The Trial of Tshuanahusset: Fair or Foul?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 3

The Trial of Tshuanahusset: Fair or Foul?

Author: Dick Holland

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16

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In 1867-1868, a tiny community on Salt Spring (now spelled as one word, "Saltspring") Island off the coast of British Columbia was the scene of three brutal and seemingly unconnected murders. The victims were members of the island’s African-American community. These African-Americans had fled persecution in California in 1858, but the murders fractured the community and drove many back to the United States. Aboriginal people were widely blamed for the murders, but in only one of the murders was someone charged and convicted.

William Robinson was one of the victims. His body was discovered in his cabin, several days after he had been shot in the back. An Aboriginal man, Tshuanahusset, was arrested many months later, convicted, and hanged. Some people felt that the trial was not fair.

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This MysteryQuest invites you to re-examine the conviction of Tshuanahusset (also called Tom the Indian) on behalf of a human rights group, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. You are to evaluate the evidence and decide whether or not to recommend a retrial that might right a potential historical injustice. Such a retrial is justified if any of the following criteria are met:

  • Bias during the trial — you find evidence that the judge or jury were biased against the prisoner on the basis of class, race, or gender.
  • Important new evidence — you locate new evidence that would have significantly influenced the jury’s verdict if it had been presented at the trial.
  • Tampered evidence — you believe there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the physical evidence presented at the trial was tampered with or deliberately placed by others to mislead the authorities.

In preparing your recommendation, familiarize yourself with the historical context of the case and thoroughly examine documents from the time, looking for reasons for and against a retrial. Finally, you are to prepare a PowerPoint presentation with your recommendation and evidence to support your findings on the three criteria mentioned above.

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STEP 1: Learn the background to the case

Your first task is to learn more about the historical and immediate facts of the case by consulting other materials relevant to this MysteryQuest:

STEP 2: Look for evidence of unfairness

Your next task is to work individually or with a partner to examine historical documents that will help you decide whether there is enough evidence to justify a retrial. The official court transcripts of the trial of Tshuanahusset for Robinson’s murder have been lost. For the purpose of our investigation, you are to examine 14 short newspaper reports (dated from December 21, 1868, to July 26, 1869) about Robinson’s murder and that of another person, Giles Curtis, that occurred soon after Robinson was killed. These documents are found in the Evidence in the Case section of this MysteryQuest.

Your analysis of each document involves four tasks:

  • identify at least one statement in each article that relates to the guilt or innocence of the accused or of anyone else who might have had a motive to kill William Robinson or Giles Curtis;
  • find evidence (objects, reasons, or clues) in the article that might support or contradict this statement;
  • record any of your own questions or ideas that might challenge or support the believability of statements found in the newspaper articles;
  • and draw your own conclusions from the evidence about the justification for a retrial of Tshuanahusset on the following grounds:

1. Does it suggest the jury or the judge might have been biased against the accused?
2. Does it suggest important evidence was not presented at the trial?
3. Does it suggest evidence was changed or tampered with?

Use the chart Examining the Evidence to record your answers as you read each of the assigned documents. A sample answer has been provided in the chart to help you understand what each of these tasks requires.

STEP 3: Reach your conclusions

Once you have accumulated sufficient evidence and thought about the evidence in the newspaper articles, it is time to summarize what you have found and draw your conclusions about the justification for a retrial of Tshuanahusset. Use the chart Summary of Findings to list all the reasons for and against justifying a retrial on each of the three grounds: trial bias, new evidence, and evidence tampering. You should complete three of these summary charts, using one for each of the three grounds. These charts will provide the foundation of your recommendation for or against a retrial.

STEP 4: Create a PowerPoint presentation

Now that you have examined the documents and summarized your findings, you are ready to answer the question "Do you recommend a retrial for Tshuanahusset?" You are to present in a clear and convincing manner your recommendations and supporting reasons using PowerPoint, a well-known electronic presentation tool. For help in creating your presentation, consult the websites listed below. If you are a beginner, you can learn how to use PowerPoint; if you have used it before, you can learn how to do so even better.

Electric Teacher PowerPoint Tutorials

Education World Techtorial

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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 conclusions about them.

The evaluation rubric Assessing Reasons For and Against may be used to assess your summary of findings and conclusions about the evidence for and against a retrial.

The evaluation rubric Assessing the Presentation of Conclusions may be used to assess your success in preparing an effective presentation of your recommendation and supporting reasons.

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Look for further evidence
In addition to the newspaper accounts, two other sources of evidence also shed light on the fairness of Tshuanahusset’s trial. One set of documents assembled by the Attorney General contains the sworn testimonials made by various people to justice officials before the trial as the justice officials were gathering evidence about the murders of Giles Curtis and William Robinson. The other set of documents consists of notes called "Bench Notes" that Supreme Court Justice Needham jotted down "from the bench" as he listened to the witnesses during the trial. They are the only surviving detailed record of the trial of Tshuanahusset, outside of the newspaper report of June 3, 1869. The Attorney General’s documents and the Judge’s notes are found in Evidence in the Case. Read through some of these documents, looking for evidence that might confirm your conclusions or cause you to change your mind about the justification for a retrial.

Who killed Giles Curtis?
The murderer of Giles Curtis was never found. Examine the documents listed below, found at the MysteryQuest 3 home website "Who Killed William Robinson?" Develop a theory as to who was responsible for the death of Curtis.

Did Salt Spring Island have a racial problem?
Look for possible evidence found on maps and graphs to draw a conclusion about the nature and extent of racial tensions on Salt Spring Island. The sources below can be found in the Maps section at The Archives of the MysteryQuest 3 home website:

  • maps that document settlement by ethnicity;
  • graphed evidence from the census of 1881 about mixed race marriages;
  • the graph "Black-White Pre Emption History, 1859-1886."

Create a letter or diary entry
Read the diaries and letters from settlers, found in The Archives section of the home website for this MysteryQuest. Write a realistic, in-character letter from one of these individuals to one of the people appearing in the Cast of Characters.

Write a historical biography
Sylvia Stark was a freed African-American slave who took up land on Salt Spring Island with her husband, her father, and her children in the early 1860s. Read "The recollections of Sylvia Stark", found in three parts at the MysteryQuest 3 home website. Use this information (as well as any other information you can find on the site, including the Cast of Characters) to write a short biography of the Stark Family on Salt Spring Island.

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Briefing Sheet: Relations Between First Nations People and Settlers

Activity Sheet: Examining the Evidence

Activity Sheet: Summary of Findings

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Newspaper articles

“The Salt Spring Murder”, British Colonist, March 24, 1868

“Particulars”, British Colonist, December 21, 1868

“Salt Spring Island Settlers Sign Memorial”, British Colonist, December 25, 1868

“The Last Murder on Salt Spring Island”, British Colonist, January 4, 1869

“The Salt Spring Island Murder”, British Colonist, January 11, 1869

“The Indian Nuisance at Salt Spring”, British Colonist, March 2, 1869

“The Indians Could Afford to Laugh at Any Force”, British Colonist, March 13, 1869

“The East-Coast Murders”, British Colonist, April 10, 1869

Editorial, British Colonist, April 13, 1869

“Court of Assize Before Chief Justice Needham”, Daily British Columbian, June 3, 1869

W. Smithe, Letter to the Editor, British Colonist, June 5, 1869

“The Salt Spring Island Murder”, British Colonist, June 30, 1869

“The Salt Spring Island Murder”, British Colonist, July 3, 1869

“Execution”, British Colonist, July 24, 1869

“Execution”, British Colonist, July 26, 1869

Attorney General’s documents

Sworn Statement of the Accused (Tom or Tshuanahusset) before the Justice of the Peace, April 7, 1869

Sworn Testimonial of John Norton before the Justice of the Peace, April 2, 1869

Sworn Testimonial of Sue Tas before the Justice of the Peace, April 7, 1869

Trial Judge’s notes

Supreme Court Record, Judge Needham’s Bench Notes