The Hanging of Aboriginal Chiefs
In 1864, what is now Canada was still a British colony and was in a primitive state of semi-lawlessness. For centuries, the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) people occupied land between the Coast Mountains and the Fraser River in what is now southern British Columbia.
As European settlers moved in clashes over possession of territory took place. In 1858, some American miners looking for gold killed about a dozen Aboriginal people near Okanagan Lake. A few months later, there were reprisals and many Americans were killed in ambushes in the Fraser Canyon.
The Chilcotin War
In April 1864, a road-building crew was working on a link from the coast to where gold had been found in the Cariboo region. Without permission, they pushed through Tsilhqot’in land.
Before dawn on the morning of April 24th a party of two dozen Tsilhqot’in warriors descended on the construction camp and killed 12 men. The raid was under the leadership of Chief Klatsassin. There was another attack on a pack train and a farmer on Tsilhqot’in territory was also killed. Soon the body count was 21 in what came to be known as The Chilcotin War.
It was a war between the British colonial government and the Tsilhqot’in. Certain niceties were expected to be observed in that the First Nations people were entitled to defend an invasion of their land but not to kill unarmed civilians.
But, it’s not that simple – it rarely is. Some historians say the actions of the Tsilhqot’in amounted to anything from an insurrection to stone-cold murder. Some of the Aborigines had even been helping the road builders prior to the early morning raid. Opinions were divided then and they still are today.
John Robson was editor of the New Westminster Columbian at the time. He understood that failure to honour Aboriginal rights would lead to trouble. He wrote “We are quite aware that there are those amongst us who are disposed to ignore altogether the rights of the Indians and their claims upon us, who hold the American doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’ in the most fatal form … Depend on it, for every acre of land we obtain by improper means we will have to pay for dearly in the end, and every wrong committed upon those poor people will be visited on our heads.”
Search for Culprits
British Columbia Governor Frederick Seymour marshalled a rag-tag militia to deal with the troublesome warriors; it seems to have been a rather hapless bunch of mostly American volunteers.
Writing in The National Post, Tristin Hopper notes that the military force “trekked aimlessly through the interior, camped out in forts and occasionally [wounded] each other with friendly fire.” As John Lutz points out in his book Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations, “It was not one of imperialism’s finest moments.”
The Tsilhqot’in had a huge advantage in this mountainous region. There were trails but they were known only to the Aboriginal people.
When the bumbling militia failed to track down the warriors another tactic was tried. A gift of sacred tobacco was sent by a government official to the Tsilhqot’in chiefs along with an invitation to talk about peace.
A recent former premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, picks up the story. “Chief Klatsassin and his men accepted this truce. They rode into the camp to negotiate peace, and then in an unexpected act of betrayal, they were arrested, imprisoned, and tried for murder.”
Chilcotin Chiefs’ Trial
In September 1864, the six arrested men were brought before the imposing figure of Judge Matthew Begbie. The judge had a full head of white hair, a bristling black moustache, and he stood six feet five inches tall. He had a sharp tongue in dealing with horse thieves and various other miscreants and went by the title of “British Columbia’s Hanging Judge.”
Chief Klatsassin argued that he and his followers were not guilty of murder as their actions were part of a nation-to-nation war. The Crown countered by pointing out there was no official declaration of war so a state of war did not exist, therefore, the killings of the road crew and others were unlawful.
Judge Begbie acknowledged the sacred nature of tobacco and the pipe of peace within First Nations culture. He continued by calling the accused “cruel, murdering pirates” but added that he found Chief Klatsassin to be “the finest savage I have met with yet.”
Ignoring the apparent conflict in his own mind, Judge Begbie applied the law as it stood in all its severity; sentence of death was passed and swiftly carried out.
Chief Klatsassin and his companions were buried, but the Tsilhqot’in people continued their campaign on their behalf. It was to be a long, drawn-out battle.
One hundred and thirty years after the hangings, retired Judge Anthony Sarich looked into the relationship between Aboriginal people and the justice system. He found the Chilcotin War and the hanging of the warriors still festered within the Tsilhqot’in people.
In his report, Justice Sarich wrote “In every village, the people maintained that the chiefs who were hanged at Quesnel Mouth in 1864 as murderers were, in fact, leaders of a war party defending their land and people.”
Another couple of decades would go by before the Premier of British Columbia on behalf of the province’s citizens apologized for the treatment of the six warriors. In 2014, then Premier Christy Clark said “We confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot’in chiefs are fully exonerated for any crime or wrongdoing.”
In November 2018, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, visited the Tsilhqot’in people and personally apologized for the execution of the warriors.
Just prior to the attack on the road-building crew the Tsilhqot’in people had been devastated by an outbreak of smallpox. According to several accounts, the leader of the construction gang threatened to unleash a new smallpox epidemic. This probably played a significant role in triggering the violence.
The man who financed the building of the road through the Tsilhqot’in land was financier Alfred Waddington. The conflict bankrupted him and he died in February 1872. The cause of death was smallpox.
The road was never completed.
- “Lhatŝ’aŝʔin and the Chilcotin War.” Canadianmysteries.ca, undated.
- “Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin).” Robert B. Lane, Canadian Encyclopedia, November 30, 2010.
- “What Really Happened in the Chilcotin War, the 1864 Conflict That Just Prompted an Exoneration from Trudeau?” Tristin Hopper, National Post, March 27, 2018.
- “Backstory: Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia.” Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen, June 28, 2014.
- “B.C.’s Apology for Hanging Tsilhqot’in War Chiefs One Step in a Long Healing Process.” Wendy Stueck, Globe and Mail, June 5, 2017.
- “Chief Executed in 1864 Grouped in with the Wrong Crowd.” Wendy Stueck, Globe and Mail, May 11, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor