War, Massacre, or Terrorism?
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 7

War, Massacre, or Terrorism?

Author: Dick Holland

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16-18

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In the spring of 1864 a series of killings sent a chill across Canada. The blood of 14 men, spilled into the Homathco River before dawn on the morning of April 29th, 1864, was only the beginning of this conflict. By the end of May, 19 road-builders, packers, and a farmer were dead. Within six weeks an army of over 100 men had arrived in the area to catch the killers.

The killings took place in a remote triangle in central British Columbia that, at the time, was inaccessible by road or even horse trail. The dead men had all been part of the teams trying to build a road from the Pacific coast to the recently discovered goldfields of the Cariboo.

This area was traditional territory of the Tsilhqot’in people who had lived on the high Chilcotin Plateau for centuries, perhaps for thousands of years. The survivors of the attacks identified the principal leader of the more than 20 people involved in the killings as a Tsilhqot’in chief, who was called “Klatsassin” by his people.

Historians have variously called this incident a war, a massacre, or an act of terrorism. But which is it? Soldiers who kill many others during the course of war are not likely to be punished for these killings; in fact they may be honoured for these actions. Committing the same killings outside the context of war would likely result in serious consequences. But here again it may depend whether the killers were acting on behalf of their people to bring about a desired political goal, or simply acting for personal gain or revenge. In short, there is much at stake in deciding upon the kind of incident. You will be invited to examine selected historical documents from the time and draw your own conclusions about which term — war, massacre, or terrorism — most fairly describes this event.

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This MysteryQuest invites you to assess the underlying nature of a violent conflict between whites and First Nations peoples in 1864. Was the killing of the road crew an act of terrorism by the Tsilhqot’in to discourage further trade and traffic in the area? Or were they defending their territory against an invading population? Perhaps they were avenging the deaths of their people who were killed by the European introduction of smallpox years earlier?

You will begin by considering the differences between the terms “war,” “massacre,” and “terrorism.” You will read about the background to this incident and then examine historical documents looking for statements that suggest how this event should be described. Finally, you will decide on the most appropriate term and explain your choice in a one-page essay.

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STEP 1: Reflect on war, massacre, and terrorism

Before deciding what term best describes this incident, we must be clear about the difference between the acts of war, massacre, and terrorism. Consider the following definitions:

  • War: a conflict between the armed forces of two or more states or coalitions; a conflict conducted to achieve certain political goals.
  • Massacre: a slaughter; the savage and excessive killing of many people, especially of non-combatant civilians; to murder cruelly or violently.
  • Terrorism: an attempt to further a group’s interests by intimidating others; a policy intended to spread a feeling of terror or alarm.

The differences between these terms are subtle. For example, an act of terrorism might include the cruel killing of innocent villagers during a war. It might best be described as an act of terrorism if its primary function was neither a military objective nor a simple act of revenge, but to spread fear among the population.

Consult the chart Comparing War, Massacre, and Terrorism for further elaboration of these terms. You may want to search the internet to locate other definitions to help you distinguish between these three terms. Add any points you find that have not already been listed on this chart.

STEP 2: Learn about the conflict

Before you look at historical documents, it will help to learn more of the background to this event. In Evidence in the Case there is a list of six “Overview documents” prepared by creators of this website; these documents explain the context for this incident. Begin by looking at the Timeline and identifying the ten most significant events. Next, read the brief introductions presented in the other five overview documents to learn about the conditions leading up to the incident.

STEP 3: Examine historical documents

You are now ready to examine selected historical documents and think about the justification for using the term war, massacre, or terrorism to describe the incident. Locate the six sources from the list of “Primary documents” found in Evidence in the Case.

For each historical document, use a copy of Determining the Kind of Incident to record the following:

  • statements that provide clues as to the underlying nature of the incident;
  • the inference you draw from each piece of evidence about the kind of incident (war, massacre, or terrorism);
  • and why you think each piece of evidence supports the term you suggest.

For example, you might record that one document claims that the Native people had a lawless spirit induced by the drinking of whisky. This implies that the incident might appropriately be seen as a massacre since the statement suggests there was no clear purpose for the killings. Refer to the chart Comparing War, Massacre, and Terrorism to remind you of the features that distinguish each kind of incident.

STEP 4: Prepare your finding

Armed with the evidence you have found to support each description of the incident, write a 250-word explanation that clearly states whether you believe it was war, massacre, or terrorism. Provide evidence from the documents to support your conclusion, making frequent reference to the meaning of these terms.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Inferences Drawn from Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the historical documents and draw plausible inferences about the kind of incident suggested by each piece of evidence.

The evaluation rubric Assessing Historical Conclusions may be used to assess your success in preparing a report that offers a plausible conclusion supported with evidence about the most appropriate description of this incident.

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The legacy today
Read a selection of the documents in The Chilcotin War Today and identify the issues that keep the incident alive for the Chilcotin peoples.

Causes of the conflict
What were the underlying reasons for this conflict? Did smallpox cause it? Or was it the building of a road through the Chilcotin territory? Or were the seeds already sown in the years of the fur trade? Read the following overview documents written by the creators of the website and summarize the arguments supporting each suggested cause of the conflict. Create a pie chart indicating the percentage of influence each of these causes had in the killing of the men on the road crew. You may want to consult Creating a Pie Chart for instructions on how to complete a pie chart.


Smallpox Culture

Road Building Culture

Tsilhqot’in Culture

Fur Trade Culture

Comparing kinds of evidence
Some people suggest that “oral history” is not as reliable as “written documents” when it comes to providing evidence of the past. Look at the following primary documents — one that describes itself as “oral history” and others that are “written historical documents.” What are the similarities and differences between them? What are their strengths and weaknesses as “evidence” about the Chilcotin War?

Oral History/Interview: Henry Solomon, The Escape of Chedekki [Ŝumayu], Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, 1992

Colonial Dispatches: Frederick Seymour, "Letter to Newcastle, No. 7" – May 20, 1864

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Activity Sheet: Comparing War, Massacre, and Terrorism

Activity Sheet: Determining the Kind of Incident

Briefing Sheet: Creating a Pie Chart

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Overview documents



Smallpox Culture

Road Building Culture

Tsilhqot’in Culture

Fur Trade Culture

Primary documents

Newspaper articles

“An Indian War Impending”, The British Colonist, August 30, 1862

“The Bute Inlet Massacre and Its Causes”, The Victoria Colonist, June 13, 1864

“Waddington and Bute Inlet”, The British Columbian, June 18, 1864

Colonial correspondence

Frederick Seymour, "Letter to Newcastle, No. 7" – May 20, 1864


Testimony of Ach-pic-er-mous, May 31, 1865

Oral History/Interview

Henry Solomon, The Escape of Chedekki [Ŝumayu], Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, 1992