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Charles Alphonsus Gardner
Pioneer Yukon River Captain

This article by Edna Brandon Hanson appeared in The Vancouver Sun as "The Strange Life Story of Captain Charlie Gardner" between November 29 and December 27, 1941.

    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.

    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 born.
    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 them."
    The child was born on May 15th, 1860, and the messenger left with the lock of hair.

    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 there."
    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 cleanse it.

    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.

    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 dead.
    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.

    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 gratefully mentioned. 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 Sumas prairie. 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 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 did, Father." "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 spoke. "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.

    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.

    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.

    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 found.
    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 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 bridge. 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 pier. "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 gathered. 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.

To Part 2