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Sawney's letters, or Cariboo rhymes. From 1864 to 1868 Anderson, James, approximately 1839-1923 1868

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 No. 2
FROM 1864 TO 1868. 
sawney's letters have a twofold interest. From the literary point of view, they are virtually the only
publication of any merit whatever that came out of the Cariboo district during the famous gold rush of the 1860's. The historian, for
his part, reads the verses with attention because the comments of
contemporaries show that they reflect, with considerable discernment
and accuracy, the character and temper of the period.
Their author was a Scotsman, James Anderson, who was born in
Coupar Angus, Perth, about 1839. As his father was a lawyer,
banker, and landed proprietor of some prominence, it seems safe to
assume that James received a good schooling. He married in i860,
and a son was bom the following year. In spite of these growing ties
at home, the lure of the gold fields in faraway Cariboo proved irresistible, and James set out for British Columbia.
By the fall of 1863 he was in Cariboo. He must have found the
contrast with Scotland startling, for the mining community was a
primitive one, in which both population and the fortunes of individuals fluctuated violently. In winter it became a little isolated
world, locked in for many months by the cold and snow. Its centre
was the town of Barkerville, in which Anderson seems first to have
settled. The claims from which a few drew fortunes and the majority reaped disappointment were scattered along the beds of various
rivers and streams. Names that were famous at the time include Williams Creek, upon which Barkerville stands, and Lightning Creek,
which was the scene of Anderson's own last efforts to find gold.
Though fortune failed to smile, Anderson soon became a well-
known figure. He had an attractive personality; he had a pleasant
singing voice and a fund of songs to keep it company; and, as the
Letters show, he could express the joys and sorrows of the time in rhyme. During the long winter evenings life centered about the public reading room in Barkerville, and Anderson took part in many of
the concerts and entertainments held there. In 1866 he and a friend
were issuing a weekly handwritten newspaper that was read aloud
on such occasions, and afforded much amusement. Some of the
Letters may well have appeared in this manuscript paper. Others—
or fragments of them—were printed from time ot time in the
Cariboo Sentinel, a small weekly first published in the summers of
1865 and 1866.
Some of Anderson's verses—we do not know how many, as no
copy seems to have survived—were collected and printed in the
summer of 1866. This edition, advertised in the issue of the Cariboo
Sentinel dated July 30, is described as being printed on a "sheet of
letter paper in a form suited for transmission by mail". It may, perhaps, have resembled the "steamer letters" published by the Victoria
papers in gold-rush days; these had a selection of local news items
printed on one side, while the other side was left blank for a personal message.
It seems more likely, however, that the format was the same as
that of a second edition, printed by the Sentinel in the early summer
of 1868. This consisted of a single sheet, folded quarto-fashion, and
dated Williams Creek, June 22, 1868. It was entitled Sawney's Letters, or Cariboo Rhymes. Both these editions were printed while the
Sentinel was still using the first press ever brought into British
If we may judge by the comments in the Sentinel, Sawney's
Letters were well received and enjoyed a steady sale. A letter that
was in effect a review of the little pamphlet appeared in the Sentinel
for July 9; the writer was one W. Smithe. The Letters, Smithe
wrote, would "vividly recall to old hands their experience in the
hardest days of the hardest country that ever invited civilization to
take up its abode in its rugged mountains". They had, he felt, hit off
very deftly the vices, foibles, and virtues of the time. The ups and
*[For further details on British Columbia's first press see Basil Stuart-
Stubbs, "British Columbia's Peripatetic Press", British Columbia Library
Quarterly, 22:25-30, July, 1958.—editor.] downs of gold seeking, the behaviour of those who gained wealth
suddenly, the eternal gambling, the hurdy-gurdy dancing girls—all
these topics and many others Anderson contrived to touch upon in a
few pages. ". . . anyone desiring to let his friends have an idea of
what Cariboo is like," Smithe wrote, "can do so by no means so well
as by sending them a copy of Anderson's epistles to Sawney". His one
regret was that Anderson had seen fit to write his verses in Scottish
dialect, "for doubtless very many who would otherwise have taken
a great interest in them will be unable to appreciate them as they
deserve, from their simple inability to understand the peculiar phraseology in which they are written".
A third and considerably enlarged edition entitled Sawney's Letters and Cariboo Rhymes, price one dollar, appeared in the spring of
1869, probably in May. The 1868 edition may have been sold out,
or the remaining copies may have been burned in the great fire that
swept Barkerville in September, 1868. The new edition included
eight additional poems in the Sawney series, and twenty-four pages
of Cariboo songs. Presumably, like its predecessors, it was printed
in the office of the Cariboo Sentinel. Still another edition was published in Toronto in 1895 by W. S. Johnston and Company, printers
and bookbinders. As already noted, no copy of the 1866 edition is
known to exist, and all the later issues are now rare. Indeed, probably the only collection possessing all of them is the Provincial
Library and Archives, in Victoria.
The Sentinel for November 25, 1871, announced that Anderson
was at last leaving British Columbia: "Mr. Anderson has been a
resident of Cariboo for the last eight years, during which time he
has won the esteem of many friends, and we are certain has made no
enemies. Fortune, we are sorry to say has not smiled on him; and
weary of wooing her embraces in the search for gold, he now returns
to his old Scottish home, where a fond wife and family have long
been mourning his absence. He was one of the original members of
the Amateur Dramatic Association, and by his vocal talents rendered
much assistance at their performances, his songs being always much
Anderson himself contributed a farewell poem to the same issue,
and it seems fitting- to include it here. FAREWELL!
Cold Cariboo, farewell!
I write it with a sad and heavy heart;
You've treated me so roughly that I feel,
'Tis hard to part.
'Twas all I asked of thee,
One handful of thy plenteous golden grain,
Had'st thou but yielded, I'd have sung "Farewell!"
And home again.
But, time on time, defeat!
Ah, cold and cruel, callous Cariboo!
Have eight years' honest persevering toil
No more of you?
Ah well, then since 'tis so—
Since Fate hath will'd I should no longer here—
I e'en submit, while disappointment starts
The hidden tear.
But still I'll picture thee
As some dear loved one in the days gone by,
And think what might have been, till dreaming brings
The soothing sigh.
Farewell! a fond farewell
To all thy friendships, kindly Cariboo!
No other land hath hearts more warm than thine,
Nor friends more true. Back in his native Scotland, Anderson settled down at "Pitfar",
one of his father's properties near Dollar, in Clackmannan, Fife.
Later he moved to Cupar, in the same county. His last days were
spent in England, where he died about 1923, aged about eighty-four
A son informs us that Anderson wrote home from Cariboo very
regularly, but unfortunately not a single letter of the long series
appears to have survived.
/ am much indebted to Mr. Willard E. Ireland, Provincial Librarian
and Archivist, who hunted out many of the details given in these
notes, to a memorandum prepared many years ago by Mr. G. P.
Bainbridge, of Vancouver, and to Dr. Michael R. Booth, of the Royal
Military College, who discovered the 1866 edition of the Letters.
The text was prepared originally as an introduction to a reprint of
the 1868 edition of the Letters, published by the Bibliographical
Society of Canada in 1930. This revised version has been prepared
and published by kind permission of the Society. CAEIBOO   SOtfGS.
Aik—" Castles in the Air."
The rough but honest miner,
Wha toils night and day,
Seeking for the yellow gold,
Hid amang the clay—
Howkin' in the mountain side,
What does he there—
Ha I the auld " dreamer's "
| Biggin' castles in the air."—
His weather-beaten face,
An' his salr-worn hands
Are tell-tales to a'
O' the hardships he stands ;
His head may grow grey,
And his face fu' o' care,
Hunting after gold,
" Wi' its castles in the air."
He sees an auld'channel,
Buried in the hill,
Fill'd fu-' o' nuggets—
Sae gaes at it wi' a will,
For Tang weeks and months,
Drifting late and air',
Cutting out a door
To his I castle in the air"—
He hammers at the rock,
Believin' it's a rim,
When ten to ane 'tis naething
But his fancy's whim—
Sure when he gets thro'
He'll find his hame-stake there
There's miners mair than ane,
Built this " castle ia the air." I
pN 1863, when James Anderson came
to the Cariboo and, by the evidence of his second letter to Sawney,
bought a claim from the famous Cariboo Cameron, Barkerville was
already a boom town fast replacing nearby communities as the centre
of the Cariboo gold rush. Two years later the boom had reached its
peak, and anywhere between five and ten thousand people huddled
in the tents and cabins of Barkerville and Williams Creek, a population larger than Victoria's, the highest anywhere in the Canadian
Barkerville's appearance was typical of countless mining towns
which sprang up from about 1850 to 1880 all over the West. Between hillsides denuded of trees straggled a long street of frame
houses, stores, restaurants, hotels and saloons, of different sizes and
heights, reflecting in their crazy irregularity the haste and energy
with which the town had been built. Running between makeshift
wooden sidewalks was a filthy, muddy, potholed street, a constant
source of complaint in the Cariboo Sentinel. Floods and spring
freshets sometimes rendered it almost impassable, and for protection
the buildings had to be raised on posts. Down this street eddied the
life of the Cariboo: miners, merchants, hurdy-gurdy girls, Chinamen,
those who had struck it rich far outnumbered by those who had not,
perhaps the most prosperous of all being the storekeepers and
saloonkeepers who charged rich and poor equally high prices.
Anderson was not one of the lucky ones, as his verses tell us. The
first claim he bought from Cameron at Williams Creek was moderately remunerative, and in the summer of 1865, after an unfortunate
venture at nearby Lightning Creek, he was making fairly good
money. However, like so many other miners, he was not content with
enough, and sank all his money into prospecting and shares in other
claims which yielded nothing. Thocht ilka day I'd strike it big,
Sae didna mind the costs a fig.
O! had I kent what I ken noo
I'd sent my siller hame to you;
For long afore the winter's snaw,
My cash took wings and flew awa'.
By the time Anderson wrote his third letter to Sawney in 1868, his
money was gone, and he was working as a labourer for ten hours a
day, a fate that overtook miners with no other way to support themselves after their own claims proved barren, and with no money to
leave the country.
Like foot-ba' knockit back an' fore,
That's lang in reaching goal,
On feather blawn by ilka wind
That whistles 'tween each pole;
E'en sae my mining life has been
Foo mony a weary day,
(Will that sun never rise for me
That shines for makin' hay?)
Yet Anderson remained three more years in the Cariboo, seeking his
elusive fortune once more at Lightning Creek, and once more failing
to find it. When he finally left, he was, as he admits, beaten.
And this the burden o' our sang
To ilka ane that comes alang,
Freend, be advised and turn aboot,
For Cariboo is noo played out!
In 1871, the year of Anderson's departure, Barkerville was a
slowly dying town. Gold was increasingly hard to find, and Barkerville was fulfilling the inexorable destiny of a gold rush town: frenzied settlement, booming, short-lived prosperity, gradual decline,
migration, and ultimate dereliction. Like most gold rush towns, Barkerville passed from birth to death in a life-cycle of only a few years. Anderson was a prolific writer of verse and songs, a sociable man
who must have contributed much to Barkerville's social and cultural
life. He was vice-president of the Cariboo Literary Institute and a
member of the Cariboo Amateur Dramatic Association, which had
opened a theatre in May, 1868. This was the first theatre in the interior of the Province, and followed the building of theatres in Victoria and New Westminster by eight years. It was destroyed in the
fire of September, 1868, but a new one (shared with the Williams
Creek Fire Brigade) opened in January, 1869. To the opening Anderson contributed a gracious and elegant prologue, which remarked:
And here tonight within this spacious hall,
Built by kind labour volunteered by all,
We meet again—and by your beaming eyes
You're pleas'd once more to see the curtain rise.
He appeared once on the stage in Oxenford's farce Uncle Zachary,
and may have written British Columbia's first native play, A Trip to
Peace River, given once at the Theatre Royal in December, 1869.
Advertised as "a new melo-drama", it concerned the gold discoveries
in the Peace River area and the race to get there that was going on
at the very moment of acting. Unfortunately, the play does not survive.
Upon the publication of Sawney's Letters and Cariboo Rhymes,
the Sentinel triumphantly declared that "Cariboo the despised, is, we
are happy to announce, capable of appearing in print and producing
a book". A correspondent of the Sentinel declared that the pleasure
he got from Sawney's Letters "is more than anything I had hoped to
experience from anything in the way of literature, produced in a
place like Cariboo". One of the merits of Anderson's verse, therefore, is that it does represent some kind of enduring local literary
achievement, unique in the Cariboo gold rush, that can give pleasure
a hundred years later.
The poetry itself is of no great literary merit. Sawney's Letters
often read like a cross between Burns and Robert Service; their value
really lies in their graphic illustration of the miner's life. Anderson
was a keen observer, although his eye for detail was sometimes too exact for poetry. For instance, the beginning of the first letter is
taken up with the pay of miners, the high price of staple foods, and
the shortage of milk. Anderson then discusses the prevalence of
gambling (estimating in a later letter that nine of ten miners
gambled). He advises his friend Sawney not to come to Cariboo:
Ye mauna think we houk up gold
As ye the tatties frae the mould.
Gude faith, yell maybe houk a twa'l mo't
An' never ever get a glisk o't!
An' then what comes o' us puir devils,
We get as thin and lean as weevils.
The first letter concludes with nostalgic memories of home.
The second letter comments more directly on the hardships of the
Cariboo miner's life, especially in the winter, when there was no
work. Although some left owing debts,
Still here the miner on the whole
Is a straight gaun honest soul,
Wha pays his debts baith fair and free
Gif he's the cash to pay it wi'.
The pleasures of dancing with the hurdy-gurdy girls (imported from
San Francisco for Barry and Adler's saloon) are vividly described,
but in spite of the pleasantness of Cariboo social life, thoughts of
home intrude:
Ah! Sawney, man, I lang to see
The friends at home sae dear to me.
The third and last letter is undoubtedly the best, more economical
in style, tighter in construction, and shrewd in psychological observation, reaching at moments into genuine poetry. After reviewing the
difficulties of his mining life and his failure to strike it rich, Anderson reflects on the changes gold makes in men and in the world's
attitude to rich and poor. 
Yet tak the bawbees frae the ane,
An' gie them to the ither,
This man will get the warld's hand,
And that man its cauld shoulther!
To Anderson, perhaps the prime value of a mining life was that
it revealed the truth about men.
There's naething like a minin' life
In ony trade or art,
That brings to licht sae forcibly
Each feelin' o' the heart.
The SentineFs correspondent previously quoted found it remarkable that "hard knocks and rough living are powerless to destroy the
spirit of poesy". In Anderson, rather, they stimulated it. The truthfulness of his observation impressed this correspondent most, and the
Sentinel also found it to be the chief value of his verse. It is a judgment which remains valid for the modern reader. Although by no
means a poet of stature, he is the earliest British Columbia poet to
attain any kind of literary survival, and his undoubted virtue is his
vivid picture of a rough mining life in one of the most significant
periods and places in British Columbia's history.


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