A week before leading an attack on a road-building crew in 1864, a Tsilhqot’in leader known as Klatsassin paid a ransom for one of his daughters who had been taken by a neighbouring tribe.
The ransom, historians say, consisted of two muskets, six blankets and a canoe.
Such details are known. But when it comes to a conflict known as the Chilcotin War, many details are open to speculation. That applies particularly to information about Klatsassin, who had worked as a packer for a crew trying to build a road from the B.C. coast to the Cariboo goldfields before he set off a conflict that resonates more than a century later.
Even his name is uncertain: rendered in the Thilhqot’in language as Lhats’as?in, or, “We do not know his name” – it is spelled several ways in historical documents.
That uncertainty and others are the framework for “We do not know his name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War,” one of a series of Canadian mysteries featured, detective-style, in a project developed by Canadian Heritage and the University of Victoria.
The online project includes historical documents, such as letters between government officials, newspaper accounts and statements given at trial.
The violent chapter in B.C. history began on April 29, 1864, when Klatsassin and a group of followers first killed a ferry worker and then attacked a sleeping road crew, killing nine of 12 people in the party.
The attack, and others that followed, triggered a sweeping manhunt.
By the end of May, 19 men had been killed. Klatsassin and seven other chiefs were arrested in October.
Klatsassin and four other chiefs were hanged as murderers in what is now Quesnel in October of 1864.
A sixth chief was hanged in New Westminster in July of 1865.
Even at the time of the trial, there were questions over the circumstances of the chiefs’ surrender, as it appears Klatsassin may have believed he was coming to a peace conference when he was arrested.
“We have all heard of the sacredness of the pipe of peace … among the Indians,” Judge Matthew Begbie wrote to the governor of B.C. on Sept. 30, 1864. “It seems horrible to hang five men at once, especially under the circumstances of the capitulation.”
Judge Begbie goes on to call the accused “cruel, murdering pirates” while describing Klatsassin as “the finest savage I have met with yet.”
In 1993, retired provincial court judge Anthony Sarich was appointed to look into the relationship between “the native people of the Cariboo-Chilcotin and the justice system of this province” and found the aftermath of the conflict still lingered.
“In the Chilcotin, the other matter was the controversial, so-called Chilcotin War,” Justice Sarich wrote in his report. “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.”
The commission recommended a posthumous pardon for the chiefs. The government issued an apology in the 1990s.
The debate over land and rights continues. A long-running land claim, brought by Roger William on behalf of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, reached the Supreme Court of Canada this year.
The conflict of 1864, including Klatsassin’s reported claim, made before he was hanged, that “we meant war, not murder” is part of court filings that describe a long pattern of land use and defence of territory.
“The causes of these events have been variously described, and it is likely not possible to ascribe the conflict to any one factor,” says a factum filed on behalf of Mr. William, the plaintiff. “However, the entire body of historical evidence reveals a statement by the Tsilhqot’in people that the road would go no farther and that there would be no further European presence in their territory. The use of their land was clearly an issue.”
A decision in that case is pending.