Many Natives panned for gold but they were often forced from their claims or swindled out of them by white miners. Sometimes they provoked Natives into a violent confrontation just to shoot them claiming self-defense, knowing they had the backing of vigilantes. At several camps in the BC gold rush, vigilante committees ran the diggings.
At Rock Creek on June 13, 1861, a French miner named Pierre Cherbart started a fight with an Syilx/Okanagan man named Saul which ended with the death of Cherbart. Saul went back to his chief and told him what happened. Chief Silhitza told him to wait for a trial to tell his side of the story.
Sounds of gunshots at Rock Creek
Rock Creek, just north of the American border was a notorious place for rough miners. The first gold commissioner was forced to flee for his life. Few miners bothered to pay the mining fees. They were a rough bunch and like many would start their day with bitters and finish the evening with whiskey. The sound of gunshots punctuated the end of many conversations.
William Cox, Rock Creek’s second gold commissioner, held an inquest into the death of Pierre Cherbart and put an arrest warrant for Saul. At the time of Cox’s decision, Saul was staying at a camp near Osoyoos Lake just below the border. Just as soon as the vigilante miners got word, a group captured Saul and “he was hanged towards eight o’clock in the morning. He didn’t die until the afternoon having suffered the most atrocious tortures at the hands of the Americans who made a game of it.”
During the mid 1850s, vigilantism was the norm south of the border in America. It was not uncommon for a group of self-appointed vigilantes to capture someone and find a good sturdy branch from which to hang them. Saul suffered a worse fate.
In 1855, Father Pandosy had stood by helpless as the Yakama he knew were forced to leave their homes when the settlers arrived and taken their lands. The governor of Washington Territory ordered Pandosy to abandon his mission and leave. He headed north to the Big Lake, where he established a mission near the Okanagan village of Skela’unna (Kelowna).
When Chief Silhitza told him about Saul’s vigilante execution, Pandosy penned a letter to Governor James Douglas on his behalf. He didn’t mince words.
“…my heart is heavy on seeing the manner in which justice is delivered to us. If the guilty man had been taken by the authorities, judged according to the rules, the entire camp would have learned a lesson at the gallows; but men without a warrant apprehend us and execute us without trial when Mr. Cox, your representative, is here and he has not even prepared a trial.”
At Douglas’ request, Cox provided further information about the murder of Pierre Cherbart and the chain of events that led to Saul’s lynching. James Douglas decided to let the matter drop and no action was taken to apprehend the men responsible. He was sensitive to the fact that the crime happened on American soil. This did not sit well with the Okanagan people.
W.G. Cox was transferred to other gold fields and John Haynes was brought in from Osoyoos to look after the Rock Creek office.
By the fall of 1861, the easy diggings at Rock Creek were played out. At the same time, stories of rich gold strikes in the Cariboo began to circulate. The miners departed with the first fall of snow.