1865: Chief Ahan of the Tsilhqot’in

“The Indian Ahan,” read the dispatch in the British Columbian this date in 1865, “will have expiated his crime upon the gallows ere these lines meet the public eye. The execution will take place in the rear of the jail early this morning.”

Ahan and another Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) were of the party of Klatsassin, whom we have already met in these pages. Months after the Chilcotin War‘s mass execution, the luckless pair were arrested trying to pay what would have been a routine-for-them bit of blood money.

Both were condemned; Lutas received clemency, and his freedom. (“I eagerly availed myself of some favorable circumstances in the case of Sutas and sent him back pardoned to his tribe. A sufficient number of Indians has now perished on the scaffold to atone for the atrocities committed last year.”)

Documents related to this proceeding are archived at a canadianmysteries.ca page on Klatsassin.

Ahan’s execution in New Westminster, now part of the Vancouver, B.C. metropolis, isn’t dead, though — and isn’t even past.

Over the course of the past year, a public school project in the city that had been built over an old pauper’s grave that might have become the hanged man’s resting place was gravely (ahem) complicated by the continuing Tsilhqot’in search for Ahan’s remains. While Ahan’s own situation remains unresolved, the suit on his behalf eerily outlined the macabre past lurking everywhere beneath our workaday feet.

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1864: Klatsassin and four fellow Tsilhqot’ins

On this date in 1864, five Tsilhqot’in warriors were hanged as common criminals in Quesnel, British Columbia, for resisting white incursion during the Chilcotin War.

The only possibly authentic image of Klatsassin extant. (From this image archive.)

An indigenous nation in northern B.C., the Tsilhqot’in or Chilcotin* had been relatively insulated — though not completely isolated; they had well-established fur-trading contacts from the early 19th century — from the colonization that had swept the continent over the preceding centuries.

In 1862, two cataclysms turned that world upside down.

First, a smallpox epidemic sweeping out of mining camps decimated the Tsilhqot’in population.

Second, gold was discovered in the adjacent inland Cariboo region — and the ensuing gold rush to the inaccessible vein saw whites laying multiple roads through Tsilhqot’in territory. At least one of the entrepreneurs racing to complete the first road might have exploited tribal labor and forced women into prostitution.

The specific internal mechanisms and deliberations that triggered the response are lost to us, but the community must have felt itself under siege — and certainly the building projects, unchecked, would serve to project crown authority into the tribal land. The roads, too, are a specific trigger in the European encounter with North American natives. If it had not been gold, it would have been something else, and soon.

The Chilcotin War or Chilcotin Uprising erupted in April 1864 when a Tsilhqot’in party slew a civilian road-building crew. Bloodthirsty rumors (sometimes unreliable) of Indian atrocities quickly set abroad in the colonial capitals.

Despite almost limitless land to disappear into, the leader, Klatsassin (or Klattasine, or Klatsassan), was captured that August with seven of his followers by the expedient of luring him under assurance that they would be treated as prisoners of war.

Instead, they were tried as common murderers. Five were condemned — including both Klatsassin and his son. (Two others were arrested the following year, and one of them hanged as well.)

In 1993, the government of British Columbia apologized for the executions.

There’s an out-of-print (but available used) book, The Chilcotin War by a descendant of one of the whites killed in it. Several links in this piece go to the excellent canadianmysteries.ca site on this incident, which contains a trove of text from primary documents of the time.

And “Canadian Mysteries” is the apt title. “Klatsassin,” in the native tongue, simply means, “we do not know his name.”

The peak in the center of this photograph is “Mount Klattasine,” and the glacier stretching towards the upper right is also named for the hanged war chief.

* Many other transliterations are possible: e.g., Tsilqut’in, T?inlhqot’in, Chilkhodin, Tsilkótin, Tsilkotin.

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