The hanging of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” on Oct. 26, 1864, 150 years ago was a signal event for B.C.’s indigenous Peoples. Lhatsassin Memorial Day, named for the “Head War Chief” in 1864, is now a national holiday of remembrance for the Tsilhqot’in. The majority of the 250 people at the hanging in 1864 were Dakelh, Secwepemc, Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in. All had traveled several days to bear witness. A 1000 km round trip for the Nuxalk. What happened on the day itself? And why was the context so important to so many First Nations?
The day began well before sunrise. Early risers could hear the prisoners’ monotone death chant drifting through the British Columbia darkness. Careful listeners could distinguish Lhatsassin’s deep voice in their common prayer.
The prisoners had known that they would die as martyrs at the hands of a foreign para-military force since Judge Matthew Begbie sentenced them to death on Sept. 29, 1864. Since the Colonial Governor’s Executive Council had confirmed the death sentence on Oct. 10. Since acting High Sheriff Peter O’Reilly had received the death warrant on Oct. 21. And since O’Reilly had set the date on Oct. 24. Only the final timing had been in doubt. On Monday, they had learned that they would die today: Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 7:00 a.m.
Settlers say this hanging took place at Quesnel, B.C. The native crowd knew, instead, that it was at Lhtako. There had been a Southern Dakelh community here since before anyone could remember. Yet, at most, only one Lhtako resident was at the hanging. Why?
In 1861, with the new Colonial government proclaiming land legislation designed to draw Euro-settlers and with this ground becoming a likely destination for a road from Bentinck Arm to the Cariboo mines, some entrepreneurial settlers arrived at Lhtako to begin a hotel. Encouraged by the proposed land scheme, the hotel settlers also staked claims to the land under the Lhtako native community.
Without the Governor negotiating a treaty, and without finding some way to evict the native residents as trespassers on their own ground, how could these settlers ever hope to enjoy their new private property in the fee simple manner promised by the government? How could they expect to have the Lhtako community’s quiet possession, backed by the threat of violence from the long-established legitimate authority, become their right to a title backed by the Crown’s willingness to use violence unsanctioned by treaty or consent?
Suddenly and magically, these issues became resolved. Between Oct. 1862 and Jan. 1863 all the natives here but one died from smallpox. The need for accommodating native interests declined with them. Settlers say this extraordinarily convenient extinguishment was just an innocent intervention by chance. William Boucher visited Lhtako while the residents were still dying. They told him a man with a small horse or donkey had introduced the disease seemingly systematically by going house to house. Just five months after smallpox had cleared the ground of its native residents, the government surveyed, subdivided and then sold their land as town lots. Smallpox and colonial policy transformed Lhtako into Quesnel virtually overnight.
The Lhtako bodies were gathered on the banks of the Fraser River for burning, probably near the Chief’s lodge. This lodge had been the scene in Feb. 1849 where H.B.C. trader Donald McLean assassinated the Chief in a hail of gunfire. He did this to punish the community for exercising its sovereign right to use violence while applying the law of the land to his fellow Euro-Canadians conducting business among them: essentially the same “offence” for which the Tsilhqot’in were now to be punished. These events were connected: during “The Chilcotin War,” McLean was lured into an ambush and executed.
Peter O’Reilly had been in Lhtako just about when the seeds of the epidemic were sown. He certainly knew where the remains of the dead had been gathered. It seems not at all by chance, then, that it was in this smallpox graveyard on the bank of the river where O’Reilly chose to build his scaffold. Given the awe Interior natives then had for the dead, given the trauma of the massive sudden death toll from smallpox among all Interior native communities and given that this execution’s primary purpose was to intimidate natives into allowing Colonial expansion with a minimum of violence, O’Reilly can only have chosen this site for its powerful symbolism. Today, across from Tim Horton’s on Front Street, it silently hosts a parking lot and a senior’s residence.
O’Reilly rose at 5:00 a.m. He and Rev. R.C.L. Brown both noted a heavy frost. The hour set for the hanging, 7:00 a.m., is about one hour before sunrise here on Oct. 26. The moon would still have been visible in the blue dawn twilight. It had been a wet season. The slightest wind would have made it bone-chillingly cold.
The urgency of the early hour seems explained by O’Reilly’s schedule as it can be reconstructed from his Diary: rise early; execute five Indians; borrow $300 at the bank to pay expenses (about $20,000 today, using gold or wages as a standard); leave for home by noon (80 km, near Barkerville); ride hard until 9:00 p.m.
Some traditions have it that Colonial officials paid native attendees to spread the word about the fate of those who might resist the Colony’s advance. One official had ordered a supply of blankets delivered from the H.B.C. a few days before and this may have been part of the expense O’Reilly needed to cover, along with the cost of the scaffold.
For his part, Rev. Brown hastened to the Colony’s make-shift prison. This small log cabin had been pressed into service for lack of a proper jail. Seated on the floor with only a blanket and cramped together in the close quarters, the prisoners were heavily shackled. Held in irons since they had been ambushed at a peace conference on Aug. 15, it was probable that the restraints created bleeding sores on their limbs. On their arrival in Quesnel on Sept. 13, the jailor had taken their clothes. Each received new trousers and a blue flannel shirt. They would be tried, and then hung, in the uniform of common labourers.
Brown said the Tsilhqot’in martyrs never let go of their spiritual connection, chanting prayers as they passed the days in custody. Today they stopped to greet him. He led them in an Anglican communion service. Breakfast followed. Probably, this last meal was the same as that O’Reilly was enjoying down the block. Prepared by the same kitchen. At the hotel.
After breakfast, the jailors called them out one by one. Their arms were bound for the 100 yard march to the scaffold. Lhatsassin’s son Biyil was first. Brown said he wept a little, “no doubt thinking of his young wife and child.” Biyil’s family came from the far southwest of Tsilhqot’in territory, between Tatla, Chilko and the Southgate River. So it is not surprising that his wife came from a coastal People. After these events she returned home. Her and Biyil’s descendants from this child can now be found among the Pielle family of the Tla’amin Nation at Campbell River.
William Boucher’s wife, who was at the hanging, said that when Biyil looked downcast, Tilaqhed told him to hold his head high for he had done nothing shameful in helping to execute a settler convicted of spreading smallpox.
In 1865, B.C.’s attorney-general told Ahan’s trial that natives “universally” believed settlers had spread smallpox to depopulate the land so it could be redistributed to settlers. This belief was based on the evidence of eye-witnesses and survivors about how the disease had arrived in their communities. The resulting sudden, catastrophic decline in their population also immediately put the Nuxalk, Southern Dakelh, Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in and the rest at risk of subjugation to a foreign power and to dispossession. This explains why they had travelled so far on short notice to honor the Tsilhqot’in for the nobility of their defence.
In all, the Colony martyred six “Chilcotin Chiefs,” five on Oct. 26, 1864 and another July 18, 1865. It hanged four of the six (Lhatsassin, Biyil, Taqed and Ahan) for executing, under Tsilhqot’in law, three settlers who had extorted sole possession of some strategic land at Puntzi by threatening smallpox and then had followed up by actually introducing the disease. Another (Lutas) was convicted of third degree murder in this same action and then pardoned. Chief Anaham was “pardoned,” too, but without first having been convicted of anything.
The remaining two “Chiefs” were hanged on the pretext that killing settlers in a properly authorized act of war to prevent them from beginning new smallpox epidemics as they had threatened to do had been murder (Chayses) or attempted murder (Tilaqhed.) Another (Chedekki) was remanded to New Westminster for retrial but escaped on the way down. Further, as a pre-condition set by Chief Alexis before meeting the Governor for any peace talks, the Governor had absolved Ulnas, an adviser to Chief Alexis, of blame for killing settlers in this act of war. This absolution was key in persuading “The Chilcotin Chiefs” to attend the conference where they were ambushed.
Chayses was second to be called out. He was the only one of the prisoners who had refused to be baptized. Biyil and Taqed had been baptized years before as Roman Catholics. Lhatsassin and Tilaqhed were baptized in prison as Anglicans. Chayses, who may have killed more settlers than anyone at Bute Inlet and who had cut out the heart of the work crew’s foreman in a common victory ritual, told Brown that he had done nothing blameworthy to warrant any fear of the gods. Lawfully using violence to protect the public from a proven evil is neither a crime nor a sin.
Lhatsassin was last. He shook the Anglican minister’s hand and thanked him for his care while they had been in the prison. The jailors then began pressing Lhatsassin to drink some alcoholic beverage, probably whiskey. He refused. They persisted until Brown intervened.
Something else very telling did not happen here. A militia leader credited John Ogilvy, a Hudson’s Bay Company representative, with the strategy that saw the Tsilhqot’in martyrs captured at the phony peace conference. Ogilvy then began a public narrative in which the Tsilhqot’in “had surrendered and…the only condition Lhatsassin made was that, after all his accomplices had been hung, he should be allowed to place the rope round his own neck and jump off the scaffold himself…” In fact, there had been no surrender. This lie was misdirection to help cover the dishonour done in the Crown’s name. Any such request never surfaced in Lhatsassin’s exchanges with Brown, Begbie or O’Reilly, or here in the appropriate moment at the proceedings. Another official testified that what Lhatsassin actually seems to have said was that he risked selling his body by attending the failed conference in order to save the lives of women and children.
John Twan, who saw the hanging as an eight-year old boy, said the “whole country” was there, acknowledging its universal significance. As the prisoners approached the scaffold, they could see that five coffins had been placed underneath the drops to receive their lifeless bodies. The bodies were not to be returned to their families for the customary care of the dead. Instead, they were to be buried after an Anglican rite.
Yet it would not have been unusual to have anticipated that the bodies might be returned to their families for proper funerals. Traditions vary about Tsilhqot’in activity during these events. On Oct. 18, a northbound colonial official stopped at Fort Alexandria as the “Express and Mail” carried the death warrant to O’Reilly. It probably was from this official, who had served as a translator during the trials, that the Tsilhqot’in learned their representatives would be martyred in the days directly ahead.
On Oct. 21, a party of Tsilhqot’in appeared at the Fort. They paid a premium price for a horse owned privately by one of its managers. Some traditions have it that one or more horses were sacrificed so their leaders would have its services on the other side. A Tsilhqot’in party then returned to the Fort on Nov. 12, presumably after having witnessed the hanging and holding their own rites. Nuxalk, Southern Dakelh and Northern Secwepemc parties were already in the Fort area paying their respects. The Post Manager had an ox killed for a feast. The next day, Sunday Nov. 13, 1864 would have been the first Lhatsassin Memorial Day.
On the scaffold, the martyrs said a brief prayer in Tsilhqot’in. Brown followed with a Christian invocation in Latin as each man was blindfolded, had the rope placed around his neck and was positioned on the drop.
During this proceeding, Taqed called for his comrades “to have courage.” Then he spoke to the crowd. He was the only one from an east Tsilhqot’in community and, therefore, the most likely to have known many faces in the crowd. According to Brown, he said, “Tell the Tsilhqot’in to cease anger against the Whites. We are going to see the Great Father.” This seems a generous attempt to relieve anyone of a perceived obligation for revenging their deaths, and not an implicit admission of guilt or to encourage their submission.
When the last man was in place, the hangman gave the signal. The drops fell. A newspaper correspondent said they all seemed to have died instantly. Every observer who made a record noted that the crowd observed a perfect silence throughout.
O’Reilly let the bodies hang for 30 minutes. This last 30 minutes of silence must have been one of the most tellingly emotional moments in all B.C. history. Natives would have been mourning with a quiet sense of grief or meditating on their loss: from being masters of their own house they now faced the harsh certainty of losing ever more control with the prospect of a constantly diminishing future for their children. Every settler would have been meditating on his or her gain: a future now made more certain with ever more bountiful choices.
In his Diary, O’Reilly said, “Everything passed in a quiet and orderly manner.”