"What are you talking about, Andrew?" she demanded. "You can't travel that far by yourself. You're only 14 years old!"
"I don't plan to go by myself," Andrew answered. "I just found out that when the International docks tomorrow it will be dropping off a group of men who are headed to the Cariboo. They're going to load up on provisions here and then travel overland to the goldfields. And I'm going to convince them to let me tag along."
"But Aunt Jo will never approve!"
"Who cares?" Andrew snapped. "She's not my mother. She can't tell me what to do."
Elizabeth was quiet. She knew how much Andrew hated living on the farm with their aunt and her bratty kids.
"I promise, Liz," Andrew said, "I'm going to reach those goldfields and strike it rich. And when I do, we won't have to put up with Aunt Jo and her ridiculous rules anymore."
A week later, Andrew was gone. He left Fort Garry with the Overlanders, headed west on a journey that would take them across the prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to the Cariboo district of British Columbia. Elizabeth watched them go, staring as the long train of men, livestock, and Red River carts disappeared into the distance.
A month passed. Then another, and another, and two more after that. Elizabeth began to fear she'd never hear from her brother again.
Then one night, after returning from another day's work on the farm, she spotted four battered envelopes on her bedside table. Could they be?
She tore open the letters and read without stopping.
July 6, 1862
I am writing to let you know that I am safe and well, though I would give anything for a new pair of shoes.
We have been travelling for about five weeks now. Today is Sunday, the only day of the week that we rest. Every other time we are up at four o'clock in the morning and on the trail by five.
The days have been very long and hot. I swear, the sun blazes hotter out here on the open prairie. About the only thing worse are the mosquitoes. Those little demons are putting everyone on edge. On cooler days I wear gloves so I can't scratch at my bites.
The gloves are also handy when it comes to picking up buffalo droppings. One of my jobs on the trail is to collect all the buffalo dung I see. It's a good substitute for fuel whenever we're short on firewood.
So far we've travelled through grasslands and a few areas of brush. We've also crossed many rivers and streams, which can be tough. It's hard work getting all those carts and animals down the steep riverbanks! A few weeks ago, a man slipped while trying to get his ox down a muddy slope. When he hit the ground, the wheel of his cart rolled right over his head! Luckily, he survived.
Despite all our troubles, we're making progress. A couple of days ago we reached Fort Carlton. According to our leader, Mr. McMicking, We're a quarter of the way to the Cariboo. Boy I wish we were closer!
I'll tuck this letter away and send it when I can.
July 27, 1862
I'm writing from Fort Edmonton, the halfway point of our journey. Yesterday a trapper here told me something scary. He said that the next part of the trip will be harder than anything I've faced so far.
But I can't imagine anything worse than the last two weeks! Rain has been pouring nonstop, soaking our gear and turning the ground into a muddy mess. The streams and rivers are so high that fording them has been almost impossible. We've had to build lots of long bridges. Once, when we couldn't find any trees, we made a bridge by taking the wheels off the Red River carts and laying them end to end, upside down.
Trust me: nothing about the first half of the journey has been easy!
Now we're getting ready for the second half. Once we reach the mountains, we're going to climb something called the Tete Jaune Pass. It's the shortest route to the Cariboo. And the most dangerous. People here at the fort say the trail is almost impassable at times.
Most of the men in our group have traded their oxen and carts for packhorses. The horses will be easier to handle on the mountain trails.
Mr. McMicking has also hired a Native guide to help us. He will be the third guide we've used so far, and he seems to know what he's doing. But I'm still a little worried ... how could I not be?
I hope you're praying for me, Elizabeth. I'll need it.
August 28, 1862
That trapper back at Fort Edmonton was right: things just keep getting harder. We are in the heart of the mountains now, climbing higher and higher each day.
Last week I encountered the skinniest, scariest trail I've ever seen. On one side of me was a wall of jagged rocks. On the other side was, well, nothing. Just a sheer drop-off. One wrong step and it could have been over. At the narrowest point, I slithered along on my stomach because I was too scared to walk.
Luckily, everyone in the group kept their footing. Our horses weren't so fortunate. Two slipped and fell to their deaths.
We are down several horses, actually. Some of the men have had to shoot the animals for meat. You see, we're running very low on food. Our supplies of flour and pemmican are almost gone, so we're hunting and eating whatever wildlife we can. A few days ago I tried skunk for the first time. It was delicious!
But not as delicious as the salmon I ate last night. When we reached Tete Jaune Cache yesterday, a group of Shuswap was fishing nearby. I traded a pair of socks for a huge salmon they caught. Trust me, it was worth it.
In a couple of days the group will be splitting up. Some have chosen to take a longer, safer route along the Thompson River. The rest of us have decided to risk riding the brutal Fraser River the rest of the way to the Cariboo. I must go now and help build a raft!
September 12, 1862
I made it! Well, almost. I am in a town called Quesnel, the gateway to the Cariboo goldfields. We arrived here yesterday, after 10 days of riding the Fraser River.
The Fraser was something else! At first, the rafting was fun. The river was mostly calm, and it felt good to be off my feet for a change. But on the sixth day, things changed--fast. With almost no warning we came upon some miserable rapids. They frothed and foamed, creating a terrifying whirlpool. The raft shot forward and we had no choice but to steer through the swirling whitewater. A huge, jutting rock ripped away part of the raft, but we kept rowing. My body was shaking so much that I could hardly hold on to my oar.
Then, just like that, it was over. We cheered when we realized we'd made it through the worst part of the river. But not everyone was as lucky. Four Overlanders were lost to the rapids.
When I think about the dangers I've dodged and the distance I've travelled, I feel like anything is possible. My travelling companions don't share this feeling. They are exhausted. And reports that there is no more gold in the Cariboo have crushed their spirits. Many have given up and returned home, without even making the final trek to the goldfields.
But not me. I can't possibly give up now! In a couple of hours I will be heading out to the goldfields with Mr. McMicking to try my luck. You'll be hearing from me soon.
PS--I've enclosed some gold dust that I collected along the Fraser. It's just a taste of what's to come. I will strike it rich. I know it!
Elizabeth shook the last envelope and watched the dust sprinkle into her palm. Maybe, she thought, we'll be free of Aunt Jo after all.
Written by Casey Charles
Illustrated by Gabriel Morrissette
RELATED ARTICLE: The Overlanders of '62
In the early 1860s, prospectors found gold in the creeks of British Columbia's Cariboo district. News of these gold strikes spread around the world. Soon, thousands of goldseekers were making their way to BC. Among them were the Overlanders of 1862. This group consisted of 150 men, as well as one pregnant woman and her three children.
In June 1862, they began an overland journey that lasted nearly four months. Starting from Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba), they travelled 5,600 kilometres across the prairies, over the mountains, and down treacherous rivers. It was an incredible trek, full of dangers and risks. Have a look at their route.