June/July 2014

One-Armed Tomo and the golden bullets

By Correy Baldwin

Gold has always had a powerful lure, and history has shown that people will go to great lengths to pursue the faintest hints of its existence – even rumours of a hunter using gold for bullets. This was all it took for special constable Samuel Harris, who led an expedition up the Cowichan River, as-yet-unexplored by settlers, on Vancouver Island during the summer of 1860. Guiding the group in this unfamiliar territory was one-armed Tomo Antoine, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) top guides and the man who first caught word of the golden bullets.

Apparently a Ditidaht man had found an outcropping of gold-bearing quartz while out hunting in the mountains beyond Cowichan Lake. Being short on ammunition, he took chunks of the gold and formed them into musket balls. Tall tale or not, it was too good a story to pass up. Antoine told it to Harris, who passed it on to James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island, who ordered an immediate expedition to contact the Ditidaht and find the gold.

Tomo Antoine, of Iroquois and Chinook heritage, had been born into the HBC fur trade. His father was a company fur trader, though he died when Antoine was but an infant. As a young man, Antoine caught the attention of Douglas, who had established HBC’s Fort Victoria in 1841, and soon the future “father of British Columbia” was hiring Antoine to guide the first HBC expeditions into the interior of Vancouver Island.

Antoine had plenty of bravado and his wild ways could get the better of him. In 1856, he took an interest in a woman from a local tribe near present-day Duncan and her offended husband-to-be shot Antoine, the bullet ripping through his arm and entering his chest. A local medicine man saved Antoine’s life, but doctors in Victoria could not save his arm: Tomo Antoine became One-Armed Tomo. Meanwhile, the shooter was apprehended by British authorities, convicted and hanged. Antoine became a sworn enemy of the peoples in the region and could never return.

But not all was lost. The amputation hardly slowed Antoine down, and soon he was back at work, canoeing with a modified paddle and breaking trail for the colonists. By then, the fur trade was giving way to the hunt for gold. The California gold rush came and went, as did the Fraser River rush. Thousands of men had congregated on the west coast, ready to jump on the slightest hint.

The July 1860 trip up the Cowichan River was Harris and Antoine’s second attempt: the two had tried it in February but were thwarted by the season’s early flooding. On both trips the team panned for gold, finding enough flecks to tempt them further. After 11 days they reached Cowichan Lake, and soon located the Ditidaht village where they expected to find the hunter.

The plan was to find the man whose gun fired golden bullets and have him lead them to his hidden gold mine. The Ditidaht, however, had more urgent things on their mind, as their community was suffering from a deadly outbreak of smallpox. The chief offered a deal: the tribe would help the men and let them prospect on Ditidaht territory, but only if they first returned with smallpox medicine.

The team agreed. They hurried back down the river and gathered supplies, returning by mid-August. The medical supplies were enough to stop the spread of smallpox. The gold, though, proved more elusive: the man who knew of its whereabouts had died in the outbreak.

The only thing left for the team was to explore the shores of Cowichan Lake for signs of gold. As with Cowichan River, Harris found enough colour to file a positive report, but little more. It might have been enough to prompt a flurry of prospecting, but by then another gold rush had hit, turning the attention of the gold-crazed to the Cariboo, and then came the Klondike. Eventually, the bullets were forgotten.

Antoine got his vindication in 1864, when he guided an expedition along the Sooke River that sparked a gold rush at Leechtown. He eventually retired to the backwoods, a well-paid man.

But he never did find those golden bullets.

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