the expansionist minded merchants of Minnesota. Their route was to be north through Fort Garry and west onto the plains.
Jessop heard rumors of the Nobles group and planned to join them for protection against Indian attacks, but at Fort Garry his party found that the “…Fraser River seemed infinitely further off than at the mouth of the Kaministikwia.” The intimidating expanse of the plains frightened off all but Elijah Duff, a 36-year-old ex British Army officer of Belleville, and John Jessop. When six weeks passed with no sign of Nobles, Jessop and Duff grew impatient. Disregarding trouble with the Sioux and ignoring “…the foolhardiness of this undertaking…” they purchased a well-used Indian pony and a Red River cart and headed west, without a guide, on July 23.

Nobles was indeed late. Plagued with breakdowns, poor planning and weak leadership the expedition fractured into four groups, each choosing a different route. “Turn-back” Nobles returned to St. Paul. This left 20 men spread over thousands of miles of prairie, each trying to find the easiest and fastest route west.

North of the 49th parallel the choice of land routes was limited to two. The newly-born Carlton Trail swung through the Northern Parkland, linking Forts Garry, Ellice, Carlton and Edmonton.was a long route, and the HBC forts offered few provisions, but it was well traveled and relatively safe.

The alternative was a southern route along the South Saskatchewan and Belly rivers through buffalo country freq- uented by nomadic Sioux and unpredictable Blackfeet. This was shorter, with buffalo for ready meat, but it was unmarked, untraveled and dangerous.

At Fort Ellice, 240 miles west of Fort Garry, Jessop and Duff met and joined a Nobles expedition splinter group, the Moulton or Bovine party, who in heading for Fort Union on the Missouri River had swung too far north around the Missouri Couteau. The eight men decided on the southern route.

Marching west at 15 to 30 miles a day, they wandered through vast herds of buffalo. “Not a clear day passed without seeing from ten or a dozen to as many thousands or more of these noble animals,” Jessop wrote. They walked through a time and wilderness that was never again to be seen. It was an enviable era for adventurers. There was beauty, and there was grandeur, yet often these were lost in the struggle of the moment. Their Sharps rifles provided them with tender heifers, and there were ducks from the potholes, prairie chickens from the grasslands, deer, badger, foxes, an occasional bear and the “vicious looking prairie wolves.”

Jessop wrote, “On one occasion two buffaloes were killed about half a mile from camp in…the evening and left with the intention of taking what was needed of them next morning. The dead animals, however, brought hundreds of those prairie scavengers from all points…and the pandemonium thus created can scarcely be imagined. At daylight not an ounce of flesh was to be found, while thoroughly picked bones were scattered over an acre or two of ground.”

The consistent meat diet brought on sore gums and lymph glands, the early symptoms of scurvy. Water was scarce and often too alkaline to drink. Rainwater was important for drinking, yet soaked the buffalo chips that provided fuel on the treeless plains. The grass was parched, and huge sweeping fires, often started by natives to drive buffalo or hamper white parties, had scoured vast areas. The horses weakened and died.

Past the Qu’Appelle & Saskatchewan rivers the party lost track of where they were. Was the river they followed the Bow or the Belly? How far to the mountains? Would the remaining stock last? Jessop felt a growing urgency to be further along.

On September 15, six weeks out of Fort Ellice with the cold winds of autumn sweeping in, they finally sighted the Rockies. It was a view to last a lifetime. Though they appeared close enough to touch, it took 10 days of wading through numbing streams and crossing hindering ravines to reach the foothills. Now the impenetrable wall of rock loomed above them.

Somehow they had expected the pass to be more accessible. But there were no trails or signposts, just the grass behind and the mountains in front. The gold seekers were looking for a way to survive.

They spread out to search for a trail, and one man swam the river they were camped beside and headed for the mountains. Suddenly he was surprised by mounted Blackfeet. Quickly summarizing his party’s position—three horses left and winter setting in—he decided not to fight or elude them. Fortunately so, for these Blackfeet were in a friendly mood and offered help.

“This cavalcade of tattered and dilapidated whites, and well-dressed and splendidly mounted and stalwart Blackfeet,” rode to a larger camp of 14 to 15 lodges. In this camp was a Kutenai Indian returning to the Tobacco Plains west of the mountains. For a gift of blankets, clothing, a rifle, ammunition and tobacco he agreed to act as guide. During the night Jessop’s horses disappeared. After several hours of searching a reward was offered, and in short order several young braves rode the “lost” horses into camp. Pack saddles were made from the abandoned carts, and the westward procession continued, the easterners fully aware that this chance meeting had likely saved them from starvation.

They followed the Waterton River into what is now Waterton National Park, where the mountain freshness, green grass and sparkling water gave their dejected spirits a lift. Their new-found exuberance was spiced with the relief of having a guide and knowing their location for the first time in months.

On October 2 they zigzagged up Blakiston Creek beneath cloud-covered peaks and crossed the South Kootenay Pass in falling snow to reach a westward flowing river. In six days they left the Rockies and arrived at several crude cabins with the presumptuous title of Fort Kootenay, just south of the U.S.-Canada border on the Kootenay River. HBC trader John Linklater greeted them warmly, explaining that they were only the second party to pass through in his six winters at the fort. The season was too late for a direct route to the Fraser, he told them, so they would have to head south into the Washington Territories. He had few provisions but could trade them some grizzly meat and berries. By October 15, after a few days’ rest, they were on their way.

Progress was steady now. At the Pend Oreille River half the party headed north to Fort Shepard in British Columbia while Jessop, Duff and two others continued south and west toward the Colville Valley. Food ran out again, but a handful of dried salmon skins at an Indian camp saw them through to the end of their journey. Jessop arrived at a settler’s house, “…more dead than alive; but a hearty meal of newly baked bread and rashers of bacon soon resuscitated me.”

There was a pack train leaving Fort Colville for B.C. the next day so John hustled the 20 miles north, reaching the town in such a state that he was comic relief for the troops. His hat was just a rim, his boots tattered moccasins; his pants had no legs below the knees and not much above; and his shirt had no sleeves. His jacket was traded long ago for food so the whole outfit was covered with a Scotch plaid. It was November 5, Guy Fawkes Day. John Jessop had arrived in the frontier west.

The weather turned too severe for the pack train and the Columbia River froze, so while Elijah Duff got a job splitting shakes for $60 a month plus room and board—not exactly the El Dorado—indefatigable Jessop struck south 250 miles to Walla Walla, then on to Fort Vancouver and finally, on New Year’s Day, 1860, reached Victoria on Vancouver Island. In eight months he had traveled over 3000 miles, though not all on British soil as he had hoped. He was a tempered man now, one of singular mettle, unique; an Overlander. The grandest adventure of his life was over, but there were many challenges to come.

Duff joined the American-British Boundary Commission that winter and the following sumer worked as a transit man. In the spring of 1861 he was joined by is two brothers R.H. and Thomas Duff and began running pack trains while mining at Pierce City. Duff settled in Washington State.

Jessop reached the goldfields of the Cariboo the next spring, but like many others he retreated in debt. Journalism kept him in bed and board for a time while he helped found the Times in New Westminster and the Press in Victoria, but both had financial difficulty and had to be sold. By 1861 he was ready to become a teacher again. Like everything he tackled he was determined.

When the free school system was introduced on Vancouver Island in 1864, Jessop was appointed principal of Victoria schools. As such he was instrumental in framing the first Education Act of B.C. In March of 1868 he married Margaret Fausette who arrived in Victoria on the brideship Tynemouth., and together they took an active part in the Methodist Church. In 1872 he became the first Superintendent of Schools for the province, where his early adventures served him well in the requirement to visit each school yearly. He was effective and popular in this appointment. Perhaps he was too trusting, for in 1878 he was forced to resign, a victim of a change in government. For a couple of years Jessop returned to newspaper with the Colonist, until 1883 when the winds of political fortune blew his way again and he was appointed Provincial Immigration Agent.

In March 1901 John Jessop, adventurer and teacher, was walking up Government Street from his office when he suffered a massive heart attack. He died on the street, and it’s likely he would have preferred that, dying on the trail as it were, with his boots on. It was fitting for a trailblazer, an Overlander.

... from “This Hard Land” by Richard Thomas Wright. Further information on the journeys of Overlanders will be found in Overlanders, Richard Thomas Wright, Winter Quarters Press, Williams Lake, 2001


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