1913: Swiss immigrant talked Chinook

Early in the post-frontier era, an immigrant from Switzerland to BC was eulogized, in part for his experience of gold-rush Chinuk Wawa.


Apparently George Stelly’s house in Saanich, BC (image credit: Seaside Magazine)

[A photo of Mr. Stelly accompanied the original article; I haven’t found it. — DDR]

Died May 28, 1913 at Victoria, British Columbia, George Stelly sister, aged 88, native of Pettlach, Canton of Solothorn, Switzerland. He is survived by 1 son, George. He was possessed of large property interests, there are numerous handsome buildings here which stand as a monument to his faith in the future of the town when faith was somewhat at a discount. Notable is the Clarence hotel block.

Mr Stelly was born in 1825 and in 1851 he heard of the wonderful gold discoveries in California and determined to seek his fortune in that country. At this time there were no Railroad in Switzerland and consequently few of the villagers ever traveled more than a few miles from home. Therefore, when in company with a few comrades he left his native land a great crowd assembled to bid him bon voyage, as it was thought the expedition was a wonderful one. Mr Stelly and his companions made most of the journey to the sea coast on foot. Thence they crossed over to England and embarked for America on a sailing vessel at Liverpool.

After a voyage which lasted 66 days the ship arrived at New Orleans. Thence Mr Stelly journeyed up the Mississippi to Saint Louis, where he found his 1st employment in America. This job consisted of driving a team of 12 oxen and ploughing, for Stelly showing himself an excellent workman, however, he was given a ‘raise’ to $15/mo. Finding this employment irksome, he journeyed on to IA, where, on Apr 1, 1854, a party was organized to go to California in search of gold.

This party consisted of 20 people, of whom 3 were women. They experienced great trouble with the Indians on the plains. Each night 4 men had to stand guard against attack. on the S side of the River Platte they had many skirmishes with the Indians, and one morning at daybreak they were attacked. The women lay flat in the bottom of the wagons, behind and under which were the member of the white party working their rifles. The party was well armed, and after considerable firing drove the Indians back and followed them over a high ridge in the hope of recovering some of their oxen which the Indians had managed to get away with. As the party of pursuing whites reached the ridge they beheld a beautiful valley, where the Indians had their encampment, and here were thousands of cattle and horses, which presumably the Indians had from time to time filched from white travelers whom they had murdered while they were crossing the plains.

When the party, proceeding on their journey, reached the spot where the splendid city of Omaha, Nebraska, now stands, they had to build rafts to get the wagons across the Missouri River and swim the cattle over. After 6 mos journey they reached Placerville, California. Mr Stelly spent 4 years in different parts of the state and with some success.

Then the Fraser River excitement broke out and he joined in the rush to British Columbia. Mr Stelly remembered that a tax of $2.50 was imposed on all leaving the state, and that the fare was $40. The trip to Victoria took 12 days. They arrived on SS Oregon at Esquimalt in May 1858, and Mr Stelly used to relate that he carried his blankets over the old Esquimalt road to this city. Here 4 of the newcomers (3 being Irish) built a small rowboat and started for the Fraser River. In crossing the Gulf a storm arose and the tiny craft was almost swamped. They managed, however, to reach Pt Roberts, where they found shelter. They did not know exactly where the Fraser River was, but met many Indians who directed them on their course. These Indians would say: ‘Gold illay siyah‘ [gúl-íliʔi sáyá] – meaning in Chinook, ‘gold land far away.’

Mr Stelly’s party finally reached Lytton. Here, however, they met with a serious mishap, the boat upsetting and causing the loss of all their effects and provisions. After prospecting the benches at Lytton thoroughly they found but little gold and made an effort to get out of the country. They had delayed their departure too long, however, and found they would have of necessity to winter on the Fraser. They experienced many hardships, as to buy provisions was out of the question. Beans was the principal article of diet for months, and the party, even with those, were on short rations.

In the spring of 1859, Mr Stelly and party returned to Ft Victoria ‘dead broke.’ Mr Stelly himself wanted to go back to California, but, like many more, had no money to pay his passage. He finally found work here at various occupations, and after saving some money he bought a mule and 2 wheels. on the latter he placed a barrel, and then started selling water to the people of Victoria. In those days Mr Stelly became known as ‘George, the Waterman.’ Later he embarked in the contracting and general teaming business, which he carried on successfully until a few years ago, when, owing to advancing years, he was forced to retire.
It was only a few years ago that with his son and the latter’s wife, he made an extended tour of Europe, visiting his home in Switzerland after an absence of 57 years.

As a young man Mr Stelly served in the war of 1847-48 in Switzerland, and on his return home had the great pleasure of meeting 2 comrades who served in the same regiment with himself. May 31, 7 – Funeral. Pallbearers: Messrs F W Kostenbader, George Lawrence, F Verdier, E Geiger, R T Williams, J Wenger. Unique among the floral pieces was a Swiss flag worked out in carnations and orchids. A 047 W 32

[Victoria (BC) Colonist, 1913-05-29, p. 3]

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