Gold dust and death on the Cariboo Road

Thomas Clegg and a 50 pound bag of gold dust in 1863.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

There was a cairn of rocks on the Cariboo Road at 141 Mile House. The rocks were dropped there by teamsters as they passed by the spot. Much like people today will place flowers where people have been killed. Rocks were more available than flowers back then.

The cairn commemorated the killing of a good man named Thomas Clegg. He was employed by E. T. Dodge and Company. Clegg had the formidable responsibility of delivering gold dust in excess of 50 lbs to his employer. The Company provided transport of goods to sundry merchants along the Cariboo Road, and Clegg, a trusted employee, was given the responsibility of collecting what was due to the Company. When payment of services rendered is paid for in gold dust, as was the case in those early days, the problem of getting the gold dust to its rightful destination was one of the most difficult responsibilities a man could have.

There were more than a few desperate men on the road in those days that would stoop to any device to rob anything of value. We like to think of those times as innocent, when trust could be taken for granted. But that is sheer delusion. The gold rush on the Fraser River in 1858 brought tens of thousands of persons to British Columbia, and the search for gold most often resulted in the loss of everything a man had. There are pitiful descriptions of men returning from the gold fields at Barkerville, dressed in rags, emaciated and starving. But there is less written about them, and more about those who struck it rich.

There were also unscrupulous men whose eyes were sharp to any opportunity to make what we now call, “easy money”, i.e., by robbery, gambling, or prostitution. Men of every stripe were coming from all over the world in search of gold, and not all of them wanted to acquire it by shovel and gold panning. That was hard work.

Merchants, packers, teamsters and forwarding agents were doing an enormous volume of business in the 1860’s from out of Douglas, at the head of Harrison Lake. A couple of the more notable companies was the one Thomas Clegg was engaged by, E. T. Dodge and Company, but Parsons and Nelson were also busy entrepeneurs. Uriah Nelson was one of four brothers, three of whom had made something of a fortune for themselves in the country north of Barkerville.

Mard Nelson kept a hotel at Bridge Creek for many years and also at Spences Bridge. Jock, another brother, had a cabin on the Cariboo Road between Hat Creek and the 20 Mile House, and Uriah was the merchant, packer, forwarding agent who moved to Yale from Douglas and  then later established a general store at Clinton and in Ashcroft. The descendents of this Nelson may have remained in the district to this day.

In 1865 Clegg had collected $10,000 worth of gold dust which he was carrying in two strong leather saddle bags.  He had as a traveling companion an American named Captain Taylor, who had been running steamers on the Douglas-Lillooet route.

Clegg was riding a saddle horse, and Taylor a mule.  Clegg was glad of the company, and had known Taylor for some time and trusted him.  The two men stopped over night in Williams Lake and made for 141 Mile House the following morning, where they had a mid-day meal. Clegg kept his eyes on the saddle bags, never letting them out of his sight.

Two men at the 141 Mile who had also stopped for a meal, noted Clegg’s attention to the bags, and suspected their was valuable gold dust or cash in them. They quickly finished eating and left the 141 Mile hasily, making for the cover along the Cariboo Road where they would lie and wait for Clegg on his horse, and Taylor, on his mule. Meanwhile, Clegg had tired of the weight of the bags, and had transferred them from his horse to Taylor’s mule.

A mile from the 141 Mile, two men sprang out of the bush and threw themselves on Clegg and Taylor. Taylor grappled with the man who was armed with a Colt revolver, broke away from him, and as he did, Clegg shouted to Taylor that he was “All right”, so Taylor made off with the saddle bags, heading back along the Road which they had come from.

Taylor ran his mule far enough along to hopefully miss the discharge of the Colt, (firearms in those days were not deadly at a distance). The second highway man went back to assist his partner.

Clegg had the man on his back and attempting to wrest the Colt out of his hand, but with Taylor gone, Clegg had the two men to deal with. He was astride one, but the other broke free, seized the pistol from his partner’s hand and shot Clegg in the head.

They grabbed Clegg’s horse. To their shock, they found the saddle bags were not on the horse. They realized they had killed a man, with nothing to gain by the killing, and they made off with the horse toward the Bonaparte valley. Meanwhile, Taylor returned to find his friend dead. He bitterly regretted leaving Clegg to find safekeeping for the gold. There was no telegraph at that time in the Cariboo, but word got around quickly anyway.

Donald McLean, at Hat Creek, learned that the murdering assailants were in his patch, and ever the posse hunter, McLean made for upriver on the Bonaparte, strung some rope across the river, hoping to stop the two highwaymen. Then he lay in wait for them. Eventually, he heard noise in the shrubbery along the river, and fired his rifle several times in that direction. But the two men manged to evade capture.

McLean’s shot had found its mark on one of the men however. The two fugitives managed to make it to Black Canyon near what was to become the town of Ashcroft. The man wounded by McLean’s shot, was  bleeding badly and losing energy. By the time they reached Black Canyon and attempted to swim the river, the wounded man could go no further. His body fell into the river, was pulled downstream by the current. It was found the following spring on one of the bars lower down the river.

The second man was captured at Spatsum, near Spences Bridge, by the Indians. This man was taken to Lillooet where he was charged with Clegg’s murder. Judge Mathew Begbie sentenced him to die, and he was duly hung at Lillooet.

The names of the fugitives are uncertain. The one executed, was said to have been known as “Judge Elliott”, and had come from a good family in the “old country”. Elliott never did disclose the name of his companion, but it was said that he wrote to his companion’s mother, keeping a promise he had made to the dying man on the banks of the Thompson River.

It was told that for many years, the teamsters passing 141 Mile, left a stone that became a cairn. But time and weather gradually took its hold on the cairn, and, in due course, the cairn was forgotten.