What is the story of Ahan, the “Chilcotin Chief” martyred by the Crown in British Columbia on July 18, 1865, and exonerated by BC in 2014 and by Canada in 2019? And the story of his partner in action, Lutas? The Crown sentenced Lutas to hang with Ahan, but Lutas received a full pardon in 1865.
Ahan was the War Chief for the Tsilhqor’in community at Sutless (fish trap) where the Dean River leaves Nimpo Lake. “War Chief” was a common public office in the pre-colonial North Pacific. The “War Chief” administered official violence on behalf of the whole community, like a police or military officer. The Tsilhqot’in tradition holds Ahan to have been good at his job. Lutas was a young man from Ahan’s community. He assisted the War Chief with his official duties in the case at hand, like a constable or a soldier.
The Crown martyred Ahan (along with five other “Chilcotin Chiefs”) and convicted Lutas of murder in the third degree for their public service in applying Tsilhqot’in law to some British settlers who had spread smallpox as a means for overthrowing the established legal and resource allocation systems in favor of Tsilhqot’in territory’s annexation and colonization by BC.
The train of events leading to what the Crown acknowledged in its exoneration statements as the injustice with which BC treated these Tsilhqot’in public servants began with the 1846 Oregon Treaty. In this Treaty, the British and Americans agreed, between themselves, that the British would have the right to negotiate with the Tsilhqot’in for access to their territory. Before 1864, however, no agents of the Crown had contacted any Tsilhqot’in community for any reason. There was no sense, therefore, in which any part of Tsilhqot’in territory might have become a part of BC, except in the imagination of colonizers, before 1864. As a result, the Crown had no sovereign jurisdiction there. Tsilhqot’in communities remained the only legitimate sovereign authority and their legal system remained the only law properly applicable in this territory.
Then, in May of 1861, a syndicate led by then BC Attorney General George Cary approached key Tsilhqot’in communities for access to create a road from Bentinck Arm (Bella Coola) through Tsilhqot’in territory to the Fraser River as a first step in connecting the Pacific British colonies to the colonies across the continent. This project received consent through several meetings that summer with the Tsilhqot’in under Anaham, the headman at Nagwentlun (Anahim Lake.) A north branch of the Bentinck Arm Road was to pass Nagwentlun on its way to Chiscot (Chilcotin Lake.) Later, a south branch would pass Sutless on its way to Puntzi Lake.
In Nov. of 1861, a syndicate led by Alfred Waddington received consent from the Homathko Tsilhqot’in headed by Tellot for a road from Bute Inlet that would connect with the Bentinck Arm Road at Puntzi.
At Puntzi, in early 1862, the Tsilhqot’in gave consent for a partnership led by Alex McDonald to share Puntzi Creek with Tahpitt’s family near where the Bentinck Arm and Bute Inlet roads were to meet. This partnership expected to develop a business serving travelers passing this strategic location. Recognizing that British laws did not apply in Tsilhqot’in territory, one of the partners, William Manning (who already had an English wife,) married into a leader’s family to satisfy the Tsilhqot’in custom for allocating resources. Similarly, sharing the Puntzi operation with McDonald and Manning, Peter McDougall married a Nimpo Lake leader’s daughter to gain access there (including at Sutless) while running pack horses between Bella Coola and the Fraser River.
The expectation of the Tsilhqot’in in granting consent for these roads and a services industry would have been the same as that of any sovereign authority: that the operators would be subject to Tsilhqot’in regulation and that the beneficiaries would pay the appropriate fees. However, some beneficiaries at each road refused to pay and the operators at Puntzi violated the terms of their shared access agreement. These were not ordinary guests. They were colonists. Colonists expected the Crown to insulate them from any need to respect the dignity of the original Peoples or their laws, governments and resource allocation schemes.
Meanwhile, as of 1862, the Crown’s agents in the North Pacific had decided that they would abrogate the usual British policy in North America. They would not make treaties with the original Peoples before asserting control over them or purchase any color of aboriginal title (under English law, let alone under the existing systems) before selling or otherwise allocating native resources for settler communities. Under ordinary circumstances, the disposition of the North Pacific colonizers toward the original Peoples as a class of inferiors with diminished political and property rights would have led to the same succession of “Indian wars” as occurred elsewhere when settlers dispossessed natives of their livelihoods and capacity for self-determination.
BC native communities universally did not consent to rule by the Crown. Yet, violent resistance was only sporadic. This happy result for the colonists came about because the native population and its political presence collapsed suddenly from a series of smallpox epidemics during 1862. Elders and knowledge keepers throughout the North Pacific, including those who curate the Tsilhqot’in tradition, teach that the colonizers purposefully “man-made” these epidemics to facilitate the Crown’s assertion of control without treaties and without any purchase of aboriginal title. While exonerating the “Chilcotin Chiefs,” the Crown acknowledged, as a matter of historical fact based on reliable evidence, that settlers did spread smallpox intentionally to set in motion the colonization of Tsilhqot’in territory.
The first “man-made” smallpox epidemics in Tsilhqot’in territory came during June of 1862. Newspaper accounts show that a Bentinck Arm Co. party headed by Francis Poole contained smallpox carriers continuously from Victoria to Chilcotin Lake. In his memoir, Poole also said that he carried the disease to both North and South Bentinck Arms where his principals anticipated selling the land under the local native communities for a harbor city to receive their transcontinental road. Apparently secure in the knowledge that the colonial authorities had licensed the criminal activity of creating “man-made” epidemics in native communities and that the colonial community found this crime to be socially acceptable, Poole also freely described in the newspapers violating English criminal law as it concerned smallpox.
It was a crime under English law just to spread smallpox “incautiously,” let alone to spread it knowingly where one’s principals had a financial motive to create vacant land. In the leading case from 1815, the Crown jailed a mother for committing a crime by failing to keep a safe distance between her infected child and some healthy children who caught the disease from her child and died. In a clear-cut breach of this legal standard, Poole said his party knowingly took infected carriers into unsuspecting native villages and, at locations like Chilcotin Lake, left them there, effectively increasing the opportunities for exposure. Poole said that his party left “a sorrowful trail of blood.” He also reported being “in hourly dread of attack by hostile savages” when the Tsilhqot’in chased them down the trail and that one of his party died.
Poole’s party were not the only settlers known to have begun “man-made” epidemics in Tsilhqot’in territory. At Tatla Lake, John McLain, who was a smallpox carrier at the time, later admitted to beginning an epidemic by leaving a smallpox blanket with some food on a horse. Just like Poole, he reported being chased by the local Tsilhqot’in. Then, at Puntzi, the partnership operating there threatened to dispossess Tahpitt’s family and consolidate its control over the land by introducing smallpox. Subsequently, according to an eye-witness, Alex McDonald killed hundreds by beginning an epidemic with smallpox blankets at Puntzi.
With over 70 percent of all the Tsilhqot’in already dead from these “man-made” epidemics, in the spring of 1864, the Bute Inlet developers threatened to create yet another epidemic. After discovering a grave-robbed blanket already in the Company’s possession, the Tsilhqot’in quickly called a Leaders’ Council. Subsequent Tsilhqot’in activity reflects that this Council: 1) authorized an act of war to prevent a “man-made” epidemic at Bute Inlet; 2) determined to remove from their territory guests who would not honor the law; and, 3) hoped to connect with newcomers of good faith who would accept their invitation for a condition of friendly relations between two equally self-determining Peoples.
After successfully preventing the Bute Inlet developers from beginning a “man-made” epidemic at the end of April 1864, Tsilhqot’in officials then removed all guests from their territory who would not honor the law. They began by notifying William Manning, the resident partner at Puntzi, that his operation had lost its consent and that he should leave immediately. His Tsilhqot’in wife, Nancy, was a sister of Alexis, a leader who would play an important role in all the events to come, and she advised Manning how to meet the law and save his life. Apparently expecting the Tsilhqot’in to be too fearful of the Crown to take any action, Manning refused all options offered to him until Anaham, playing the role assigned to him by the Council, and Tahpitt, whose family the developers had dispossessed, finally had no choice but to remove him by execution.
As for Peter McDougall, the Tsilhqot’in had been tracking his pack train since it had delivered goods at Ft. Alexandria in mid-April. McDougall returned through Puntzi before Manning’s execution. Alexis then assigned his son Janney and another man from his community to join McDougall’s pack train and report its progress. At Bella Coola, Alex McDonald joined McDougall. Clifford Higgins and five other settlers also would join them as the pack train left Bella Coola for its next crossing.
Tsilhqot’in officials already had decided to intercept McDonald and McDougall at Sutless. Anaham passed out rifles at Sutless and then left for Bella Coola, apparently so that it would seem he had clean hands in the event expected to follow. The War Leader who had led the action at Bute Inlet arrived at Sutless that evening. He advertised that he had come to deal with Alex McDonald for introducing smallpox at Puntzi. Ahan, Lutas and many other Tsilhqot’in agreed to assist him.
When the pack train was stopped, McDonald and McDougall refused the same options that had been offered to Manning. Initially, they dug a defensive trench to resist their arrest. After a couple of days, instead of waiting for Anaham and appealling for sanctuary as advised by McDougall’s Tsilhqot’in wife, they decided to make a run back to Bella Coola. The War Leader, with Ahan, Lutas and 30 or 40 more Tsilhqot’in intercepted them.
Ahan, Lutas, the Tsilhqot’in witness Achpicermous and the five innocent settlers, who were allowed to escape, variously reported a wild melee in which McDonald, McDougall, Higgins and a Tsilhqot’in warrior were killed. However, when Governor Frederick Seymour’s party arrived at Sutless a few weeks later, it found only two dead horses. One horse had been McDonald’s. The War Leader’s son shot that horse to prevent McDonald from escaping. The War Leader and others then executed McDonald. The other horse had been McDougall’s. Lutas shot that horse to prevent McDougall from escaping. Ahan then executed McDougall. The evidence supplied by the two dead horses corroborates the War Leader’s statement that this exercise had been all about dealing with the remaining beneficiaries of the “man-made” Puntzi epidemic. The other settler casualty, Higgins, may have been involved in spreading smallpox during 1862, may have attempted to interfere in McDonald’s execution, or may have shown his own disrespect for the established law.
The Colony of BC then enrolled several settler militias to invade Tsilhqot’in territory. Governor Seymour accompanied the New westminster Volunteers along the Bentinck Arm Rd. from Bella Coola. When this force reached Sutless, the Governor burned the village as a collective punishment for its support of the Tsilhqot’in law enforcement action taken there. Yet it was unreaosnable and cruel to expect a population to void its own law when dealing with settlers carrying out a genocidal policy. Today, this kind of reprisal would be considered a war crime. The militia also carried out a scorched earth policy in some areas and many Tsilhqot’in in these areas (according to Seymour and Judge Begbie) died that winter in the resulting famine. This, too, would be considered as a war crime today.
The militias were unsuccessful in arresting or even finding any Tsilhqot’in who had been involved in administering the Leaders’ Council’s public policies. After a Tsilhqot’in party killed Donald McLean, a colonist who they believed most embodied the spirit of bad faith, the Tsilhqot’in began a diplomatic initiative hoping to connect with those bearing good faith. The colonists seemingly embraced this diplomatic initiative. They invited Tsilhqot’in leaders to a peace conference under the usual conditions of a sacred pipe ceremony. A messenger was sent to advise Ahan and Anaham to attend this conference. However, when the messenger reached Sutless, the community threatened to kill him because he had taken part in burning their homes. As a result, Ahan and Anaham did not receive their notice and did not attend the conference.
At the conference, in a dishonorable violation of the conditions for a sacred pipe ceremony, the War Leader and his party were ambushed, thrown into prison, subjected to show trials and five would be hanged on Oct. 26, 1864. This included the War Leader who would be martyred, nominally, for executing McDonald at Sutless and his son for killing McDonald’s horse.
Anaham, unawares yet of the events unfolding elsewhere, agreed to meet one of the militia leaders. In a spirit of good faith, he returned horses and money from the ill-fated pack train. The militia leader confirmed that Anaham had not been present at Sutless for the executions. The militia leader then said that he gave Anaham his pardon. Yet, since Anaham had done nothing but properly perform his official functions and had not been convicted of any crime, there was nothing for which to pardon him.
Anaham also agreed to contact Ahan and Lutas so that they could come in and settle with the Crown, but he said that he did not know where they were. It would turn out that Ahan and Lutas wintered at Rivers Inlet. In Jan. of 1865, the same colonist who had been behind the pipe ceremony that saw the War Leaders’ party betrayed, John Ogilvy, gave Anaham a pipe at Bella Coola to consolidate his promise concerning Ahan and Lutas. Anaham still did not deliver them.
In May of 1865, Ogilvy, this new embodiment of bad faith was killed while attempting to enforce a colonial law in Nuxalk territory. Immediately afterward, just as the Tsilhqot’in had acted quickly after the death of Donald Mclean, Anaham notified the new “Indian agent,” Morris Moss, that Ahan and Lutas were on their way down. They carried with them for a new peace conference with the Governor reparations consistent with Tsilhqot’in law for the incidental harm suffered by the innocent settlers at the Sutless executions. Moss said that Anaham asked him not to arrest Ahan and Lutas until they reached first portage point on the River. Under the circumstances in place, it is very doubtful that this was the thrust of Anaham’s actual message. The thrust of his instruction would appear to have been that Ahan and Lutas would remain under his protection until they reached Caliacus, Anaham’s camp beside the Nuxalk village of Soonachlim, four miles from the ocean. Only after that would they come under Moss’ protection to complete a “peace potlatch” with the Governor.
Moss did nothing until after Ahan and Lutas had passed Caliacus. He then violated the sacred pipe conventions, just as colonial officials had done previously to arrest the War Leader’s party. He ambushed and put Ahan and Lutas in restraints. They would continue to New Westminster under what the exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” now confirms was a false arrest, rather than as volunteers faithfully following the mandate of Tsilhqot’in law and visiting the Governor in good faith. In the ensuing proceedings, Ahan never expressed any regret or supposed that he had done anything unlawful. He said, in effect, that he acted in accord with his duty to a higher civic authority (great leader) as assigned by the Tsilhqot’in Council, which was the true sovereign authority having jurisidiction at the relevant time and place.
The transcript for the trial of Ahan and Lutas can be found below. This document shows colonial officials abusing their power and exceeding their authority where their duty to the Crown, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, was to have acted with honor. The conviction of Ahan and Lutas was a show trial every bit as much as the prior proceeding conducted by Judge Begbie at Quesnel before the martyrdom of the first five “Chilcotin Chiefs.” Show trials are an abuse of the justice system for political ends. In this case, the judge was the attorney general, who headed the Colony’s prosecution service, acting under a special appointment for only this case. The jury foreman was the mayor of New Westminster. Two jurors, Homer and Holbrook, were members of the legislature. That is, they were officials whose responsibility (until BC’s Union with Canada) would include BC’s relationship with the host original Peoples and who would be involved here in sentencing to death one of their native counterparts for faithfully performing his office.
Fully aware that the purposeful creation of “man-made” smallpox epidemics had been behind the executions of McDonald and McDougall, the attorney general peremptorily addressed this issue for the public before even any evidence was heard. He began the dishonor still very common in the colonial tradition of education that the Elders’ teaching about “man-made” epidemics, which actually was solidly grounded on the evidence of eyewitnesses in their own justice systems, was but a mere superstition of primtive ignorance. And that the original causes of the Chilcotin War were mysterious and unknowable.
The exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” is an attempt by Canadians to begin repairing relations with the Tsilhqot’in where good faith was lost, in part, by the dishonorable acts of these colonial officials. Exoneration by itself, however, cannot repair the wrong of slaughtering a People: so their territory could be annexed to BC for rule by the Crown without consent from the population; so their government and laws could be displaced without ever being repealed to leave the People living willingly under one sovereign authority and fearing a second well-known for its will to violence; and so that the resources required for their livelihoods and freedom of self-determination could be disposed of freely to strangers without first acquiring some color of right. If BC and Canada continue on a path toward a post-colonial condition, a direction that people of good faith support, the Crown will repair the cruelty and injustice committed at BC’s founding by paying reparations and returning control to Tsilhqot’in (and other) communities on a schedule of the People’s own choosing.