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The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory

By Tom Swanky

Chilcotin Chronicles: Stories of Adventure and Intrigue from British Columbia’s Central Interior

By Sage Birchwater

Review By Jo-Anne Fiske

January 12, 2018

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018  | p. 180-3

In an unprecedented historic moment, on October 23, 2014, then BC Premier Christy Clark and her Liberal government acknowledged that the smallpox epidemic of 1862 that ravaged the First Nations was “by some reliable historic accounts… spread intentionally.” This admission of and apology for colonial criminality was made as the Provincial Government sought reconciliation with the Tsilhqot’in First Nation following its landmark victory in the Supreme Court of Canada that affirmed its Aboriginal title to traditional territory.  Tsilhqot’in resistance to the colonial violence of the catastrophic smallpox infestation, which led to the Tsilhqot’in war of 1864, and the tragedy of the Nuxalk in the same devastation are the primary foci of Tom Swanky’s The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory and lie in the background of Sage Birchwater’s Chilcotin Chronicles.   Although both authors agree that 1862 and the events that followed over the next three years marked the pivotal historical moment that shaped Chilcotin Cariboo history, how they deal with these events and their aftermath stand in sharp contrast to one another.

Birchwater is a long time resident of the Chilcotin Cariboo who arrived in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and stayed to become a staff writer with the Williams Lake Tribune, a trapper and environmentalist, and an oral historian and story teller.  During this time, he traversed the region listening to and recording the stories and anecdotes that comprise Indigenous and settler histories.   Like his travels through the region, Chilcotin Chronicles criss-crosses through time and space: five First Nations — Dakelh, Tsilhqot’in, Nuxalk, Secwepemc, and St’at’imc — inhabit the region, where for centuries they have intermarried, formed social and economic ties, endured conflicts and warfare, and negotiated peaceful resolutions as recently as 2014.   Over the past two centuries the First Nations of the region repulsed and accommodated the fur trade and the mid-nineteenth century gold rush. Global events, The Great War among them, spurred influxes of settler immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway and United States eager to establish themselves and to take advantage of the riches of the land. Some married into First Nations families or became their social allies while others, all too often with little regard for First Nations sovereignty, sought only to enrich themselves and to embrace the social freedoms of the frontier. With Indigenous peoples “at the table” as Birchwater puts it, we come to see how the First Peoples perceived and responded to the newcomers, with some of the stories told on their behalf by Birchwater and others by the First Nations narrators themselves.

Structured into discrete chapters, each of which stands on its own, Birchwater skilfully draws a portrait of vibrant, diverse communities peopled by the heroic and villainous, the flamboyant and demure. Throughout this collection of narratives, Birchwater interweaves the stories into one another to portray the “convergence of cultures and very different ways of seeing the world” (4).  While men figure more frequently in his stories, Birchwater does not overlook women of historical prominence in the local narratives: Dakelh Medicine women, Nancy Swanson, Anne Nicholson and Louisa One-Turner, are each honoured with their own chapter.

Birchwater begins with a brief introduction to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and its implications for Aboriginal title and sovereignty and follows this with three vignettes of the earliest years of European presence before turning to his tableaux of individuals who peopled the region over one hundred and fifty years.  Writing in a personable style, he eschews theoretical discussions of colonial violence in favour of a familiar discourse of settlement that references pre-emption and homesteading, staking gold claims, and immigration.  Nonetheless, he leaves no doubt he is knowledgeable of and empathetic to the consequences of colonial violence.  He recounts the actions of Francis Poole in spreading small pox through the territory in 1862 (45), the devious pre-emptions by Davidson (42) that forced the T’exelcemc from their villages and territory at what is now Williams Lake, and the role of Oblate priests in reducing the people to dependants on charity (59ff). 

Tom Swanky, born in Quesnel, was also a long time resident of the Chilcotin Cariboo.  A self-defined “life-long student of political philosophy, history, and Canadian government (209),” he spent more than a decade researching archival records of colonial British Columbia to uncover the events leading up to the 1862/63 small pox event that wiped out the Indigenous communities and empowered newcomers to seize Indigenous land and resources.  To date, he has self-published the results of his research in three volumes, all of which offer vigorous repudiation of established historical narratives of the formative years of the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.  

Arguing as if in a criminal case, Swanky offers extensive evidence to support the argument he had introduced in his two earlier works: The True Story of Canada’s War of Extermination on the Pacific. Plus the Tsilhqot’in and Other First Nations Resistance and A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes.  He asserts that members of the colonial government and their close associates at Victoria, knowing that it was unlawful to appropriate settled lands in sovereign Indigenous territories and fearing an “Indian war” if they did so, deliberately spread smallpox to exterminate the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Coast and Chilcotin Cariboo.  He avers smallpox did not arrive accidentally from San Francisco in March 1862 but was intentionally “imported” by “[George] Carey’s steamship committee” who travelled on the Brother Jonathan, the same ship as the man who is alleged to have been the carrier of the disease (127).   Swanky contends they did so in order to pre-empt land for speculation and settlement, and to build transport routes from the coast to gold fields in the interior.   

To support his case, Swanky presents evidence found in primary documents of colonial authorities, official documents of land speculation companies and their hirelings, contemporary news accounts, and oral evidence of Indigenous histories, the last of which he likely was familiar with throughout his lifetime in Quesnel.  The documents cited clearly and unequivocally record key facts of the time of the smallpox: it came to Victoria from San Francisco on the ship carrying men who later acted intentionally to spread the disease among Indigenous people; in Victoria the colonial regime, medical doctors amongst them, forced the removal of coastal Nations peoples ill with the disease knowing full well the devastation this would cause among the Indigenous populations of the coast; Francis Poole, by his own accounts, left men with the disease in several  Indigenous communities with full awareness of the dreadful consequences that would follow.  Swanky interprets his evidence as a prosecutor would, offering explanations of recorded events in the context of probable motives and opportunities.  Briefly, he asserts the evidence and motives he has advanced prove without doubt that then Attorney General George Cary, holding interests in the New Aberdeen syndicate, instigated the criminal spread of smallpox in order to enrich himself and his financial associates.

The Smallpox War is compelling reading.  Heavy with references to archival documents and other contemporary sources (461 footnotes in all), Swanky draws official history, personal reminiscences, colourful journalism, and much conjecture into a dense, highly charged narrative.  He includes frequent analogies to international laws of nation state governance and evasion of accepted normalizing narratives of pre-emption and settlement as rhetorical strategies to demonstrate colonial criminality and disregard for Indigenous sovereignty.  It was the settlers and their conniving governments who acted in insurrection of the laws of the land, not the Indigenous peoples conducting themselves within their established legal order.  It was the settlers and their governments who violated the laws of the British Empire, not Indigenous chiefs who lawfully sought to protect their peoples, resources and lands. Swanky is certain of his position, so much so that he eschews any competing accounts of the smallpox times and any contrary interpretation of the evidence on which he relies.  To say he doubts standard accounts and professional historians’ veracity would be an understatement: he excoriates historians who present the smallpox devastation as a natural disaster or an unpredictable and unintended consequence of panicked officials; bears no patience for ‘settler universities’; and contemptuously dismisses peer review practices of academic research institutions.  His tone makes reading his narrative challenging.  This is unfortunate as his argument is for the most part unequivocally supported by archival records and, even when it relies on conjecture and assertions based on circumstantial evidence, is highly plausible.  Colonial authorities did indeed have motive and opportunity to intentionally exterminate the Indigenous peoples whom they perceived as blocking their social, economic and political aspirations and whose potentially violent reprisals, based on their knowledge of subjugated peoples elsewhere in the Empire, they feared. A timeline, maps and illustrations aid the reader in navigating this dense narrative.  Sadly, it lacks an index, a reference list of sources, and sufficient acknowledgement of scholars who have, successfully or otherwise, addressed the smallpox times and their aftermath.

First Nations today will take comfort in the recognition Swanky and Birchwater have slowly gained from government officials.  Clark’s 2014 affirmation that the smallpox war was a travesty of human rights abuses and that the Tsilhqot’in chiefs’ were indeed wrongfully convicted of insurrection is but one tribute to the significance of these two historians. The Supreme Court, in February of this year, further verified Indigenous rights and colonial wrongdoing as it ruled that in the 1860s British Columbia and later Canada unlawfully disposed the T’exelcemc of their lands at Williams Lake.

Chilcotin Chronicles: Stories of Adventure and Intrigue from British Columbia’s Central Interior
Sage Birchwater
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2017.  Illustrations, maps, index, timeline, reference list. 228 pp. $26.95 paper

The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory
Tom Swanky
British Columbia: Dragon Heart, 2016. Illustrations, maps, time line, select bibliography. 212 pp. $19.95 paper