This Day. Martyring the six ‘Chilcotin Chiefs’

1864.The hanging of the Chilcotin Chiefs.Drawing by Shawn Swankey

October 26 is the anniversary of the 1864 hanging of the six “Chilcotin Chiefs” (also Tsilhqot’in) by the Colony of British Columbia. The hanging took place at 7 a.m. on Front St. in Quesnel, one of the largest mass hangings in Canadian history. They had been ambushed at what they were told was a peace conference where they would meet the newly-installed Governor Frederick Seymour and discuss terms. The mostly indigenous crowd of 250 represented seem to have been Dakelh from the north, Secwepemc from the south, some Tsilhqot’in and a party of Nuxalk who walked 1000 km to honour the “Chiefs.” 

There was no Aboriginal consent to the occupation of Indigenous lands in British Columbia. Statutes were passed by the colonial legislature of BC that permitted non-Aboriginal people to “legally” register land in their own names if they “occupied” Aboriginal land for a certain period and made small “improvements,” such as building a house or clearing the bush.

Statutes were passed by the colonial legislature of British Columbia that permitted non-Indigenous people to “legally” register land in their own names if they “occupied” Indigenous land for a certain period and made small “improvements,” such as building a house or clearing the bush. [1] Pre-emption was a right denied to Indigenous peoples in the same period. This double standard permitted non-Indigenous people to physically occupy Indigenous land to the detriment of its original owners. Occupations and physical blockades were the primary mode of non-Indigenous settlement in the Province of British Columbia.

First Nations of

Source: Tom Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (Click to enlarge)

In 1862/63, what is now British Columbia was massively depopulated by a series of catastrophic smallpox epidemics. In one year or less, several native Peoples suffered a sudden catastrophic decline that amounted to as much as 70 per cent of their whole number. Native Elders and community leaders always have alleged that the settler community artificially created these epidemics as an aid to the subjugation of natives so that they could be dispossessed and their land redistributed to settlers.

Indians tried to resist this injustice through blockade and occupation. The “Chilcotin Chiefs” were hanged because they had the courage to stand up to those who wanted to steal their people’s land and enslave them.


R.C. Lundin-Brown’s sketch representing Chief Klatsassin, “Head Tsilhqotíin War Chief.”

In 1864 Chief Klatsassin led what has come to be known at the Chilcotin War in the interior of British Columbia. In April of 1864, a crew had been building a road from the head of Bute Inlet through their land to get to gold-rich Williams Creek and to adjacent Cariboo gold fields. Indigenous peoples in the area refused to allow the government to survey what they regarded as their land. They were found to be spreading smallpox, an organized pogrom sanctioned by the colonial government in Victoria, the capital. The Chief and other Indians executed 13 surveyors under their laws. Klatsassin and four other Chiefs arrived at Quesnel to negotiate a treaty with a promise of safe conduct and were seized, tried by BC’s first judge, Matthew Begbie, and hanged. There was no serious grappling at the time with the issue of whether these men had engaged in a legitimate act of self-defence from a genuine assault on their people and territory. [3]

On May 29, 1865 two Tsilhqot’in, Ahan [Kwutan] and Lutas are brought to New Westminster after meeting a government representative on their way to Bella Coola to offer to a settlement. On July 3, they were put on trial and on July 18 Ahan was executed at New Westminster.

The Chilcotin War worked. The road was never built and, to this day, traditional Tsilhqot’in land is almost completely untouched by white settlement.

1864.Chiloctin War

Source: Tom Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (Click to enlarge)


1See An Ordinance to further define the law regulating the acquisition of Land in British Columbia, 1866 (B.C.), 29 Vict., No. 24, s. 1, which provided:

The right conferred … on British Subjects or aliens … of pre-empting and holding land in fee simple unoccupied and unsurveyed and unreserved Crown lands in British Columbia, shall not (without the special permission of the Governor first had in writing) extend or be deemed to have been conferred on … any Aborigines of this Colony or the Territories neighbouring thereto.

A further amendment passed by the Legislative Council on April 22, 1870, extended the denial to “any of the Aborigines of this Continent.”

2.Typical estimated population decline from the spreading of smallpox, 1862-64:

  • Tsilhqot’in – 90 per cent
  • Haida – 90 per cent
  • Nuxalk – 85 per cent
  • Nanaimo (where missionaries vaccinated in good faith) – 18 per cent

3.Between 1859 and 1870 BC’s first judge, Matthew Begbie ordered the hanging of 26 people, 22 of them Indians, 3 of them Chinese, and one of a person of European ancestry. Among those hanged were five Chilcotin men who in 1864 were found guilty by Judge Begbie. In looking back at this history of hanging in colonial BC, Sidney L. Harring, a US-based legal historian has written, “There is no parallel to these executions anywhere in the hundred colonies that Britain founded, even in the penal colony of New South Wales; they make the founding of British Columbia a bloody colonial enterprise. But that violent history was ‘legal,’ each with executions ordered by a British judge.” (Harrings White Man’s Law, cited in Tony Hall, Earth into Property, p. 373)

With files from Dougal MacDonald; John Borrows, History of Occupations, Paper prepared for the Ipperwash Inquiry, October 15, 2005; Shawn and Tom Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (highly recommended).

1 Comment

Filed under History, Indigenous Peoples

One response to “This Day. Martyring the six ‘Chilcotin Chiefs’

  1. LM

    Good that you spotlighted this today. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s