Golden Miles of History

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie


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"He was one of those great men, raised up by Providence, at a critical period in our history, to break in a new and wild country to order, law and civilization."

- Elegy for Sir Matthew Begbie by Judge Henry Crease, Victoria B.C., 1894

In 1858, a London Times correspondent accompanied James Douglas into the Fraser Canyon to investigate reports that thousands of "intrusive, impertinent and lawless" American miners were warring with First Nations. The reporter estimated it would take 750 policemen and four or five gunboats to enforce law and order but Britain sent only one man – Matthew Baillie Begbie.

An experience lawyer with a sterling reputation, Begbie was fluent in four languages, an all-around athlete and a student of mathematics & science. He had an appetite for adventure, the physical endurance to face arduous conditions in a frontier land and the unshakeable confidence of a Cambridge man to face any situation with great presence of mind.

A 6'5" giant of a man with piercing blue eyes, prematurely white hair and an impeccable Victorian wardrobe, Begbie travelled on horseback or on foot over "goat tracks" and by canoe on "foaming torrents" to set up local judiciaries & police forces in lawless mining settlements. He presided over goldfield courts in tents, shacks or the open air. His eloquence and theatrics always guaranteed an appreciative audience.

Begbie assisted Governor Douglas in compiling laws and made notes for him about the country's topography, weather conditions and agricultural potential while sketching maps with suggestions for potential roads, bridges and towns.

On the trail, his clerk praised Begbie who "chopped wood, baked bread, cut tent pegs, shot game, caught fish (and) could steer or paddle a canoe down a swift river as well as anyone." In the evening around the campfire he amazed his travelling companions "at the contrast between his intellectual attainments and the rigorous backdrop against which they were so effortlessly displayed."

In the wig and scarlet robes of English court tradition, he pronounced judgments with such severity that rather than face him in court, some fled the country. When one convicted miner complained about his legal defense, Begbie agreed to set him up with another trial "by your Maker" thereby earning the epithet – The Hanging Judge.

Yet Begbie was a compassionate man who sought extenuating circumstances when a jury pronounced a death sentence and defended the rights of Chinese miners and First Nations against discrimination.

Begbie received deputations from First Nations chiefs, was fluent in the Chinook trading language that dubbed him "the Rope Tyee" and could communicate in First Nations dialects without a translator.

In 1860, American miners were shocked when a Californian was convicted of assaulting a First Nations man at Yale solely on evidence given by First Nations. It was the first time this had happened on the West Coast.

After Confederation with Canada in 1871, Matthew Baillie Begbie was knighted by Queen Victoria and served as Chief Justice of British Columbia until the end of his life.

Want to learn more of the epic history of British Columbia? Pick up a map of Lillooet's Golden Miles of History Tour at the Lillooet Museum & Visitor Centre or at participating merchants.