This post is adapted from a chapter in our forthcoming book about the introduction of smallpox in Nuxalk territory. As in Tsilhqot’in territory, where the Premier has formally acknowledged that settlers spread smallpox intentionally during 1862 to create artificial epidemics, the Nuxalk experience also serves well as an example of the way in which settlers used the disease as a weapon to effectively eliminate the de facto power of the sovereign indigenous authorities on the Pacific shelf.

The preceding chapters of this book outline Attorney General George Cary’s plans for New Aberdeen, the European settlement that he and his associates expected to initiate at the mouth of the Bella Coola River. They had first staked land claims there in Sept. 1860. And his plans for the Bentinck Arm Toll Road, scouted in 1861 and expected to connect Bella Coola with the Fraser River as one leg in a transcontinental crossing to distant Canada.

This chapter introduces Francis Poole. Poole would admit several times that he played a key role in the introduction of smallpox in Nuxalk territory. The chapter then goes on to prove his connection to the two enterprises controlled by Attorney General Cary. A later chapter shows that, after the artificial epidemics begun by Poole’s party in June 1862, others would intentionally restart the disease in October 1862.

All told, this created an unimaginably traumatic human tragedy among the Nuxalk with a sudden catastrophic decline in both the indigenous population and its political presence.

Before 1862, no official from the new Colony of B.C. had visited Nuxalk or Tsilhqot’in territory for any reason, let alone to negotiate political treaties extending the Crown’s jurisdiction there. After 1862, the Colony simply ignored the de jure indigenous authorities, humiliating them with displays of their de facto powerlessness as necessary beginning with the Chilcotin War, and then gradually imposed a smallpox-enabled para-military occupation of Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in territories. This in violation of the rule of law and of their legal duty to protect the honour of the Crown.


In sum, Francis Poole and his party were agents of Attorney General George Cary, the New Aberdeen land syndicate and the Bentinck Arm Company. Cary controlled these two corporate entities and had large personal interests in them. Poole’s employers, then, had staked land under the Nuxalk Ancestors at Q’umk’uts’ from Sept. 1860 and from April 1861 had plans for a colonial toll road that would go along an established trail, one subject to indigenous regulation and taxes in both Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in territories.

The business plan disclosed in George Cary’s correspondence for this period called for the subdivision and sale of this land at the mouth of the Bella Coola River for a nascent European settlement in early June 1862 and by the end of July to begin operation on the toll road, part of a “coastal route” advertised as the cheapest way inland.

This plan required, no later than June 1862, 1) the necessity of vacant land to suit prospective fee simple purchasers; 2) cheap or displaced indigenous labor to attract a profitable freight industry; and, 3) a road free of indigenous control to suit prospective travellers expecting cut-rate conditions.

Without any approach to the sovereign indigenous authorities from a Colonial regime eagerly encouraging this activity in territories where it had no jurisdiction of any kind, and in which Cary was the Governor’s highest legal adviser, and without the Crown purchasing any colour of indigenous title to land as required by English legal policy, how could the developers possibly be expecting to accomplish all this on an early June 1862 schedule?

Poole.coast.1862

This London Illustrated News graphic shows a typical B.C. coastal scene from 1862. Except that his party of 20 men came on a small steamer, Poole’s arrival at Bella Coola would have looked like this. Another Bentinck Arm party already had landed and gone to Tsilhqot’in territory carrying smallpox.

Poole arrived in the Nuxalk Ancestors’ territory in the first week of June 1862. On his own various accounts of where his party bore responsibility, or from the newspapers, smallpox carriers from his party knowingly left the disease at: Nanaimo, Fort Rupert (north Vancouver Island), a Heiltsuk community on the approach to Bella Coola, “tribes in the neighborhood” of Bentinck Arm, South Bentinck Arm, Q’umk’uts’ and Soonochlim (collectively known as Bella Coola, population estimated by Poole at 4000), Nautlieff and Chilcotin Lake. Indeed, his party had smallpox carriers continuously within it from Nanaimo to Chilcotin Lake, potentially exposing every native for hundreds of kilometers along the proposed “coastal route.”

In addition to the need for guaranteeing safe passage along the route for a rapidly increasing settler population tending to disrespect the indigenous Peoples, and in addition to New Aberdeen’s claim under Q’umk’uts’,  men associated with the Bentinck Arm Company had already staked land under Soonochlim and Chilcotin Lake before Poole’s party arrived to introduce smallpox, or in the case of Nautlieff would stake the land while they were still dying.

Exactly coincident with his agents knowingly creating these vast artificial smallpox epidemics, the man who stood to be their greatest personal beneficiary, Attorney General Cary visited the colonial land office in New Westminster in early June 1862 to demand registration of New Aberdeen’s claim to Q’umk’uts’, claiming in so many words what he knew to be false, that, “There is no Indian settlement…”

While the claim was absurd, astonishingly, it very nearly came true in a real sense and soon would be true in a political sense. In Poole’s words, the resident population of Bella Coola, just as Cary was making his claim at New Westminster, was being reduced “from 4000 to a few dozens.” In this process, the de facto control and political presence of the indigenous de jure authorities, for all practical purposes, had been brought to an end.

This illustration from Poole's Memoir shows the kind of confrontation, with settlers heavily outnumbered, that the introduction of smallpox served to avoid.

This illustration from Poole’s Memoir shows the kind of confrontation, with settlers heavily outnumbered, that the introduction of smallpox served to avoid. This illustrates a scene at Haida Gwaii and Poole would oversee an introduction of smallpox here, too. While Poole labels this “An Indian Raid,” he was there to take their minerals under circumstances where they could not be sure of being paid a fair price. It seems very likely that the people of Haida Gwaii would describe this in terms of them preventing a settler’s raid where they were the legitimate authorities with every right to employ force.

So it was that The Settler’s Insurrection in B.C. came to Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in territory during June 1862. As part of the Insurrection’s subsequent mythology, colonial apologists would reframe this blatant ethnic cleansing exercise as just an unfortunate natural disaster.

This mythology would serve to add later immigrants who came in good faith to the list of victims: for, with the truth withheld from them by settler historians, they could little understand the reasonableness of indigenous upset, anger or despair, of which sometimes they would bear the brunt…though they were, themselves, innocent of the cause and had not been introduced honourably to the facts required so as to see themselves, rightly, as the beneficiaries of genocide.

New Aberdeen and the Bentinck Arm Road failed before the year was out, Poole died prematurely at 39 years of age and Cary was certified insane in 1865… but this legacy lives on.

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