It all started with a letter from March 4, 1872.
Emma Eliza Driver wrote to the Chief Officer of the Government Department at Williams Creek asking if her father was dead.
Living in March, Cambridgeshire, England, she heard from a man in London her father had died.
Her father was Billy Barker.
He was busy mining gold in the Cariboo goldfields after he hit the motherlode on Williams Creek in 1862.
Born in the English town of March, Barker worked as a waterman on the canals. He married Jane Lavendar and had a daughter, Emma Eliza.
In the 1830s when railways began making canals obsolete, Barker left England for the U.S. and participated in the California Gold Rush.
He made his way to the North Cariboo and was among the first of a group who staked Williams Creek. Barker’s claim was the richest of the group and the settlement which grew up around his claim became known as Barkerville.
Barkerville eventually became the de facto capital of B.C.’s interior, helping create the province’s wealth and connecting it to the southern half.
Emma’s letter came to light in April, 1970 from the files at the provincial archives in Victoria and was passed to the B.C. Parks supervisor in Barkerville Historic Town.
In 1978, Bob Hayes, the records and registration technician in Barkerville, wrote to the editor of the Cambridgeshire Times, a local newspaper in the March area, asking for information concerning Billy Barker or his family.
Upon discovering her mother had cut out the newspaper notice at the time, Elaine Edgington wrote to Barkerville curator Ken Mather in 1982 offering information about Barker’s descendants.
Edgington, nee Driver, had first-hand knowledge she was Billy Barker’s great-great granddaughter.
Elaine’s father, Owen William Driver, didn’t talk much about his family’s history. Elaine always had to ask him.
More research was carried out over the years by Mather and his team. Dorothy Sweet, a retired teacher from England who settled in Canada and was at the time a University of Victoria student, did more research in England.
The March Museum collected information on Billy Barker too.
Edgington was kept informed over time of the progress of research into Barker’s life in both England and Canada.
For 26 years, she and her husband Adrian made up their minds that some day they would visit Canada.
Little did she know her great-great grandfather is revered here. Quesnel’s annual favourite family festival is named after him. A downtown hotel and casino bear his name.
Monday, the Edgingtons arrived in Barkerville to retrace the steps of Barker’s famous discovery in the North Cariboo.
“We are very surprised,” Elaine, a retired accountant, said Wednesday.
“He’s not well-known in the U.K. If in England you said Billy Barker Days, no one would know what you’re talking about. We’re still learning about him here…learning about the history of the region and how things developed.”
They too didn’t realize how much of an impact Barker’s claim had on opening B.C. up to the rest of Canada.
“The people in Barkerville have been here for years and years. We also didn’t realize the Chinese involvement in the Gold Rush and what an impact they had.”
Elaine and Adrian flew direct from London to Vancouver and into Quesnel on Monday. They were picked up by current Barkerville curator Bill Quackenbush and stayed in Wells where they were welcomed with open arms.
They left Thursday for Victoria where they participated Friday in the unveiling of a new monument of Billy Barker at Ross Bay Cemetery. Barker may have become a wealthy man, but he died a pauper July 11, 1894 in Victoria. His gravesite is in Ross Bay Cemetery.
In February there was talk of the possibility of re-locating Barker’s gravesite from Victoria to Barkerville.
But Elaine believes that decision rests with the province.
“Everything that’s here is a good memorial,” she said.
While the trip is a dream come true for the couple and as of early Wednesday afternoon they hadn’t seen a moose, bear or had their picture taken with a Mountie in red serge, they’ll return to England with more than a few history lessons.
“I’ll have taken back some of my family history to pass on to my children [Stuart and Isabel],” Elaine said.
“It’s an incentive to do some serious research into not only the Barkers but the Drivers too. It isn’t until that generation [her father’s] is gone that there’s no one to ask.”