Tag Archives: Okanagan

Vigilantes and the lynching of an Okanagan man

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.

Map of Rock Creek area and Osoyoos Lake

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.

Father Pandosy

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.

The Importance of the Columbia River

The Columbia River was the breadbasket of the Northwest. For thousands of years, the Columbia River was an important fishing and trade route for Native Americans. They traded with other tribes who lived along the Columbia River and along its tributaries all the way up the Okanagan River. Before the international boundary was drawn up at the 49th parallel, the Okanagan people (north and south) were considered as one.  Thousands more came from the Plateau region to trade their horses for salmon pemmican, root vegetables, berries and other necessary articles such as hemp.

When Alexander Mackenzie published his account of travelling to the Pacific Ocean in 1801, fur trading companies took note. After reading Mackenzie’s book, John Jacob Astor decided to set up the Pacific Fur Company and ‘cherry-picked’ seasoned voyageurs and traders from the North West Company to start its business.

The newly formed group had just started building ‘Fort Astoria’ when David Thompson came down the Columbia River. Not long later, John Stuart, who had paddled down that first trip with Simon Fraser, started the very first brigade trip from New Caledonia all the way to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. Unlike Fraser’s trip, Stuart’s group made part of the journey with horses.

The voyageurs coming from New Caledonia would set out from from an ice-covered Stuart’s Lake in April and by the end of June would reach the mouth of the Columbia River in time to meet the yearly ship coming from London with their supplies. At Fort Astoria, bundles of furs that had been carefully wrapped in buffalo hides were readied to be shipped to China. (The North West Company had a license from the East India Company which allowed them to send their furs there).

When the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the North West Company in 1821, they took over their forts. The HBC built Fort Vancouver and that became the main fort.  Fort Nez Percés was renamed Fort Walla Walla although most people still called it by its old name. The HBC decided not to use the Fraser-Columbia route to supply its forts in New Caledonia, but the alternative route via the Peace River was used. This northerly route required a dangerous and lengthy (12 mile) portage. After losing canoes full of men and valuable furs, Governor Simpson decided that the Fraser-Columbia route was the better option after all.

From 1826 to 1847 the Fraser River – Columbia River route was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The overland brigade trail through the Okanagan served as a vital link in that route. The signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 which established the international boundary at the 49th parallel put a stop to that. The Hudson’s Bay Company left its forts below the line to the Americans.

The Fraser River – Columbia River route was used again by gold seekers during the Fraser River gold rush.

Note: Fort Astoria was captured by the British during the war of 1812 and renamed Fort George. Its ownership was in question for many years. In later years, the American government began to establish several military forts (in gold) including Fort Walla Walla (near the site of the old fur trading fort Nez Perces).

Here is a map from the 1970s showing the hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River: