Cariboo History

A braided story of First Nations, fur trading, the Gold Rush and ranching weaves the history of the Cariboo to life.

The story of the South Cariboo is written in the numbers signposted along Highway 97’s original roadhouse towns. About every 21km/13mi along this historic 644km/400mi route, a roadhouse was located.  Travellers could journey its entire length by stagecoach in four days, providing they could afford $130 for a one way ticket. Today, Hat Creek Ranch is one of the Cariboo’s largest surviving roadhouses, just 11km/7mi north of Cache Creek amid rolling, sagebrush hills at the junction of Highways 97 and 99. This B.C. Heritage Site marks the crossroads where all major threads of the South Cariboo’s compelling history – fur trading, ranching, First Nations culture and gold – intersect. Most of the roadhouses are long gone, while a few have evolved into villages and towns where modern-day travellers can still trace the region’s gold rush past through a landscape that appears airlifted out of an old western.

Prospectors and merchants ventured to the Central Cariboo in 1859 after the news of a big gold strike on the Horsefly River, 65km/40mi east of Williams Lake. The following year, William Pinchbeck, a tough police constable from Victoria, arrived to keep law and order; juggling jobs as lawyer, judge, and jailer while building a homestead and rest house with restaurant, saloon, general store and race-horse track. Race days attracted hundreds of spectators, including one memorable contest in 1861 when the stakes were a whopping $100,000. Pinchbeck was a busy man, his roadhouse, already famous for its White Wheat Whiskey (from his own distillery at 25 cents a shot), suffered no lack of business and he came to own almost the entire Williams Lake River Valley. Pinchbeck’s grassy gravesite above his former ranch is one of the most famous in the Cariboo, overlooking the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds.

The Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s came to an end about a decade after its start, and its prospectors fled. With paddle-wheelers plying the Fraser River and interior lakes, and a major railway to come, the region’s newly settled farmers and ranchers stayed on. Soon a new wave of modern-day adventurers followed, seeking their own golden dreams in the North Cariboo, a region as rich in untapped wilderness as it once was in gold.

To the northeast of Quesnel, the Blackwater River is the eastern entry point of the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail (Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail). Extending 420km/261mi westward to the Pacific, this historic trail was once the Nuxalk (nu-halk) and Carrier First Nations’ primary trade route. Here in 1793, famed explorer Alexander Mackenzie traced its unmapped terrain to become the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by land.