Horsethief Creek (flows into Columbia River just below Invermere), Horsethief Falls
Other Names: No 1 Creek, Horse Thief Creek
“Jim considered the proposal with drunken gravity and when I mentioned that there was still a bottle of whiskey… he handed Kelly over on my promise that I would lock him up. I had to keep my hands on him until inside the government buildings and then the old brute abused me like a pickpocket. I’ll never forget the figure of fun he made, sitting behind his desk with a muzzle-loading Colt revolver in each hand.”
This week is a bit different. Usually I have a whole bunch of sources of information that I combine to tell a story, but for this story I was unable to find any contemporary sources to verify the tale. In light of that, I turn to the closest thing I could find to a primary source: a retelling of the incident some forty-two years after it occurred by one of the men who was there. George Hope Johnston, then a settler in the Windermere Valley, presented this story to the Calgary Historical Society in February 1925. It was reprinted in the Calgary Herald a week later, and as that issue of the Herald is online but behind a paywall, I present it to you in full.1
Some context. This occurred in the fall of 1883: railway workers enjoyed the Cave and Basin Hot Springs in Banff for the first time, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was approaching the Rocky Mountains, and the first land pre-emptions had just been taken out in the Windermere Valley.
Here you are. I think you’ll agree: it’s a bit of a romp.
A Merry Time Hunting Horse Thieves
It was during that same fall  … when three prospectors who had come in from Montana where they had been shooting buffalo during the construction of the Northern Pacific, came to our camp and informed [F.W.] Aylmer and myself that their horses with all their camp equipages and supplies had been stolen, and asked our help in following up the thieves. They had trailed the thieves across the Columbia to a creek now known as Horsethief Creek. Of course we went.
Getting together a party, including old Tom Jones and Fred Wells,… and taking two Indian trailers, Tatli [Tatley], a Kootenay [First Nation], and Pierre, second chief of the Shuswaps, we started at midday – with no blankets and only a lunch. The tracking was bad and when the short October day was done we camped on a high bluff overlooking the creek without a fire – cold! I shivered in my saddle blankets for hours and then strolled around until I found a deep hollow, perfectly surrounded with thick spruce and lots of dry wood. Despite Aylmer’s protest we soon had a fine fire going and put in the rest of the night in moderate comfort.
In the morning the Indians were divided in opinion as to the track and we split into two parties, Jim Kane, one of the owners of the stolen horses, Fred Wells, Tatli and myself following up the creek. About 11 o’clock we heard the sound of a shot and, spreading out as much as possible, went ahead. Shortly after a man carrying a shotgun with a rifle sling across his back appeared. Covering him I called to him to drop his gun. He did so and Kane, coming down the hillside, disarmed him. A few minutes later his partner, a young Swede, came up and he was also disarmed.
I don’t remember being more hungry, and the badly cooked flapjacks and bacon which we forced one of the prisoners to cook, from the stolen supplies were better than a banquet.
Old Kelly Refused to Commit Them
As the nearest magistrate was Old Kelly at Wildhorse Creek [now Fort Steele], seventy-five miles away, we brought the prisoners before him. It was a clear case. The stolen property was identified and sworn to. No denial was made by the accused. But the old fellow refused to commit them for trial.
Looking back now I don’t know that I blame him so much. It was too late to send the prisoners out to Victoria; he would have had to sit as jailer all winter; the horses and equipment were all recovered and no one was much the worse off. I was likely to be the only loser as I had paid all the bills. We were furious then, however, and proceeded in a quiet way to cheer our spirits in the old, old way, which dates back to Father Noah.
Wanted to Assault the Magistrate
Late that evening I was talking to old Tom Jones in the house of one of the principal Chinamen, who, by the way, had entertained the whole party royally. Wells came in hurriedly and said that Aylmer and Kane had got Old Kelly and intended putting the old chap in the river. I ran toward the government offices and sure enough, they had him. Kane was swearing by all that was holy that he would put Old Kelly in the drink. Aylmer, who seemed to think it was all a huge joke, was laughing immoderately.
Telling him to go back to the Chinaman’s, I tackled Jim Kane, who was just drunk enough to be obstinate. Let the old chap go! No. He was going to put him in the creek. “Jim,” I said, “that is no good. The old fool ought to go in but then there might be a little trouble and he is not worth it. We will make a cage, put him in in, take him back with us to the lake and exhibit him.”
Jim considered the proposal with drunken gravity and when I mentioned that there was still a bottle of whiskey at the Chinaman’s he handed Kelly over on my promise that I would lock him up. I had to keep my hands on him until inside the government buildings and then the old brute abused me like a pickpocket. I’ll never forget the figure of fun he made, sitting behind his desk with a muzzle-loading Colt revolver in each hand.
Kelly had Kane arrested on a charge of burglary on the following day but was compelled to reduce the charge to one of being drunk, as the Chinaman, whose door Kane broke open, swore that he did so only by falling against it while in a very intoxicated condition.
I reported the affair to the attorney-general A.E. Davie. Kelly was shortly after relieved of his duties and Vowell replaced him. I also was appointed to justice of the peace for the district.
So there you are: the story of Horsethief Creek as told by one who was there. I checked what I could from this story, and despite repeated searches was able to find anything about the incident written at the time. I was, however, able to confirm that Edward Kelly was assigned as Magistrate to Wild Horse Creek.
George Hope Johnston was appointed as a Commissioner of the Peace for Kootenay in January 1884,2 and A.W. Vowell was appointed as gold commissioner and stipendiary magistrate of Kootenay on 10 April 1884, taking over duties from Edward Kelly.3 Edward Kelly remained in the area: he was listed in the British Columbia Directory at Wild Horse as a J.P. (Justice of the Peace) and trader at St Mary’s in 1887.4
Athalmer (F.W. Aylmer)