Each year on Oct. 26, the Tsilhqot’in hold a national holiday of remembrance for the “Chilcotin Chiefs.” On this date in 1864, the Colony of British Columbia wrongly executed five Tsilhqot’in public servants who had taken various parts in the Chilcotin War.
The official ceremonies this year will be at the site of “Old Fort Chilcotin,” an HBC post abandoned in the mid-1840s. This site is associated with a gross violation of the duty imposed on officials to protect the honor of the Crown. British Columbia has taken steps toward reconciliation in regard to the malfeasance committed here, but, so far, the Government of Canada has not done its part.
The Colony martyred the “Chilcotin Chiefs” before a mostly indigenous crowd that the hangman estimated at 250. The purpose of this large public spectacle was to advertise that the colonists expected to impose their will freely and that indigenous resistance, even to genocide, would not be tolerated. In 2014, British Columbia exonerated the “Chilcotin Chiefs” of having committed any harm and acknowledged that settlers had spread smallpox intentionally in the context of the Chilcotin War.
To understand all these events, one must begin in 1861. During that year, land speculators seeking a “coastal route” from Victoria to the Interior, and then on to distant Canada, approached Tsilhqot’in communities for permission to create two roads.
Through meetings with Nits’ilin Anaham at Nagwentlun (Anahim Lake) developers secured permission for a Bentinck Arm Road from Bella Coola across Tsilhqot’in territory to the Fraser River. Attorney General George Cary from the Colony of Vancouver Island (and Governor James Douglas’ formal legal adviser) led this project.
Then, in Nov. 1861, representing Alfred Waddington and his silent partner M.L.A. Dr. John Helmcken (Governor Douglas’ son-in-law), Capt. Price met with Nits’ilin Telloot on the Homathko River and secured permission for a road from Bute Inlet.
Meanwhile, in 1858, Great Britain had created British Columbia to protect its interests among a small non-indigenous community living in settlements along the lower Fraser River. Before 1864, no official from this new entity had visited the Tsilhqot’in citizenry seeking consent to extend any jurisdiction of the Crown there. So all the Tsilhqot’in systems necessarily remained the law of the land.
No sooner did settlers start arriving at Bentinck Arm in 1862 to begin that road than they began creating artificial smallpox epidemics to kill the indigenous residents along its length. Using smallpox as a weapon, these settlers expected to see the existing authorities overthrown in favor of the Crown without the prolonged “Indian wars” common elsewhere.
As for these artificial epidemics, a Bentinck Arm Co. agent gave newspaper interviews in which he disclosed that his party had sent infected men into several indigenous villages in a clear violation even of English law. In his memoir, he would add more locations to this list. Others were acknowledged to have spread the disease using infected blankets in Nuxalk territory. Survivors at Puntzi Lake would describe still other settlers using infected blankets. Yet still another settler later admitted creating an artificial epidemic to kill residents of the Tatla Valley.
The Colonial authorities took no action to enforce the law in any of these cases. This underlines that settlers had a social license for this murderous activity: it was a colonial policy. By January 1863, travellers were reporting two-thirds of all the Tsilhqot’in as already dead, numbering perhaps 5,000. From the Fort Alexandria Journal, it seems that the dying continued at least into July 1863.
Then, in a March 1864 dispute over the conditions of entry to Tsilhqot’in territory, an agent of the Bute Inlet enterprise threatened more artificial epidemics.
In reaction to this threat, and in light of the more general need to assert the People’s sovereign control, a Tsilhqot’in leaders’ Council decided to: 1) end the threat at Bute Inlet with an act of war; 2) see justice done in the case of those responsible for smallpox at Puntzi; 3) expel all settlers and close their territory; and 4) wait for some satisfactory relationship with the Crown before allowing the presence of settlers.
In April 1864, a Tsilhqot’in war party under Lhatssasin prevented the creation of new smallpox epidemics by killing 14 settlers from the offending Bute Inlet enterprise. In May, four settlers died resisting the application of justice in connection with the prior introduction of smallpox at Puntzi. By the first week of June, all settlers along the Bentinck Arm Road had stopped their activities and retreated to await evacuation from Bella Coola.
The Colony of British Columbia then raised three militia groups (one from New Westminster supplemented by 30 unwilling Nuxalk warriors pressed into service at Bella Coola, one from Hat Creek/Thompson River, and one from Barkerville/Quesnel) to, as the Governor said, “invade” Tsilhqot’in territory.
These forces threatened the remaining Tsilhqot’in with extermination if they did not give up their leaders and those otherwise involved in these actions. The militia burned homes, destroyed fishing stations and drove residents from their harvesting to such an extent that many more died from an artificially created famine.
Lhatsassin allowed these foreign militias to play themselves out chasing phantoms. While a marksman once even had the Governor in his gun sight, the Tsilhqot’in declined this opportunity, apparently under the principle of doing no more harm than necessary.
The Tsilhqot’in made an exception for the man they knew as Samandlin. Regarded as a leading spiritual force among the most hostile settler faction, Samandlin (Donald McLean) led the Hat Creek/Thompson River contingent. He had been the last Post Manager at Fort Chilcotin. He had murdered a Dakelh leader in 1849. He had been Post Manager at Fort Alexandria on the Fraser during a suspiciously isolated smallpox outbreak in 1855. And he was the main instrument for those HBC managers who preferred “club law” to a policy of accommodation with their indigenous hosts. With the aid of a spy in the militia camp, the Tsilhqot’in used Samandlin’s passionate desire to kill “Indians” as a means of enticing him into a carefully crafted ambush. Two Tsilhqot’in marksmen executed him on July 17, 1864.
A few days later, discouraged, the Governor prepared to withdraw in defeat. It was only then that Nits’ilin Alexis initiated a diplomatic contact with this foreign dignitary. Alexis first required that the Governor recognize a complete immunity for Ulnas, his second command. Ulnas had played a leading role with the Bute Inlet war party and he was among those the Colony wanted to hang. The Governor accepted this condition, seemingly setting a precedent.
After two days of talks, the Governor left for a promised tour of the nearby Cariboo gold fields. In his absence, he commissioned the New Westminster militia leader, police chief Chartres Brew, to hold capital trials and to hang any Tsilhqot’in convicted in them.
Alexis and Ulnas then split the colonial forces. Acting on their information, Brew took the New Westminster militia deep into the mountains west of Tatlayoko Lake. He played no further role in these events.
Alexis then facilitated contact between Lhatsassin’s camp and the remaining militia under Commissioner William Cox of Barkerville. The Governor had not given Cox the same authority to conduct trials and executions.
Cox’s party soon held out to Lhatsassin that the Governor would extend to others the immunity that he had given Ulnas and that, for the future, he would recognize Tsilhqot’in leaders as the appropriate authorities within their territory. It was agreed that, when the Governor returned from the gold fields, he would host a peace conference where these terms would be sealed in a sacred pipe ceremony.
This peace conference was to be held Aug. 15, 1864 at “Old Fort Chilcotin.”
On Aug. 3, runners were sent to other leaders, including Anaham and Nits’ilin Ahan advising them of this conference. Ahan’s Nimpo Lake community had assisted in disciplining the offending Puntzi settlers. These Tsilhqot’in would have benefitted from immunity as much as the Bute Inlet war party. Only four Tsilhqot’in had been at both actions.
At 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 15, Lhatsassin led a formal party of eight into Cox’s camp near the “Old Fort Chilcotin” ruins. Accompanying them were Alexis, Wochess (who returned some gold from the deceased settlers held in his custody) and a number of other Tsilhqot’in expecting to act as witnesses and to take part in a feast hosted by the Governor.
After beginning the sacred pipe ritual, Lhatsassin said, “We felt safe.” Yet the Governor was not in the camp as promised. Cox then sprang an ambush in violation of the peace conference’s term, taking the party of eight into custody. Following a “show trial,” five were hanged at Lhtako (Quesnel) on Oct. 26.
One can better appreciate what happened at “Old Fort Chilcotin” by analyzing who was present and who was not. The eight men in the formal party were not the “Chilcotin Chiefs” as ordinarily might have attended a Leaders’ Council, or even those who attended the Council initiating the war and, therefore, who might have been expected at such a peace conference. Only Lhatsassin and Telloot were chiefs in this sense, and Telloot had not attended the war Council.
The rest are acknowledged as “chiefs” because they were included in this party on account of their public service in particular actions. Once the principal of immunity was established for those actions, a precedent would have been set for the rest.
A) The party of eight at Old Fort Chilcotin, as named by Lhatsassin:
Sanstank (aka Tnananski) and Cheeloot his son. These two had assisted in the escape of the shooters at the execution of Samandlin. There was no independent evidence that either had harmed anyone and they were released before the trials.
Chayses (with Ulnas) had killed the Bute Inlet camp foreman and three others in a separate action at an advance camp.
Telloot (aka Tilaghed) and his son-in-law Cheddiki (aka George) had been involved in the attack on the main Bute Inlet work camp. The Jury could not come to a verdict in Cheddiki’s case and he was sent for retrial at New Westminster. He escaped on the way down.
Tahpitt (aka Taqed) was headman of the family displaced by the smallpox spreading settlers at Puntzi. Accompanied by Anaham, he had shot one of these at Puntzi.
Lhatsassin and his son Piem (aka Biyil and Pierre) had been at Bute Inlet, Puntzi and Nimpo Lake. At Nimpo Lake, the son had assisted in preventing escape by the key settler involved in smallpox at Puntzi, as Lhatsassin and others shot him.
B) Those not at Old Fort Chilcotin:
Anaham, Ahan and Lutas: Anaham was a key participant at Puntzi and he distributed rifles in anticipation of the event at Nimpo Lake. When the runner bearing conference invitations arrived at Nimpo Lake, the villagers refused to let him pass. For the runner had been among those who had helped to burn their houses. Not having received their invitation on account of this intervention, these three (or others from the Nimpo Lake action) did not attend the peace conference.
Anaham later received “a pardon” following an investigation by Chartres Brew that preceded later settler knowledge about his involvement at Nimpo and Puntzi. In May 1865, Ahan and Lutas were taken in a second ambush in Nuxalk territory. The Colony martyred Ahan at New Westminster in July. Lutas was convicted of murder in the third degree for shooting a horse to prevent a settler’s escape. The Governor pardoned him.
Yahoolas and Guichon were the two other Tsilhqot’in (beside Lhatsassin and Biyil) who had been present at both major actions. Lhatsassin suggested that Yahoolas was among those whose actions had provoked the smallpox threat at Bute Inlet. Yahoolas may have killed more settlers than any other participant. Guichon was a young man said to be the only one then in residence who survived the smallpox attack at Tatla Lake.
Tshin-kan-ten ceah (aka Shen Xatiniyah) died at Nimpo Lake, the only Tsilhqot’in warrior killed in any of these actions.
Nezulhtsin was at Nimpo Lake and at the Samandlin execution. He is said to have been in Lhatsassin’s camp before the supposed peace conference. Yet he did not trust the colonial representatives and left the camp for safety.
Ka-kus (aka Qaqez), Lhatsassin’s brother, was among those who had rescued Lhatsassin’s daughter after a rape that took place at Bute Inlet between Christmas and New Year’s 1864. He seems to have been accompanying her back to the Interior when the smallpox threat was made in March. He then returned to be among the war party.
Other members of the war party as named by Lhatsassin, and who the Colony wanted to arrest, but who did not attend at “Old Fort Chilcotin” were: Seitah, Casin, Ka-teith, Ha-chis, In-ne-qualth, Quot-a-mus-ki, and Yel-ten-ly.
Other Tsilhqot’in said by Waddington’s agents or by Lhatsassin to have been otherwise involved at Bute Inlet included: Telloot’s second son-in-law Jack (or possibly a misidentification of Lhatsassin’s son Jake), Iowwa (possibly Lulua) and Tyorkell, who argued for the necessity of killing all the settlers to be sure of preventing them from beginning an artificial epidemic.
In any case, one can appreciate from this list how many Tsilhqot’in must have lived in fear that the Colony might arrest and hang their providers at any time. The failure to acknowledge them as immune from prosecution served as a means of intimidation. It encouraged silence by all the Tsilhqot’in about the dishonor and shame that these colonial officials had brought on themselves, their own community and the Crown.
Partial list of sources:
BCARS. Colonial Correspondence GR-1372 f142f/16, B1308, Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia, including notes taken by the court at the trial of 6 Indians, Sept. 30, 1864.
“News from the Bute Expedition,” The British Columbian, May 28, 1864.
“Notice from Colonial Secretary’s Office,” Government Gazette, Aug. 27, 1864.
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