October 26, 1864
159th Anniversary of Execution of Tsilhqot’in Chiefs by British Colonial Authority
How Tsilhqot’in Sovereignty Was Usurped – A Story of Colonial Genocide and Treachery
Tom Swanky is the author of The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific and other related works. He grew up in Quesnel, BC, where five Tsilhqot’in patriots were executed and buried in 1864. He first learned about the “Chilcotin War” of 1864 from the stories of Johnnie Twan who at eight years of age witnessed the hangings and told the story to Swanky’s grandfather, who passed it on to him.
Swanky subsequently spent 10 years doing meticulous research so British Columbians might understand the acts of genocide and treachery carried out against indigenous peoples to make room for capitalist development under British colonial authority.
TML Daily is reprinting below a interview with author and historian Tom Swanky conducted by BC Worker, a supplement of TML Daily, on July 5, 2014.
TML: How did Tsilhqot’in sovereignty get usurped and replaced by British colonial rule?
Tom Swanky: In 1864 there had been no contact between the colonial administration and the Tsilhqot’in nation, so we know at that point the Tsilhqot’in were a sovereign people living on their ancient homeland. In 1862 the Tsilhqot’in invited road builders to construct a road across their territory. There were two roads, the Bentinck Road and the Bute Inlet Road, which met at Puntzi Lake. The Bentinck Road was under the control of George Cary, the Attorney-General of Vancouver Island, and Governor Douglas’ legal advisor. Cary died certified insane in 1866. He hired a road builder, a Californian named William Hood. Hood had never been in BC when he accepted a contract and was not aware he was obligated to build the road within 38 days, even though the road went from Bella Coola to the Fraser River, an absolutely impossible task. Cary had no plan to sign treaties or to pay for easements for the road. When they arrive on the scene, they brought small pox with them. Evidence shows that small pox was spread deliberately by people associated with the Bentinck Road project.
To get the land to build the road house at the Bentinck/Bute Inlet road junction they extorted the land from a Tsilhqot’in family headed by a man named Tahpit by threatening his family with small pox if they did not give the builders “quiet possession.”
Six weeks later, in June 1862, the road builders introduced small pox. Under Tsilhqot’in law, the only sovereign power in this region, three of the road house entrepreneur/land speculators, Manning, McDonald and McDougall, were all convicted of multiple murders by the Tsilhqot’in. The convicted criminals were given a choice of permanent exile leaving behind their possessions, appeal for sanctuary or execution. The three were too arrogant to leave or appeal for sanctuary, which would be a recognition of Tsilhqot’in sovereignty. The Tsilhqot’in subsequently executed them. Manning was shot by Tahpit, the man whose land had been extorted; McDonald by the war chief, Klatsassin (Lhatsassin), his teen-aged son, Biyil, killed McDonald’s horse; and McDougall by Ahan, another war chief. All four of these men were hanged by the colonial authorities for “murder.” At no time had British colonial authority legally abolished Tsilhqot’in sovereignty or even approached them to sign a treaty. The legal authority to carry out the executions was inherent under the sovereign authority of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which made and executed the law on their lands.
From the Tsilhqot’in perspective this spreading of small pox in 1862 begins the “Chilcotin War;” they perceive it as an act of aggression by the colonial administration under Douglas and Cary.
TML: So how does this “Chilcotin War” develop and conclude with the Tsilhqot’in having their sovereign power usurped by the colonialists?
TS: In March 1864, when Captain Edward Howard lands the crew at Bute Inlet to build the road, Howard threatens to spread small pox among the Tsilhqot’in to punish them for taking some flour the Tsilhqot’in thought was owed to them. Howard had spent the 1840s as the owner of two slave ships which conducted the slave trade illegally between Africa and Brazil. With the experience of 1862 fresh in their minds, the Tsilhqot’in take pre-emptive action and wage an act of war by killing 14 road builders.
The deaths finally bring the new governor of BC of less than a month, Frederick Seymour, to the first ever official colonial administration meeting with the Tsilhqot’in Nation held on July 20, 1864. The two sides meet at cross-purposes: the Tsilhqot’in seek an agreement and peace treaty, which will recognize their sovereignty; Seymour seeks to capture the Tsilhqot’in war leaders to kill them as a means of intimidating the Nation and usurping their sovereignty.
After a month of negotiations, agents for the colonial administration offer to absolve all the Tsilhqot’in involved in the war, to recognize the Tsilhqot’in war chief as the high chief in Tsilhqot’in territory (i.e., to establish diplomatic recognition of the Tsilhqot’in Nation), and thirdly, to host a heads of state conference with the Governor at Puntzi which is where the negotiations were taking place. When the Tsilhqot’in chiefs appear for the conference at 8:30 am, August 15, 1864, they complete a sacred pipe ceremony following which the colonial militia ambush them. Perfidious Albion strikes again.
The militia chained them with beaver trap chains and took them to Quesnel for a “show trial,” where Matthew Begbie, the “hanging judge,” sentenced them to be hanged. British “justice” assigned them a defence counsel – George Barnston, who was a business partner of the Bentinck Road builders who had spread the small pox. On October 26, five of the Tsilhqot’in were hanged publicly in front of about 250 mainly indigenous peoples from hundreds of miles around. Two of those five were hanged for their participation in the Bute Inlet war. Three others were hanged for executing the Puntzi land speculators who had spread small pox. The mass hanging took place over a graveyard where indigenous small-pox victims had been buried next to the Fraser River. According to the colonial administration they were hanged for “murder,” even though everyone who was killed in the “Chilcotin War” died on Tsilhqot’in sovereign territory over which the colony did not exercise even a pretence of jurisdiction.
Even in chains and under guard the Tsilhqot’in are still under the misapprehension they are going to Quesnel to meet the Governor. At the end of the trial Begbie, while sentencing them, asked them what is the punishment in their law for “murder.” They replied “death.” Begbie then sentenced them to death. When visited by an Anglican Minister the next morning, the first thing Chief Lhatsassin said was “We meant war not murder.”
Ahan, who executed McDougall in 1864, was hanged in New Westminster on July 18, 1865, six years before BC joined Confederation.
This is how the colonial administration convinced itself that they had usurped Tsilhqot’in sovereignty: through deliberate spread of small pox, treachery and “legal” murder.
TML: Thank you.
(Images/Photos: S. Swanky, www.canadianmysteries.ca)