|Clothilde Gilbert found a 2.5-ounce gold nugget in 1846 in today’s Gilbert River, which kicked off a gold rush to the area | Courtesy of Andrée Roy
On an ordinary Sunday morning in the southern area of present-day Quebec in 1846, 20-year-old Clothilde Gilbert was sent out to the fields by her father to find one of their horses so they could ride to mass. Clothilde was crossing the shallow, sandy river later known as the Gilbert River when she noticed a shiny, yellow rock about the size of a pigeon egg. It turned out to be a 2.5-ounce gold nugget.
Looking back years later, Clothilde said, “I never thought that such a pebble would make so much noise afterwards.” And a lot of noise it made.
Five decades before thousands converged on the Klondike, the region of Beauce in today’s province of Quebec became the site of Canada’s first gold rush, producing two of the largest nuggets ever found in the country.
This was also a period of change for local mining law. At the time of Clothilde’s discovery, some land tenure in the Province of Canada was still under the seigneurial system originally established in New France in 1627, in which the king granted large tracts of land to members of the bourgeoisie, important families or former military officers. These proprietors would then grant parcels of land to tenant families. Clothilde’s family was one of these tenants, living on the Rigaud Vaudreuil seigneury under Charles-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry.
Chaussegros de Léry took an immediate interest in Clothilde’s discovery, securing exclusive and perpetual licence to all mining on his vast property, which covered about 143 square kilometres. Under the agreement, he was granted 25 per cent of all mining revenue on top of a 10 per cent royalty to the state.
Although that did not leave much for individual local miners – mainly untrained labourers who obtained rights to pan sections of the rivers on Chaussegros de Léry’s land – they found creative ways around the heavy royalties. Technically, the royalties only applied to revenue from smelted gold, so many sold their gold unrefined. Others went so far as to challenge the terms of Chaussegros de Léry’s licence in court.
Meanwhile, Chaussegros de Léry made an early attempt to exploit the resources on his property. In 1847 he leased his rights to the Chaudière Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the first gold company in the Province of Canada. Despite early optimism, mining activity in the area remained relatively small and stifled by both the heavy royalties and relatively minimal profits.
In 1854 the seigneurial system was abolished, opening the door to a democratization of land ownership. However, the large landowners maintained control over their land, and Chaussegros de Léry held on to his 25 per cent royalty.
And then one day everything changed. In 1863, two brothers named Joseph and Féréol Poulin, and a man named Rodrigue Narcisse – all farmers from Saint-François-de-Beauce – panned 72 ounces of gold in just two hours at a site on the Chaudière River, which also ran through Chaussegros de Léry’s land.
Just like that, gold fever spiked again. People came to the area from across the United States and Europe, and nearby Saint-François-de-Beauce became a boomtown that would eventually be known as the “Eldorado of Canada.” A railway line was even built through the town and connected the region to the industrial and transportation hubs further north, which brought more eager gold-seekers.
In 1866, two of Canada’s largest gold nuggets were discovered on the Gilbert River: a 52-ounce nugget found by Robert Kilgour and a 46-ounce nugget found by Archibald McDonald. In 1877, 10 years after Canadian Confederation, the Boissonneau brothers located a 42-ounce nugget. In total, an estimated 1.5 to three tons of gold came out of the Beauce region during the gold rush, half of it from the Gilbert River.
Business was booming, and yet resentment over high royalties remained. The Poulin brothers famously avoided paying royalties on $7,550 worth of gold by smuggling it out of the jurisdiction in tea cups. Legal disputes began piling up over mineral rights, which were still controlled by the Chaussegros de Léry family.
Then in 1880, the recently formed province of Quebec passed its Mining Act, which provided much-needed regulation and gave the province control over all subsurface mineral rights. But even so, concessions were made to landowners who had obtained mineral rights prior to the act coming into force, and a Superior Court ruling in 1883 upheld the Chaussegros de Léry family’s mineral rights. This decision meant that royalties in the Beauce would remain high, and with the easy gold already gone and other regions opening up, investors and miners simply went elsewhere.
Even though changes to mining law in Quebec came too late for miners in the Beauce to fully develop subsurface resources, they succeeded in opening up other regions in the province to exploration such as Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Rouyn-Noranda. A new chapter for mining activity in Canada had begun.