Chief Nicola(Nikola) Of The Okanagan

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The fur trade was the major industry of the 17th, 18th and part of the 19th century in Canada. It would alter the economics of the continent and the Indigenous who lived here. For many, it allowed the chiefs to become major political figures in what would one day be Canada.

One such individual is Chief Nicola. I apologize that I cannot pronounce his Indigenous name, but in English it translates as Walking Grizzly Bear.

Born between 1780 and 1785, he was one of four children to Chief Rolls-Over-The-Earth, the third chief in the lineage of Okanagan chiefs. The first was born between 1675 and 1680, and the second was born between 1705 to 1710. It is not known when the father of Nikola died, but it is believed to be in the first decade of the 1800s due to an arrow fired by a chief at the historic fishing grounds between Fountain and Pavilion. During a feast with the chief and his people, Chief Rolls-Over-The-Earth spoke of his journey to the west where he met men with white skins and blue eyes, who had sticks that made thunder, smoke and fire and could kill birds in flight. He spoke of an animal, the horse, which could run faster than the buffalo as well. The Chief of the Lillooet people said that those things could not exist and that Chief Rolls-Over-The-Earth was a liar, who rose to defend himself when he was struck by two arrows fired by the Lillooet chief. Before he died, the chief told his son Nicola to avenge his death. In the journal of John McLeod, who worked at the Thompson’s River Post, he relates the murder of an Indigenous, stating the man was “killed by the Fraser’s River Indians and suffered a most cruel torture of being left to linger for some days after his bowels were ript open.” This was written in November of 1822, which may give a general idea of when the death of Chief Rolls-Over-The-Earth happened, if this entry relates to him.

With the death of his father, Nicola became the chief of his people. He was now the chief of the Okanagan people in the Nicola Valley and the upper Okanagan Lake area. His uncle was the chief of the Kamloops, and upon his death, Nikola became their chief as well.

The name of Nikola appears to have come from French-Canadians who were working for the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, who worked at a temporary trading post at the head of Okanagan Lake. They adapted the name Nicholas to him, which the Indigenous changed to Nkwala, which became Nikola.

As chief, Nikola was trusted by the fur traders who left him in charge of their trading post during one winter. Upon their return, they found he had taken care of the post and collected several furs through the winter. In gratitude, they would give him 10 guns and ammunition. This small act would allow Nikola to honour his father’s dying wish by avenging his death against the Lillooet people. Using his network of relatives, he forged an alliance of Indigenous people in the area, including the Okanagan, Shushwap, Stu’wix and Upper Thompson people.

The war is mentioned in the Hudson’s Bay Company journal from Nov. 20, 1822 to March 1, 1823, which detailed preparations that had been made for a war against the Fraser River Indians and it described Nicola as the principal war leader who would accept none of the gifts offered to him and his only demand was nothing less than a life for a life. In all, it is estimated that he had 500 mounted warriors with him.

This would launch what has become known as Nicola’s War. This war would be highly successful, with the alliance swarming through the Lillooet territory, killing 300-400 warriors and taking many women and children captive. The alliance was able to occupy the territory for years as a result of this war, driving survivors into the woods and taking control of the salmon-rich streams of the region for an entire generation.

According to legend, Nicola rewarded the warriors by killing a huge number of elk for a feast. The antlers of the elk were piled into two large heaps, where they remained for many years as a constant reminder of Chief Nicola obeying the wishes of his dying father.

According to lore, the Lillooet people first heard a gun and saw a horse because of this war. This may not be true because while the Lower Lillooet people did not have these items, the Upper Lillooet people were familiar with horses and had them. This is confirmed by Simon Fraser during his travels through the area in 1808.

Nikola took after his father and travelled throughout the Canadian west, including visiting the Prairies and taking part in buffalo hunts. He would adapt the methods of the buffalo hunt in the Prairies to the Nicola Valley for their elk hunts. The method of killing elk by driving them over cliffs or into enclosures to be killed is believed to have led to the extermination of elk in that region. Also while in the Prairies, he is said to have taken part in a battle with the Blackfoot.

Among the fur traders in the Nicola Valley, Nicola was highly respected. Among his people, his word was law and for the fur traders, he was known for his honesty, prudence and fair dealing. Despite his prowess as a warrior, he was also known for choosing peace whenever he could. His reputation was high enough that Chief Factor Samuel Black gave Nicola a plough to grow potatoes and other vegetables in the 1830s. When Black was murdered by a Shuswap warrior in 1841, Nicola calmed down the Hudson’s Bay Company men, who feared an Indigenous uprising, by delivering a eulogy that called for the capture of the killer. By 1851, the traders and those in charge of the Post seemed to dislike Nicola for some reason that is not specified. There is a rumor that he attempted to capture the fort in the 1840s but there is no record of such an attack in the journals of those at the fort so it is likely to have never happened. None the less, Chief Trader Paul Fraser stated in a journal entry in 1851 , “arrived Neckilus from the Grand Prairie and as usual begging for supplies, this old man is a complete nuisance to this establishment.”

Fort Kamloops was the major stopping point for Nicola and his people when they wanted to trade. In a harbinger of things to come, Nicola’s people would trade for goods at the Fort using gold from nearby creeks. As people began to notice the amount of gold coming in, word started to spread and this would result in a gold strike in the Fraser River Valley. Within a few months, 30,000 gold seekers, mostly American, began to swarm in the area. Most gave up as soon as winter came, but 10,000 stayed through the winter to work along the Fraser River. Many of the miners did not conduct themselves well, stealing food from Indigenous caches and villages, and engaging in small skirmishes with the Indigenous in the area. I talked about this quite a bit on my episode of the Fraser Canyon War from several months back.

In 1858, Nicola would use his power to protect miners who were coming to the gold fields along the Okanagan Trail, which at the time seemed an odd thing to do considering the treatment of the miners towards the Indigenous of the area. In reality, it was a strategic move to prevent the spreading of the Yakima War across the border into the territory. He would also escort those miners who were causing trouble out of the territory. Herman Francis Reinhart, who will be mentioned again, stated that “Nicola blamed us for butchering the Okanagan Indians in cold blood and the Okanagan Indians had sent some messengers to him to avenge the death of his people, but he said he had better teachings from good men and priests…he had great trouble to quiet and calm down his young warriors…and could have surprised our command and cut them off to a man, utterly annihilating the whole of us and taking all our animals and our plunder.” According to historians, he had been asked to join the Fraser Canyon War but chose not to at the moment but was ready to go to war if the events of the Fraser Canyon War did not end peacefully. It is estimated he had as many as 2,000 warriors at his disposal.

The last known description of Nicola comes from miner Herman Francis Reinhart in 1858, who described Nicola as “an old man about 65 or 70 years old, who wore a stovepipe hat and citizen’s clothes and had lots of medals of good character and official vouchers of good conduct for many years.”

The death of Nicola was reported by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1859 and his body was laid to rest at the Kamloops post and then carried to the head of the Okanagan Lake for burial.

Today, he is seen as the most important and influential chief in the interior of British Columbia from the time when the fur trade opened up in the area to the Cariboo Gold Rush. Due to his ability to mediate an end to the violence of the Okanagan Trail, he helped ensure the history of British Columbia and its relationship with the Indigenous was less war-torn than other areas of the continent, and in turn likely prevented American expansion into the area as Nicola was allied with Queen Victoria, not the Americans.

Today, Nicola Lake and Nicola River were named for him.

Information comes from Royal BC Museum, Wikipedia, Biographi.ca, Merritt Herald, Indian Legends of Canada,

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