Author: Kathleen McConnachie
Editor: Ruth Sandwell
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-18
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.
Was this violent conflict an early attempt by First Nations in Canada to assert their legal right to their lands — to their nationhood? Did members of the Chilcotin First Nation kill 17 members of a British road-building crew moving through their territory in 1864 to protect the “national” sovereignty of the Chilcotin nation? Perhaps the motives were more cultural and less political: was it an attempt to protect the Chilcotin culture and way of life from outside forces? Or, as some historians have suggested, were the Chilcotin people lashing out against these non-Natives for reasons that had little to do with politics and cultural preservation?
In this MysteryQuest, you are asked to take on the role of an historian creating a public monument to commemorate the Chilcotin War of the 1860s. Your main task is to investigate to what extent this war was an attempt to protect a “nation” from invaders.
First, you will examine definitions of “nation” and learn about the two meanings of this term. Then, you will be introduced to the facts of the Chilcotin War. You will refer to an historical overview and maps to get a snapshot of the key events in the group’s history and insight into the relationship between the Chilcotin people and developers who were determined to access the rich resources of the British Columbia interior. You will then examine a number of primary documents from the period, looking for evidence of the Chilcotin motivations for this conflict. Your final task is to prepare a statement on the extent to which this was a war for nationhood. Your ideas will be used by an historical panel investigating the causes of the Chilcotin War to create a plaque commemorating the event.
STEP 1: Clarify the meanings of “nation”
Your first task is to get clearer about a surprisingly difficult concept — the idea of a “nation.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “nation” as “a community of people of mainly common descent, history, or language, forming a state or inhabiting a territory.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a “state” as “an organized political community under one government; a nation.”
These definitions highlight two ways in which the term nation is used. In the first meaning, nation is defined as a “community of people” with a common history and language. When people speak of French-Canadians as a “nation” they are using this definition. French-Canadian people share a culture that has its roots in New France and they share a history and language. In the second meaning, state and nation focuses on “an organized political community.” This definition equates “state” with “nation.” So a nation in this sense is a country like Canada that may embrace many different cultural and linguistic communities. These are important distinctions. For example, recognition of Québec or of First Nation people as a “nation” may acknowledge a right to control their territory (become a separate state) or simply affirm their unique cultural identity (be a distinct society).
Since understanding the difference between these two senses of “nation” is key to understanding the motivations for the Chilcotin War, it will be helpful to clearly set out criteria for each term:
STEP 2: Learn about the historical context
Before looking at primary documents from the period, it will be helpful to explore the background to the Chilcotin War. The historians who created this website have prepared background information about the war. While reading the five documents listed in the Background to the Chilcotin War section of Evidence in the Case, consider whether any of these accounts suggest that the actions of the Chilcotin were about protecting a “people” or securing their “territory.”
You may also find it helpful to have geographic reference points to the events of the war. In the Maps section of Evidence in the Case are two maps to help you establish the “where” of the Chilcotin War of the 1860s. The first, a map of British Columbia, provides broader geographic reference points. The second focuses specifically on road construction and the different routes to the Cariboo gold — what the Chilcotin people viewed as threats. You may find it helpful to print out these maps for easy reference when doing your research.
STEP 3: Look for underlying causes
You have thought about what happened and where. To answer “why” you will need to read material created at the time of the war. In the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case are eight historical sources drawn from newspaper articles, government correspondence, and court testimony. Working alone, or with a partner, search these sources for evidence of the underlying causes of the war. Refer to the previously listed criteria for each definition of “nation” and record evidence from the documents that suggest the role of nationhood — in the sense of either a community of people or as a state — in bringing about the war. There is an additional column for evidence you might find which suggests that the war had nothing to do with safeguarding a nation, but was motivated by other factors, such as personal greed or revenge. Record your findings in the appropriate column on the chart Causes of the War.
You may want to read Causal Explanations in History for information about the role of underlying causes in attempts to explain historical events.
STEP 4: Prepare your conclusions
Your final task is to prepare a written statement to an historical panel investigating the causes of the Chilcotin War. They will use your statement to create a plaque commemorating the event. You are asked to explain to the panel the extent to which the incident was a war about protecting a nation from an invader. Consider in what sense you use the word “nation” — as a state or as a people? Your statement should be 300-350 words and include specific references to findings from your analysis of the primary documents and to the criteria for distinguishing the two meanings of nationhood. You may wish to end your statement with the wording you would suggest for the plaque about the underlying causes of the Chilcotin War.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Importance and Relevance of Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify important statements from the historical documents and show their relevance to the nationalistic roots of the Chilcotin War.
The evaluation rubric Assessing Historical Conclusions may be used to assess your success in presenting a plausible conclusion supported with relevant evidence about the extent to which the incident was a war about protecting a nation from invaders.
Examine additional evidence
Consult the Canadian Mysteries site and delve into the treatment of the accused after the attack on the road crews, reading the Introduction to the Aftermath section of the website and the newspaper articles listed in The Trials. Were the Chilcotin treated as a “nation” in the judicial proceedings, according to these newspaper articles?
The legacy today
Read a selection of the documents found in The Chilcotin War Today section of the main website and identify the issues that keep the incident alive for the Chilcotin peoples. Using the criteria for the two definitions of “nation” — as a people and as a state — determine whether their claim to “nation” status is stronger or weaker at the beginning of the 21st century than it was in 1860.
Activity Sheet: Causes of the War
Background Information: Causal Explanations in History
Background to the Chilcotin War