Fraser Gold Rush prospectors exit for Victoria, British Columbia, and debt ruins Whatcom merchant on October 4, 1858.

  • By Sean Keyes, Sehome High School
  • Posted 6/28/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8193

On October 4, 1858, merchant O. P. Davis is sued for non-payment for goods he had bought from the San Francisco firm E. Fitzgerald and Co. to sell at his Whatcom store to prospectors on their way to the Fraser River gold fields, located in Canada. A new policy by Victoria governor James Douglass forced miners to get their licenses in Victoria and this caused the little boomtown of Whatcom to nearly disappear overnight as miners left by the thousands with their tents and equipment. The population of Whatcom dropped from a booming 10,000 to several hundred. Stores are left holding goods that merchants had hoped to sell, and that had been prospective goods of a new metropolis.

Fraser River Gold Rush

The Fraser River Gold Rush sparked a short and sweet population boom in Bellingham Bay that elevated the population of several hundred to over 10,000 gluttonous gold seekers. Henry Roeder built a sawmill on Whatcom Creek in 1858, after which, during the Gold Rush of 1858,  the government extended the Whatcom boundary line out beyond Chuckanut Bay.

Gold was discovered in 1858 around Fort Yale on the Fraser River. Merchants coming in from California sold many mine town goods such as building supplies, sugar, starch, and other items used prominently in the town. Miners set up tents or small houses from these supplies and covered the pan of the Bellingham Bay area. These new demands brought in many sellers and spread out demand for more exotic and luxurious items. Brandy, Hennessy (a brand of cognac), champagne, teapots, glasses, and silverware were brought in as a result of the new idea of a metropolis in Bellingham. When Governor James Douglass of Victoria restricted mining by requiring miners to obtain mining licenses for the Fraser River, the whole boom collapsed and all the miners moved to Victoria. This sudden departure from the newly populated Bellingham left behind taken-down shelters, houses, and many unsold goods in Bellingham Bay.

The Case Against O. P. Davis

O. P. Davis, who bought $428.41 in goods from E. Fitzgerald and Company in San Francisco on June 9, 1858, was sued for non-payment for any of these goods on October 4, 1858, after the summer of the Fraser River Gold Rush. O. P. Davis’s testament stood on the basis that his purchase on credit included an agreement with E. Fitzgerald that full payment for the goods would only take place after the establishment of his shop in Bellingham and the selling of his goods in full. He stated, as of October 4, 1858, that he had only $50.00 in profit from his goods, and that he wouldn’t pay until he had the money in full.

The plaintiff accused O. P. Davis of non-compliance to the agreement that E. Fitzgerald had understood, that the payment would be made in full after a 60-day period of credit. On October 3, 1858, 60 days after the purchase of the goods, it was known and stated that O. P. Davis had yet to pay his debt. Declaring that O. P. Davis was indebted to E. Fitzgerald until full repayment, the plaintiff evaluated Davis’s property, and the justice of the peace gave full ownership of the property to the plaintiff.

Gold Rush Goods

The itemized list of goods, dated June 9, 1858, of O. P. Davis’s purchase from E. Fitzgerald, shows many items that one would not see in a small town such as the previous Bellingham Bay area. Luxury items included brandy, champagne, Hennessy, boxes of wine, tea cups, glasses, and silverware, all of which were very expensive. O. P. Davis bought these less commonly needed items in the hope that Bellingham would become and thrive as a metropolis, and would inhabit wealthy people as a result of the recent Fraser River Gold Rush. Not knowing Governor James Douglass’s opinion of Yankees intruding on what he perceived to be “his gold”  Davis bought these goods at a time when Bellingham was booming.

As seen on the appraiser’s itemized record of goods left over from O. P. Davis’s purchase in October, many of these luxury items were not sold. The building supplies, such as lumber, nails, hammers, saws, and other things were all sold and gone, as well as necessary and common foodstuffs like sugar, starch, and other items. The Bellingham Bay area underwent rapid population growth resulting in quick, temporary and detachable living structures and shops. Also, the value of the goods depreciated after the 60-day credit had expired, constituting a depression in the economy caused by the great exodus from the Bellingham Bay area.  


Sources: Case No. 126 (1858),  3rd Judicial District Territorial Court Records, Northwest Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, Bellingham; A History of Bellingham: Washington (Bellingham: Argonaut Press, 1926), 76-78, 90; Lelah Jackson Edson, The Fourth Corner (Bellingham: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1968). 

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