Explorer Robert Brown didn’t like Cowichan Bay’s Sam Harris

As his contribution

to last year’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Leech River gold rush, Sooke historian and amateur

gold prospector Bart van den Berk has published the first of two volumes, The History of Leechtown, Part I. Almost 300 pages, it’s an ambitious project to say the least. Part II will cover the short-lived gold rush itself, I’m guessing, as Part I deals with the lengthy lead-up to and the actual discovery of gold in the Leech River, in July 1864.

This book is of value to anyone interested in Cowichan Valley history as van den Berk bases his own book on the journals and letters (some of them previously unpublished) of those involved with the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition. The VIEE passed through Cowichan and its leader, Cdr. Robert Brown, made some illuminating (if not altogether flattering) observations of the Valley’s natural resources and some of its original pioneers. The reason for the expedition, financed by the colonial government and public subscription, was not so much exploration by definition as an attempt to survey the Island’s then-unknown mineral and agricultural potential for development.

I’d read Brown’s journal, edited by John Hayman and published by UBC in 1989, but van den Berk has added new material that he found buried in the B.C. Archives. Add them together and you have a worthy addition to local lore.

The 10-man exploring party arrived in Cowichan Bay aboard HMS Grappler in June

1864, anchoring opposite Sam Harris’s hotel-cum-saloon-cum store-cum jail, cum-townsite, and one of Brown’s first entries begins with our man Sam whom he described as "some sort of an Indian agent". It likely was Sam’s fault that he didn’t make a better initial impression, he being in his cups (a common state, legend suggests) that rainy day. Hence Brown’s dismissive comment, "Not very sober in his ideas."

Too bad, as Harris had done some prospecting himself in the Cowichan Lake area, seeking a legendary source of gold bullets said to have been used by Native hunters. Brown was able to borrow a hammer and a crowbar, however, to be used for extracting mineral samples should opportunity arise.

Next day, the Grappler moved across the bay to Comiaken where the explorers landed to hike overland to the large village of Somena (today’s Allenby Road reserve) where he engaged

Chief Kakalatza to guide them to the Great (Cowichan) Lake known as Kaatza. He also hired, albeit reluctantly and with reservations, the mysterious Iroquois Toma Atoine as interpreter. Happily, it proved to be "a choice on which I have since had good reason to congratulate myself".

They headed up-river the next day, Brown describing the Cowichan as "a most torturous stream…exceedingly rapid, there being hardly any smooth water…" "Magnificent forests of the finest description of spars, and numerous natural [ships’] knees, are found everywhere," he wrote in his journal. Brown innocently predicted the future when he mused that these forests, felled and bucked into logs, could be floated down-river at high water for milling. "The spars and lumber alone, with their capabilities of being floated to the sea, would prove a certain fortune to any man with capital enough to buy an axe

and a grindstone," he penned Sadly, this did in fact, come about within a generation but with devastating effect upon the riverbeds and spawning salmon.

He also took note of the region’s "excellent soil" although he and his Expedition sponsors were more interested in the river’s potential as a gold producer: "The colour of Gold was found everywhere, and in one or two places from 1/2 cent to 1 1/2 cents to the pan was reported to me…"

By June 22 they’d completed their obviously cursory explorations of the lake "and surrounding country". He rated timber prospects as excellent, agricultural prospects as fair and the scenery as pleasant but of "rather a monotonous character". Although they’d found gold on every river bar, as much as 4 cents to a pan, and $5 a day in one location, he thought that any potential diggings were intermittent therefore better suited to the more patient

Chinese prospector. Seams of exposed copper ore, one no less than 20 feet wide which he thought to be of "inexhaustible quantity," had also caught their notice besides some indications of iron and coal.

By this time he’d divided the expedition into two parties, the other under command of Lieut. Peter Leech whose name is today attached to the Leech River and Leechtown although he’s not the discoverer of the gold that inspired their christening. The Leech River excitement would prove to be a flash-inthe-pan but its effect upon our history was long-lasting. Hence, a century and a-half later, its being commemorated and celebrated by Bart van den Berk’s first of a two-volume history.

Available in local bookstores and the Cowichan Valley Museum giftshop, it doubles as a window on early 1860s Cowichan Valley.