William (Billy) Barker was a hugely successful prospector during the Cariboo gold rich that has been immortalized through his namesake, the town of Barkerville. However, despite these claims to fame, the last years of his life were actually rather tragic.
Born in England, there is some conflict over the date and location of his birth. 1817 appears to be the most commonly agreed on year (that’s the date that has ended up on his gravestone) but there are claims to 1819 and 1820 as well with the location typically being given as Fenland or Cambridgeshire. As a waterman, he was employed to work on small boats moving cargo around the smaller canals of England but this career path came to an end around 1845 when the introduction of railroads into the shipping business put him out of work. The ending of his livelihood in England resulted in Barker travelling to America where he joined the Californian gold rush without having much success. Regardless of this, he followed many of his fellow prospectors north to British Columbia where he had arrived by 1859.
Despite being one of the first to discover a large amount of gold in the Cariboo region, Billy had to work through three unsuccessful mining locations before he struck lucky. His first stop was in the area now known as Lillooet which is roughly 400 km south of Barkerville and by 1861 he had worked his way up to what is now Quesnel. In 1862 he arrived in the aptly and optimistically named Richfield which was only about a 30 minute walk away from what was soon to become the town of Barkerville. Not having any better luck in this area then he had had in any of the previous, Billy decided to look below the canyon of Richfield where Barkerville now lies. This area was much harder to mine than most and the other miners reported thought he was crazy to try his luck here. But, this is where his previous experience ended up coming in handy. Most of the Europeans who mined in the North American gold rushes were from wealthy families and were unaccustomed to the long hours and tough working conditions of the prospector life and so Barker, with his working class background, was likely better suited to this life.
In most areas, gold lies only about 3-5 meters below ground but in the canyon chosen by Barker, he ended up having to dig down almost 20 meters before striking lucky but that clearly ended up being worthwhile. His mine ended up producing 37,500 ounces of gold (roughly $40 million Canadian today) and the town of Barkerville quickly sprung up around him once word of his find got out.
Unfortunately, it appears that Billy Barker was unprepared for his sudden increase in wealth; reports indicate that he ended up smoking up to 30 cigarettes a day in order to deal with the stress. He died penniless in Victoria on July 11, 1894 demonstrating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease as well as possible cancer of the jaw. Currently, his grave is located in Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery although there has been talk in recent years about potentially having it moved to Barkerville.