Seeking Gold

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 The pursuit of riches often involves sacrifices we would have never expected.

Pierre Berton (1920–2004) established himself as one of Canada’s great public figures and authors. He served as a journalist with several newspapers and magazines, and became a popular TV personality. His greatest achievement stemmed from his love for and promotion of Canadian history through more than two dozen books, spotlighting many interesting and unusual—but true—stories about individual Canadians.

One outstanding story from The Wild Frontier: More Tales from the Remarkable Past (McClelland and Stewart LTD, Toronto, 1978), titled “The Odyssey of Cariboo Cameron,” recounts the singular adventure of John Alexander Cameron of Ontario. He determined to strike it rich in California during the 1849 gold rush, and after great hardship, arrived there in 1852. He took leave of the gold fields and went home in 1859 to marry his fiancée, Sophia, before returning with her to California. His efforts there eventually failed, but by that time news had spread that the Cariboo region of central British Columbia had enough gold to make one wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. Cameron, Sophia and their fourteen-month-old daughter, Mary Isabella Alice, journeyed by boat to Victoria in 1862. Unfortunately, the child died a few days after they arrived—a terrible blow to them.

Nevertheless, Cameron and Sophia made the 400-mile journey through the rugged, mountainous frontier to Richfield on Williams Creek, where Cameron and a friend, Robert Stevenson, eventually established one of the richest gold claims in the Cariboo country. Before the claim proved itself, however, Sophia fell ill with typhoid fever. Before she died in October, she made Cameron promise that he would not bury her in the wilderness, but would take her back to Ontario. She was put in a coffin and placed in an empty cabin since, at 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, it would have been impossible to dig a grave. Cameron and his crew returned to their claim, and in December struck one of the richest gold finds in the region.

Tormented by Guilt

His newfound riches meant little to him, however. Cameron suffered anxiety and guilt over Sophia’s death. His ambition and lust for gold, he felt, had driven her too hard and brought about her demise, as well as causing the death of their child. In his anguish, he became determined to transport Sophia’s remains to the coast for temporary interment until he could take her home and fulfill her request.  This proved a daunting task. On January 31, 1863, in the dead of winter, with temperatures weather of 40 to 50 degrees below zero, he and his companion Stevenson, with 20 helpful miners, set out for Victoria with Sophia’s coffin. Carrying as many supplies as they could haul (totalling about 400 pounds), they followed a remote wagon trail covered with over two metres of snow. In addition to these hardships, the journey placed them at risk of disease as they passed through areas ravaged by smallpox, where whole populations of some native villages had died.

Eventually, they arrived at Port Douglas at Harrison Lake, there boarding a steamer that took them to New Westminster (Vancouver) before finally reaching Victoria on March 7. As planned, Cameron interred Sophia there (preserved in 25 gallons of 95-proof alcohol), and returned to the Cariboo two weeks later. His fabulous claim became the centerpiece of the gold field, and John Cameron became known as “Cariboo Cameron.” The  gold taken from the area in 1863 amounted  to $4,000,000, at a time when the daily wage averaged one dollar. Pierre Berton indicated its value as $44 million in 1978 (or $171 million in 2017). Before the end of the year, Cameron had accumulated about $350,000 ($5.4 million today) in personal wealth—a sizable fortune!

Guilt-ridden and depressed over the loss of his wife, and driven by his desire to return her to Ontario as promised, Cameron left the Cariboo in October 1863. Joined by his two brothers, Stevenson, eight horses bearing his gold dust, and an armed guard of twenty men, he travelled with Sophia’s remains nearly 13,000 kilometres by boat from Victoria to Panama. Cameron and his team then traveled by train across the isthmus, then to New York and Canada, and finally to his and Sophia’s home in Glengarry, Ontario. They arrived in late December, 1863.

The Emptiness of Worldly Riches

Cameron’s nature was that of a stubborn man, but his experiences in the wilderness had hardened him even more. At his wife’s burial, he adamantly refused to allow the coffin to be opened for a viewing, which enraged the family. He bought his uncle’s farm and built a mansion largely with materials from Europe and even the Philippines, before remarrying and living in luxurious style. As Mr. Berton noted, Cameron was “obsessed by his wealth.” Malicious rumours spread that Sophia had not died, but rather had been abandoned in British Columbia. Ten years later, Cameron was finally forced to open the casket and reveal his wife’s body, her face still recognizable due to preservation in alcohol. Alas, by 1886 John Cameron had lost all of his glorious wealth through business failures and poor or unsuccessful investments. He returned to the Cariboo, this time by the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Cameron arrived at the scene of his former success, but the gold was long gone. An old, broken man, depressed by the ruins of his goldfield ghost towns, his hunt for riches ended. He died at 68 years old, in Barkerville, British Columbia, and was buried on November 7, 1888 in the cemetery of Camerontown—the village that had been named after him, now a shell of its former self.

The story of John Cameron serves as a fitting example of the human quest for wealth and adventure—driven to succeed against all odds, but with no guarantee as to what the outcome may be. Some ventures result in great success and generate tales of amazing feats and achievements that are told for generations afterward. Others fail dismally and become tales told for other reasons. As wise King Solomon once wrote of such striving human beings, “time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

There is a quest for gold, however, that is guaranteed not to end in failure or sadness. The Bible, God’s instruction to His creation, explains, “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding; for her proceeds are better than the profits of silver, and her gain than fine gold” (Proverbs 3:13–14). And since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), seeking and following His advice and His instructions will ultimately lead us to conclude that they bring “… length of days and long life and peace” (Proverbs 3:2). Our present world desperately craves peace and happiness, which are increasingly evading mankind. A reading of our booklet, The Ten Commandments, will provide a more detailed description of the principles that guide us to the most enduring treasure—spiritual blessings and a truly fulfilling life.


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