Contemporary Tsilhqot’in Chiefs in the front row at the beginning of the ceremony announcing British Columbia’s exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs.” Lhatsassin Memorial Day, Oct. 26, 2014, Quesnel, B.C.
© Dragon Heart, 2014. All rights reserved.

The Government of Canada and the Tsilhqot’in National Government have announced that, “As a symbolic gesture of reconciliation,” Canada will “offer a statement of exoneration” for the six Tsilhqot’in Chiefs martyred by the Crown in 1864/65.1 If accepted, this would complete a circle for the Crown that began with British Columbia’s similar exoneration within its jurisdiction during 2014.2

The Crown martyred the “Chilcotin Chiefs” in 1864/65 after the Tsilhqot’in killed several settlers at the forefront of the colonization movement in their territory. Lhatsassin, the Tsilhqot’in Head War Chief, said that all these settlers were killed over one thing: the creation of artificial smallpox epidemics.3 British Columbia’s exoneration statement acknowledges as true the Tsilhqot’in tradition about the intentionality of smallpox spreading during this period.4

The events leading to this crisis began in 1861 when developers approached the Tsilhqot’in for access to create two roads across their territory: one from Bentinck Arm and one from Bute Inlet.

The Bentinck Arm developers explained their plans to Chief Alexis’ community and to Chief Anaham’s community at Nagwentlun.5 They wanted a road from Bentinck Arm in Nuxalk territory that would go past Nagwentlun to Chilcotin Lake, or past Nimpo Lake to Puntzi Lake, and then to Alexis’ Lake and the Fraser River. After several days, nine Tsilhqot’in guides accompanied the first of these developers to Nuxalk territory for a large feast.6

The Bentinck Arm Company began work in March of 1862.7 The Governor’s formal legal adviser, Attorney General George Cary, controlled this company and a development plan for the Bella Coola harbour that was contingent on it.8 MLA Robert Burnaby was also a company director. According to newspaper reports from 1864, during 1862 several men, all of whom were agents for the Attorney General’s projects, created artificial smallpox epidemics along this route.9 Francis Poole, who headed one of these parties, admitted sending smallpox-infected men into native communities, including a large Tsilhqot’in village at Chilcotin Lake.10 Poole said that he became “in hourly dread of attack by hostile savages” and that one of his party died as he created “a sorrowful trail of blood.”11 During a second wave of artificial epidemics along the road, a Nuxalk family with smallpox killed Company surveyor James Fisher.12

LEFT: Attorney General George Hunter Cary. | RIGHT: Francis Poole.
© Dragon Heart, 2016. All rights reserved.

Spreading smallpox was a criminal act under English law. A high judge summarized the law this way: when infectious, there is a legal obligation on the sick person, and on those who have custody of him, not to do anything that can be avoided which shall tend to spread the infection.13 Given the connection of all these men to the highest law officer in the British Pacific colonies, it is not surprising that there was no investigation or prosecution of these crimes.

In addition to creating artificial epidemics, some settlers using the road refused to pay the usual fee for access to the resources under the care of other communities.14 The Tsilhqot’in had always paid to fish in Nuxalk territory. They expected others to pay when consuming resources in their territory. Bob McLeod made a point of his refusal to pay this tax. War Chief Solyman executed McLeod at Nagwentlun in Mar. of 1863.15

At Puntzi Lake, expecting to profit from the Bentinck Arm Road, some developers displaced a Tsilhqot’in family with threats of introducing smallpox.16 Then, according to eyewitness, they did.17 Hundreds died at Puntzi.18 In May of 1864, the head of this family, Tahpitt, executed one of these settlers.19 Later that month, Lhatsassin executed a settler seen creating an artificial epidemic at Puntzi and two of his associates.20 The Crown eventually martyred Lhatsassin, his son Biyil, Tahpitt and Nimpo Lake War Chief Ahan for applying Tsilhqot’in law to these settlers.

The Bute Inlet Road was to have joined the Bentinck Arm Road at Puntzi. These developers included former MLA Alfred Waddington, who became this road’s public face, MLA Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken and, by 1863, MLA Dr. Simon Fraser Tolmie and MLA Robert Burnaby.21

During Nov. of 1861, agents for Waddington explained this project to the first Tsilhqot’in community upriver along the Homathko River.22 Chief Telloot then served as its guide each year. The developers may have disregarded the scope of this community’s approval or the need to consult others in the Tatla Valley. Waddington saw the Tatla Valley for the first time in Sept. of 1862. It had an extensive Tsilhqot’in presence.23 One month later, a settler party created an artificial smallpox epidemic at Tatla. Guichon, the only resident survivor identified John McLain as one of these criminals. Years later, McLain admitted leaving a smallpox-infested blanket here with some food.24 Like those in Poole’s party, McLain also was a smallpox carrier. The Tsilhqot’in chased this party toward Bella Coola where the Nuxalk say McLain spread smallpox there, too.25

The creation of these artificial epidemics had a profound influence on the Tsilhqot’in. Tribal chairman Ervin Charleyboy testified in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia that, “germ warfare was used on us trying to do away with us.”26 Chief Thomas Billyboy testified that the use of smallpox-infested blankets to create artificial epidemics left the Tsilhqot’in terrified.27 Witnesses estimated that two-thirds of all the Tsilhqot’in died before the end of 1862.

During 1863, construction of the Bute Inlet Road reached Tsilhqot’in territory.  That fall, given rising Tsilhqot’in concerns about hosting more colonists, Lhatsassin went to review this project, intending to over-winter at Bute Inlet.28 At Bute Inlet, some of the work crew kidnapped one of his daughters, confined and gang-raped her as they were on the point of leaving.29

With this incident still fresh, a new work crew arrived in March for the 1864 season. A dispute arose over the usual fee for access to Tsilhqot’in territory. This culminated in a threat to kill the Tsilhqot’in present in another artificial smallpox epidemic.30 Shortly afterward, some Tsilhqot’in discovered grave-robbed blankets being distributed from the company’s store.31

Lhatsassin called a Tsilhqot’in Leaders’ Council.32 The Council authorized an act of war to prevent the introduction of smallpox along the Bute Inlet Road. Accompanied by Chief Alexis’ adviser, Ulnas, Lhatsassin returned to Bute Inlet. At a pre-arranged time, he killed a ferryman to slow any pursuit.33 Then, on April 30, 1864, the Tsilhqot’in killed 14 of the 17 workmen employed by the Bute Inlet Company. The Crown eventually martyred Chief Telloot and Chayses for their part in this battle.

Settlers spreading smallpox in Tsilhqot'in territory

When this news reached the colonial settlements, Governor Fredrick Seymour raised three settler militias “to invade” Tsilhqot’in territory. He led the New Westminster volunteers to Tsilhqot’in territory from the west along the Bentinck Arm Road. Seymour burned the Nimpo Lake village where Lhatsassin had executed the settlers over smallpox at Puntzi.34

The other two militias came down the Bentinck Arm Road from the east. Some broadcast that they were there to exterminate the Tsilhqot’in, friendly or otherwise.35 The only subsequent military action was an inconsequential skirmish near Puntzi. The Tsilhqot’in believed Donald McLean, a former HBC manager with a reputation for savagery, led the militia in spirit if not in fact. On July 17, 1864, they lured McLean from the militia camp and executed him.36

The militias were unable to locate the Tsilhqot’in who had killed settlers or to convince any others to betray their fellows. They resorted to a “scorched earth” strategy. Governor Seymour acknowledged that many Tsilhqot’in “were reported starving” when winter came.37 Defeated and out of provisions, Seymour was about to retreat when the Tsilhqot’in began a diplomatic initiative through Chief Alexis. Alexis made it a condition of any talks that the Governor guarantee the safety of his adviser, Ulnas, who had played a prominent role in killing the workmen at Bute Inlet.38 Seymour agreed. In a sense, Ulnas became the first Tsilhqot’in exonerated for his participation in the Chilcotin War. With peace negotiations underway, the Governor left for a promised visit to the Cariboo gold fields.

During the peace talks, Seymour’s representatives eventually promised what the Tsilhqot’in wanted to hear: that all those who had participated in public service actions on behalf of the Tsilhqot’in would be held blameless; and that the Crown would recognize leaders designated by Tsilhqot’in communities as the appropriate authorities in their territory.39 Accompanied by a sacred gift of tobacco to signal honorable intentions, these representatives held out that the Governor would seal this arrangement at a conference with Tsilhqot’in leaders.40

On Aug. 15, 1864, Lhatsassin led the Tsilhqot’in delegation into a militia camp expecting the Governor as he returned from the Cariboo mines.41 Instead, the colonial representatives sprang an ambush. They put the Tsilhqot’in party in chains, conducted show trials and martyred five on Oct. 26, 1864, in front of a mostly native crowd of 250.42 The following May, traveling to meet the Governor under a guarantee of safe conduct, Chief Ahan and an assistant were ambushed and put through show trials at New Westminster.43 The Governor pardoned the assistant but Chief Ahan was martyred in July of 1865.44

“Martyrdom of the ‘Chilcotin Chiefs’ by the Colony of British Columbia at Quesnelle, October 26th, 1864.” Artwork by Shawn Swanky.
© Dragon Heart, 2014. All rights reserved.

This is an outline of the events commonly known as the Chilcotin War. During the Lhatsassin Memorial Day ceremonies for 2017, tribal chairman Joe Alphonse reiterated that the Tsilhqot’in have been willing from the first to entertain proposals from others who seek consent, receive a guide and ensure that Tsilhqot’in communities are not disadvantaged in the process. The guide gives advice about the appropriate ways to proceed considering Tsilhqot’in values. If one analyzes the early projects noted above, one can see that: though they may have sought consent, they did not maintain it; though they received guides, they paid little heed to Tsilhqot’in law or values; and, they refused payments or steps to see that Tsilhqot’in communities remained whole as their resources were consumed by others.

Canada’s symbolic gesture of reconciliation would meet the first condition of peace as offered by the Crown in 1864: to hold blameless the Tsilhqot’in condemned while serving their public during the period of artificial smallpox epidemics. It remains to be seen how far Canada is prepared to restore the peace by recognizing Tsilhqot’in communities as the appropriate authorities on their own ground.

  2. “Reconciliation with Tsilhqot’in Nation,” Hansard, Oct. 23, 2014. Vol. 16, No. 2., p. 4860.
  3. The reports of those who heard Lhatsassin discuss the causes of the war are compiled in Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s War of Extermination on the Pacific, (, 2012) pp. 70-77.
  4. This tradition, with supporting material from the written record, is summarized in Swanky, The Smallpox War In Nuxalk Territory, (, 2016) pp. 35–46.
  5. “Arrival of an Exploring Party…,” The British Colonist, June 12, 1861, p. 3. Barnston and McDonald also received guides and were feasted at Bella Coola: See: “A Trip from Alexandria to the Coast,” The British Colonist, Aug. 16, 1862, p. 2.
  6. “Arrival of an Exploring Party…,” The British Colonist, June 12, 1861, p. 3.
  7. This beginning and further evidence that the Tsilhqot’in involved approved of the project is described in Swanky, The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory, pp. 79-80.
  8. Many details about the attorney general’s Bentinck Arm projects can be found in the testimony of Edward Green, the Company’s Secretary, and George Cary in Bentinck Arm Co. v. Hood, (1864) reported at length in both Victoria newspapers beginning Feb. 12, 1864.
  9. “The Bute Inlet Massacre and its Causes,” The British Colonist, June 13, 1864, p. 3. “To the Editor,” The British Columbian, June 22, 1864, p. 3. The connection of these men to Cary’s endeavors can be confirmed in Bentinck Arm Co. v. Hood, and is discussed in The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory, Chapter 15, pp. 147-153. For Poole’s connection see The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory, Chapter 12, pp. 105-117.
  10. “Important from the Coast Route,” The British Colonist, July 22, 1863, p. 3. And again in “A Trip to Cariboo via Bentinck Arm,” The British Columbian, July 23, 1862, p. 3.
  11. Francis Poole, Queen Charlotte Islands, (Vancouver: J.J. Douglas reprint, 1972) p. 65.
  12. Fisher’s case is summarized in The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory, pp. 155-158.
  13. Metropolitan Asylum Managers v. Hill (1881) 6 App. Cases 193. The leading case was R. v. Vantandillo (1815) 4 M&S 73; 105 ER 762.
  14. “From Bentinck Arm…,” The British Colonist, June 14, 1862, p. 3.
  15. McLeod’s case is summarized in The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory, pp. 158-59.
  16. R.C. Lundin-Brown, Klatsassan. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1873) p. 11.
  17. Terry Glavin and the People of the Nemiah Valley, Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, (Vancouver: New Star Books, 19920) pp. 82-88.
  18. “the Bute Inlet Massacre and its Causes,” The British Colonist, June 13, 1864, p. 3.
  19. The formality of this event is obvious in the testimony recorded at the trial. BCARS. Colonial Correspondence. GR-1372, f.142f/16. B1308. Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia, including notes taken by the court at the trial of 6 Indians, Sept. 30, 1864.
  20. For introducing smallpox at Puntzi (Benshee) as the reason Lhatsassin killed McDonald, see: BCARS. H.P.P. Crease, Legal Papers, 1853–1895, Add Ms -54, Box 3. File 12, Supreme Court of New Westminster, Testimony of Ach-pic-er-mous, May 31, 1865.
  21. Prospectus, Bute Inlet Wagon Road Company Limited, Dec. 7, 1863. CIHM 17241.
  22. Capt. Price and Engineer Robert Homfray both visited the village on Waddington’s behalf in Nov. of 1861. Fredrick John Saunders refers to Price’s exchange with Telloot in “Homatcho” as reprinted at For Homfray, see Chapter 2 in Judith Williams, High Slack, (Vancouver; New Star Books) p. 21.
  23. As reported by Guichon in the Franklin manuscript and reprinted in Maurine Goodenough, Only in Nazko. (Quesnel: Goodenough, 2008) pp. 19-20.
  24. As reported in the Franklin manuscript and reprinted in Only in Nazko, p. 19. I discuss the circumstances of McLain’s case in Canada’s War, pp. 176-180.
  25. Elder Arthur Pootlass in discussion with the author, at Bella Coola, Aug. 2-8, 2015.
  26. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, Evidence of Ervin Charleyboy, Proceedings at Trial, April 21, 2005 (Day 221), p. 24.
  27. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, Evidence of Thomas Billyboy, Proceedings at Trial, June 1, 2005 (Day 237), p. 48.
  28. Testimony of Agnes Haller, Federal Review Panel, Prosperity Gold-Copper Project, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Registry #09-05-44811, pp. 2683-2691.
  29. As one source, see the testimony of Agnes Haller cited above.
  30. R.C. Lundin-Brown, Klatsassan, p. 9-10.
  31. Testimony of Joe Case, Federal Review Panel, Prosperity Gold-Copper Project, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Registry #09-05-44811, p. 3878.
  32. R.C. Lundin Brown, Klatsassan, p. 11.
  33. Pre-arranged because Alexis’ adviser Ulnas was with the war party while Alexis ensured that he was noted in the Ft. Alexandria Journal, at the end of April, creating an alibi.
  34. “The Chilcoaten Expedition,” The British Colonist, Aug. 8, 1864, p. 3.
  35. BCARS. Colonial Correspondence. GR 1372, F379/23. B1321. William George Cox to the Colonial Secretary of British Columbia, June 19, 1864.
  36. See the summary of traditions in Section 39 in Canada’s War, pp. 108-111.
  37. Great Britain Public Records Office, Colonial Office Records, CO 60/19, p.386, 1374 Frederick Seymour to Cardwell, No. 69, Nov. 23, 1864.
  38. Great Britain Public Records Office, Colonial Office Records, CO 60/1, p. 149, 10601, Frederick Seymour to Cardwell, No. 37, Sept. 9, 1864. Para. 31
  39. Some aspects of this are discussed in Canada’s War, s. 36, pp. 100-102.
  40. Judge Begbie’s notes confirm that the Tsilhqot’in expected a conference with the governor. BCARS. Colonial Correspondence. GR-1372, f.142f/16. B1308. Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia, including notes taken by the court at the trial of 6 Indians, Sept. 30, 1864.
  41. BCARS. Colonial Correspondence, GR-1372, F379/23, B1321, William George Cox to Governor of British Columbia, Aug. 15, 1864.
  42. BCARS. Colonial Correspondence, GR-1372.104.1284. B01351. Peter O’Reilly to the Colonial Secretary of B.C., Oct. 28, 1864.
  43. BCARS. H.P.P. Crease, Legal Papers, 1853–1895, Add Ms-54, Box 3. File 12, Supreme Court of New Westminster, Testimony of Morris Moss, May 31, 1865, 1601-1603.
  44. “Royal Clemency,” The British Columbian, July 15, 1865, p. 3. “Executed,” The British Columbian, July 18, 1865, p. 3.