You can listen to this episode on my podcast Canadian History Ehx
Looking at Canada’s history, war has always been a part of it in one way or another. There was of course, the War of 1812, the Boer War, First and Second World Wars, as well as Korea and Afghanistan. These were all foreign wars, with the exception of the War of 1812, and Canada does seem to have an absence of major wars fought on its soil.
That doesn’t mean that Canada is free from wars on its soil, and one of those wars was the Fraser Canyon War, also known as the Miners War, a war in our borders that has long since been forgotten.
First, some background. In 1858, the Fraser Canyon was going through a monumental change thanks to gold. Anytime in world history when gold is discovered, people flock to the region to get that gold. Canada has seen two major gold rushes in its history. The famous Klondike Gold Rush, and the lesser known Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.
Gold had been discovered on the Thompson River in British Columbia, near present-day Lytton. The area itself had been mined for several years for gold but the gold rush began when James Douglas, the governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, sent ore to the mint in San Francisco. News quickly spread and within one month, 30,000 people descended upon Victoria, at a time when the village had a population of 500. Many thousands of those miners would not make it to the Fraser Canyon due to high water levels but many others would come to replace them, going into the Fraser Canyon. At the time, taking any route but one from Victoria was illegal, but that did not stop miners from just coming over the border and traveling to the Fraser Canyon without going through Victoria.
At its peak, it is estimated that 10,500 miners were in the Fraser Canyon, and that number does not include the thousands who were there, making money off the miners.
The huge influx of gold miners to the Colony of British Columbia caused a severe problem for the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the time, fur traders with the company and the Indigenous people had established a balance and Sir James Douglas, the governor of the British Colony of Vancouver Island and Chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the area, was worried that the balance would be destroyed. The Indigenous of the area knew of the gold and had been selling it to the Hudson’s Bay Company for years. Eventually, stories of the gold began to spread and eventually reached the United States.
He would write to Edward Stanley, the British prime minister, saying, “I am now convinced that it is utterly impossible, through any means within our power, to close the gold districts against the entrance of foreigners, as long as gold is found in abundance, in which case the country will soon be over-run.”
This is where tensions began to rise in the Fraser Canyon, as those miners began to arrive.
The Nlaka’pamux people lived in the canyon and tensions began to rise as the miners came into their land, disrupting everything in the area and disrespecting the Indigenous people.
In July, 25 miners who travelled through the Okanagan Valley destroyed the provisions at an Aboriginal camp, killed a dozen Indigenous people and injured just as many.
Add in the severe disruption to the 1858 salmon run because of the miners, impacting the Nlaka’pamux, and it was a situation that was quickly escalating.
Douglas worried about this, writing to his superiors in London, “It will require I fear the nicest tact to avoid a disastrous Indian war.”
Things moved slowly unfortunately and by the time the British began to restrict the entrance to the country, thousands of miners had already arrived.
The war is believed to have started when a young Nlaka’pamux woman was sexually assaulted by a group of French miners near Kanaka Bar. In retaliation, the Nlaka’pamux allegedly killed several of the miners, decapitating them and dumping their bodies in the river where they were found near the town of Yale, the main centre of the gold rush. Another party of First Nations apparently sparred with a group of miners, and disposed of their bodies in the same manner that had occurred in Yale.
Douglas would write to London, “The white miners were in a state of great alarm on account of a serious affray, which had just occurred with the native Indians, who mustered under arms, in a tumultuous manner, and threatened to make a clean sweep of the whole body of miners assembled there.”
An American company of militants soon organized and they killed upwards of 36 people between Aug. 9 and Aug. 17, including five chiefs. They also wounded many, took three prisoners and burned five Nlaka’pamux villages to the ground. One observer said that the company of miners “just killed everything, men, women and children.”
Many of the miners who had come to the area, wrote about the growing hostilities in their own journals and in letters home.
“The Bostons and Indians have been fighting for the last ten days and has been a great many killed on both sides. The Indians have stopped the miners from going up through the canyon,” George Wesley wrote in a letter. The next day, he wrote “Down at Union Bar, they got five men out of the River that was shot by the Indians. They had their heads cut off. All well in camp.”
Six more regiments were organized to respond to the attacks, which many were calling an act of war. One company, called the Austrian Company, was composed by French and German irregulars, who had served with William Walker in his campaign in Nicaragua in 1853 and had come to California after. Another regiment was formed, called the Whatcom Company, under the command of a Captain Graham. This regiment was of the type that felt, and this their words, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” They were named for the Whatcom Trail, which today is in Washington State and was used in open defiance of the British edict that access to gold fields be through Victoria only. The New York Pike Guards, under the command of a Captain Snyder, were the largest and strongest company formed. Unlike the Whatcom Company, they were not looking to wage a war of extermination, but one of pacification. Snyder wanted there to be a distinction between friendly Indigenous and warlike Indigenous. He also asked that messengers be sent up the Canyon ahead of the advancing companies for friendly Indigenous to display a white flag as a sign of peace.
As could be expected, the site of several headless bodies freaked out the thousands of miners who were in the area.
Soon after this incident, miners began to flee from the riverbanks north of Yale, choosing the safety of Spuzzum and Yale.
The miners began to hold meetings to assess what to do about the entire situation. Most of the miners had taken part in the California gold rush and several came from across the planet.
The companies soon left Yale and progressed up to Spuzzum, where they found 3,000 miners, who were panicked and encamped in a small area, worried for their safety but unwilling to move south.
The New York and Austrian Companies journeyed north and found no resistance. They sent messages to Camchin, an ancient settlement of the Nlaka’pamux people, stating they were coming to make peace, not war. Unfortunately, the Whatcom Company and its leader Graham rampaged along the West Bank of the canyon, destroying potato fields, Indigenous food caches but thankfully encountering very few Indigenous.
That night, the Whatcom Company would be completely wiped out. While you may think it was because of an Indigenous attack, this was not the case. A panicked reaction to a rifle falling and misfiring caused a melee of shooting in the company that left only two men alive, with the rest dead after shooting each other in the dark believing it was a First Nations attack.
In response to the companies of men looking to make peace, or war, depending on which company they belonged with, the Sushwap and Nlaka’pamux people, along with other Okanagan First Nations.
The Nlaka’pamux leader urged the other assembled warriors to wipe out the miners, but Spintlum, the chief of the Camchin, who had had good relations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, argued for peaceful co-existence.
At the same time that the war council was being held on Aug. 22, Snyder and another Company captain, Centras, came. They were given the right to speak and they told the Indigenous that if the war was to continue, white men by the thousands would come and destroy the Indigenous forever. Later, Snyder would say that it was showing the Indigenous their modern rifles that caused them to make peace. This is not the case though, as by the time both men had arrived, the decision to make peace had already been made.
While they don’t survive to this day in written or oral form, the Snyder Treaties were made to offer co-existence in the canyon, and the working of the goldfields.
The war effectively ended, and it is not known how many died. Figures range between a few dozen to thousands, which is highly unlikely.
The peace came thanks to Spintlum, who decided to accommodate the miners, even though they had arrived without permission and disrupted the salmon fisheries and laid claim to their resources. One interesting thing about this is that Snyder convinced the Nlaka’pamux communities in the canyon flew white flags to symbolize the peace. For the Nlaka’pamux, white was the colour of sickness, of the dead and the spirit world, which is symbolic of the loss of their way of life with the arrival of American miners.
With the return of the war companies to Yale, Governor Douglas and the Royal Engineers arrived with 20 Royal Marines to take control of a situation that they worried would lead to the US annexation of the area on Sept. 13. Douglas was already angry that a California system of claims was being implemented, outside the bounds of British law. He was also angry that the American miners had made treaties with the First Nations, even though he believed it was the job of the British to do that since they held the territory.
He reprimanded the miners for ignoring British law, and the miners agreed to follow the law from that point on. Douglas also met with the Nlaka’pamux and guaranteed them reserves in the Canyon, and prohibited the sale of alcohol to all Indigenous people. Douglas also had proper townsites drawn up for Yale and Hope and appointed a chief of police and five Constable.
This was all done within a week and Douglas was on his way back to Victoria by Sept. 20.
With all this, the brief war was over, but another was on the horizon. McGowan’s War, but that is a war for another episode.
In 1927, a monument to Chief Spintlum was erected at Kumsheen to commemorate his role in being a peacemaker.
The Fraser Canyon War, now forgotten for the most part, would have a significant impact on Canada. The British asserted themselves over the region to prevent any American takeover through Douglas proclaiming sovereignty over the Fraser Canyon as part of the Crown Colony of British Columbia. This would eventually lead to all of British Columbia becoming part of Canada in 1871.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Globe and Mail, Overview of the Fraser River War