by: Robie L. Reid
BC Historical Quarterly, January 31, 1944

“Meddling with what is beyond one’s province; intrusive, presumptuous; insolent or saucy in speech or behaviour “—such is the meaning of the word “impertinent,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So aptly does this describe the attitude and activities of John Nugent, Special Agent of the United States Government to Vancouver Island and British Columbia, that the compilers might well have had him in mind when writing the definition.

Nugent’s mission arose out of the gold-rush of 1858. Nothing in Canadian history quite parallels the condition in which British Columbia found itself in the course of that memorable year, and the background of Nugent’s visit was therefore as unusual as his conception of the proper conduct of a special envoy.

Vancouver Island had for some years been organized as a Crown Colony, complete with governor, council, legislature, and judiciary; but all of these were connected in one way or another with the Hudson’s Bay Company. It could scarcely be other wise, for the island itself had been handed over to the Company. James Douglas was both Governor of the Colony and Chief Factor of the Company, and practically all the residents, whether in the capital, Victoria, or in the little coal-mining town of Nanaimo, were employees of the Company. As for the main land, the outside world knew little about it except that it had become British territory under the terms of the boundary settlement of 1846. On maps of the day it was named—if it was named at all—” New Caledonia.” In it there was not even the shadow of a government. The Hudson’s Bay Company enjoyed the exclusive right to trade with the Indians within its boundaries, and no other trade existed within the area. The only settlements were the Company’s trading-posts, and even these were few and far between. This state of affairs had continued for so long that the very officers of the Company had come to believe that all trade, whether or not it concerned the Indians, was exclusively theirs.

Suddenly word came to the world that gold had been discovered on the mainland, in the bars of the Fraser River. The first adventurers to come in search of it were mostly from near-by Washington Territory and Oregon, but they were few in number compared with those who• came from farther south. Miners in California were particularly attracted, for the rich goldfields in that State were becoming exhausted and they were looking for new deposits elsewhere. The vanguard of the California miners left San Francisco, 450 strong, in the steamer Commodore, on April 20, 1858. By the middle of August some twenty-five to thirty thousand persons had followed them. Many of these had to remain for a time in Victoria, until the flood-waters of the Fraser subsided. With few exceptions the newcomers were orderly and law-abiding; those who were not were dealt with promptly by the officials of the little Crown Colony of Vancouver Island. The good behaviour of the majority has been attributed to the Californians; but it must always be remembered that many of the latter had come originally from the British Isles, or from British colonies in America, Australia, or elsewhere. They had been brought up to recognize the meaning of the words, “The King’s Peace,” or, as it was in 1858, “The Queen’s Peace.”

On Vancouver Island, where an organized government existed, the task of maintaining law and order thus proved relatively simple. The great problem was how to preserve it on the mainland. With the coming of the gold-seekers it became ap parent that steps must be taken, and taken without delay, to administer this hitherto derelict land and police it in the interests both of the miners themselves and the British Crown. Equally obvious was the fact that this could not be done without money; yet how was revenue to be raised in an unorganized territory?

The task of wrestling with these problems fell to the lot of James Douglas. As Governor of Vancouver Island, he was the only representative of the Crown within several thousand miles of the Fraser River, and he felt duty bound to do his utmost to safeguard British interests. True, his jurisdiction as Governor did not extend to the mainland; but his position as Chief Factor gave him control of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts and activities there.[i]  By judicious exaggeration of his authority both as Governor and Chief Factor, Douglas hoped to gain the upper hand and retain control until such time as news of the gold-rush could reach London and the British Government could take suitable steps in the matter. This the Government did with all dispatch; but owing to the slowness of communication and other causes the measure establishing the new Colony of British Columbia, on the mainland, did not receive the Royal Assent until August 2, and the Colony was not actually proclaimed at Fort Langley until November 19, 1858. For the better part of six months Douglas was thus left largely to his own devices. He had the backing of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its employees and could count upon the support of the few ships of the Royal Navy that were stationed at Esquimalt. Boldly exceeding his powers, he appointed Justices of the Peace, Revenue Officers, Gold Commissioners, and Commissioners of Crown Lands for the mainland. To raise money, he compelled would-be miners to purchase licences, and required every vessel entering the Fraser to secure a “sufference,” for which a fee was charged. In many instances, either for convenience or from necessity, he made use of the Hudson’s Bay Company to collect these levies. Inevitably, many of the miners jumped to the conclusion that the Company was pocketing the fees. The records make it quite clear, however, that at no time did Douglas personally or the Company benefit financially. On July 1, 1858, for example, Douglas reported to the Colonial Secretary that a total of 2,525 miners’ licences had been issued to date, and added:

“We have thereby collected the sum of 12,625 dollars on account of the In territorial other important Revenue, which respects, I hold subject however, to your instructions.[ii]

Douglas did overstep the mark, due to his belief that all trade on the mainland, and not merely trade with the Indians, had been handed over to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the Crown. Acting upon that assumption, he attempted at first to limit imports to goods controlled by the Company; to make vessels purchase a licence from the Company in addition to the official sufferance before mentioned; and to compel miners to pay head-money to the Company. These measures were disallowed by the Colonial Secretary as soon as he heard of them; and even before word of his action had been received, Douglas had found that the regulations were impracticable and had cancelled or greatly modified them. In their place he had substituted an ad valorem duty of 10 per cent. upon all foreign goods destined for the main land. The proceeds, he informed the Colonial Secretary, went not to the Hudson’s Bay Company, but were “to be exclusively applied to the service of Her Majesty’s Government, and to meet the expenses of governing Fraser’s River.”[iii]

Douglas’s comment upon the action of the Colonial Secretary in repudiating his policy deserves quotation in part:

I observe . . . from your Despatch [of July 16, 1858), that the rights of trade made over to the Hudson’s Bay Company are limited to the trade with the Indian tribes. We have always hitherto given a more extended application to those rights, believing, from the circumstance of the country being inhabited by Indians alone, and from its not being open for settlement to white men, that the intention of Parliament in granting the licence was to make over the whole trade of the country to the Hudson’s Bay Company.[iv]

No doubt many will be suspicious of Douglas’s motives; the writer, for one, believes that he acted in good faith. But whether he did or not, the clamour to which his policy had given rise spread far and wide. The majority of the miners came from the United States, and most of them had been forced to pay a levy of some kind which they suspected had found its way into the coffers of the Hudson’s Bay Company. No amount of explanation (and Douglas was not adept at explaining matters to the populace) could change their opinion that they had been mulcted of their money for the Company’s benefit. Nor did the new ad valorem duty meet with greater favour. In November, 1858, a correspondent whose name we do not know warned Douglas that elaborate briefs against the duty were being prepared amongst the miners on the Fraser

“They contain a list of the names of the principal payers of this tax, together with the total amount collected up to the 1st November, states [sic] that a subordinate official proclaimed the 10 per cent to be a crown duty but that they (the petitioners) are well informed to the contrary. That it is col lected by and for the Hudson’s Bay Company and in proof of this it is asserted that it is collected at the Company’s office, and not at the Custom House.[v]

On the margin of this letter Douglas noted that the duty “was, when first levied, received by the agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but simply for the reason that there was no other person, whom I chose to trust with the money.” This was perfectly true; but the facts, even if they could have been widely publicized, would have made little impression in view of the temper of the time. Douglas’s attempt to monopolize trade on behalf of the Company, though quickly abandoned, had made too deep and unfavourable an impression. Months after they had been cancelled his regulations were being reprinted and discussed in the American press.

On the whole, however, the more responsible newspapers in both Washington Territory and California took a surprisingly lenient view of the situation. Thus in June 1858, the Steilacoom Puget Sound Herald advised the miners to take a conciliatory attitude until the doubts about the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company could be cleared up, and went so far as to remark that the Company could not be blamed for defending its rights, if such they were.[vi]  The Olympia Pioneer and Democrat took much the same attitude.[vii]  The San Francisco Evening Bulletin stated that it was not prepared to say whether or not Douglas was exceeding his powers; the question was one between the British Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and would be settled in due course. It was confident that any exactions found to have ‘been wrongfully imposed would be made good. Taking a longer-term view, the Bulletin continued:

“American individuals going abroad should carefully respect the authority that exists de facto wherever they may happen to sojourn. . . . Let us rather submit to the temporary annoyance of Governor Douglas’ restrictive policy, than awaken prejudices against ourselves which may permanently injure us, by attempts to evade or resist it.[viii]

The Bulletin’s faith that the British Government would put things right was shared by the Alta California. While convinced that the “exactions” were illegal and unauthorized, it counselled obedience, and was confident that the authorities in London would act when they were in possession of the facts.[ix]

A much more extreme view of the situation was taken in official circles. As early as May 18, 1858, Governor Isaac Stevens, of the Territory of Washington, protested hotly to the United States Government against the “impositions” that Douglas was trying to. enforce against American citizens bound for the Fraser River mines. He challenged Douglas’s authority in the matter, pointing out (quite correctly) that, so far as he knew, Douglas had no jurisdiction “over the country in question, called New Caledonia, save that derived from his position as Chief Factor in the Hudson’s Bay Company.”[x]  Stevens pressed his point in letter after letter, and on July 21 forwarded to Washington a twenty-nine-page dispatch intended

“to exhibit . . . the enormity and absolute illegality of the impositions placed upon the citizens of the United States by the British authorities assuming to exercise jurisdiction over the whole Territory in which the late gold discoveries have been made, and to ask the interposition of the Government on behalf of our citizens seeking to enter that Territory.[xi]

Stevens’s conception of the facts of the matter was as exaggerated as his feelings, for he went on to estimate that the revenue that Douglas would derive from miners’ licences would amount to $2,400,000 a year, and that the Hudson’s Bay Company would receive $14,000,000 per annum from its exclusive trade in sup plies. These “exactions,” he insisted, “had been imposed with out any legal authority which should be respected by the citizens or government of the United States.”[xii] Ten days later he returned again to the charge and urged that the United States Government should:

“…interpose with the British authorities for the removal of the restrictions above referred to. And I further request that this government demand the repayment of all sums collected by the Governor of Vancouver Island for licenses to dig gold, and that it make reclamation for the value of all cargoes and vessels confiscated.[xiii]

A plea of a different sort came from Governor Weller, of California, who not only questioned Douglas’s authority, but was fearful that his policy would lead to serious trouble. In June, 1858, he wrote to President Buchanan:

“As there is no Government in that Territory, other than that established by the Hudson’s Bay Company, I fear very much that the extraordinary powers assumed by Governor Douglas will involve us in difficulties. The citizens of California who are now emigrating to that Territory have lost none of their hatred of tyrannic rule which characterized their ancestors, and it is therefore probable, his exactions will meet with determined resistance.[xiv]

As a result of these and other urgings, the United States Government decided to send a Special Agent to the Fraser River mines to investigate the state of affairs there, and to report to the President. The man selected for this important mission was John Nugent, of San Francisco, an Irish-born journalist who had been personally known to President Buchanan years before, when the one had been Secretary of State during the Polk administration and the other the Washington correspondent of the New York Herald. Nugent had subsequently gone to California, where he had been Clerk of the first State Legislature and later publisher and editor of the highly successful San Francisco Herald. He was a supporter of the first Vigilance Committee in 1851 and joined the special police in 1852. Some years later, however, he began to associate with the celebrated Ned McGowan. Completely misjudging public opinion, he opposed the revival of the Vigilance Committee in 1856, following the murder of James King of William. This caused the business-men of Sari Francisco to withdraw their advertising from the Herald, which entered upon a decline from which it never recovered.

Nugent had a singular ability to acquire both friends and enemies, a trait that was commented upon in an article published some time after his death:

“Impatient of opposition and imperious in controversy, he was led into personal difficulties which three times brought him on the “field of honor “— with John Cotter, who seriously wounded him in the left thigh, with Edward Gilbert, who retracted the offensive article on the field, and with Thomas Hayes, who shot him in the upper right arm . . . And yet he was the most genial of friends, the truest and firmest in his friendships. As a foe he was exasperating, but also was he on some occasions magnanimous, as the afterward warm friendship between himself and Tom Hayes demonstrated.[xv]

The historian Bancroft speaks of Nugent in the following terms:

“Seldom have I met a man toward whom my sympathy went out as toward Mr. Nugent. Small, of light complexion and delicate features, soft and slow of speech, modest and sensitive, yet lion-hearted and intellectually great withal, he deserved a better fate. This one great mistake [the stand taken by the Herald in 1856j hovered like a spectre over all his after-life.[xvi]

Neither writer mentions the lively dislike of all things British that made Nugent a curious choice for the office of Special Agent; but doubtless President Buchanan knew of the financial difficulties in which the decline of the Herald had involved him, and gave him the post for friendship’s sake. The appointment was promptly condemned by the New York Times, which on August 2, 1858, printed this pen picture of the “Ambassador to Frazer’s River “:

“If it had been President Buchanan’s design to create an imbroglio at the New Caledonia gold-diggings, his choice of Nugent, the late editor of the San Francisco Herald, might be pronounced not only unexceptionable but singularly judicious. A man better calculated to stir up broils could not be found or one who could command, in a measure more diminutive, the respect of the California miners.

A month later, when Nugent was in San Francisco awaiting the departure of the steamer Northerner, which was to carry him to Victoria, Thomas Rowlandson, a British resident of the city, felt compelled, “on public grounds,” to write privately to the Colonial Secretary regarding the appointment:

“The “On Dit” here is that it was simply a place carved out for a clamourous expectant of official patronage. . . . To sum up his character concisely I may state that he is an Irishman with an inveterate and rabid hatred of England & will doubtless stir up difficulties if he can, unless he thinks his present interests will be greatly injured by such conduct. Whilst I do not anticipate any serious disturbance from the appointment, I considered it an act of duty to apprise the Colonial office as to the sort of Agent sent out by the United States, so that his conduct might be carefully watched.[xvii]

The instructions given by the United States Government to the Special Agent[xviii] were reasonable and fair. They asked for a description of the mines, the means of working them, the restrictions imposed by the authorities, the supply of provisions, and any other features of interest. Certain specific matters were to be investigated, including the laws and regulations to which the miners were subject, the duties levied on supplies, and the licences required. The American Government was specially anxious to know if any distinction was made between British subjects and foreigners with respect to entrance into the country and to rights and privileges after arrival there. It was also anxious to know the approximate number of British subjects and American citizens in New Caledonia.

Nugent landed in Victoria on September 20, 1858. Five days later he embodied his first impressions in a letter to the Hon. Lewis Cass, the American Secretary of State. He reported that the local officials were conciliatory, and that he hoped that he would be able to secure the removal of the restrictions about which there had been so many complaints. There was, in his opinion, no longer any danger of a collision between the Americans and the people and authorities of Vancouver Island. He was pessimistic about the mines, which were far below expectations. “Hundreds consequently leave by every steamer for San Francisco. It is quite safe to predict that the great majority of the miners will have left before’ the first of November.”[xix] After spending a few days in Victoria, Nugent went to the mainland and visited the mines on the Fraser River. On this trip he did some good work. He searched for all Americans who were in difficulties, gathered up over a hundred derelicts, and made arrangements for them to return to California. He found a number of Americans with grievances to air. Some complained of having been ill-treated by Hudson’s Bay Company employees; others were dissatisfied with decisions of Government officials. On the whole, considering the conditions existing at the time, these complaints were very few.

After his return from the mines Nugent remained for a time in Victoria. Several matters were discussed by him with Governor Douglas, both verbally and by correspondence. One concerned criminal trials in the Courts. Nugent pointed out that there was only one lawyer, George Pearkes, who was entitled to plead in the Vancouver Island Courts. As Pearkes was legal adviser to the Governor, and had the duty of prosecuting in criminal cases, the accused were of necessity left without legal counsel. There were a number of Americans awaiting trial at the time, and Nugent therefore asked Douglas to allow attorneys from the United States, several of whom were in the city, to act as defence counsel in these cases. Douglas was inclined to give the desired permission, but, being uncertain of his powers in the matter, referred the question to Pearkes, who advised him that he had no authority to permit foreigners to practise in the Courts. Pearkes added that Judge Begbie, who had been appointed Judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and was then on his way out from England, would have the right to do so, but that a decision on the point would have to await his arrival. Later in his report Nugent inveighed bitterly against Douglas for having acted on the advice of his legal adviser. The passage reads in part:

Afterwards I was informed by a note from his excellency that the application could not be granted, as the rules of the court forbade anybody practicing before it who was not a subject of the British crown. I regret to be obliged to characterize this as a mere subterfuge; that it was such will appear from the fact that the gentleman who then held the office of crown solicitor [Pearkes] had been a member of the San Francisco bar for two years.[xx]

Nugent was correct in stating that Pearkes was a member of the California Bar; but he neglected to add that he was a member of the English Bar as well. It seems incredible that he did not know this, and the implication is that the ambiguity of his statement was deliberate. Actually, American citizens seem to have had no reason to complain of their treatment in the Courts, in spite of the conditions Nugent denounced. American attorneys were permitted to visit and advise the accused, though they could not actually appear at the trial; and in view of the fact that they had no counsel, Pearkes did not exercise his right to address the jury after the evidence was taken.

That Douglas’s reason for refusing Nugent’s request was not a “mere subterfuge” soon became apparent. Judge Begbie assumed office two days after Nugent left Victoria, and one of his first acts was to make the order that the Special Agent had demanded. Ironically enough, not a single American attorney ever took advantage of it.

Nugent’s next activity was to attempt to give Douglas a lesson in etiquette. He received a letter signed not by the Governor himself, but by his secretary—a circumstance that Nugent regarded as a direct affront and insult both to himself and to the Government he represented. When the offence was repeated, he added a postscript to his reply:

“The last two notes received from your excellency were signed by your secretary, I presume, through inadvertence. I beg to call your attention to this mistake, in order to prevent its recurrence.[xxi]

If this thrust angered Douglas, he did not show it. He replied in the usual way, in a letter signed by his secretary, which explained his conduct as follows:

“His excellency desires me to inform you that the two last letters which he had the honor to address to you by his private secretary, alluded to in the postscript to your letter, were not signed by the secretary by inadvertence, as you presume; that the usual medium of official communications is the colonial secretary, and in the absence of that functionary, the governor’s private secretary was deputed to sign the letters referred to in behalf of his excellency; a course which was not adopted from any disrespect to you, but in conformity with diplomatic usage, and in which sense his excellency begs you will accept these and any further official communications which he may have the honor of making to you in that manner.[xxii]

This explanation Nugent flatly refused to accept, and three days later he addressed to the Governor as insolent a missive as he could manufacture:

“Hotel de France, Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, Nov. 12, 1858.

Sir: In my note of third of the present month, I had the honor to call your attention to what I conceived to be a mistake made by your secretary in signing your two communications of the 8th and 13th ultimo, respectively, with his own name. In a verbal conversation had with your excellency on the day on which you last note was dated, I intimated that I could not receive communications on matters connected with my agency through the medium of your private secretary, that gentleman being to me officially unknown. Since then, I have received another note dated November 9, 1858, doubtless dictated by your excellency, but signed in the same way as the two preceding. Not having been made aware by my government of any circumstance giving your excellency the prerogative of corresponding with me at second hand, and only through a third party, I regret to inform you that I cannot take notice of the contents of your communication of the 9th instant; and further, that all written correspondence must cease between us with this note. I am urged to this step by a sense of duty alone; and although I would be undoubtedly justified by the rules of that diplomatic etiquette to which you appeal, in returning your last communication, I refrain from so doing, because it is my desire to attribute your excellency’s course to a want of conversancy with such matters, rather than to uncivil intention; and because, in obedience to the spirit of my instructions, I am anxious to maintain, to the end, the amicable relations that have hitherto subsisted between your excellency and myself.

Lest my official duties should not afford me leisure to call for the purpose of paying my respects to your excellency previous to my departure, t avail myself of this occasion to bid you farewell. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, John Nugent, Special Agent of the United States.[xxiii]

His Excellency Governor Douglas.

Nugent did not leave Victoria for a week after this letter was written, and he might have found time to pay a last call on the Governor. But perhaps it was as well that he did not. The “official duties” that took up his time in the last days of his sojourn included the composition of a farewell address “To the Citizens of the United States in Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia,” which appeared in the Victoria Gazette for November 16, 1858. The complete text of this address is printed in the appendix to this article, but one or two passages must be quoted here.

After some pertinent remarks on the duties of American citizens in foreign countries, Nugent turned his attention to the local administration. Having admitted that “it was scarcely to be expected that a well-regulated Government could be at once built up, out of the chaotic elements suddenly thrown together in such confusion,” he went on to pay his respects to Douglas, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Courts, in these words:

“Much was to be pardoned to the inexperience of an Executive hitherto dealing for the most part with savages, and, possibly unprepared by previous training for the more refined exigencies imposed by governmental relations with a white population:—much of the cause of complaints that have arisen was to some extent excusable, because due to the unlicensed rudeness of the subordinate officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Colonial Government, who, by reason of their long isolation from civilized society and their habitual intercourse with Indians, had unlearned most of the finer traits of humanity, and were scarcely accountable for a grossness of conduct that had become to them a second nature:—and, lastly, much was to be excused in the ignorance and want of tone of courts organized out of such crude and unfit materials as those, the only ones that were at hand on the sudden influx of the strangers. In some instances, no doubt, these courts have fallen short of even the limited expectations justified by the peculiar circumstances of their construction, and the strange constituents of which they were composed.

In a later paragraph he expressed the hope that the British Government would provide remedies for these evils and abuses without unnecessary delay, and advised American citizens, if oppressed or wronged, to apply to the local Courts for redress.

It is to be hoped they will obtain justice [Nugent continued]: “but should those tribunals, unfortunately, be too impotent, too ignorant, or too corrupt to administer the law with impartiality and firmness, our citizens may reckon with certainty upon the prompt and efficient interference of their own Government in their behalf.

This was followed by a reference to the strong stand the United States had taken when dealing with an upstart government in Nicaragua, the inference being that similar action could be expected in British Columbia under circumstances that Nugent chose to regard as parallel. It is noteworthy that although the Victoria Gazette was owned and edited by American citizens from San Francisco, Nugent’s address appeared as a paid advertisement, and strong exception to its contents was taken by the Gazette in an editorial:

“ We need hardly say that we dissent from the conclusions of the document, and disapprove its tone.

The allusion to the acquired or natural unfitness of the authorities of British Columbia and this Colony [Vancouver Island], for the positions they occupy, is as glaring an exhibition of bad taste as diplomatic records contain; and the quotation from Gen. Cass’s letter of instructions, in the case of an ephemeral, irresponsible Spanish-American government, as indicative of the manner in which the relations of the United States with Great Britain would be carried out, is not only sophistical but insulting to the latter power. It is also noteworthy that the early training of the statesman whose language is thus misused, was amid such associations as the Special Agent declares to have unfitted the authorities of British Columbia and Vancouver Island for the administration of civilized government—the Hon. Lewis Cass having long had the management of Indian affairs in the then Northwestern portion of the American Union.[xxiv]

Some months later the Gazette returned to the subject, and made this interesting comment:

“That the officers of Her Majesty’s Government in British Columbia have fallen into grave errors at times, we have no disposition to dispute; but that generally they are gentlemen in every sense of the word, and at least the peers of their official villifier [sic], no just man who has had any intercourse with them will question. If evidence were needed to establish the fact, it might be found in the dignified forbearance and stinging contempt with which they passed over the gravely fantastic antics of the Special Agent, in his attempts to “promote subordination.”[xxv]

Victoria’s other newspaper, the British Colonist, though edited by Amor de Cosmos, and bitterly opposed to the Douglas regime, had this to say concerning Nugent’s statement:

“Had a similar address been issued by the British Consul at San Francisco, though warranted through the corruption of officials, and the abuse of British subjects, he would probably have been insulted or shot before night, and the California press would have blazed with indignation. . . . If officially authorized to speak in behalf of his countrymen, we believe Mr. Nugent should have communicated the abuses—which Americans in common with Englishmen have suffered—to the authorities, and if redress was not given, then quietly to his government. That he told some truths, in our opinion does not justify him as an official agent.[xxvi]

Possibly to the surprise of Amor de Cosmos, some of the San Francisco papers were highly indignant at the publication of Nugent’s address. The Evening Bulletin considered that he had “gratuitously offered gross insults to the local government,” and referred to the “ungenerous, undignified, illiberal. and malicious sentiment expressed in Mr. Nuge’nt’s address.” [xxvii]

When copies of the document reached London, The Times quoted from it at length, and made this stinging comment:

This language is insolent and offensive without being innocuous. . . . But nothing can be more disgraceful in any one who pretends to rank as an educated man than to scatter mischief in a society such as this, and to teach a population to despise the legal authority of the officers of the government upon whose territory they dwell. Such a man as this is a public nuisance. Happily we believe his evil desires will not be gratified. . . . There is no reason to believe that the American settlers will follow Mr. Nugent’s evil counsels. But this is no fault of Mr. Nugent’s. He has done all in his power to throw the colony into confusion and to bring disgrace upon the service to which he was attached.”[xxviii]

One further comment from nearer home is worth quoting because it refers to the vexed question of the Courts. It comes from the Puget Sound Herald, of Steilacoom, and is concerned chiefly with Chief Justice Cameron, of Vancouver Island, the only Judge in the whole region at the time of Nugent’s visit:

“We have formed a very favourable opinion of his [Judge Cameron’sl ability, integrity, and purity. There seems to be a manifest desire on the part of the Judge to dispense Justice not only with rigidness and exactness, but with despatch. The manner in which Justice is meted out to parties litigant and all of the transactions of the tribunal are apparently very much at variance with the wholesale denunciations heaped upon the authorities of the colony by Mr. Special Commissioner John Nugent. We make these remarks on the principle of giving “honour to whom honour is due.”[xxix]

Nugent left Victoria on November 17, 1858, two days before the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed at Fort Langley. He proceeded to Washington, where he submitted his report to President Buchanan on January 8, 1859. On the 29th Buchanan transmitted it to the Senate, which two days later referred it to the Committee on Foreign Relations. It was ordered to be printed on February 17, and duly appeared, as a thirty-page Senate document, later in the spring.

The report need not be considered in any detail. In it Nugent quotes certain passages from the address printed in the Victoria Gazette; as the San Francisco Evening Bulletin justly observed at the time, the report “is conceived in the same spirit and is in a great measure an elaborate special pleading to support the obnoxious opinions expressed in that document.”[xxx] One or two new topics are introduced. The Hudson’s Bay Company is suspected of having furnished the Indians of Washington and Oregon with arms and ammunition for use against the white population of those territories; the San Juan question is dealt with briefly. More interesting is a reference to the prospects of annexation. In Nugent’s opinion Vancouver Island and British Columbia:

“… really offered no inducement sufficient to render them worthy of even a temporary struggle. It is true that, in all probability, both will eventually cease to be under European control. Their ultimate accession to the American possessions on the Pacific coast is scarcely problematical—but in the mean time their intrinsic value either of locality, soil, climate, or productions, does not warrant any effort on the part of the American government or the American people towards their immediate acquisition.[xxxi]

“Manifest destiny” was a popular doctrine in the United States in 1858, and the passage may mean no more than that Nugent was an adherent of that school of thought. Some contend, however, that he had been sent deliberately to spy out the land, with annexation in view; that the reference to Nicaragua in his address was not accidental but came to his mind naturally because he was considering the possibility of a filibustering expedition in British Columbia. One scrap of contemporary evidence supports this point of view. The anonymous correspondent who warned Douglas that briefs were being prepared against the ad valorem duty on imports warned him a:lso that Nugent’s fundamental purpose was subversive. He contended that the Special Agent counted upon at least a hundred thousand Americans being subject to his control, — that the British Government would be but nominal, and that though tacitly acknowledging the right of the English Government to make laws, yet the united strength and voice of the Americans would control and influence such laws, and gradually assimilate them to their own views and interests.[xxxii]

The Fraser River mines having proven to be much less rich and extensive than was at first thought, and the wealth of the Cariboo not having yet been discovered, the assumption is that Nugent did not think the venture worth while, and so stated in his report. One of the remarkable features of the entire episode is the absence of any outward sign of displeasure from Governor Douglas. Neither Nugent nor his mission was so much as mentioned in any of his official dispatches to the Colonial Office until after the Special Agent had left the country. Finally, in January, 1859, Douglas forwarded to London a copy of the letter which has just been quoted in part. His covering dispatch read as follows:

Executive No. 64
Victoria Vancouver’s Island
5th January 1859

Sir I beg to enclose for the information of Her Majesty’s Government, copy of an important communication worthy of confidence though the writer’s name is for obvious reasons withheld.

The communication refers to Mr. Nugent late Special Agent for the United States at this place and points out the particular designs which the writer discovered he had in view. I forward this document rather as an illustration of the ideas floating in the mind of the simple American, who talks with confidence of the realization of such visions than with the view of creating alarm. Mr. Nugent would no doubt have protected to the best of his ability the interests of his country and countrymen in British Columbia, and he might have succeeded in exercising a pernicious influence over the latter and have excited a spirit of dissatisfaction with the established regulations of the country, but I conceive that nothing more serious could have occurred, as there are resources at our disposal sufficient to meet any emergency that may arise, and I feel satisfied that as long as we hold with a firm hand and superior force the avenues to British Columbia, no other power can wrest it from our grasp.

I have the honor to be Sir Your most obedient humble servant JAMES DOUGLAS Governor British Columbia

The Right Honble.

Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton Bart. Her Majesty’s principal Secretary of State For the Colonial Department.

This dispatch would seem to indicate that Douglas was inclined to believe the charges against Nugent. Just where the truth lies it is difficult, at this late date, to determine with much certainty.

Douglas took one further step in the matter. Feeling that the treatment accorded to American citizens in British Columbia compared very favourably with that which had been meted out to British subjects in California, he prepared a memorandum on the subject and forwarded it to Lord Napier, the British ambassador in Washington. Towards the end of January 1859, when opportunity offered, Napier submitted this memorandum to General Cass, the American Secretary of State. A dispatch from Napier to Lord Malmesbury, the British Foreign Secretary, describes the interview in these words:

I took occasion in my conversation with General Cass this morning to advert to the conduct of Mr. Nugent who was lately employed by the Government of the United States as Agent on the Pacific Frontier. I stated that I did not ask what the nature of his Reports had been; they were probably more or less conformable to the strictures formerly published by Governor Stevens and to the sense of Mr. Nugent’s own manifesto and correspondence at Vancouver’s Island, but I thought myself justified in placing unofficially in the possession of the department of State a memorandum on the State legislation of California respecting the rights of foreign miners, as the particulars contained in that document might be useful in correcting or completing information emanating from sources unfriendly to Governor Douglas. General Cass did not seem to regard the document with much favor, but he accepted it and is now in possession of proofs that the regulations prescribed in British Columbia are more liberal than those in force in the neighbouring territory of the United States. The memorandum compiled by Governor Douglas is enclosed herewith. I must do General Cass the justice to say that he expressed himself in complimentary terms respecting the character and conduct of Governor Douglas.[xxxiii]

After his excursion into power politics, very little more was heard of John Nugent. In 1869 an attempt was made to resuscitate the San Francisco Herald, but within a few months the paper failed.[xxxiv] In 1878 he contributed “Scraps of Early History,” in six instalments, to the Argonaut,[xxxv] but these contain little autobiographical information. He died at San Leandro, Alameda County, California, on March 29, 1880. Referring the next day to his career the Sacramento Daily Record-Union remarked Mr. Nugent had some very exalted ideas in regard to the external trappings of journalism, but he lived to learn that no matter how fine the furniture of a printing office, if it is not well supplied with practical sense it cannot be made to succeed.

The same principle applies to the exercise of ambassadorial functions.

Robie L. Reid. Vancouver, B.C.



Department of State, Washington, Aug. 2, 1858.

John Nugent, Esq., &c., &c., &c.

Sir: You are hereby appointed a special agent of the U.S. and will proceed without unnecessary delay to the vicinity of Frazer River on the North Pacific Ocean, where it is understood that valuable discoveries of gold have recently been made, which are likely to exert an important influence upon emigration and commerce.

The President desires to be accurately informed with respect both to the locality and extent of these discoveries, the mode in which they are improved, the restrictions, if any, under which their work is pursued, the quality of the gold discovered, the means of access to the gold-region, the supply and kind of provisions, from what places and at what prices furnished, and generally all information on the subject, of a reliable character, which you may be able to give. It is impossible to mention in detail every point to which your attention is likely to be directed. Much must be left to your own judgment in this respect, upon which, I am glad to say, the President relies with confidence.

A few questions, however, may be suggested as of much importance. These refer in part to the laws and regulations which you may find in force within the British Possessions with reference to the occupation and working of the mines, and the importation of supplies for the miners. Is there any duty upon provisions imported, and if so, how much? Is any license required to enable the miners to enter and work in the gold region? If there is, by what authority is it issued, and what charge is made for it? Is there any, and what, distinction made, within the British Possessions, between British subjects and foreigners, in respect either to their entrance into the country or their rights and privileges afterwards? What is the number of British subjects there, and of American citizens? How many of each class are engaged in mining? Are their relations friendly, or is there ay ill-feeling between them?

The position and number of the Indians in the neighborhood of the gold region are also important subjects of inquiry. To what extent are they hostile to the miners? What injuries have they committed? Are their hostilities extending? What military or naval force have the British authorities in the vicinity of the river? What voluntary arrangements, if any, have been made by the miners for their own protection? Any facts with which you may be able to furnish the Dep’t on this subject will be highly acceptable.

In connection with your inquiries as to the extent of the gold country in the United States, it is desirable that you should inform yourself, as well as you can, with respect to the course of overland emigration to that region. Have any and what trails been opened from our own country to the British Possessions? Are there any traveled routes from Minnesota and Washington Territories? Can you hear of any new settlements formed, within our possessions, in the neighborhood of the gold-region, which are likely to become important? I will thank you to make your inquiries on these points as full as possible. You can readily understand their bearing upon the great interests of our North Western territories.

With these instructions you will receive copies of several communications on the subject of the Frazer River discoveries, and the authority and conduct of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which you may find of interest. You will find, also, a copy of a note of Lord Malmesbury, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs to Mr. Dallas,[xxxvii] dated June 17, 1858, which refers to the probable policy of Great Britain in the region of the gold discoveries. Since the date of this note, a communication has been published by the British Minister for the Colonies, Sir Edward Lytton, to Gov. Douglass of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which still further explains what the policy may be expected to be. These communications taken in connection with a recent debate on the same subject in the British Parliament, and with repeated conversation which I have had concerning it with the British Minister at Washington, Lord Napier, lead to the confident hope, that the proceedings of the British Government and its officer with reference to the gold discoveries within its N [orth]. A [merican]. possessions will be characterised by a liberal spirit and will be of such nature as will prevent any reasonable cause of complaint on the part of our citizens. If any abuses have already occurred, it is probable that due remedies will be found for them, and any existing hardship will be removed, it is hoped, by the prompt action of the British authorities.

At all events, the unremitted attention of this government will be given to accomplish these results and ensure to our citizens in that quarter the most fair and liberal treatment. Of this you may give them the most full assurances. But you will take care to remind them also, that they have duties as well as rights, and that while they expect the latter to be maintained, they must not hesitate to discharge the former. So long as they reside in a foreign country, they must remember that they are subject to its laws and to all the lawful regulations of its authorities. Whenever these regulations are onerous and oppressive, their own Government, you will renewedly assure them, will not fail to take the necessary steps to procure their modification or repeal. In order to ascertain whether such instances of hardship exist is one of the objects of your agency.

You will, of course, call upon Governor Douglass, and you may explain to him the purposes of your journey. A letter of introduction to that gentleman will be furnished you by Lord Napier, and it is hoped that your intercourse with him may be of the most free and friendly character. It is an object of the first importance to preserve the peace among the excited population who will occupy the region of gold, and it is hoped that Governor Douglass will endeavor to secure this object by every means in his power. I do not doubt that your visit may tend to accomplish the same good purpose. Enclosed you will find an extract from a communication to this Dept. of A. Campbell, Esq., U. S. Commissioner, &c., &c.,[xxxviii] by which you will see that in order to prevent as far as possible any dispute with respect to the boundary between the American and British possessions on the Pacific, he proposes to cut a line through the forest to the Cascade range of mountains. This suggestion of Mr. Campbell has been approved by the Department. Your compensation, at the rate of $8 per day, will commence from the date of these instructions and will continue until you return to your home in California. Your traveling expenses will also be paid. For these, as far as possible, you will furnish vouchers. You will report as early and as often as you can, to the Department. No definite time can be assigned for the continuance of your agency, but it is expected that you will be able to make your final report in time to be communicated to Congress at the opening of the next session. I am, Sir, &c., Lewis Cass.


To the Citizens of the United States in Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia. Having received from citizens of the United States, mining and trading on Fraser’s River and in its vicinity, a number of letters complaining of acts of injustice and oppression at the hands of the Colonial authorities,— and being on the eve of my departure to lay my report before the Government at Washington, I take this public method of apprising American citizens sojourning in Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia, of the views of our Government in regard to their rights and standing in these Colonies.

I need scarcely say that the Government of the United States expects of its own citizens abroad; a decent conformity with local regulations, obedience to the laws of the countries they visit, and a proper show of respect for the authorities by whom those laws are administered. This is enacted of strangers visiting the different States of the Union, who are amenable to punishment for a violation of the laws of those States, or of the United States, as are American citizens for infraction of the laws of such foreign countries as they may enter in pursuit of pleasure, or of business. Such of our citizens, therefore, as have taken up their temporary residence in British Columbia and Vancouver’s Island, are subject, like all other residents, to the laws of the Colonies and of Great Britain, and are liable, like all others, to the penalties meted out by those laws to persons properly convicted of their violation.

I am aware that an elaborate attempt to impress these facts upon my fellow citizens in these Colonies, would be superfluous. Their sobriety of deportment, their decent observance of all the proprieties of life, in the midst of privations and annoyances of no common degree, and their obedience to the law under very trying provocations to its infringement,— although they may not have gained for them such liberal treatment as was due to that forbearance and good conduct,—have, nevertheless, commanded the respect of the strangers among whom they are cast, and cannot fail to be subjects of pride and gratulation to their own Government.

Considering the circumstances attending the recent settlement of these Colonies, it was scarcely to be expected that a well-regulated Government could be at once built up, out of the chaotic elements suddenly thrown together in such confusion. Much was to be pardoned to the inexperience of an Executive hitherto dealing for the most part with savages, and, possibly unprepared by previous training for the more refined exigencies imposed by governmental relations with a white population:—much of the cause of complaints that have arisen was to some extent excusable, because due to the unlicensed rudeness of the subordinate officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Colonial Government, who, by reason of their long isolation from civilized society and their habitual intercourse with Indians, had unlearned most of the finer traits of humanity, and were scarcely accountable for a grossness of conduct that had become to them a second nature:—and, lastly, much was to be excused in the ignorance and want of tone of courts organized out of such crude and unfit materials as those, the only ones that were at hand on the sudden influx of the strangers. In some instances, no doubt, these courts have fallen short of even the limited expectations justified by the peculiar circumstances of their construction, and the strange constituents of which they were composed. But it is not to be doubted that the British Government will, without unnecessary delay, provide remedies for the evils and abuses arising from this condition of things—evils and abuses affecting not alone the prosperity of its own subjects, but the rights of citizens of a foreign and a friendly power.

The forbearance, in the meantime, of the citizens of the United States: their quiet observance of the laws, under any aggressions on their rights of which they may have to complain, will not alone have its reward in the consciousness of having done credit to their country—a country whose institutions are based upon that all-pervading love of order, and that spirit of obedience to the law which distinguishes its citizens,—but it will, more over, entitle them to the active intervention of their own government for the redress of their grievances, and for the protection of their rights. That the Government of the United States, upon proper cause being shown— after recourse shall have been had in vain to the tribunals, against acts of oppression or injustice—will so intervene for the redress and protection of its citizens in British Columbia and Vancouver’s Island, I am authorized and instructed to give them the most emphatic assurance. If wrong be done them, let them appeal to the courts. It is to be hoped they will obtain justice: but should those tribunals, unfortunately, be too impotent, too ignorant, or too corrupt to administer the law with impartiality and firmness, our citizens may reckon with certainty upon the prompt and efficient interference of their own Government in their behalf. The best guaranty I can furnish them of the certainty of such interposition, will be found in the subjoined declaration by the Hon. Lewis Cass, Secretary of State of the United States, in a recent dispatch to our Minister in Nicaragua, enunciating clearly and vigorously the views of our Government in respect to the rights of our citizens visiting foreign countries:

“The United States believe it to be their duty—and they mean to execute it—to watch over the persons and property of their citizens visiting foreign countries, and to intervene for their protection when such action is justified by existing circumstances and by the law of nations. Wherever their citizens may go through the habitable globe, when they encounter injustice they may appeal to the Government of their country, and the appeal will be examined into, with a view to such action on their behalf as it may be proper to take. It is impossible to define in advance and with precision those cases in which the national power may be exerted for their relief, or to what extent relief shall be afforded. Circumstances as they arise must prescribe the rule of action. In countries where well-defined and established laws are in operation, and where their administration is committed to able and independent judges, cases will rarely occur where such intervention will be necessary. But these elements of confidence and security are not everywhere found; and where that is unfortunately the case, the United States are called upon to be more vigilant in watching over their citizens, and to interpose efficiently for their protection, when they are subjected to tortuous proceedings by the direct action of the Government, or by its indisposition or inability to discharge its duties.’ It is unnecessary, for me to make any further or more pointed application of this declaration to the circumstances of American citizens in these Colonies. Their own intelligence and prudence will enable them so to guard their conduct that they shall never forfeit that provident and fatherly care and protection which it promises, and which the Government of the United States has both the ability and the will to exercise over all its children, in whatever part of the world they may be.

JOHN NUGENT, Special Agent of the United States.

Victoria, Vancouver’s Island November 13th, 1858.

[i] Douglas may have in mind the fact that the company had been granted its charter by the Crown, and that recognition of its authority would therefore constitute, to some degree, recognition of the authority of the Crown itself.

[ii] Papers Relevant to the Affairs of British Columbia, Part One, London, 1858, p 19,  (Douglas to Stanley, July 1, 1858).

[iii] Ibid, p 35, (Douglas to Lytton, September 9, 1858.)

[iv] Ibid., p. 36. (Douglas to Lytton, September 30, 1858.)

[v] Douglas to Lytton, January 5, 1859, enclosure No. 1. Copy in Public Record Office transcripts, Provincial Archives.

[vi] Puget Sound Herald, June 18, 1858.

[vii] See the issue of July 2, 1858.

[viii] Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, June 3, 1858.

[ix] Alta California, San Francisco, July 7, 1858.

[x] Stevens to Hon. Lewis Cass, Secretary of State, May 18, 1858. In Miscellaneous Letters to the Department of State; Archives, Department of State, Washington.

[xi] Stevens to Cass, July 21, 1858.    Ibid.

[xii] See Hazard Stevens, The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, Boston, 1900, I., pp. 281-82.

[xiii] Pioneer and Democrat, Olympia, September 24, 1858

[xiv] Governor M. B. Weiler to President Buchanan, June 6, 1858. In Miscellaneous Letters to the Department of State; Archives, Department of State, Washington.

[xv] Daily Bee, Sacramento, December 24, 1884. I am indebted for this quotation to Miss Mabel R. Gillis, State Librarian, California State Library, Sacramento.

[xvi] Hubert Howe Bancroft, Popular Tribunals, San Francisco, 1887, II., p. 224.

[xvii] Rowlandson to Lytton, September 6, 1858. Original in Public Record Office, London. Transcript in the possession of the writer. Nugent was known to Alfred Waddington, who had this to say of him in The Fraser Mines Vindicated, published in November 1858: ” For the benefit of the old residents and English population unacquainted with Mr. Nugent . . . I will explain that he was editor of the San Francisco Herald; that he is a British born subject, and has been running down his country for years on every occasion . . .” Having referred to the 1856 episode, Waddington

continued: ” His name since then has been a reprobation to most Californians, and the government in Washington could hardly have made a more unsuitable choice for all parties.”

[xviii] Nugent’s instructions will be found in the appendix to this article.

[xix] Nugent to Cass, September 25, 1858.   In Territorial Papers, Washington and Oregon, Vol. I.; Archives, Department of State, Washington.

[xx] Message of the President of the United States, communicating, in compliance with a resolution of the Senate, the report of the special agent of the United States, recently sent to Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia, Washington, 1859, p. 16. (35th Congress, 2nd session, Ex. Doc. No. 29, Senate.    Cited hereafter as Nugent, Report.)

[xxi] Ibid, p 24.

[xxii] Ibid., pp. 26-27.

[xxiii] Ibid., pp. 28-29.

[xxiv] Victoria Gazette, November 16, 1858   (the same issue in which Nugent’s address was printed).

[xxv] Ibid., April 19, 1859.    This comment was prompted by the publication of Nugent’s report.

[xxvi] British Colonist, January 22, 1859.

[xxvii] Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, November 23, 1858.

[xxviii] The Times, London, January 19, 1859.

[xxix] Puget Sound Herald, February 11, 1859.

[xxx] Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, April 1, 1859.

[xxxi] Nugent, Report, p. 17.

[xxxii] Douglas to Lytton, January 5, 1859, enclosure No. 1.    Copy in Public Record Office transcripts, Provincial Archives.

[xxxiii] Napier to Malmesbury, January 21, 1859; enclosure in Lytton to Douglas, February 21, 1859.

[xxxiv] The original San Francisco Herald was published from June 1, 1850, to July 14, 1863. The revived journal first appeared on January 19, 1869; the last issue was dated October 6, 1869.

[xxxv] These appear in the issues dated February 23, March 9, 16, 23, and 30, and April 13, 1878.

[xxxvi] In Records of the Department of State, Domestic Letters, July 1, 1858-January 18, 1859. Printed from a photostat of the original official record copy, supplied to the Provincial Archives by the National Archives of the United States.

[xxxvii] Alexander Grant Dallas, of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

[xxxviii] Archibald Campbell, United States boundary commissioner, who, after failing to come to an agreement with the British commissioners regarding the boundary through the San Juan archipelago, was at this time engaged in determining the line between Point Roberts and the Cascades.

[xxxix] Here reprinted from the Victoria Gazette, November 16, 1858. The address also appears in Nugent, Report, pp. 11-13.