Oregon Jack’s hidden gold

Barbara Roden teases modern day treasure hunters with a little known fact about Oregon Jack.

Treasure maps – with X marking the spot of the buried riches – have been a staple of fiction for many years, at least since Robert Louis Stevenson gave us “Treasure Island” in 1883. They aren’t quite as common in real life as in fiction, sadly, but at least one such map supposedly exists; and what’s more, it hints at a golden bounty buried within a few miles of Ashcroft, not far off Highway 1.

“Gold fever” lured many people to the Interior of British Columbia; but for every person who struck it rich in the goldfields, dozens remained stubbornly empty-handed. Some enterprising souls realized that there was more than one way to capitalize on gold fever, establishing ranches or roadhouses or other businesses along the Cariboo Wagon Road to cater to the needs of the thousands of people attracted to the area.

Once such person was Jack (or John) Dowling, an American settler whose place of origin gave rise to his nickname, “Oregon Jack”. He started off as a gold miner, but by 1858 had decided there was more money to be made in packing supplies to others, and did well enough that by 1862 he was able to establish a roadhouse between Spences Bridge and Ashcroft.

History has left us a contradictory picture of Oregon Jack. On the one hand, he was a good friend to the Cornwall brothers, his neighbours to the north; they spoke well of him, and invited him to Christmas dinner, which carried weight, for the Cornwalls were English gentlemen, educated at Cambridge University and descended from a long line of aristocrats. And while it was agreed that things could get a tad wild at Jack’s roadhouse, it was generally felt that the host was as hospitable and friendly as most travelers could wish. The Cornwalls themselves were known to visit; on January 15, 1865 Henry Cornwall wrote in his diary “[D]rove over to Oregon Jack’s for dinner and back again the same night – got home about 1:00 am. . . we were feasted in great style having a really fine dinner with excellent pastry and egg nog afterwards.”

Not everyone shared this charitable view of Oregon Jack, however. One guest described him as a vile-looking man, with a red face, bald head, and bowed legs, with the red face attributed to the fact that Jack had not, during his years in the area, drawn one sober breath. And the Indians of the Oregon Jack band (Dowling had given his name to a valley in the region, and thence to the natives who lived there for some of the year) were constantly having run-ins with him. His land near the Thompson adjoined Oregon Jack reserve land, and Dowling seemed to go out of his way to antagonize the reserve’s inhabitants; so much so that in 1882 the government Indian Agent for the region advised that someone should have a word with Dowling over his misuse of water rights, which was affecting the Oregon Jack Indians.

However gold fever, once it takes hold, is a hard thing to shake, and Jack never seemed to manage it. Even during his years as a successful packer and roadhouse owner he continued to search for gold in the valley which bears his name, but with no success. By the late 1880s he had spent more than three decades fruitlessly looking for gold, and perhaps something snapped, because his next move was as dramatic as it was risky. He held up a stagecoach on the Cariboo Road, shot one passenger, and escaped into Oregon Jack Valley with a quantity of gold, in the form of small bars.

Unlike many other thieves, Jack eluded the law and made good his escape, returning to Oregon, where he died in obscurity, and seeming poverty, in a nursing home a few years later. It was an undistinguished end for a man who supposedly had access to more than enough gold to see him in comfort for the rest of his life.

Several yeas after Jack’s death, a trunk was purchased at auction. When opened, it contained a number of personal items that had once belonged to Oregon Jack. There was no gold, alas, but there was something that was certainly intriguing: a map which supposedly showed where Jack had buried his stolen gold. According to this map, he had left his illicit fortune somewhere in Oregon Jack Valley, a place he knew very well, perhaps realizing that a man attempting to fly from justice will travel more quickly – and raise fewer suspicions – if he isn’t encumbered by heavy gold bars. It seems likely that he intended to return for the gold one day, when the search for him had died down, but had been prevented, possibly due to declining health.

The map supposedly gives only the approximate location of Oregon Jack’s buried loot, which might explain why, despite an attempt to locate it, the gold has not been found. However, there might be another explanation. Rumour has it that a couple who lived in Oregon Jack Valley during the 1940s and 1950s, near the alleged site of the cache of gold, often used small gold bars to pay for purchases during their trips to Ashcroft. Perhaps the map was more accurate than we think, and that by the time it was found the gold had already been discovered and removed. If not, there could still be a small fortune in gold, hidden more than a century ago, waiting to be discovered in Oregon Jack Valley. All that would-be treasure hunters have to do is find Oregon Jack’s map, and hope that X does indeed still mark the spot.

Barbara Roden