The wild crabapple trees were In bloom along the banks of the Fraser in the
Spring of 1860 when, in the Indian settlement of Matsqui, a child was born
in whose veins ran the blood of two great races.
His mother was Selaamia, daughter of the chief of the Indians of Matsqui and
Sumas, and granddaughter of the last great See-am, chief of all the Indians
from Yale to the mouth of the Fraser.
His father was Lieutenant George Clinton Gardner, civil engineer and
astronomer, who, at the time of the birth of his child, was in charge of the
engineering party surveying the boundary line between British Columbia and
the United States and who later became one of the leading railroad
financiers of the continent.
The child was given the Indian name of Quotaseltill and, at the direction of
his father, was also named George Clinton Gardner.
NEVER SAW HIS FATHER
He was known as George Gardner for the first nine or ten years of his life
but, when he started to school at Mission in 1869, he found that Father
Cherouse had by mistake christened him Charles Alphonsus Gardner.
Charles Gardner accordingly he became, and for the last forty years, he has
been known up and down the Fraser, on the Stikine and Skeena, on the Yukon
and the Mackenzie, as Captain Charlie Gardner, one of the really great river
boat captains of Canada. From both the vanishing Indian race and the incoming White race he inherited
traits which led to his success. He was reared as a typical Indian boy and
gained self-reliance, alertness, quickness of eye and hand, courage, and
honor in dealing with the fellows. From his white ancestry he inherited
that initiative, that outstanding intelligence and persistence that placed
him in the front rank of his profession.
The boy never saw his father. When the survey party was working east of
Chilliwack Lake, Selaamia came home to Sumas as the child was about to be
After she had been home a few weeks a messenger arrived from her
husband. "Lieutenant Gardner sent me to tell you that his government has
sent him to Peru to do some work for them there. He must go but will come
back when his work is finished. I am to wait until the child is born.
If the child is a boy he is to be called George Clinton Gardner and I am to
take back to his father a lock of his hair. Lieutenant Gardner has left two of his men. Mr. Peabody and Mr. Roder, who are at his main camp at Bellingham, to be guardians for the child while he is away. Anything you want for yourself and for the child you can get from
The child was born on May 15th, 1860, and the messenger left with the lock
THE MYSTERIOUS 'THEY'
For three years and nearly four Selaamia got supplies regularly for herself
and the child from the guardians at Bellingham. But one day in the early
spring of 1864 a conversation took place between Selaamia and the guardians
which changed the whole course of the boy's life.
"What a fine big lad he is getting to be", Mr. Roder said on seeing the
child. "That reminds me that we'd better be looking for a school for him.
His father sends word that he is to be educated in the best school we can
find. There's a good one over in Victoria. Perhaps we'd better send him
Selaamia and her boy went home. "They" - this mysterious world that the
White people had made, of which her husband had gone and from which he had
never come back - now "they" were going to take her child. She would not
let him go. She and her mother and the men of her household could teach him
all he needed to know.
So she sent word to the guardians that the child was dead and that she would
want no more supplies.
Then this little fair-haired son of Lieutenant Gardner began his life of a
real Indian boy. Proudly he rode down the great river with his grandfather
in his long high-powered war canoe and soon he learned to paddle a small
canoe of his own.
He learned to swim and run and climb, and feared nothing on the land or in
the water. He learned to track animals and to shoot with bow and arrows the
muskrat, rabbit and raccoon.
He went with the men to catch the sturgeon - the great "Squaworch" - that
lay on the bottom of the river and was speared with long forked pole.
He went with his grandmother to get reeds for mats and to get white, black
and red chalk from the slough in Matsqui and made it into great round balls
a little smaller than a football. These they baked in a strong fire of good
wood and stored away to be used for flailing into discoloured wool to
IMBIBES INDIAN WAYS
The black colouring they got by mixing maple charcoal with a little oil and
the red dye came from a punky growth on the spruce tree. They rubbed this
into a powder on a rough rock and made a fine, fast red dye.
He learned to make mats of reeds and rushes and to make blankets and rugs of
goat's and sheep's wool, moccasins of deer skins and water buckets and
chests of slabs of split cedar.
He learned how to make the great barbecue pits and how to cook a deer or a
great sturgeon to the point of juicy goodness.
He helped his grandfather to make the great bag nets that were held between
two canoes and the dip nets to catch the big white salmon.
He listened to stories told him by Selaamia of his father and of the great
work of laying out the boundary line.
She never said anything about his return but sometimes when she and her son
were alone she would sing such sad laments that her little son would have to
beg her to stop.
From his great-grandfather's brother, Thataih, the great runner, he heard
many of the old legends of his race. This old man would often be left to
look after the children when the others went to fish and hunt.
The story of the great deluge he would tell them, when all the people in the
world were drowned and except some who fled to a high mountain near Yale. From these few the world was again re-peopled.
THE MEDICINE MAN
He saw his grandmother make records of some kind on a polished maple red
about four feet long which she kept under her pillow, rolled up in the end
of her sleeping mat. The rod was taken out very rarely and another notch
added. It had two full rows and several shorter lines but whether it was
her record of time or of the family history, he never knew.
He saw the Medicine Man - the "Schwlan" shake his rattles to scare away the
spirit of the disease that was attacking his patient. He saw him dance
around a dish of warm water, wash his hands in it, suck out the spirit of
the disease from the arm of the stricken one, put the spirit of the disease
in a bottle where he only could see it and then shoot it. The disease would
be gone and the patient would recover. He saw the medicine man make his
brews from barks and roots and listened to him talk to the spirits of the
He attended the war dances which sometimes lasted two or three weeks.
He was present also at the great potlatch given by his grandfather's brother
for Slalhilluet, his eldest daughter, when she reached marriage-able age.
The potlatch was held in the fall of the year when the stores of the fish,
game, vegetables and fruit were at their height.
Runners were sent to bid each family come to this great event. Feasting
went on for two days and on the third day the receiving and giving of
presents took place. A great scaffold ten feet in height was built and this
supported a platform on which the honoured girl sat with her father,
grandfather, and other relatives and friends.
HIS FIRST MONEY
On the arrival of the daughter the gifts were presented.
The speakers then rose and told the girl's family history as far back as
memory and tradition could take them. Speaker followed speaker and then the
father rose and began to throw down to the crowd the gifts that had been
piled on the platform. Blankets, mats, rugs, and deer skins fell into the
outstretched arms of the eager crowd. As each gift was thrown its donor was
Many gifts had been received and disbursed. The family prestige was still
further strengthened and Slalhilluet made an early and successful marriage.
He earned his first money in a way that presaged the success of his later
life. One day when he was about ten, Captain George Oden came up the river
with the Gem, a scow with one stern-wheel paddle, loaded with lumber, doors
and windows for a house for Mr. York, the first white settler in the Lower
When Captain Oden asked from someone to guide him up the river and into the
lake, Charlie volunteered and he piloted the boat through the deepest part
of the river and lake into the lower prairie.
Captain Oden was so much pleased with the work of his young pilot that he
gave him two dollars and fifty cents, the first of many thousands of dollars
we was to earn through his knowledge of ways of a boat on running water.
Life was catching up with young Charlie Gardner. He was now 11 years old
and his carefree days of Indian life were almost at an end. A new
civilization was invading his valley and he must come to terms with it. He
must go to the white man's school and learn to read and write and speak the
language of the invaders. The priests at St. Mary's Mission had told
Selaamia so, and Selaamia told Charlie.
"You have learned all that my people have to teach you, Charlie," she said
to him. "Now you must go to learn from your father's people."
The Mission days were fruitful ones. They added that discipline that his
Indian life had lacked; they taught him how to retain his independence of
mind while working with others and how to handle responsibility. He learned
a great deal from that wise man, Father Carrion, who took very seriously his
task of introducing the youths of his charge to the white man's world.
The first fall Charlie was at the Mission he was sent up one day to the
ledge where the Mission buildings now stand, to roll big blocks of wood from
where they were being sawed into cordwood lengths to where they were being
split by a group of bigger boys. On a sudden impulse Charlie shoved his
great block over the edge of the steep bank. Down it plunged with all the
speed and force that any small boy could wish for, but Charlie was horrified
to see that it was headed straight for the convent.
THE BUILDING SHOOK
The wash house and fish house stood in its path also, but the great block
hurtled through these frail one-ply building leaving splintered boards in
its wake. On it went, gaining momentum with every bound.
When it reached the log convent it struck the corner a glancing blow. The
building shook to its foundations and the block twirled like a top.
Out from every door rushed the Sisters and the girls like bees from a hive.
Some were shrieking all were chattering at the tops of their voices. They
thought there had been an earthquake.
A messenger was soon seen to leave the convent and go to the priest's house.
In a few minutes Father Carrion began to climb the hill.
"Better tell him it slipped, Charlie" the big boys advised. But Charlie
remembered what he had been taught by the wise men of his tribe. So when
Father Carrion said, "Who rolled the block down, boys?" Charlie answered: "I
"Why did you do that, Charlie?"
"I wanted to see how fast it would go."
Father Carrion looked at the boy. He puffed slowly at his pipe before he
"Yes, Charlie, I understand how you felt, but remember this too -- it's
always wise to think a thing through to the end before you start it."
That was all Father Carrion said, but Charlie often thought of those words
later when he had the safety of hundreds of lives in his keeping.
Other experiences Charlie was to encounter while at the Mission tested his
initiative and judgment.
HIGH WATER YEAR
The first dyke in the Fraser Valley, installed in '73, protected the great
Mission farm with its 100 head of cattle from the ravages of the Fraser.
Into Charlie's' hands the safety of these cattle was placed.
"Seventy-four" was a high water year and the hand-built dyke soon showed
signs of weakening. Charlie watched it like a hawk, and found one morning
that the flood had forced the tops of both the gates and that a stream of
water was digging out the piles.
There was no time to cross the swollen river to get instructions from the
Mission. He must depend on his own judgment. Charlie's mind was soon made
up. He must get his cattle on to one of the river boats. He ran all the
way to Clayburn to telegraph Yale to have the steamer pick up the cattle but
when he got to Clayburn he found that the wires were down. Back he must go
to the river to hail the first steamer.
Hours passed. The water kept rising. Finally around the bend came the
"Western Slope." Captain Moore pulled in, in answer to Charlie's hail.
"No sonny, I'm sorry, but I can't take your cattle across today. I've got
to keep going, but Captain Irving is right behind me. He'll take your
cattle over." And away went the Western Slope.
Captain Irving was Charlie's best hope. If he would not help him the dyke
would certainly be out and the cattle drowned before he could get other
help. He must make Captain Irving understand.
The "William Irving" soon hove into view, travelling at full speed in an
attempt to overtake the "Western Slope" in their daily race into New
Westminster. Charlie hailed the boat and told the captain his story.
Captain Irving looked down the river at the vanishing "Western Slope" and
then at Charlie's troubled face.
"All right, Charlie, get your cattle aboard as quickly as you can. I'll
take them over."
The job was done in half an hour. One hundred and two head at a dollar
apiece. Captain Irving had the priest's cheque for the whole amount in his
pocket within thirty minutes and was on his way.
He lost the race that day but he and Charlie saved the Mission cattle.
IGNORED GOLD LORE
Although Charlie spent a great portion of his adult life in the company of
gold seekers he was never bitten by the bug himself. This indifference to
the search for gold was early manifested.
One day Selaamia came to the Mission to tell Charlie that two men, who had
come to trade at Miller's store at the mouth of the Sumas, had showed Mr.
Miller grains and little nuggets of gold which they said that they found on
the Chilliwack river.
There was great excitement all up and down the Fraser and she had come to
see if Charlie wanted her to take him to the spot where his father, Lieut.
Gardner, had found the grains of gold 15 or 16 years before.
"I'll show you where it is Charlie," Selaamia said, "But I'll show no other
person. Your father said that nobody should be told and he put a little
mound of stones there and wrote something on a paper so that he could come
back to it again. I'll tell nobody about it but his son.
Charlie didn't think that the priests would like him to go away even for a
few days at that time and, anyway, the idea of going to search for little
grains of gold didn't appeal to him. He had never needed gold so far in his
life and the whole thing seemed a waste of time.
FED THE MULTITUDE
Selaamia was somewhat of the same opinion, so the secret never was told and,
though many have searched for it, the gold on the Chilliwack has never been
While he was at the Mission, Charlie learned to turn his hand to almost any
kind of work. After he had been in the school two or three years he was
made assistant to the Brother who had charge of the baking and he proved to
be so apt a pupil that he soon became the baker for the whole school.
He ground his own flour in an old grist mill that had been sent out from
France and made his own good yeast; and during the six years that he was
baker there, hundreds of light, crusty loaves went weekly from the great
brick Dutch oven in his bake house to the convent, to the priest's house,
and to the boys' school.
Charlie became an expert farmer too. With his oxen, Turk and Brin, he
turned the first furrow in the land on the hill where the Mission buildings
now stand. He ran the first mowing machine that superseded the old hand
scythe as an implement for putting up the Winter's supply of hay.
At 19 he married and was given charge of the 600-acre Mission farm on the
Matsqui side of the river. In the Spring of '81 the high water took out
many of the bridges on the Cariboo road and, in helping to repair these,
Charlie made his first break from the Mission.
While working near Yale he went down, one day early in July of that year, to
Emory's Bar to see the first run of the first locomotive ever to reach the
mainland of B.C. It had been brought up the Fraser to Emory's Bar to Yale.
A FATEFUL RIDE
A great crowd was on hand. All was excitement and gaiety. The contractor
for this section of the road, Mr. Onderdonk, his wife, and several of their
friends rode in the cab of the locomotive.
Just as they were crossing the big bridge a string of packhorses, belonging
to some miners camped at the far end of the bridge, began to file slowly
across in front of the locomotive. One horse was hit and killed and its
body was shoved for a distance down the track but even that did not disperse
the rest of the horses. The engineer accordingly began to back across the
When he was almost at the end, the back wheels began to slip from the rails.
The ladies clambered down, white of face, and men jumped. The engineer
managed to save his locomotive but it was only by a hair's breadth that the
first run of a locomotive on the mainland of British Columbia was saved from
ending in tragedy.
These were the days of expansion and Charlie was to go farther afield.
Vancouver was growing and calling for men. He responded and helped to plank
Hastings Street between Main and Cordova and then moved up to Georgia near
Granville clearing land at $2.25 a day and board. At various places, while
clearing, he came across the old skid road and had to dig out great logs
from it. This skid road sloped down to Coal Harbor and was made of spruce
logs eight feet long and two and a half feet thick, laid about eight feet
apart. Out of the middle face of each log a two-foot slice had been removed
and a piece of hardwood inserted. This hardwood section had then been
grooved and greased.
One day a white-haired contractor stood for a time watching Charlie work.
"Young man," he said finally, "You seem to be able to wield an axe pretty
well. Come and clear lots for me and I will give you every third lot for
your work. A great city this is going to be and these lots will soon be
worth good money."
But Charlie refused the offer. A sure $2.25 a day seemed a great deal
better to him at that time than lots at Georgia and Granville.
Charlie missed the great fire of 1886 by one day. On June 12 he got word
from his wife at Mission that the cattle were in danger from the floods. He
left his blankets at Hasting's Mill, walked through the woods in New
Westminster, took the boat to Mission, attested to the cattle and was
boarding the boat next day for his return trip when he heard that Vancouver
was burning. He found the city in ruins, Hasting's Mill, where his blankets
were still safe, being one of the few buildings remaining.
A ship from Victoria arrived shortly, bringing food and soldiers' tents for
the homeless people. As the Victoria crew unloaded the supplies they
offered much jocular advice to the Vancouverites who had gathered around the
"Give it up, you Stick Siwashes," they shouted, "Give it up. You'll never
make a city out of this place."
But the loyal citizens of the stricken settlement informed the crew with
right good will that the day was not far distant when a city would rise from
these ashes that would eclipse their own.
Just back of where Woodward's store now stands, a pile of bricks lay fallen
and beside the bricks was a safe which was guarded day and night. In a few
days a representative of the safe company arrived and a curious crowd
After a little manipulation of the dials, the man opened the great door. He
pulled out bills, and gold and silver pieces. Then, standing on top of the
safe, he harangued the crowd, showing them the money that had come safely
through the fire and, of course, advising them to keep their valuables
secure by investing in a safe made by his company.