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PODCAST: A Haphazard History of Cariboo Gold Rush entrepreneur Thomas Menefee

Menefee became a prominent land owner and businessman

In the old Soda Creek Cemetery, you can see a fenced gravesite with a granite headstone which reads:

“Sacred to the Memory of T. J. Menefee

Native of Kentucky, U.S.

Born 23rd Nov. 1829. Died July 7th, 1873.”

This is the final resting place of a man who was at the forefront of the Cariboo Gold Rush, and who remained in the area to become a prominent land owner and businessman.

Thomas Menefee, according to his grave marker, was born in Kentucky, but some historians believe he was a native of Missouri. He migrated west to the California goldfields in the early 1850’s, but the land was already staked and that gold rush was largely finished. Menefee joined the many goldseekers moving northwards, prospecting the creeks and rivers along the way. He arrived in southern B.C. in 1858 with one of the first groups of men searching for gold in the Okanagan region.

Menefee’s group was involved in a serious skirmish at the mouth of the Okanagan canyon with a number of men from the local First Nations bands. Three of his party were killed and several were wounded. Menefee himself was shot through the left lung. He was taken by mule 250 miles to Yale, then by riverboat to Victoria, where he was able to recover. He returned to Yale in the spring of 1859, where he partnered up with Peter Dunlevy, Ira Crow, Jim Sellers, and Tom Moffit. Together, this team made their way up the Fraser River, working the bars and checking out the tributaries.

Menefee was described as being a man of slight build, but wiry and tough. He had a great sense of humour and was a born entertainer, known by all for his practical jokes. His quick wit and his perpetual good nature ensured that he was liked by everyone. He always wore a hat, indoors or out, perched rakishly on the back of his head. His friendly demeanour and ability to make light of any situation often hid the fact that he was a shrewd and astute businessman.

One day in early May of 1859, the five partners were working at the mouth of the Chilcotin River when a young Shuswap man appeared. He was Tomaah, a runner and guide for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and also the son of Chief Lolos of the Fort Kamloops Band. Tomaah stayed with the party for two days and watched them digging for gold, getting to know them a little. On the second day, at dinner time, he told them that he knew of a little river where there were many gold nuggets the size of the beans they were eating.

The group arranged to meet Tomaah at a big First Nations gathering at Lac La Hache in 16 days. From there, he promised to take them to the river. Dunlevy and the four other partners went back to Kamloops to reprovision. While there, he hired John McLean and Jim Moore to be axe men to hack a trail through the expected dense bush.

True to his work, Tomaah arrived at Lac La Hache on schedule, accompanied by a friend, Long Baptiste. He was so named because he was tall, over six feet. He also worked for the HBC, and he was a man from the Carrier Nation, raised in the area around Fort Alexandria. Tomaah explained that he was needed by the HBC, so he had asked Long Baptiste, who knew the area as well or better than he did, to guide the group of men to the gold bearing river.

After spending some time observing the big gathering and participating in some of the games, the party headed off to the northeast. They travelled past what are now called Eagle Lake, MacIntosh Lake and Moffat Lake, then down Moffat Creek to the Horsefly River. Because of heavy rains the river was a raging torrent. That didn’t stop the prospectors, who dug into the bank, and soon found several bean sized nuggets. It was mid June, 1859, and this was the beginning of the great Cariboo Gold Rush.

There is some question whether Menefee and his partners were the first to arrive at the Horsefly River that summer. Within a few hours, another group showed up near the same spot as Menefee’s party. There are accounts that Otto Bowe, who preempted the Alkali Lake ranch, was on the Horsefly River weeks before Menefee’s group. Within a three-month period, at least four crews of prospectors were working claims on the river. What is certain is that the first gold, other than on Fraser River, that was found by white goldseekers was located on the Horsefly River in 1859.

Now back to Menefee’s story. He became a rich man virtually overnight, but he did not continue with the backbreaking physical work of gold mining. By 1860, he was operating a pack train, consisting of a string of 30 horses, between Lytton and Keithley Creek. In September 1861, he teamed up with a new partner, Dudley Moreland, to purchase the Missioner Creek Farm at Williams Lake for $15,000. This included a roadhouse, a saloon, a huge vegetable garden and ranchland in the area we now call the “dairy fields.”

Menefee did not spend much time at Williams Lake. He quickly branched out in other directions, including horse racing. He brought in several thoroughbreds from Oregon, and he travelled the racing circuit – Barkerville, Williams Lake, Lac La Hache, Cache Creek, and Ashcroft, betting heavily and often winning.

Despite his frequent absences, the farm at Williams Lake prospered, as did the stopping house, the saloon, and a general store. At that time, the place was on main route to the Cariboo goldfields. Most of the goldseekers, whether walking, or on mules or horses, would stop overnight. Gradually, a small community grew up. Williams Lake became the headquarters of the gold commissioner and the police constable, and a post office, jail, and courthouse were built. Judge Begbie stopped in for the spring and fall assizes. Other settlers pre-empted plots of land in the area, and the future looked rosy.

Then, in 1862 , the Cariboo Wagon Road from Lillooet to Alexandria was begun. The people of Williams Lake looked forward to the traffic and prosperity it would bring. Its exact route was left to the discretion of its builder, Gustavus Blin Wright, another great entrepreneur. In the spring of 1863, as the road approached Williams Lake, Wright met with Menefee and several other prominent landowners from the area.

He informed them that for a reasonable fee of $15,000 to cover the costs of some very difficult terrain, he would route the road from 147 Mile down the San Jose Valley to Williams Lake, and thence to Soda Creek. The landowners, led by Menefee, refused to pay anything, so Wright constructed the road through 150 Mile, up and over Carpenter Mountain, (we now call it the 150 Mile Hill) on to Mountainhouse, then west over to Deep Creek, bypassing Williams Lake altogether.

The residents of Williams Lake were outraged. There were allegations of graft and corruption, especially considering the fact that Wright had a half interest in a new roadhouse at Deep Creek. However, the decision stood, and Williams Lake was cut out of the loop, so to speak. That was its death knell, and it wasn’t until 1920, when the P.G.E. railway established a terminal that the town began a second life. Thomas Menefee, however, continued to prosper. His Missioner Ranch in Williams Lake kept on supplying beef, grain, and vegetables to the gold fields. Miners would come down in the fall and winter over where the climate was milder, spending their gold in the saloon and the roadhouse. Late in 1863, Menefee teamed up once again with the Dunlevy partners and bought a half interest in the Mud Lake (now McLeese Lake) ranch and stopping house.

As the gold rush moved on, Menefee continued to purchase land and erect roadhouses up in the Stikine and Omineca regions, selling them when they were profitable for him to do so. In 1870, he took up permanent residence at Soda Creek, buying a half interest in Dunlevy’s farm and his Exchange hotel there. He also bought out his partner Moreland at his Missioner Creek farm and purchased a one third interest in the flour mill at Deep Creek.

In late June of 1873, Menefee left Soda Creek and set out for the annual Dominion Day/July 4th celebrations at Barkerville. In between Quesnel and Van Winkle, he became seriously ill.

He was transported to Barkerville where, three days after the celebrations, he died of an inflammation of the lung, a complication from his earlier gunshot would. He was only 44 years old.

An estate auction was held on Oct. 21 that year to dispose of his holdings. Included in the sale were the Missioner Creek Farm (including 1,000 acres of land, 75 head of cattle and 15 horses), his half interest in the Dunlevy farm, his half interest in the Exchange Hotel, his third interest in the Protection flour mill, and several other properties.

Menefee was a well-known, highly regarded businessman who had parlayed an initial gold strike into an impressive business empire, proving once again that for an astute entrepreneur, “mining the miners” was always a profitable venture.

The information in this article came mainly from the writings of Branwyn Patenaude, Alex McInnes, and Irene Stangoe.

READ MORE: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The story of Richard Willoughby

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Angie Mindus

About the Author: Angie Mindus

A desire to travel led me to a full-time photographer position at the Williams Lake Tribune in B.C.’s interior.
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