It’s one of those stories you never heard about in school.
In late August 1858, two unlikely fathers of Confederation met on a grassy benchland, south of Camchin (present-day Lytton), to negotiate a peace during the height of the Canyon War, a bloody skirmish between miners (mainly American) and Indigenous people (mainly Nlaka’pamux).
Historian Daniel Marshall, winner of the 2019 Basil Stuart-Stubbs prize for outstanding scholarly book on British Columbia, writes in Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado how Nlaka’pamux Chief Cexpe’nthlEm (Spintlum) and Henry Snyder, a U.S. militia captain, negotiated a peace that averted major bloodshed and inevitable incursion by U.S. forces across the 49th Parallel to defend American citizens.
Leading up to 1858, Indigenous peoples had traded symbiotically with the Hudson’s Bay Company and had well-established trade routes with Indigenous neighbours to the south. As Marshall’s research shows, it was Indigenous people who were first mining gold. When news of this trade in gold spread to California, it sparked a mass movement of people north. Victoria and ‘New Caledonia’ were transformed overnight. Americans and other foreigners vastly outnumbered the small, resident British population and their arrival changed Indigenous societies forever.
The California gold rush was noted for its extreme violence toward Indigenous peoples. Such violence was well known to the Nlaka’pamux people and other First Nations, and to British officials like Governor James Douglas and the Colonial office. Marshall describes how London directed Douglas to protect the interests of Indigenous peoples and seek to prevent violence from foreign gold seekers. However, Douglas did not have the troops to back up his authority.
When the miners asserted their claims, with little or no regard to Indigenous or British interests, it was only a matter of time before there was conflict. Bloody battles between miners and Indigenous people took place along steep canyon banks. Miners, under attack, threw the bodies of their dead into the Fraser, where they washed up down river at Deadman’s Eddy. Tensions in Yale boiled over and miners’ militias sprung to action.
Marshall describes the climatic moment when two U.S. militias headed north up the Canyon to confront Indigenous opposition. Captain Henry Snyder led the New York Pike Guards and sought a peaceful compromise. Captain Graham of the Whatcom Guards sought to exterminate the Indigenous threat. Snyder and Graham’s militias both marched north on opposite sides of the Fraser. Then on a fateful August evening at Chapman’s Bar, near Spuzzum, Graham and a lieutenant were killed in a nighttime shooting. Were they killed by Indigenous attackers? Was it friendly fire from their own troops? There is insufficient evidence, but, as Marshall discusses, it was a turning point for peace.
Snyder’s ultimate destination was to meet with Chief Spintlum, who had great stature among his people. Preceding this meeting, the threat posed by the gold seekers was being debated by tribal leaders where Spintlum had to contend with pro-war elements in his midst. He pleaded for peace and prevailed. Peace may well have been a pragmatic choice — the salmon were running — a bloody battle would likely mean hardship and starvation. Against this backdrop, Snyder and Spintlum concluded a peace on August 21, 1858, in view of the Mighty Fraser.
The vivid portrait painted by Marshall of August 1858 raises important historical questions. Had a bloody battle ensued, the Nlaka’pamux and their allies, such as the Okanagan and Secwepemc, could have struck devastating blows on the gold seekers. They had far superior knowledge of the mountainous battleground. What then? It would have likely precipitated a vengeful reaction from the U.S. government and American populace. U.S. troops present in Washington Territory, equipped with howitzers, would have marched across the as yet unmarked border and imposed their will, self-justified in protecting the interests and safety of the tens of thousands of American gold seekers.
Would the American troops have ever left? Marshall suggests not, as the defense of U.S. miners would have been a useful pretext to for troops to pour over a non-existent border; “54° 40′ or fight” was still ringing in the ears of the American public. And what would have become of Confederation if the dream of reaching the Pacific, blocked by . expansionism, no longer existed by 1867? The events in the Canyon War were history-making.
Snyder and Spintlum’s peace held; the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed that year, while the U.S. soon plunged into Civil War, shifting its political focus away from the Pacific. British Columbia would join Canada on a promise of a new railroad, which would traverse the Fraser Canyon along parts of the Cariboo Wagon Road built for the Gold Rush.
Spintlum’s leadership may have been missing from the history books we read in the past, but it has always been alive among the Nlaka’pamux. In 1927, Nlaka’pamux leaders commemorated his leadership with a memorial where the Fraser meets the Thompson, not far from where the Canyon War ended.
A new generation of textbooks and learning resources for B.C. classrooms also now includes this history. Meticulously documented, Claiming the Land: British Columbian and the Making of a New Eldorado belongs in libraries and schools among the history books that tell our country’s founding story. It helps fill a major gap in our historical narrative — the largely untold Canyon War and the central role of Indigenous peoples — the original discoverers of gold and their important role in B.C. being a part of Canada.
Mike McDonald is Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Kirk & Co. He blogs on B.C. history and current issues at Rosedeer.com.