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Early Chinese contributions to BC

Overview of the set

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Primary sources

1. A sketch of Derby, British Columbia in 1859 |

2. Amor De Cosmos on the Chinese in British Columbia |

3. Labourers on the Cariboo Wagon Road |


4. The Cariboo Sentinel attacks Chinese labour |

5. Downtown Barkerville |

6. Pacific coast business directory, 1867 |

7. A letter to the editor of the Victoria Times Colonist |

8. Washing gold in the Fraser River |

9. A Letter to the editor of the Victoria Times Colonist |

10. A complaint against Chinese labourers |

11. Chinese labour and the development of British Columbia |

Secondary sources


1. In the sea of sterile mountains |


2. Struggle and hope |


3. From China to Canada |


4. Chinese-Canadian Pioneers |

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Student tasks

Question: Did Chinese immigrants make important contributions to the development of British Columbia from 1850–1880?

Teacher notes

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Historical context for teachers

Early history of British Columbia

  • By the 1840s, both British and American fur companies had rights to trade for furs in the Oregon Territory, the area of land that extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and included most of what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
  • Conflict between Great Britain and the United States over control of the Oregon Territory increased as more and more Americans settled in the area. Rather than go to war, Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington in 1846, which divided the Oregon Territory in half at the 49th parallel. Vancouver Island remained under British control, despite the fact that its southern tip sits below the 49th parallel.
  • In 1849, the British government created the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island to maintain control over the Pacific Northwest. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was given exclusive rights to trade with Indigenous people, if they agreed to colonize the island with British settlers and allow the British government to appoint the governor of the colony.
  • The HBC immediately advertised for settlers in Great Britain and brought out several hundred colonists on sailing vessels in the 1850s. In a census taken in 1854, the total European population on Vancouver Island was 774 (including 562 in Victoria).
  • When gold was discovered on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwai) in the early 1850s, the Haida rejected outsiders’ attempts to mine it. Around the same time, the Nlaka’pamux people were mining for gold on the Thompson and Fraser rivers and selling it to the HBC. Miners moving north from the California gold rush of 1849 found out about the Fraser Canyon gold by 1857.
  • In April 1858, a boat carrying 400 miners arrived in Victoria, and the rush was on. Over the next few years, as many as 20 000 people arrived in Victoria, the capital of the British Crown Colony of Vancouver Island to obtain mining licences, buy provisions and gather information before beginning the journey to the Fraser Canyon.
  • The British government worried that the surge of American miners to their mainland territory would lead to the American government claiming it as American soil. To maintain its formal claim to the territory, the British government created the Crown Colony of British Columbia in the fall of 1858.

Arrival of Chinese in British Columbia

  • Although the Chinese first arrived on the west coast long before 1858, this year is generally cited as the first permanent settlement of Chinese communities in Canada. The first group of Chinese prospectors arrived in Victoria in 1858. Most of the Chinese prospectors came north from California when the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855 slowed down and anti-Chinese feelings spread.
  • The news of the Fraser and Thompson gold rushes quickly reached China, and Chinese immigrants began arriving in Victoria directly from Hong Kong in the spring of 1859. In 1860 alone, an estimated 4000 Chinese arrived in Victoria. By the early 1860s, it is estimated that there may have been as many as 6000 to 7000 Chinese in British Columbia.
  • Most of the early Chinese immigrants who came to Canada arrived from Guangdong and Fujian, two coastal provinces that experienced starvation, natural disasters and military conflict during the 1800s. After a series of droughts and floods, farmers struggled to produce enough food to feed the growing population that grew from 16 to 28 million between 1787 and 1850.
  • China’s Taiping Rebellion claimed the lives of 20 million people between 1850 and 1868. Local uprisings in southern China claimed another million lives between 1853 and 1858.
  • Those who came to North America were mostly male peasants, labourers and tradespeople, who hoped to send home whatever money they could save to help their families in China, usually with the intention of returning to China after having gathered enough wealth in North America.
  • Most of the thousands of Chinese who arrived in Victoria travelled up the Fraser River to the gold fields, while others stayed in Victoria or travelled to other population centres to establish businesses.

Chinese workers in British Columbia

  • Many Chinese miners worked as labourers for mining companies and major prospectors, often for lower wages than their white counterparts, and, in many cases, they also had to pay back the contractor or family member who loaned them the money to travel from China. After paying for food and housing, many Chinese often did not have much money left to save or to send to their families in China.
  • White settlers often referred to Chinese as “Celestials” (a Western translation of the ancient Chinese term ”Tian Chao” as the Celestial Empire) and often accused them of not contributing to the development of British Columbia. Many saw them as sojourners, or temporary settlers, who worked in Canada, but sent their earnings to family in China, and planned on returning to China after they had made enough money.
  • In 1860, the gold rush spread further north up the Fraser River into the Cariboo region. As miners moved further north looking for gold, it became difficult to transport enough food and supplies in pack trains up the gold trails.
  • In 1862, Governor Douglas authorized the building of a wagon road into the Cariboo to provide easier access for the growing mining industry. In May that year, the Royal Engineers began constructing the Cariboo Wagon Road that began in Yale and continued up through the Fraser Canyon, along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and ended in Quesnel (and later Barkerville). Between 1862 and 1864, approximately 1000 Chinese workers were hired by various contractors to help build the Cariboo Wagon Road.
  • Barkerville, and many other mining towns, grew almost overnight due to the gold rush. Some Chinese bought the rights to gold claims that had already been worked, or abandoned by other gold hunters. Some of these abandoned claims proved profitable while others did not. Other Chinese men worked for prospectors who owned the rights to claims.
  • Between 1860 and 1880, Chinese immigrants also worked in a number of other industries throughout British Columbia and Vancouver Island.