Pioneering A Story by Nicholas V. Sheffer (1825-1910), Part 3: Gold Rush

  • Posted 10/19/2006
  • Essay 7977

In 1909, Nicholas Sheffer (1825-1910) was Whatcom County's oldest pioneer. He prepared his reminiscences for The Lynden Tribune, which ran them in three parts in August of that year as "A Story of Pioneering: Being a Personal Narrative of Early Days in Northwest Washington, told to the Tribune by N. V. Sheffer, of 1854." was made aware of this account by Whatcom County family historian Susan Nahas, who connected Sheffer's information with the story of Julia Benson Intermela (1855-1907) the half-Duwamish daughter of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892). In Part 3, Sheffer settles his family in Whatcom County near Lynden, but is quickly drawn to look for gold in Canada. (Note: In this transcription Sheffer's original spelling is retained.)

A Story of Pioneering: Part 3

I was now ready to go to Whatcom which I decided to make my future home, but as the mail boat was about due, I decided to wait for news from the family. My news came in a lump. Instead of the letters I was expecting, my wife and family all arrived.

There was another jollyfication and a lot of visit all around and then I took the folks for a visit with some of my friends on Whidbey Island. While I was waiting around Port Townsend I got acquainted with some Army officers who were preparing to build a fort near the post.

My wife had brought so much furniture up from California that I could not move it all in the canoes, and as there was no other way I had to get some of it stored. I then hired one Indian to help me with my canoe and Indians to take another canoe load and we moved to Whatcom.

Mr. Fitzhugh gave me the privilege of building near the mine and also gave me some assistance. It did not take long to get a home enclosed so we could live in it, for I worked almost night and day. After we moved in I kept on working making it warm and comfortable.

One day there was a ship came to anchor in the bay, and some of the men I noticed wore Uncle Sam's uniform. The superintendent went down to meet them and was taking them to his headquarters by a path that led by my cabin.

I was at my bench and I recognized Major Haller [probably Granville O. Haller] who stopped to speak to me. He remarked that I was doing my own carpenter work.

"That is my trade, and I don't know anything else," I told him. He replied:

"How would you like to go back to Port Townsend and work on the Government fort? You would receive $4.50 a day and rations."

I asked him how long he was going to remain in Whatcom, but he did not know and so I told him I would think it over and let him have my answer that evening. I talked the matter over with the superintendent of mines. He advised me he couldn't pay those wages and that it would be best to accept them for the wages and rations were equal to $5 a day. The next morning I told the major that I would go back with him if he would get my goods down to the ship. I left my furniture with Fitzhugh only taking my stove, dishes, and bedding and such wearing apparel as we would need. I also had to leave my canoe which was like leaving an old friend.

We were two days and two nights making the trip, but everything was very comfortable on the ship. We landed at the fort that was to be, and I was soon at my new work. The quartermaster was Lieutenant R. N. Scott. He was a young man of very good qualities, but if Maj. Haller had any good streaks about his make up they didn't show themselves very often. He and I got along alright but we never said anything to one another. When we met we would pass with only a military salute.

After we settled to work the lieutenant came to my quarters and told my wife that he wished her to wash a few handkerchiefs for him, so that he could enroll her name as company "laundress." She could then draw rations. My wife agreed to it and after that we drew rations together. As the Quartermaster Sergeant was a nice Scotch laddie we got all that was or ought to be coming to us.

I stayed with that job until June '58 at the time of the Fraser River excitement had taken all the citizen mechanics from the fort, and Bellingham was booming. I likewise got the fever and quit my job and brought my family back to Whatcom. We found my house occupied but Mr. Fitzhugh soon cleared it for me, as it was some of his men.

Mr. Roeder was building a trail through to Thompson River which was reported to be the greatest gold field ever discovered in the world. The trail ran west from Whatcom to Ten Mile, and crossed the Nooksack just below where Everson now is. From there was straight to the Chilliwack River, up that river to the divide.

A man named Lacy or DeLacy was responsible for the information that such a route was feasible. He was a sort of a civil engineer, and said it was practicable for a good wagon road and that the grade was easy through to Thompson River. Backed by Henry Roeder he was supposed to be cutting a preliminary trail.

People were arriving daily in the town of Whatcom by the hundreds from all along the coast, California contributing the largest number.

Hundreds of useless and unnecessary things were shipped in by the tenderfeet. There were stages, Concord coaches, omnibuses, and horses to stock a stage line from here to Thompson River. As it had been reported and advertised that Whatcom was the only feasible starting place men came prepared to accommodate and others to bunco. Men were camped all along the beach from the mouth of Squalicum Creek nearly to Chuck-a-nut Bay. Their number was variously estimated from 8,000 to 10,000. For debauchery and immorality I don't believe it was ever equaled on the American continent, if in the world.

There were as many Indians as whites and the Indians readily mixed with the whites in their debauches. Many saloons and eating places all selling liquors sprang into existence and Indians were as good customers as whites. The heaviest blow the Siwashes [derogatory term for Indians] of Puget Sound ever had was that gold rush to Whatcom. Debauchery and disease fastened themselves upon the tribe, and from that time until this, the tribe has dwindled until it is nearly extinct.

Day by day the crowds in Bellingham grew larger. The trail was not completed, but reports were that it soon would be, consequently none were leaving and the number went on increasing.

Myself and two others concluded to try and make it through on foot and wait no longer for the trail. Taking all we could pack on our backs we started out on the trail. We found quite a number had preceded us, and were camped at various places along the route. At Chilliwack River we found the largest encampment, the most of whom declared there was no trail further up the river. I was not to be balked. I was going on until I found the men working on the trail.

One of my companions went with me. The other refused to go any further, but agreed to stay where he was and guard our things until he heard from us. We took provisions for two days only. After a very few miles we found no signs of a trail or of any work being done. We did find a sort of blind Indian trail that we followed until we came to the lake from which the river flowed. I could not tell the length or breadth of the lake, but it was quite a body of water with insurmountable cliffs of rocks on all sides. There was no trail nor was there any possibility of making one, and much less of making a wagon road.

Not until then did it begin to be clear to me that the great mass of people gathered at Whatcom, as well as myself had been buncoed. After spending one night and part of two days trying to scale the cliffs we gave it up and took the backward trail.

When we got to the place where we had left partner and provisions we found we had neither. The Indians told us he had gone on with other gold seekers toward the Fraser river. There was nothing for us to do but go on and get back to Whatcom as quickly as possible or starve to death. I was hungry and tired by the time we reached the Nooksack, but luckily we were able to get some provisions there to last until we got home.

We had agreed to say nothing of what we had discovered but the news had preceded us and there was great excitement in camp.

At once a great demand existed for boats to go around to the mouth and up the Fraser River. I went to building boats for which I could get my own price.

The crowds of gold seekers were greatly angered at the men they held responsible for the exaggerated reports that Whatcom was the only feasible and practical starting place by which to reach the Fraser and Thompson River mining districts and several indignation meetings were held and great resolutions were passed. But, when they come to look for the men they had found responsible they found they had been called by sudden and urgent business to other parts of the country.

From Mr. Roeder's account to me and others afterwards it seems to me and others afterwards that the engineer had buncoed him out of a large amount of money on the trail proposition and misrepresented everything generally. From the engineer's representations Roeder had made his statements, and coming from such a source it was taken as the truth.

Thus the first Whatcom boom ended. The men began to disappear. In small boats, in canoes and in steamers -- any way to get away and bound for any place on the Sound or for Oregon they went. Two or three of the steamers carried full loads of pennyless loads back to California. Still a few stayed and made good citizens. Among those I can name are Lance, late of Lummi Island, Allen of Marrietta, Rev. John Tennant of Lynden.

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