Canada’s Exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs”
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Canada’s Exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs”

A faithful representation of all the known facts concerning the hanging of the "Chilcotin Chiefs" on Oct. 26, 1864. Peter O'Reilly, the supervising official, is shown with a watch. The hanging was one hour before sunrise. Commissioner William Cox, whose militia conducted the ambush, is shown in a wagon with blankets purchased at Ft. Alexandria apparently to pay natives present to spread the message about resistance to colonialism. The hanged Tsilhqot'in are listed in the Memorial (below). Credit: Shawn Swanky
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May 25, 2018

On March 26, 2018, Canada exonerated the six “Chilcotin Chiefs” martyred by the Crown in British Columbia during 1864/65. This complemented B.C.’s prior exoneration within its jurisdiction on October 23, 2014.

Canada honored the current Tsilhqot’in chiefs with a symbolic place on the floor of the House of Commons for the proceedings. The chiefs then reversed their vests from black to red, symbolically changing their orientation from opposing bad spirits to embracing hope.

In a sense, the Tsilhqot’in hope this action will end “The Chilcotin War.” This War came after the settler colonial community initiated some extreme violence as an aid in over-throwing Tsilhqot’in sovereignty for the imposition of British institutions at the founding of B.C.

What was this extreme violence? The Prime Minister referred to a threat by settlers in 1864 to kill the Tsilhqot’in with smallpox. B.C.’s statement says “reliable historical accounts” indicate that settlers already had spread smallpox intentionally in Tsilhqot’in territory during 1862. In Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2007), referring to the Elders’ teaching about these smallpox epidemics, former Tribal Chairman Ervin Charleyboy testified, “Germ warfare was used on us, trying to do away with us.”

These events unfolded after developers approached Tsilhqot’in communities in 1861 over plans for two roads. This was before the Crown had interacted with the Tsilhqot’in for any reason. The first diplomatic interaction would not take place until July 20, 1864. Settlers saw these roads as the first stage of a transcontinental corridor, a key plank in the platform of Canadian imperialism. One road would have originated at Bentinck Arm to proceed up the Bella Coola Valley. The second was to begin at Bute Inlet. They would have met at Puntzi.

Map by Shawn Swanky

Attorney General George Cary, Governor James Douglas’ formal legal adviser and the first minister in the Colony of Vancouver Island Assembly, controlled the Bentinck Arm project. In March of 1862, smallpox was imported to the North Pacific colonies on a ship sailing under the aegis of Cary and the Bentinck Arm promoters. In June, Francis Poole, a Canadian from the Kingston area, headed a party that left smallpox carriers or introduced the disease along the Bentinck Arm route at Nanaimo, Ft. Rupert on Vancouver Island, South Bentinck Arm, Bella Coola, Nautlieff and Chilcotin Lake. On the mainland, Poole’s principals had staked claims to the land under these villages. All that was needed for them to realize their profits was for the land to become vacant and available for sale under the aegis of British institutions.

English law in 1862 was that smallpox carriers or those with control of them had a legal duty to avoid doing anything that might spread the disease. A mother was convicted of a crime in 1815 when she failed to keep a safe distance between her infected child and others on a public road. Without reviewing his principals’ financial or political motives, Poole disclosed in two newspaper interviews that his party had left smallpox carriers in native villages. These were clear-cut admissions of criminal behaviour. At Bella Coola, Poole’s party seems to have introduced the disease systematically to increase the death toll. Hundreds died simultaneously within only three weeks. Apparently found out by the Tsilhqot’in at Chilcotin Lake, Poole said in his memoir that his party became “in hourly dread of attack by hostile savages” as it “left behind a sorrowful trail of blood.”

Other agents of Attorney General George Cary’s endeavors, Jim Taylor, Angus McLeod and Alexander Wallace, would be accused in the newspapers of beginning epidemics along the road during October 1862. All these events in Nuxalk territory are documented in my book, The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory (, 2016).

Elsewhere in Tsilhqot’in territory, land developers at Puntzi wanted a local family’s long-held land to begin a roadhouse and farm. They threatened to punish the Tsilhqot’in with the disease if they did not enjoy quiet possession. According to one of only two survivors, the developers then did introduce the disease at Puntzi using smallpox blankets. Hundreds died.

At Tatla Lake on the north end of the Bute Inlet route, the sole survivor of an October 1862 epidemic identified John McLain as its originator. McLain told other settlers that he left an infected blanket in the village with some food on a horse. The Tsilhqot’in apparently discovered McLain’s party in the act and chased them to Nuxalk territory. Like those in Poole’s party, McLain also was lethal as a smallpox carrier.

At Bute Inlet, the developers had obtained local consent for their road and had used the local leader as a guide. However, by the end of the 1863 season, the road crew had gang-raped the War Leader’s daughter, molested children, disregarded Tsilhqot’in laws under several headings and refused to pay the customary fee for territorial access. When the 1864 crew arrived in March and those onsite would not account for some missing flour, the boat captain threatened to see the Tsilhqot’in punished with smallpox. Shortly afterward, the company store was seen to be distributing blankets robbed from recent graves in the interior.

The Tsilhqot’in held a Leaders’ Council. From the actions that ensued, it is apparent that the Council authorized the War Leader to assert Tsilhqot’in sovereignty with an act of war to end the threat at Bute Inlet, to apply the law to the smallpox spreading settlers at Puntzi and to close their territory pending formal relations with the Colony.

In April 1864, the Tsilhqot’in killed 14 of the Bute Inlet road crew before it could begin the threatened epidemic. In May, they advised the three settlers who benefitted from the Puntzi epidemic of their options under Tsilhqot’in law. These included exile or sanctuary with an appropriate leader. When the settlers refused these options, they were executed. A fourth died assisting an escape attempt. Settlers not operating under the established law were expelled. This left no colonial presence for 300 kms between Bella Coola and the Fraser River.

In June, the Colony responded with an invasion of Tsilhqot’in territory. Settler militias destroyed villages, food caches and fishing equipment. Many more Tsilhqot’in died in the resulting famine. However, the militias led by Governor Frederick Seymour could neither find the War Leader and his warriors nor convince others to betray them. The militias’ only casualty came when the Tsilhqot’in killed the sub-leader seen as the most hostile to their cause.

With his forces demoralized and suffering from a lack of supplies, Seymour was on the point of retreat when the Tsilhqot’in began a diplomatic initiative on July 20, 1864. After three weeks of negotiation, colonial agents represented: 1) that those Tsilhqot’in who had killed settlers in the just cause of their People would be held blameless: and 2) that the Governor would recognize Tsilhqot’in representatives as the ultimate source of sovereignty in their territory. They invited the War Leader and other Tsilhqot’in to attend a peace conference.

When the War Leader led a Tsilhqot’in party to the conference site on August 15, 1864, the Crown’s agents violated the agreed conditions, ambushed the Tsilhqot’in, put them through show trials and sentenced five to death. In May 1865, similar agents violated the conditions under which a further Tsilhqot’in leader and his assistant were travelling for reconciliation talks with the Governor. The Governor pardoned the assistant but martyred this leader at New Westminster in July.

Photograph of the Memorial located near the burial site of the Chiefs at Quesnel. Credit: Shawn Swanky

The hanging of five “Chilcotin Chiefs” at Quesnel on Oct. 26, 1864 was one of the largest public executions in Canadian history. An official estimated the mostly native crowd at 250. These came from all the surrounding Peoples and from as far as Bella Coola, an 1100 km round trip on foot. It is said some were paid to advertise the consequences of resisting colonialism. Apparently to underline this message, considering the usual respect natives had for the dead, the supervising official placed the scaffold over a mass grave of smallpox victims.

The Crown martyred the “Chilcotin Chiefs” for defending their People and the established law against disrespect and displacement through means that included the creation of artificial smallpox epidemics to kill at least 70 percent of their entire number within nine months. This was only one installment of a larger program of killing B.C. natives with smallpox during 1862. An introduction to “The Chilcotin War” and the smallpox epidemics of 1862/63 is contained in Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific (, 2012).

The exoneration of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” finally delivers on the first promise from the failed peace conference of Aug. 15, 1864. It remains to be seen whether Canada can deliver on the second by recognizing the Tsilhqot’in as the ultimate source of sovereign authority within their territory. Failing the return of this political control, Canada will remain a colonial power seen to be occupying Tsilhqot’in territory without consent.

The tragedy of the Crown and the “Chilcotin Chiefs” will be repeated in B.C., as it has been throughout its history, whenever the indigenous Peoples are punished for applying laws established by their legitimate authorities and that have never been superseded constitutionally or otherwise through the rule of law.

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