The Tsilhqot’in Uprising

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In the early-1860s, hundreds had been wiped out by disease.

No family was left untouched.

They had lived in interior British Columbia for thousands of years were and as they dealt with tragedy.

Settlers looking for land moved into their territory and needed a road so a crew was sent ahead of them.

When the crew arrived, they hired locals who were mourning, many of whom were starving.

In the misery they were denied food and even wages for the work they had done in helping the crew build the trail that cut through their land.

One night in April, they took matters into their own hands.

I’m Craig Baird, this is Canadian History Ehx, and today I’m sharing the story of the Tsilhqot’in uprising!

For thousands of years, the Tsilhqot’in people lived in a territory that expanded, from the Pacific coast in the west, to the Rocky Mountains in the east   in present-day central British Columbia.

Rich in ancient volcanoes, the area is known for obsidian, a volcanic glass that is formed when a source lava comes in contact with flowing water.

Similar to flint it was highly prized among the Indigenous Nations because it could be used to manufacture extremely sharp blades or arrowheads.

The Tsilhqot’in were formidable warriors because obsidian was valuable and any Indigenous nation that controlled it, had a large measure of power among the other nations.

Which is why they established a trading network around obsidian distribution within their territory, which was organized into autonomous bands.

Families within those bands typically hunted, fished, and gathered herbs and roots independently through the year and came together a few times a year to cement their bond through drumming, storytelling, and community celebrations.

. Tsilhqot’in means People of the River because the flowing water was central to trading and food supplies.

During the late summer, families gathered in large groups for the salmon runs.

In the winter, they moved to pit houses that provided ample insolation near lakes where they were sheltered from the cold and wind but could still ice fish. The connection to the land was strong as the Tsilhqot’in valued protection of the environment and nature. For thousands of years, the Tsilhqot’in lived their lives, defended their territory, and went about their business.

Then, in the late-18th century, everything changed.

British and American trade ships began to arrive to the coast of British Columbia, in the 1780s and 1790s, looking for sea otter pelts.

At first, these arrivals were a curiosity and a means to get European goods, but before long, Europeans ventured into Tsilhqot’in territory.

The first European encounter was with Simon Fraser.

On May 28, 1808, he and his party left Fort George, now called Prince George, to descend the Fraser River which begins as a dripping spring in the Rocky Mountains near the border with Alberta in Jasper National Park.

It moves north up to Prince George where it gains strength from the creeks and rivers that flow into it.

As it turns south from Prince George, it moves through the Okanagan and just prior to the border with the United States, turns and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver as a mighty river.

It runs straight through Tsilhqot’in territory.

Simon Fraser reached Tsilhqot’in territory around the first or second week of June 1808. He was especially adept at establishing good relations by having each nation alert the next nation of his arrival, helping to smooth his passage through territories.

Once Fraser had passed through Tsilhqot’in territory, things went back to normal.

The only major change for the Tsilhqot’in was shifts away from obsidian and towards furs as Europeans were starting to settle on the coast.

And that is how it was for the next 20 years.

In 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company established an outpost within Tsilhqot’in territory.

The Tsilhqot’in were unhappy with the strangers who entered into their territory without permission. They refused to trade with the outpost, and it proved to be unsuccessful as a result.

It was occupied, off and on, for the next 17 years until it was abandoned.

But it didn’t stop the fur trade.

More fur traders entered Tsilhqot’in territory, and they brought with them an outbreak of whooping cough in 1845, and measles in 1850.

Thankfully the Fraser River Gold Rush had little impact on the Tsilhqot’in as it was outside their territory. There was little contact with gold miners who flooded into BC’s interior in 1859 and 1860.

But did have an impact nonetheless…  the arrival of 30000 gold seekers brought with them… smallpox.

Smallpox reached Canada’s shores in the early 17th century with French settlers and missionaries.

Over the next two hundred years, it slowly spread past the Great Lakes, and into the n Prairies before it met The Rocky Mountains.

In British Columbia, smallpox came from the west, as settlers arrived on the Pacific coast from all over the world.

On March 12, 1862, the Brother Jonathan, a ship carrying 350 passengers, arrived in Victoria from San Francisco, many of whom sought their fortune on the Fraser River Valley. Aboard, one passenger was infected with smallpox.

As everyone disembarked, a second passenger became infected, and he travelled across the Strait of Georgia on another ship, The Otter, on March 22.

From here, the virus spread like wildfire through the interior of British Columbia.

It is estimated that the Indigenous population of British Columbia was reduced by 62 per cent by the time the disease had run its course.

From June 1862 to January 1863, the Tsilhqot’in lost 1,500 people to the virus, two-thirds of their population. Half of the 14 bands within their territory were rendered extinct due to the outbreak.

The outbreak decimated the population and caused a deep mistrust of anyone coming into their territory.

They also believed that smallpox had been introduced for the purpose of taking land.

With no ability to read the room, a man named Alfred Waddington decided this was the best time to build a road straight through Tsilhqot’in territory.

Alfred Waddington was one of the most prominent citizens within the new Colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver island, which were established in 1858, the same year he arrived from California where he ran a wholesale grocery business.

In the colony he wrote Fraser Mines Vindicated, the first book ever published in the Colony of Vancouver Island that was not from a government source.

In 1860, he was elected as a representative in the House of Assembly of the Colony of Vancouver Island. His platform consisted of women’s rights, small government, and religious equality and he went on to draft the charter of the City of Victoria but turned down the nomination to be the city’s first mayor.

An optimist, he was quickly disillusioned with the government and resigned a year after being elected.

In early 1862, Waddington lobbied the press and his political allies to build a wagon road from Bute Inlet, located on the B.C. coast north of Vancouver, to Fort Alexandria, located in the Cariboo Region of central British Columbia.

For the government, this road was seen as something that could help increase settlement as it would reduce land travel from 37 to 22 days and shorten the distance approximately by half.

At the time, the Cariboo Road was the only road into the interior; it began at the mouth of the Fraser River in the south and wound its way through 587 kilometers into the interior.

In early 1863, the government approved the road, and a draft agreement was signed.

Construction began in mid-1863 and continued through the rest of the year before breaking for the winter.

Things resumed in March 1864 and by now, work crews were approaching Tsilhqot’in territory.

Because of the smallpox outbreak a year earlier, the Tsilhqot’in had seen their population decimated and many were starving.

Some were hired to work on the road but were not compensated.

The road construction was deep in debt, and there were little funds to pay laborers.

This treatment, coupled with the incursion into their territory, led the Tsilhqot’in to declare war.

Klatsassine was the war chief and he had felt firsthand what it was like working for the road crew.

He was highly respected for his abilities in battle.

His family held land where a road crew had built a ferry without permission.

He had briefly worked as a packer for the road crew before he was treated poorly and left.

On April 29, 1864, Chief Klatsassine arrived with a group of warriors at the ferry site along the Homathko River where Tim Smith worked as a ferryman.

Klatsassine asked for food and Smith refused. Klatsassine said.

“A white man took all our names down in a book and told us we should all die.”

As a response Smith was killed.

Klatsassine and his warriors then plundered the food reserves. A skiff was chopped up and the ferry boat was cast adrift.

Smith’s body was thrown into the river and never found.

The Tsilhqot’in Uprising had begun.

A day later, the Tsilhqot’in war party found a work camp at dawn.

Overnight, they had painted themselves in war paint, danced and drummed through an all-night ceremony.

Six tents were in the camp, with two to three men in each as they slept, the Tsilhqot’in descended upon them and attacked.

Three men, Peter Peterson, Edward Moseley, and Philip Buckley escaped.

 Moseley was the only man not injured in the attack.

He said later that he was not seen in the tent when the Tsilhqot’in pulled it down and shot his two bunkmates, Joseph Fielding, and James Campbell.

He kept quiet until the men moved on to another tent. He then fled into the river and escaped.

After the attack on the work camp, the group moved six kilometres up the trail and found William Brewster and three of his work crew blazing a trail.

All were killed.

William Manning, a settler who lived nearby at Puntzi Lake was given the choice of exile or death, both of which he refused.

A Tsilhqot’in council was held, and a man named Tahpit was chosen to execute Manning.

Manning was one of the few settlers in Tsilhqot’in territory at the time.

Overall, William had good relations with the Tsilhqot’in, hiring them to work at the ranch and supporting them in the winter when food was low.

He had built a ranch, log house and garden, which displaced a camping ground and removed access to spring water for the Tsilhqot’in.

He was warned about an attack by a Tsilhqot’in woman named Nancy, but he didn’t heed her warning.

Manning’s body was found near where his house and fields had once stood, both had been ruined.

Meanwhile in the colonial government offices in Victoria Lt. Governor Frederick Seymour had come into office in mid-April, two weeks before the first attack.

on May 14 Seymour called the incidents a near rebellion and worried open war would result without a major government response he acted quickly.

He sent Charles Brew and 28 men to Bute Inlet on HMS Forward. Seymour would accompany them on their journey.

Brew was the Chief Gold Commissioner, a form of police chief, in the Colony of British Columbia. Well-respected by those he led, the military party had trouble going forward and were unable to make their journey up the trail. The main reason was the tough terrain of British Columbia, and the fact no one in the party knew the territory and had little help from the Indigenous in finding their destination.

As a backup Seymour also sent William Cox in a second military force along with50 men, most of whom had volunteered.

Cox was told the expedition was to enforce the supremacy of the law and to seize the culprits by force if necessary.

They left on an overland route soon after Brew’s military force left on their river route.

Both military forces were paid a daily wage and provided with food.

The journey into the heart of Tsilhqot’in territory was not easy on the overland route.

The volunteers were not used to such hard terrain and there was constant insubordination and near mutiny against Cox.

They wandered aimlessly around the wilderness, camping in forts and often accidentally injuring each other with friendly fire.

Along their wanderings, they burned down Tsilhqot’in homes at Puntzi and Sutless along Nimpo Lake.

Meanwhile, Brew and his force of now 38 men boarded HMS Sutlej attempted a second departure and met Cox’s forces on July 7.

As they made their way into Tsilhqot’in territory, a pack train led by Alexander McDonald was warned about growing conflict in the area, but he ignored the concerns.

McDonald owned a ranch near the now-deceased William Manning.

The pack train consisted of seven men, 28 loaded pack animals and numerous other animals.

They made camp at Towdystan, where they remained for several days.

A second warning came from an Indigenous man named Ach-pic-er-mous and this time McDonald listened and turned back the way they came, heading towards Bella Coola, which was to the north along the B.C. Coast.

But it was too little too late.

They were ambushed soon after and McDonald was shot three times.

Only five men survived the attack and made their way to Victoria where they shared news of the attack.

Meanwhile within William Cox group was a man named Donald McLean, who had served as a Chief Factor with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

He was the only one to have considerable knowledge of the territory and the Tsilhqot’in people.

He had also married a Tsilhqot’in woman.

McLean was second in command to Cox as they moved into the territory.

In mid-July, McLean led a scouting party to find Tsilhqot’in warriors. As they moved through the trees, a guide heard a rifle click and told McLean to get down.

Before the warning could register a bullet went straight through McLean’s heart, killing him instantly.

He was the last white person to die in the uprising.

When news of McLean’s death reached Victoria, the story had been exaggerated to say the entire military expedition was massacred by the Tsilhqot’in.

The Victoria Daily Chronicle wrote,

“The wretches, not content with depriving the poor fellows of life, hacked and mutilated the bodies in a most shocking manner.”

Reports of cannibalism were also written in the newspapers as the story became sensationalized.

The Victoria Daily Chronicle continued,

“I believe there is not one settler among us who would not heartily have volunteered to assist bringing vengeance upon the devoted heads of the fiends who had perpetrated this atrocity.”

Over 500 km away Chief Alexis was in Tsilhqot’in territory.

He had spent years trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company and was well-liked and respected by both the Tsilhqot’in, settlers and fur traders alike.

When he first heard of the attacks against the road crews, he vowed publicly that his tribe would not protect the killers.

For this reason, Cox attempted to employ Alexis as an interpreter and guide, but Alexis instead went into hiding as he feared retribution on all Tsilhqot’in for the attacks.

Eventually, Brew assured him with a message of peace.

On July 20, 1864, Chief Alexis met with Cox, Brew and Lt. Governor Seymour at a camp., Seymour told him that the government wanted peace talks with the warriors.

Believing this, Alexis found eight warriors, who led a force of 24 men, and returned Lt. Governor Seymour and the military force.

As soon as they arrived, the eight men were immediately arrested and sent to Fort Alexandria.

Upon the capture of the men, Seymour wrote,

“That Europeans should thus run-down wild Indians and drive them to suicide or surrender in their own hunting grounds in the fruit and fish season, appears to me, I confess, a little short of marvelous.”

One man was sent to trial in New Westminster but escaped enroute and was never caught.

For the rest, their trial was set for the end of September in 1864.

Presiding over the trial was Judge Matthew Begbie. Within the Colony of British Columbia, Begbie was a legend. He had arrived in 1858 at the age of 39 and became known for his vigor and stamina.

Each year, he travelled in a circuit throughout the mountainous wilderness of the interior, holding court in every settled area in the colony.

Sometimes, court was simply held in the same tent Begbie was sleeping in.

No matter the surroundings, he wore his judge robes in each court setting.

Considered a fair man, later in his life he became known for his efforts to protect Indigenous land and fishing rights and opposing discriminatory legislation against Chinese Canadians.

He could also speak Tsilhqot’in and was respected by the Tsilhqot’in people.

During the trial, the warriors argued that they were not murdering, but waging war.

The six men were tried in four separate trials over two days.

Begbie tended to be understanding of the situation of the Tsilhqot’in, and even let the men walk free while awaiting sentencing.

A quick note before I continue, as you can imagine Begbie used outdated language when he said in his sentencing,

“The Indians have, I believe, been most injudiciously treated. If a sound discretion had been exercised towards them, I believe this outrage would not have been perpetrated.”

While he understood and sympathized, it was his duty to enforce the law. He said,

“The blood of 21 whites calls for retribution.”

Begbie sentenced five men, Klatsassine, Tellot, Tahpitt, Piell and Chessus to hang.

The other two were to remain in prison for their role in the attacks.

On Oct. 26, 1864, 250 people came out to witness the execution at Quesnellemouth in the largest mass-hanging in Canadian history to that point.

As they stood on the gallows and faced the crowd Chessus remained silent, refusing to pray or say anything. The other men spoke and Tahpit told his fellow warriors to have courage.

He said,

“Tell the Tsilhqot’in to cease their anger against the whites. We are going to see the Great Father.”

Then a black cap was put on, the bolt was drawn, the trap fell, and the men dropped to their deaths.

A year later, two Tsilhqot’in men named Ahan and Lutas who were involved in the attacks, came out of hiding. They hoped to use furs to buy their freedom which was a common practice among the Tsilhqot’in, but they quickly discovered that the colonial government didn’t work like that.

Both men were brought to New Westminster and put on trial.

Presiding over the trial was Judge Henry Pellow Crease.

Ahan stated that he shot at some of the men but couldn’t confirm that he killed any, while Lutas stated he did not kill anyone except for one horse.

Ahan was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was put to death on July 18, 1865.

Lutas was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to death.

But before Lutas could meet his maker on the gallows, Lt. Governor Seymour stepped in and pardoned him by saying quote.

“A sufficient number of Indians has now perished on the scaffold to atone for the atrocities committed last year.”

Lutas was the only Tsilhqot’in warrior to receive clemency.

After that, those who had a part in this story went on with their lives.

Judge Begbie eventually became Chief Justice of British Columbia in 1871 and was knighted in 1875. He died in Victoria in 1894.

Charles Brew only lived for a few years after the uprising before he died in the Cariboo region in 1869 from acute rheumatism.

William Cox became a judge known for unorthodox decisions.

To resolve a mining dispute, he had the men involved run a foot race. In 1869, he left Canada and moved to San Francisco to be an artist where he had limited success.

Lt. Governor Frederick Seymour opposed the union of the Colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, and Victoria being the capital. He died in 1869 of dysentery while still in office. Two years later, the united colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island joined Canada as one province.

Alfred Waddington’s road was never completed.

He asked for $50,000 from the colonial government for compensation over his financial losses but this was denied.

He returned to the Legislature as an MLA and was the superintendent of schools for Vancouver Island.

He died in 1872 from smallpox in Ottawa.

As for Tsilhqot’in territory, it remains mostly untouched to this day and over a century later, amends to the uprising story were to be made.

In 1993, Colin Gabelmann, the attorney general of British Columbia issued an official apology for the hangings of the Tsilhqot’in warriors.

Two decades later in 2014, British Columbia Premier Christie Clark issued an official exoneration of the Tsilhqot’in warriors. She stated,

“We confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot’in are fully exonerated for any crime or wrongdoing.”

She also acknowledged a long-held rumour that smallpox may have been introduced to the Tsilhqot’in on purpose for the goal of claiming their land.

In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the warriors heroes to their people.

On March 26 of that year, he exonerated the warriors and current Tsilhqot’in Chiefs were invited to the floor of the House of Commons for the apology.

On Nov. 2, Justin Trudeau became the first Prime Minister of Canada to visit Tsilhqot’in land.

He arrived riding a black horse to symbolize the ones ridden by the warriors and he participated in a smudging ceremony.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Chilcotin War, National Post, Canadian Mysteries, Weekly British Colonist, Wikipedia, Victoria Daily Chronicle

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