Staltmc Pootlass Hears the Crown’s First Request for Permission to Access Nuxalk Territory, July 3d, 1862 – Artwork by Shawn Swanky
© Dragon Heart, 2016. All rights reserved.

Since its creation, British Columbia has been displacing the previously established political authorities without treaties or consent and in many ways. Elders frequently reference instances of genocide, intimidation, fraud, inhumane indifference to suffering and discounting the virtues of sustainability.

The first diplomatic meeting between Nuxalk leaders and agents for the Crown contains just such examples.

Shawn Swanky’s dramatic and detailed artistic rendering of this meeting, unveiled here for the first time, incorporates every known fact about this meeting. This artwork was prepared for our new book, The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory and for The Great Darkening documentary.

The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory

Print and digital editions.
Starting at $19.95

The Attorney General’s coastal route

This diplomacy took place against a backdrop of immense human suffering.

In 2014, the Premier acknowledged for the record that British Columbia had martyred six Tsilhqot’in leaders in 1864/65 for, among other things, defending their People from settlers intentionally spreading smallpox. Much of this criminal activity originated in Nuxalk territory. The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory documents that it was agents for two endeavors controlled by Attorney General George Cary who created these artificial epidemics. As a matter of public policy to benefit his constituents and for his own private interests, Cary wanted a coastal route that would connect Victoria with the Interior and eventually Canada.

Map of Nuxalk and Surrounding First Nations


Attorney General Cary’s proposed Bentinck Arm Road crossing Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in territories. Click to expand.

This scheme included a road leading from a future harbor town planned for Bella Coola, where Cary and his associates had created claims under a unilateral colonial proclamation to all the land under the long-time indigenous settlements. One settler estimated the population of these villages alone at 4000. This created the classic set up for an “Indian war” as the indigenous residents resisted their dispossession. What was Cary to do?

A party sponsored by one of Cary’s endeavors arrived at Bella Coola knowingly carrying smallpox on June 5/6,1862. Its leader would later admit responsibility and even at that time gave descriptions of his party’s activity sufficient to show that it had violated even English law with respect to spreading smallpox.  Less than one month later, M.L.A. Col. George Foster observed that 75% of all the residents already could be described as dead or dying.

It was in the midst of this artificially created catastrophe that Lt. Henry S. Palmer of the Royal Engineers arrived to assess Cary’s plans for a coastal route. In doing so, he became the first official of the Crown seeking access to Nuxalk territory.

Palmer’s party violates Nuxalk law beginning a crisis

Palmer set up camp near the river’s mouth. The next day, July 3, 1862, he memorialized his party’s 8th day on the route with a large carving in a tree. Yet the Crown had not yet sought consent in any form for some jurisdiction to license a road. All its activities pertaining to these two autonomous territories were provocations of war.

Meanwhile, the camp cook bought some fish from the headman’s son. While doing so, he agreed to respect Nuxalk law concerning its treatment as explained by the headman’s son. The fish was not to be cooked in an iron pan. Alexander MacKenzie had reported receiving similar instructions some 70 years before.

The camp cook then dishonorably broke his promise. He fried the fish in an iron pan. The headman’s son kicked over the pan. The cook struck the young man. Palmer struck another Nuxalk. His party began throwing rocks and Palmer attempted to expel the Nuxalk from his camp. Weapons were drawn. The headman’s son sent for his father, Staltmc Pootlass.

LEFT: Smallpox decimates the Nuxalk in early June, 1862. | RIGHT: The son of Staltmc Pootlass confronts Palmer’s cook.
© Dragon Heart, 2016. All rights reserved.

Palmer deceives Nuxalk in historic first meeting

Pootlass came with an armed party. It surrounded Palmer’s party. Canoes were put in the river to prevent escape.

Palmer then began a series of deceits to save the situation. The Nuxalk feared that these visitors would begin new artificial smallpox epidemics. Palmer told them that he was just as afraid of the disease as they were. In fact, settlers throughout the colonies had been vaccinated and had little to fear. Nor did Palmer then send for vaccine in a good faith attempt to slow the disease among the Nuxalk as the Crown’s duty to public health required.

Infographic of the meeting between Nuxalk and British Columbia officials


Learn who’s who in this portrayal of the first meeting between Nuxalk and B.C. officials. Click image to see text.

With this sense of commonality created, the crises evolved into a diplomatic conference. In our representation of this meeting, Palmer is shown making the case to Pootlass that the Crown had good intentions and that his party should be allowed to pass.

But, in a private letter to his superior, Palmer admitted that he lied about the Crown’s intentions. This letter does not detail his false promises. Yet, if Palmer’s wife reported accurately what her husband told her, then, in order to save his mission, Palmer promised that the Crown would recognize the authority of local leaders, make reparations if it interfered with indigenous law and underwrite Nuxalk prosperity.

None of this was true. However, so it was that British Columbia’s original relationship in this territory seems accurately described by references to genocide by smallpox, indifference to suffering and fraud. It seems uncertain how efforts at reconciliation in this territory can advance until this history is acknowledged and can be discussed freely on both sides.

Shawn Swanky presents his artwork to Nuxalk hereditary Chief Noel Pootlass, a direct descendant of the Staltmc Pootlass depicted in this scene. November 24, 2016.

New book out now, documentary in the works

The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory by Tom Swanky is now available in print and digital editions. You can buy the book from our online shop by clicking the “buy now” link below.

Shawn Swanky’s artwork of this historic meeting, as well as several other illustrations appearing in the book, have all been prepared as part of The Great Darkening documentary. This feature length movie will tell the entire story of the 1862/63 B.C. smallpox epidemics. Please join our newsletter to stay updated about its progress.

The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory

Print and digital editions.
Starting at $19.95