Native elders have always taught that settlers intentionally introduced smallpox to take control of their land at the founding of British Columbia. Learn what happened in Nuxalk Territory.

This detailed presentation and analysis of land records, newspaper accounts, government documents and local traditions enables the reader to make his or her own judgement about whether the Nuxalk People were the target of a biological weapons attack in June 1862.


In 2014, British Columbia exonerated six Tsilhqot’in leaders hanged in 1864/65. The Premier acknowledged that these men had been martyred, among other things, for defending their territory from settlers spreading smallpox intentionally.

This book shows that those same settlers repeatedly and systematically created artificial epidemics in Nuxalk territory. Eyewitnesses reported a sudden catastrophic population collapse exceeding 70 percent of all the People. Thousands died within just nine months.

Through the documentary record, responsibility for this intentional mass killing can be traced to the administration of Governor James Douglas and especially to Attorney General George Cary. Cary led a group of speculators seeking interests in these territories.

This tragedy gave birth to the modern Nuxalk Nation. It also allowed B.C. to occupy this territory with little other violence, to impose British institutions without consent and to assert control over the resources still collectively owned by the survivors.

Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in Elders have always taught that these mass killings were genocide. This book shows that the same conclusion can be proven through the written record.

Where the indigenous voice includes sincere accounts of genocide, reconciliation between Canada and its indigenous hosts requires that this telling must be honored. Perhaps this work may serve as some contribution toward a more unified account of Canada’s founding.

Comparative death toll estimates.

  • World Health Organization (estimate for a smallpox epidemic, susceptible population) 30%
  • Tsimshian at Victoria after six weeks (April 1862) 5%
  • Tsimshian at Fort Simpson after whole epidemic (May to December 1862) 20%
  • Nuxalk at Q’umk’uts / Bella Coola after 21 days (July 1862) 75%

Topics Covered


The Right of Sovereignty in Nuxalk Territory


The Colony of British Columbia


The Attorney General and the Ancestors


A Coastal Route to Canada, 1861


The Bentinck Arm Company's Road


The Smallpox War, June 1862


Systematic Distribution


First Approach by the Colony


The Smallpox War, October 1862


Second Approach by the Colony

Includes original artwork, maps and timelines.



This study extends the Nuxalk territory part of my work on the 1862/63 B.C. smallpox epidemics. These epidemics devastated the west coast indigenous population in one of the greatest tragedies of Canadian history. I first outlined the relevant Nuxalk experience in The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific.

Since that book’s publication, the Government of British Columbia has acknowledged for the official record that settlers under Governor James Douglas’ watch spread smallpox intentionally in Tsilhqot’in territory during 1862. Most of the settlers who committed those crimes took the disease there through Nuxalk territory.

This study’s organizing thread is the origin of the constitutional relationship between Canada and the Nuxalk. The Nuxalk are one of the West Coast indigenous Peoples whose territory Canada occupies without a political treaty. This study explores the role of knowing disease distribution in the circumstances under which the indigenous sovereign authorities in Nuxalk territory were displaced by settler institutions. It covers the period from the British Crown’s first indication of a desire to pursue some future political interest here in 1846, through the arrival of settlers beginning in Sept. 1860 and then to Jan. 2, 1865 when the British Crown effectively annexed this territory to British Columbia.

Of necessity, the point of departure for studying this political transition must be the record passed down by those who lived there. Since first invited to learn about the Chilcotin War as told in Tsilhqot’in communities, my preferred approach to oral records has been to listen for the generalized content and themes as shared within communities, especially in settings or on occasions where Elders or leaders take the initiative. Repeated hearings supply refinement. As it happens in this case, there is little mystery about the oral record’s main elements or general themes for Usqalits’txw, the smallpox time.

An issue arising from this record affects the caution with which one must proceed. The indigenous authorities of that time believed that their People became targets of a foreign policy that included a mass killing of innocents. If one allows that this may be true, then one must anticipate that the perpetrators also would have instituted a practice of denial and of erasing the victims from memory. Further, students in such cases will find many subtle opportunities and much social pressure to assist or indulge these evils. As a result, one must remain vigilant that one’s own work does not come to serve the perpetrators or to begin new waves of distress for the targeted group.

Requiring of an official oral record the same precision, detail or elements as one can expect from a documentary record is already bad faith. To demand of this record more coherence, orderliness or share in the burden of proof than in similar such cases is also bad faith. Survivors or their descendants usually can be expected to have only the limited direct evidence of their local experience. Meanwhile, the perpetrators and their subsequent apologists will have had custody of the bureaucratic record with a motive, opportunity and practice in manipulating it, continuing the original dehumanization through their authorized, accepted or “peer reviewed by others of the same ilk” histories of the relevant period. Succeeding beneficiaries of a mass killing also can be expected to have developed several socially acceptable means for protecting their self-regard. Good faith in retelling B.C. history demands a careful regard for these realities.

The purpose of an appropriate discipline is not to treat any oral record as closed to question, or as if in need of some concession from charity. This would be disrespectful. The principle that consistency is the cardinal virtue of truth must remain one’s guide. The closest approximation to the truth, then, will be one where the evidence from each side is treated on its own terms and given the greatest weight where it tends to cross-verification. The best narrative will connect these points in a logical thread. For, when all is said and done, these records arise only from the same one set of events on the ground.

In this case, the documentary record not only supplements the original Nuxalk finding, the same finding follows independently from the evidence in that record alone. I concentrate on this second proof for three reasons: first, in our present circumstances, diverse indigenous leaders have supposed to me that an important need of their communities is the spiritual healing that may come with shared historical narratives; second, the non-indigenous public most in need of understanding and help has been trained to see its own history in narratives that treat the documentary record as a form of gospel with little need for philology; third, while the effects of colonialism are comparatively well known, its beneficiaries seem all too willing to gloss over the process, a disservice to everyone.

No official agency of the Crown, which includes settler colonial universities, or of any First Nation provided funding or received any right of approval in this work. Nor has it been undertaken out of some desire for personal profit. I am cursed by a constant curiosity. My work has little motive but the joy of shining light in neglected caves. With some old illusions digested more in new lights perhaps we all can get on with choosing better paths and becoming more the elders for which future generations will hope.

I am grateful for the patience and trust of countless Elders, indigenous citizens and community leaders now over many years. Among the Nuxalk so many have gone out of their way to show me the kindness of family that I hesitate to try naming them, especially the South Bentinck contingent. This includes everyone down to the children who found me, after listening to Mr. Schooner’s stories, admiring his public art at the Co-op and who then offered a bicycle tour and explanations of all the totems in town. The present Nuxalk generation seems to be giving the next a good start.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Staltmc Sixilaaxayc Noel Pootlass of the Nuxalk Nation gathered at Q’umk’uts (Bella Coola.) Staltmc Pootlass heard my keynote address at the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” and invited me to continue my study of smallpox in Nuxalk territory with another visit to some of the relevant spaces. At Q’umk’uts, Noel introduced my son, Shawn, and me to the Smayusta with a review of artifacts in the “House of Smayusta.” He also guided us through a petroglyph field connecting yesterday’s “storytellers” with today and tomorrow, and it was our privilege to enjoy contact with the sacred waters.

Whatever assistance I may have had with this work, I am, alone, responsible for errors or its poverty of rhetorical skill. Please do other readers the kindness of bringing faults to my attention.


Excerpt from The Ormsby Review.

I cannot seem to find words strong enough. With each conversation I’ve had summarizing Tom Swanky’s “The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory” in preparation for this review, I’ve found myself incapable of communicating the dismay I felt as I followed him down the rabbit hole.

I read “The Smallpox War” twice. I took notes. I found Swanky’s narrative of egregious breach of public trust by Governor James Douglas’s regime in the founding years of what is now British Columbia so distressing that I explored his earlier and more expansive “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” and I took notes on that book too….

Overwhelmed by the suggestive darkness, I wondered how deep the well might go as I tumbled down through Swanky’s well-researched analysis: he supports his arguments with 450 footnotes in “The Smallpox War” and nearly 1,000 endnotes in “The True Story,” the culmination of his ten-year research odyssey.

His synthesis dovetails legislative and public archives, memoirs, and newspaper articles covering the period under review, as well as pertinent case law, legislation, scholarly works and hundreds of hours listening to impacted First Nations’ oral historians. Swanky mounted his broad charge of genocide against the Douglas regime in “The True Story” and now narrows his analysis to the Nuxalk in “The Smallpox War.”…

(T)he corroborating written historical record identified by Swanky may be extremely important evidence in future restitution conversations between afflicted First Nations and the Crown, and indeed his research has already had some practical political results. His first expose of the Douglas regime in “The True Story” was followed by an apology offered to the Tsilhqot’in Nation by Premier Christy Clark on behalf of the B.C. legislature….

While the premier of B.C. has acknowledged that there are reliable historical accounts of smallpox being spread deliberately, it remains to be seen what the ripple effect will produce as British Columbians — the settler-state beneficiaries of the actions Swanky recounts — come to terms with the implications of his work. Like tsunamis waves with a causal epicentre an ocean away, time and depth of analysis will be the predictor of the scale of impact.

– Courtney Kirk, “Tainted Blankets, Tainted History,” The Ormsby Review, March 13, 2017.

A note from the author.

“When I completed The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific, I knew parts of the larger story deserved more attention than I could give them there,” Tom says. “The people of the Bella Coola valley were as greatly affected by the intentional spreading of smallpox in 1862, for the same reasons and by the same people, as the Tsilhqot’in. The way in which the Chilcotin War affected the Nuxalk is also always underplayed. I am very grateful for the encouragement offered by so many people familiar with the history of the land as I worked through this project.”

Learn more about Tom here.

The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory

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