Legend of the Lost Golden Bullets Mine

By: Lindsay Elms

History has proven that there is nothing more alluring then the scent of gold and the possibility of finding the mother lode. Vancouver Island has seen its share of gold rushes but never any as big as the Klondike or Cariboo. However, there is one story that has stirred the imagination of many men for the last one hundred and forty years and that is the story of the rumored Golden Bullets Mine of the Cowichan region.

Attention was brought to the story of this mine by Tomo Antoine in 1859. Antoine was a colourful character who was able to spin a good yarn when seated around a campfire. In a young country infected with gold fever there was never a shortage of ears to listen to his tales of hidden gold mines and strange geological features that bordered on the impossible.

Antoine was a pure breed Iroquois Indian who after arriving on Vancouver Island commenced work for the Hudson's Bay Company acting as a guide, hunter and interpreter. His Excellency Governor of Vancouver Island, was also known to hold Antoine in high regards for his exceptional skills.

In 1856 Antoine accompanied Adam Horne, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company in Nanaimo, on his expedition across the island from Qualicum to Barkley Sound and then in 1857, the Surveyor-General of the Colony, employed Antoine to guide his expedition from Cowichan Harbor to Nitinat on the west coast. Captain Thomas Gooch who was a member of the 1857 expedition wrote the following description of Tomo Antoine:

…he was a slight, actively built man, with dark, copper-coloured face, lit up by keen, intelligent black eyes. By birth an Indian of Lower Canada, he spoke the French dialect of that province well, and also spoke English, and many Indian languages. His reputation as a huntsman and axeman stood high, and from his intimate knowledge of backwoods life and of the customs of Indian tribes Antoine was a valuable addition to any pioneering expedition in North America.

On both of these expeditions, Antoine became acquainted with the various Indians of the Chemainus and Cowichan tribes learning their languages and listening to their stories. One of the best known stories that Antoine recounted was a story he had learned from the Indians at Kaatsa Lake (Cowichan Lake as it is now known).

Antoine said the Indians had found an outcropping of gold-bearing quartz in a cave formed by an overhanging rock. This cave was located in the mountains at the head of one of the rivers that flowed into Kaatsa Lake. With lead for their muskets in short supply, they dug out and melted down the free gold to cast their musket balls. Hence the name Golden Bullets Mine.

In a country infected with gold-fever it is surprising that there wasn't a rush to the Lake Cowichan/Chemainus River region but the spectacular finds in the Cariboo undoubtedly over-shadowed this story. However, a search for the "Indian Quartz Lode" was undertaken in 1860.

Samuel Harris, a Special Constable at Cowichan Bay, was instructed to proceed up the Cowichan River to prospect for the "Quartz Lode" reported by Antoine and the Indians to exist in the mountains. Harris left Cowichan Bay on the 7th of February and proceeded up the Cowichan River. At the gravel bars in the river near the Indian village of Quamichan he found good colour in each pan but because of the present flooded state of the river he was unable to continue any further. Harris decided to put off any further exploration until later in the year.

On the 20th of July Harris mounted his second exploratory trip. With a Mr. Langley and Durham, and two Indians, they headed up the Cowichan River. This time when they reached the native village of Quamichan where they were met with opposition from the local Indians who were against them going any further. The Indians tracked the expedition and enticed one of Harris's Indians away from the party.

Undeterred, Harris's party continued with the trip taking eleven days to reach Cowichan Lake. At every gravel bar along the way they stopped and panned for gold and in places found good colour. It was hoped that the increasing amount of colour found would eventually indicate the source of the gold or at least pin-point which creek it was coming from.

Once at the lake they made the frightening discovery that some of the local Indians were suffering from small-pox and many were dead and others dying daily. The chief said his people were distraught with the idea of dying off by disease and were getting ready to attack a nearby tribe with the view of dying gloriously. However, the chief offered to show Harris gold if he would pay him. As an envoy of the Island's Government Harris's first concern now was for the health of the Indians and he promised to return with medicine to cure the sick.

It took Harris's party three days to return to Cowichan Bay and he was ready to head back into the lake by August 17. After distributing the medicine to the sick, he again asked the chief about the gold. This time the chief refused to show them saying that the river was too low to paddle a canoe up and it would take too long to get there on foot. He was now more worried about his people getting enough meat and berries dried for the approaching winter months. Harris had brought Tomo Antoine along on this trip knowing that he could speak the local language. Antoine tried to persuade the Indians into revealing the source of the gold and Harris even offered his gun in exchange but it was to no benefit.

Harris reluctantly returned to Cowichan Bay and informed Governor James Douglas of the latest exploratory results. Harris said the he was certain the "Quartz Lode" and fabled gold mine existed and that there was no reason that miners from Victoria could not go there and make something of the colour his party had found in the river.

Harris undertook no further search for the mine but pre-empted a block of land near Cowichan Bay and laid out a townsite which he named Harrisville. He built a house and next door a tavern called the John Bull Inn, which became a popular hang-out for would-be prospectors in search of the elusive Golden Bullets Mine.

The search for the fabled "Quartz Lode" has continued to strike a chord amongst hardy and determined prospectors up until today. Many men have scoured the rugged mountains and valleys surrounding Cowichan Lake hoping they would be lucky enough to stumble upon the cave. Although other valuable minerals have been found, the Golden Bullets Mine has proven to be elusive. Whether it is fact or myth it remains a mystery: a romantic story to intrigue those lured by the irresistible scent of gold.

Original Story

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