Jean Caux

Jean Caux

Catalonia! The colourful story of Jean Caux, the king of the packers

In an age and place that did not lack for colourful characters, Jean Caux - the man they called Cataline - stood out.

When gold was discovered in the then-colony of British Columbia in 1858, thousands of men poured north in search of their fortunes. Some of them found gold; all of them found an area where basic amenities—food, shelter, clothing, equipment—were almost non-existent. Everything that a man needed to keep himself alive on the trail, and then set up a camp at the goldfields, he either carried on his own back, or paid someone else to haul for him.

In the early days of the gold rush, when there were few freight-hauling operations in the area, and even fewer good roads for them to use, packers charged $1 per pound of goods transported; a prohibitive cost for many. The building of the Cariboo Wagon Road in 1862, the completion of the CPR in 1885, and the many competing freight-hauling outfits that operated in the area meant that by 1896, the cost of transporting a pound of freight from Ashcroft to Barkerville was five cents.

One of the men who came to the area in 1858, along with so many others in search of fortune, was a man named Jean Caux. He was not after gold; instead, he bought a mule train and began transporting freight. By the time he retired from packing, 60 years later, he had earned himself the well-deserved title “King of the packers”.

Little is known about Caux’s early life; we do not even know when he was born (either 1830 or 1832), or where (probably in Oloron, southwestern France), or what prompted him to make the long and arduous trip from Europe to western Canada (it has been suggested that there was some dispute with the French government of Napoleon III which prompted Caux to put some distance between himself and his native country).

He arrived in Lytton in 1858 as part of a large group of packers, and quickly purchased his own string of mules and began working on his own. He was soon supplying the goldfields of the Cariboo, transporting goods between Yale and Barkerville.

It was not long after his arrival that Caux was universally known as “Cataline”, and even the origin of his nickname is disputed. One story is that it derived from the Catalonia area of Spain, near where Caux was born; another is that the packer was fond of colourful invective, with his favourite swear word being an explosively-delivered “Catalonia!” that was invariably accompanied by equally impressive gestures.

Cataline was not especially tall, but he was a powerful, barrel-chested man with an imposing presence, and his tremendous strength meant that he could handle the most difficult pack mules with ease. He spoke a strange mix of French, Spanish, English, Chinese, and Native languages, which many found hard to understand, although he seems to have had no difficulty conveying what he wanted. He was able to sign his own name when necessary, but apart from that could neither read nor write.

He did, however, have a prodigious memory, and an almost uncanny ability to keep track of vast and complicated amounts of information. He kept detailed records in his head of what money he owed and what was owed to him, what fees to charge, and precisely what each of the mules in his team (some sixty animals, carrying loads of up to 300 pounds each) carried.

On one occasion two packers decided to leave his team after only one trip, and Cataline reckoned up in his head what he owed to each of them. The first packer, who could neither read nor write himself, was content to accept Cataline’s sum, but the second man—who had kept a sheet of notes—argued that Cataline was out by $3 on what was owed. However, when the packer added up his list of figures again, he discovered he had made a mistake, and that Cataline’s sum was indeed the correct one.

When he was packing freight, Cataline’s days would start before dawn, and his train would average fifteen miles or more per day. During his early years in B.C. he took as a wife a woman of the Spuzzum band, and stayed with her near Yale until 1885, when the completion of the railroad meant that packing for the goldfields was moved north to Ashcroft. He continued making the arduous trip to Barkerville, hauling everything from frying pans and food to grand pianos and cookstoves, until the 1890s, and prided himself on never damaging or losing any item consigned to him.

The only exception was on a trip where a packer came to Cataline and reported a terrible smell coming from one of the packs. Cataline said later of the offending item “She smell like hell so I throw him in the river.” The customer awaiting his goods in Barkerville was doubtless disappointed to learn that several pounds of Limburger cheese had thus been destroyed.

By the turn of the last century the gold rush had dwindled to the point where there was little profit in the journey. Cataline had, by this time, moved north to Quesnel, and continued to supply the Omineca region. He finally retired from packing in 1918, and in 1920 moved to Victoria, but decided that city life was not to his liking, and moved back to Hazelton, where he had been living in 1918.

In 1922 Cataline was back in Victoria on a visit, an event reported on in The Journal: “[We are] in receipt of a letter from Victoria, which states that ‘a number of your readers will be interested to know that “Cateline” [sic] the well-known packer of early days on the Cariboo road, has just arrived from Hazelton. Considering his age [90] he looks well with his long white hair.”

Cataline died in October 1922, and is buried in the old Hazelton cemetery. A brass plate on his cairn bears the simple inscription “Jean Caux—Cataline, the packer.”