History of Quesnel

The Aboriginal people who inhabited the north-central area of British Columbia called themselves 'Uda ukelh' which means "People who travel by boat on water early in the morning." They are more commonly known as the Carrier. This is an English translation of the name applied to them by the neighboring Sekani people. The first European to encounter this Native group was Alexander Mackenzie, who traversed their territory en route to the Pacific in 1793. He first learned about them from the Sekani, and employed the term Carrier in his writings. (A more extensive history of the Dakelh/Carrier people can be found on the Footprints in Stone website developed with the assistance of the Southern Carrier Nations.)

In 1808 Simon Fraser and his voyageurs explored what is now known as the Fraser River in search of a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean, on behalf of the North West Company, a fur trading enterprise based in Montreal. The upper reaches of the river were known from Mackenzie's travels and it was mistakenly thought that these were the headwaters of the Columbia River. Although the Fraser proved far too hazardous the expedition did establish trade relations with numerous First Nations and led to the development of a system of fur trade posts in the territory west of the Rockies. Fraser named the first major tributary that they discovered along the river for Jules Maurice Quesnel, his clerk. The community that eventually grew up at the fork of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers also came to be called Quesnel. (For more information on the River of Memory)

The discovery of gold on the Fraser River in the spring of 1857 initiated a Gold Rush with prospectors flooding up the river, staking claims. By 1859 they had reached the Quesnel River. Major strikes on Williams Creek in 1861 triggered the Cariboo Gold Rush and the growth of Barkerville. At its peak this boom town was said to have been the most populous city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. The colonial government began the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road in 1861 to provide a safer and less costly route for those transporting supplies to the gold mining settlements. Initially the road ran from Lillooet to Soda Creek. Here goods and passengers could transfer to sternwheelers which traveled as far as Quesnel. Eventually the road was extended through Quesnel to Barkerville. Due to its location Quesnel became a major stopover and supply center for the gold fields. A town survey was completed in 1863 and the number of businesses and residents increased. (For more information on the Gold Rush Trail)

From its inception Quesnel was a multicultural community. Although the First Nations population was severely depleted by the small pox and measles epidemics of the 1860s, they continued their traditional practices of traveling through their territory hunting, and harvesting resources in a seasonal round. Important fishing camps are located near Quesnel. They also came to town to trade and to participate in community celebrations. As early as 1860, Chinese miners were working the bars at the mouth of the Quesnel River. Many soon turned to business- operating stores, providing services or raising meat and vegetables. The rest of Quesnel's population came from Eastern Canada, the United States and many countries in Europe. Although the population was fairly transient, the size of the community remained relatively stable into the twentieth century and was equally divided between the so called "white" and "celestial" population.