November 2010

The four funerals of Sophia Cameron

Death and riches in the Cariboo Gold Rush

By Correy Baldwin

Cariboo Wagon RoadFreight wagons along the Cariboo Wagon Road (circa 1867)  | Image A-00350 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

A brutal winter had just set in when Sophia Cameron was buried, with as much dignity and ceremony as was possible, in a tin casket beneath an abandoned cabin deep in the wilderness of British Columbia. It was 1862 and the Cariboo Gold Rush was in full force.

Sophia was the only white woman in the area at the time, and all 97 of the neighbouring miners came to pay their respects. Little did they know how often this ceremony would be repeated before Sophia could finally rest in peace. Only her husband, John Cameron, had a notion of the difficulties that lay ahead, burdened as he was with a promise to return her body to their home in Ontario, or what was then known as Canada West. Cameron was aware of both the difficult journey back and the untold riches that lay ahead.

For the time being, Cameron pressed ahead, working the claim they had staked just two months earlier. His patience paid off, and in late December, two months after his wife’s death, Cameron found gold.

Despite the harsh winter, he moved quickly, hiring 75 men and working them around the clock on three shifts. After a month of hard labour, Cameron offered $12 a day and a $2,000 bonus to any man who would help him carry Sophia’s coffin out of the Cariboo.

When it all began

John and Sophia had met in their youth, both raised on farms near Cornwall, Ontario. After setting their sights on marriage, Cameron went to California to work the gold mines, then to the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in British Columbia in 1858. The rush only lasted a couple of years and Cameron soon returned to Cornwall to marry Sophia.

After the Fraser River gold dried up, prospectors began exploring further north into the Cariboo region, whose watersheds drained into the Fraser. They found gold in 1861, the same year that Sophia gave birth to their daughter, Alice. When they heard that gold had been discovered, the new family packed up to join the Cariboo gold rush.

They arrived in Victoria in February 1862, after a long journey around South America by ship. But the trip had been too arduous for the 14-month-old Alice, who died just days after their arrival. Weary, broke and in mourning, John and Sophia relied on a friend for the necessary provisions to continue on to the Cariboo Trail.

The trail was an unreliable path that wound its way north over mountain passes, through deep canyons and past roadhouses named 100 Mile House and 150 Mile House. When they finally arrived at the gold rush town of Richfield late that August, they staked a claim on nearby Williams Creek. Sophia had a share — rare for a woman at the time — as did the five men they were travelling with.

Winter in the bush was difficult, with bitter temperatures and inadequate shelter. It was here that Sophia succumbed to typhoid fever in late October, whispering to her husband her dying wish to be buried in Ontario.

Bringing Sofia home

Throughout all of February, Cameron and several other men carefully inched Sophia’s coffin south over the frigid mountain trail, through deep snowdrifts and thick forest, abandoning the coffin at least once in a blizzard to take shelter for the night, then continuing on in the morning.

Death was all around them. The smallpox epidemic had just swept through the Pacific Northwest, arriving in Victoria from San Francisco in March 1862, most likely from a miner travelling to the Cariboo. It tore through communities and utterly devastated the Native population, even reaching the distant mining towns and roadhouses along the Cariboo Trail. To those who lived along the trail, the sight of Sophia’s toboggan-bound coffin would have been both frightening and frighteningly familiar. For Cameron, the memory of death was following him and meeting him at every stop.

Cameron made it to Victoria that March. Knowing the bounty of gold that awaited him back in the Cariboo, he had Sophia’s coffin filled with alcohol to preserve her body and arranged for a second burial in Victoria, and then returned to his claim for one more season.

And a good season it was. Cameron bought out neighbouring claims, hired more men and oversaw what had become one of the largest operations in the Cariboo. His work camp soon grew into a town, named Camerontown. In October, he returned to Victoria with his fortune, disinterred Sophia’s coffin and boarded a ship back to Cornwall. He arrived that winter and fulfilled his promise, burying his wife just after Christmas 1863.

Cameron remarried two years later and built an impressive mansion in nearby Summerstown. But as the years went on, Sophia’s family grew suspicious of his wealth and Sophia’s death. Cameron had refused to let Sophia’s father see his daughter’s face before she was buried. He was also secretive about the extent of his wealth, and extravagant and rash in the ways that he spent it — including a host of investments and business ventures, many of which fell flat.

Rumours began to spread. Some suspected that Cameron had left Sophia buried in the Cariboo or in Victoria, while others suggested he had sold her into slavery. Whatever the story, the family became convinced that Sophia’s coffin was filled not with her remains, but with gold.

Cameron finally relented to their mounting accusations and in 1873, he once again raised Sophia’s coffin. It was opened, revealing her remarkably preserved body, still submerged in alcohol. All rumours were finally laid to rest, as was Sophia. Cameron moved her coffin to Summerstown and buried her — for the fourth and final time — near the mansion that he had built from their Cariboo gold.

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