An Interview with Florence Wilson
Everybody loves a “staycation”, but once in awhile, Okanagan Women like to travel farther afield. Our road trip takes us to Barkerville, BC, to see a gold rush town in its glory.
A woman’s perspective.
On my walking tour of Barkerville, I enter the Theatre Royal to soak up some of its ambience. I look around and wonder what it would be like to be a woman in this unique place in history. As the thought crosses my mind, I see a lady in a blue hoop dress glide across the stage. I wish her a good morning. Her name is Miss Florence Wilson, and after we chat a bit, she agrees to speak with me about the ups and downs of life in a gold rush town. The year is 1869.
OK Woman: Miss Wilson, I am interested to hear how you came to Barkerville.
Miss Wilson: Well, it is a bit of a story, and please, call me Florence. I left England in 1862 aboard the first official bride ship. There were two groups of women on board, the younger ones who were destitute, and the slightly older group who were more established. I was part of the established group. As there were not enough women in the Colonies, it gave us an opportunity to seek a new life and new possibilities. After my arrival in Canada, I lived in Fort Victoria for 2 years. There I sewed and opened a fancy goods and stationery shop on Government Street. Then I heard about the gold. Everyone was talking about it. And I too got gold fever. So last year I travelled up. The entire trip from Fort Victoria to Barkerville took about two weeks, and the last part of the journey I walked with a Native packer.
OK Woman: What is it like living in such a busy, thriving gold rush town?
Miss Wilson: All the gold makes it very exciting to live here. Very exciting! People are striking it rich. It is good fun. Life is intense and I like that intensity. The mines operate on shifts, and so the town is going 24 hours a day. It is truly an immersive experience. We have law and order, but it is still a frontier.
OK Woman: It sounds like you fit in with Barkerville Society.
Miss Wilson: I think so, yet it is a challenge to be a woman in the gold rush, to live on your own. Here, women are able to open businesses, as there is a great need for merchants. But, being women, we do business on a smaller scale. And it is important to make sure we are not cheated. Some people assume that you are easier to take advantage of because you are a woman. Also, prices are higher, and it can be difficult to get supplies.
I initially thought I was going to become a merchant, as ladies are not encouraged to gold mine. I was able, however, to invest in one. It is known as “The Florence claim”. In addition to my investments, I own a saloon. It is quite gentile and we even have a doorman. I am a highly regarded citizen, and am very much in the upper class of the gold rush.
OK Woman: You mentioned that you came on a “bride ship”, yet you have not married.
Miss Wilson: Contrary to what people might think, I did not come to Barkerville to look for a husband. I came for the gold. If I married, my assets would no longer be mine; they would belong to my husband. Still, there is room for a relationship; I am having a romance with a blacksmith, and we co-habit.
OK Woman: And other women?
Miss Wilson: The number of women is very small, and if you want to be married you are. This year, our population is close to 6,000 people. Of those 6,000, approximately 9% are women.
Gold rush society is a bit different; it is an aberration in the world. Here, if you don’t want to be married that is your choice. I think women find they have freedom in Barkerville they would not have had anywhere else. Those who show up with wifely skills soon realize, why do them for free, when you can open a boarding house, or be a seamstress, and make a good living.
Women here are supportive of each other. When you are among a few women, you are very close. You may not associate with some of these women anywhere else, but here, you may become good friends.
OK Woman: What was your first winter like?
Miss Wilson: I decided to stay in Barkerville for the winter as I am a founding member of the literary institute and the dramatic association. I can tell you, wintering in Barkerville is no easy feat. The first thing is to have enough wood and to stock up on food. Yet, despite the challenges and the frigid temperatures, Society carries on. There are plays, and of course the library. It is important to remember that there are still social mores, that is, still things that are expected.
OK Woman: What has been your biggest challenge since coming to Barkerville?
Miss Wilson: I think the Great Fire of 1868 was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life. By the time the fire came around, I had started the library and built the saloon. I am proud to be the first Librarian in British Columbia. In the library there was a collection of books I brought with me, without realizing how rare books would be.
In less than 2 hours, that was gone. I felt like giving up. I never had that feeling until the fire. It felt insurmountable. But we got our energy from each other, and the day after the fire, we started to re-build.
OK Woman: How would you define Barkerville in one sentence.
Miss Wilson: It truly is the “Gold Rush Spirit”; if you come here, you already have it in your heart that you can strike it rich overnight.
Nicely summarized, I think. As I look down to review my notes, I thank Miss Wilson for the interview. There is no response. I look up, and I am alone in the theatre.
Florence Wilson was a real person and it is thought that the Theatre Royal in Barkerville is haunted by her. Her character is played by Danette Boucher. Danette has also performed a one-woman show about Catherine Schubert called “Lady Overlander” at the Schubert Centre in Vernon, BC.
A brief history.
In 1862, an English prospector named William (Billy) Barker discovered gold in a wilderness area of the Cariboo. Later named for him, Barkerville, at its height, was the largest town north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. In the thirty-four year period between 1862 and 1896, $19,320,000 was mined. At that time gold was worth $16.00 an ounce. The multi-billion dollar (in today’s money) industrial revolution founded by Barker literally helped build the Province of British Columbia.
Soon after Barker “struck the lead”, thousands of men, and some women, trekked to the Cariboo to chase the golden dream. While many became rich, a great many were not successful and left town with broken dreams and empty pockets.
How to get there:
If you drive: Take Highway 97 North to Quesnel. Just north of Quesnel, turn right on Highway 26 and follow it to the end. The distance from the Okanagan is approximately 648 km and travel time is typically just over 7 hours. Don’t want to drive that far? Other options include a flight to Prince George, BC where you can rent a car, head south on Highway 97 and turn left on to Highway 26, or, fly to Quesnel, BC, take a daily bus service to and from Barkerville, or rent a car.
Barkerville historic town is a Province of BC owned Heritage and Property Park. It is also a Government of Canada National Historic Site, and in 2016 won a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor. Barkerville is open from May 19 to September 25, 2016. Go to www.barkerville.ca for hours and rates. Call 1-888-994-3332 for information.