Body Creek (between Edgewater and Brisco, close to a steep hill at one time known commonly as Deadman’s Hill), Body Creek Forest Service Road (Brisco)
Other Names: Deadmans Creek, Murder Creek
“We used to call that creek “Deadman’s” and “Murder”, but people seem to be getting squeamish about such things and place names.”54
I can’t be the only one who didn’t know that Deadmans Creek is not officially Deadmans Creek and hasn’t been for almost a century. I hadn’t heard of Body Creek before this project – it’s always been Deadmans Creek to me.
The telling of this story seems straightforward enough: figure out who died, and how, and that’s that. Not quite. This one diverts in unexpected directions, precipitating the creation of Fort Steele and touching on the origins of Cranbrook. It’s a long read, but researching/writing this one has clarified a bunch of outstanding questions I’ve had about early Valley history. Although I started writing it months ago, it is also extremely relevant to current conversations about race in Canada.
So Who Died?
The events leading to the name Deadmans Creek occurred long enough ago that the record on them is hazy. In 1884, two miners named William Kemp and M– Hilton purchased an outfit to go prospecting, heading to the First Crossing of the Columbia River (Donald). Ten months later, during the winter of 1885, their horses were found in the woods and a skeleton found near what is now Deadmans Creek. A free miner’s certificate on the body identified it as Hilton’s.1
In the initial vague newspaper report about the deaths, only the body of one man is mentioned (Hilton’s) – no mention is made of Kemp. A later account from Edmund T. Johnston, who had been living at Hog Ranch (Parsons) at the time of the incident, shares that Kemp had been carrying “a full poke of gold and a gold watch”, and that his body had later been found down by Beaver Creek (north of Donald) without those valuables.2 John Taynton, who was also present in the Valley when Hilton was found, remembered things differently, recalling that “no definite trace” of Kemp had been located, although there was later a skull found at the mouth of Deadmans Creek, “supposed to be that of the other man.”3 No official record exists, and the location of Kemp’s body remains unknown.
Hilton was buried near to where his skeleton was found, and the name of the place has consistently been known as Deadmans Creek (not Deadmens Creek) or Murder Creek ever since. The story from an 1889 account from a traveller passing through on his way to McKays (just before Radium) describes it briefly: “As we were about to cross a deep gorge, he [the wagon driver] told us how a white man had been murdered at that spot, and pointed to a pile of logs where he was buried. I told him we preferred such stories when it was not quite so dark, and in a less gloomy part of the road.”4
For the curious, Hilton’s grave was reported in 1924 by Basil G. Hamilton as, “on the crest of the hill at the north side of the road overlooking the creek.”5 I’m not familiar enough with this particular part of the Valley to know where this corresponds to in current directions, or even if remnants of the grave are still there. I can say that the highway today definitely does not follow the same route as the old road did.
As a spoiler right off the top: the murders of Hilton and Kemp were never solved. Initial reaction to news of the event was of outrage that their deaths were not being investigated. In the first newspaper report of the incident that I was able to find, the author speculated that, “It is said there are white men in that country who would kill a man for two dollars and a half… The authorities ought to look into the matter.”6
A few months later and some of the local settlers had done some investigating of their own. A follow up report was published in The Victoria Daily Times with a drawn out story of the men being murdered by a couple of First Nations men before being robbed.7 That story, presented as “fact”, was gathered by unnamed settlers, reportedly from (unnamed) members of the Kootenay First Nations. It was presented to Gold Commissioner Arthur Wellesley Vowell to investigate further. This story is very much sensationalist hearsay and, after investigating, Vowell was unable to come up with sufficient evidence to lay charges.
Still, many settlers were inclined to believe the story and assume the guilt of two Kootenay (Ktunaxa) First Nations men. That same newspaper report recounting the story of Hilton and Kemps’ murders claimed that the safety of the white settlers was paramount, asserting that a “failure of justice” would have a “bad effect upon the Indian mind.” The editor demanded, “that a life for a life is the only safe rule to follow,” and that, “a wholesome fear of British justice is the only deterrent worth anything on the Indian character; and so soon as they lose that they are ready to pillage and murder white men anywhere for a few paltry dollars.”8
In short, according to some of the settlers in British Columbia, including the editor at the Victoria Daily Times, if there was even a chance that the First Nations men were guilty it was thought best to air on the side of deterrence and exert the death penalty. A swift and heavy response was considered necessary to keep the rest of the First Nations people in line, regardless of evidence of actual guilt.
An alternative theory for the murders of Hilton and Kemp was raised, albeit one that got absolutely no press coverage at the time. According again to Edmund T. Johnston, who had met Hilton and Kemp as they passed through going south, Johnston had later encountered a hotel operator in Spokane, Washington, who had a gold watch identical to the one carried by Kemp. Asked where he got the watch, the hotel man replied that it had come from “a fellow known as Long-Eared O–” [the newspaper article does not actually give the name].9
As Johnston later recalled, “there was now little doubt in my mind that this Long-Eared O– was the man who did the murder.” The man had been around Johnston’s Hog Ranch at the time of the incident, and had gone from being down on his luck to “all dolled up, and with money in his pockets.”10
Johnston shared his suspicions with authorities, but the Long-Eared man was never found (a later account of this version of events has the suspect as the “Long-Haired Man).”11 As Gold Commissioner Vowell was unable to find sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of any party, the story many have ended there as another unsolved murder. It did not.
Fast forward two years to the spring of 1887. There had been increasing tensions between white settlers and the Kootenay (Ktunaxa) First Nation, especially over reserves and the allocation of land near present-day Cranbrook. The amount of land permitted to be used by the Ktunaxa was limited and not of very good quality: a problem acknowledged even by Dr Israel Wood Powell, then general superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Province.12
Of more immediate concern to settlers, however, were escalating tensions between Ktunaxa Chief Isadore and Colonel James Baker. Baker had recently bought an acreage on Joseph’s Prairie, called such because the land had been farmed by Chief Isadore’s father, Chief Joseph. The former Chief had passed the farm down to his son.
Although the previous settlers on the land, the Galbraiths, had accepted Isadore’s ownership of it, Colonel Baker did not. Baker wanted Chief Isadore off the land so that it could be worked as a stock ranch. When Baker had it surveyed (likely by Frederick W. Aylmer), Isadore was angry that a newcomer refused to acknowledge his ownership of his father’s farm and pulled up the survey stakes.13
The growing tension between settlers and the Ktunaxa came to a head at the beginning of 1887. On 24 February 1887, just weeks after newspapers reported continued tensions between Chief Isadore and Colonel Baker over the land ownership question, Arthur Vowell (now the head Judge for the Kootenay region) left for Victoria.14 Shortly after Vowell departed, Constable Henry Anderson of Wild Horse Creek went with a group of men (including surveyor Frederick Aylmer) to arrest the two young Kootenay men, Kapla and Young Isadore, who had been suspected two years prior for the murders of Hilton and Kemp.15
Although Constable Anderson had a warrant for arrest issued by Justices of the Peace William Fernie and Michael Phillips, the sudden arrest of the two men for a crime that had already been investigated and laid to rest instantly escalated tensions between settlers and the Ktunaxa.16 In response, a group of Ktunaxa broke the prisoners out of jail and demanded that Constable Anderson and Frederick Aylmer leave the area.17 When Robert Galbraith, Indian Agent at Wild Horse, brought news of the jail break north to Donald, there was a general panic that there would be a larger uprising.18 There were far more Ktunaxa men living in the area at the time than settlers, and that difference in numbers made the settlers nervous.
Rumors flew thick and fast during the next months. It was reported that Chief Isadore had purchased large numbers of rifles and ammunition across the American border the autumn before, or perhaps was going to do so in the near future.19 The Ktunaxa were seen as “treacherous”, and settlers desperately wanted them restored “to their former condition of quietude.”20 Settlers demanded a large force of North West Mounted Police be sent in immediately. It was asserted by settlers that the Ktunaxa were, “at present master of the situation,” and that, “the law must be enforced and the Indians compelled to respect it.”21
There is some slight evidence that not all settlers were happy with the actions of Anderson and Aylmer in arresting Kapla and Young Isadore. In a Letter to the Editor of the Victoria Daily Times in April 1887, the writer complains how, after the Ktunaxa demanded that Aylmer leave the area, Aylmer had fled to Golden where he “pos[ed] before the people… as a much-abused individual… He seems to be possessed with the most inordinate idea of his own importance, and with the aid of twenty-five men is prepared to clean out the whole Kootenay tribe… He seems to be determined to force on trouble with the Indians without any consideration whatever for other people in the district who do not pine quite so much after notoriety and are not so full of military ardour as our honourable friend.”22
In June 1887, a Commission including Indian Commissioner Israel Wood Powell, Assistant Commissioner of the Mounted Police Colonel Lawrence William Herchmer, and Stipendiary Magistrate for Kootenay Judge Vowell, went to Wild Horse to talk with Chief Isadore and representatives of the Ktunaxa people.23 The Commission gave Isadore the opportunity to explain the actions of his men. Isadore recalled previous cases of murder of First Nations people by white men that had gone unpunished, and spoke frankly that many young men of the tribe were angry. He promised to hand over Kapla and Young Isadore for trial when the authorities were prepared to investigate the case. The issue of land reserves was also discussed.24
The settlers were not satisfied with these discussions. Since March there had been demands that the Mounted Police be sent, and from mid-May there were rumours circulating that a police presence would be dispatched to the area as “the residents of the district [were] very anxious to have them brought in.”25 There seems to have been some hesitation on the part of the authorities to take this step, partly as the Provincial and Dominion Governments could not agree about who would pay the cost.26 After much hemming and hawing, an official order was issued on 23 June 1887 for Major Samuel Benfield Steele to proceed to Golden with his Company and await further orders.27
Again, the police were delayed until, in mid-July, shortly after the Commission returned from talking with the Ktunaxa, the Mounted Police troop was ordered south from Golden to Wild Horse.28 The settlers in the area were eager for the police presence as a show of force against the Ktunaxa, while the Ktunaxa were told that the police were there, “to protect their interests.”29 As there had been earlier calls by settlers to send in “at least” 150 mounted police and that they, “ought to come in by Crow’s Nest pass and take the Indians unawares,” the decision to send seventy-five men and inform the Ktunaxa that they were coming might be interpreted as a moderated step.30
The Mounted Police arrived at Wild Horse on 30 July 1887 and, anticipating being there through the winter, settled on a location to build a fort.31 This became Fort Steele, and the North West Mounted Police detachment stayed there through the winter until July 1888.32 A smaller, satellite detachment of Mounted Police was also established at Windermere, where a contingent was stationed through the winter of 1887-1888 in close proximity to the Kootenay (Akisqnuk) Reserve.33
Shortly after the police arrived in Fort Steele the two accused Kootenay men, Kapla and Young Isadore, were handed over to Major Steele, as promised, for an investigation.34 Finding the evidence against the two was insufficient to send them to trial, Steele had them released.35
Reactions to this development were mixed. The Victoria Daily Times determined that the release of the prisoners was, “a miscarriage of justice,”36 while editors at The Daily Colonist, also in Victoria, were more moderated in tone. They acknowledged the lack of evidence against the men, but also pointed out that, “Some strictures have been passed concerning this, as it is said but little doubt of the guilt of the accused parties has been entertained by the residents about Kootenay.”37
Meanwhile, rumours of an Indian uprising floated up the valley to Windermere with reports that the Ktunaxa, “were massacring all the white folk in the country.”38 After further questioning, it was admitted, “that the Indians had not actually risen yet… the two Kootenays had really been arrested and tried, but as they were acquitted, any rescue would have been a work of supererogation [an overreaction].”39
There are few sources detailing what happened to the two Ktunaxa men after their release. Steele later reported that he, “sent them [Kapla and Young Isadore] home with food for the journey,”40 however at least one source suggests differently. William A Baillie-Grohman, in a newspaper report printed shortly after the incident, stated that both Kapla and Young Isadore had fallen ill from “a species of mountain fever [typhoid fever],” which had been making its way through the police camp at the time. According to Baillie-Grohman, one of the men recovered, and the other died within a day or two of being released [Kapla later re-appears in news reports, confirming he survived].41
Steele fails to make any mention of the outbreak of typhoid fever in his memoir. The illness spreads through contaminated food or water, and was likely brought south with his contingent, ravaging the Fort by the end of September.42 By the beginning of November, three members of the force had died, twelve were sick, and eight men had apparently deserted out of fear of the disease.43
This was the first appearance of typhoid fever in the area, and local First Nations had very little or no immunity to such introduced diseases. It would be surprising if those in close contact with the Fort, such as Kapla and Young Isadore who were in custody, went unscathed. I was able to find mention of at least some deaths among the Ktunaxa, confirming that there was some impact, although no confirmation on the fate of Young Isadore (reporting about the Ktunaxa at the time is variable at best, so exact fatality numbers are hard to come by).44
As for the tensions over land ownership, another Commission was sent to the area at the end of September to look into the matter. According to reports, when the Commission arrived Chief Isadore and many of the Ktunaxa had gone south to Idaho to get supplies for the winter. The Commission went on with their business, determining that complaints by the Ktunaxa about the size and quality of the reserve “proved to be in a great measure groundless.” They added less than one thousand acres to the 18,000 acre allotment, “covering some few places that had been improved or used by them” and, satisfied with their conclusions, they left Dr Powell, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Province, to declare their decision to the Ktunaxa once they had returned.45
Chief Isadore was also eventually persuaded to leave his father’s farm, and the city of Cranbrook was later built over it. There was no formal process of negotiation for the land involved: Major Steele, who helped to mediate between Colonel Baker and Chief Isadore, went into meetings with the assumption that the land “had to be restored to Colonel Baker.”46 When further troubles developed between the two, Steele recalled telling Chief Isadore that Colonel Baker was “one of [his] best friends” and that Isadore had to give up the land if there was to be peace in the area.47 As the Ktunaxa are currently in the midst of land reconciliation claims I, for one, am very curious indeed to read the final report about these events.
There is an unsettling undercurrent to the accusations against Kapla and Young Isadore. Arthur Vowell had previously investigated the case and did not find evidence to pursue it, a conclusion later supported by Major Steele. It was only two years after the prospectors’ deaths, when Chief Isadore and the Ktunaxa made it clear that they were unwilling to give up their land and were wanting their reserve expanded, that the old accusation was again brought forward. Even then, it is curious but not surprising that it was only after Vowell left the area that a group of settlers acted in arresting the Ktunaxa men. It is extremely unlikely that Vowell, the Chief Magistrate for the region, condoned the actions of Constable Anderson and the group of men he had helping him.
It is also uncomfortable to read between the lines of the Ktunaxa men’s arrest. The fact that the Ktunaxa demanded that Constable Anderson and Aylmer leave the district suggests to me that the two acted in some way to further provoke the Ktunaxa: such a demand is unlikely if the two men acted in a fair and measured manner. Aylmer’s reaction to events as recounted in the Letter to the Editor in 1887, namely proposing “to clean out the whole Kootenay tribe,” supports the idea that he was in favour of violence against the Ktunaxa.48 It is reasonable to assume that he and Constable Anderson acted violently in some way during the arrest.
So how did we go from a skeleton found in the woods to the creation of Fort Steele? Land ownership had a good part to do with it. White settlement was increasing rapidly at the time, disregarding Ktunaxa land use and ownership. There was already “discontent and resentment” among the Ktunaxa towards settlers because of this, and the actions of white settlers arresting Kapla and Young Isadore only escalated those tensions.49
The Ktunaxa reserve was acknowledged by some authorities as insufficient. Superintendent Powell reported in 1886 that he thought the reserve was inadequate, and following the June 1887 Commission with the Ktunaxa, North West Mounted Police Colonel Herchmer was, “free in his expression of opinion that the Indians have been unfairly treated by the British Columbia authorities. In the first place, the reserve allocated to them was too small, and they refused to accept it, and out of this grew their discontent.”50 That sympathetic view ultimately proved to be a minority opinion.
At the root of the land issue was the settler assumption that all land belonged to them: the Ktunaxa were permitted to use land only with settler permission. They were expected to live quietly out of site and out of the way. The fact that the September 1887 Land Commission was able to conclude that the reserve with satisfactory, without Chief Isadore or the majority of residents even being present, sharply demonstrates the tendency for settlers to make unilateral decisions about what constituted adequate Ktunaxa land use. According to this majority opinion, if the Ktunaxa would only give up their “jealousy about the land,” then there would be no problems.51 Any subsequent problems were seen as being the fault of the Ktunaxa.
When Chief Isadore made it clear he did not want to leave his land another factor came into play: namely, the power of the Ktunaxa in comparison to the settlers. The Kootenay First Nation had far more power in the region at the time than settlers were comfortable to admit, so much so that some settlers likely felt the need to declare their authority. The Ktunaxa men heavily outnumbered settlers and posed an immediate danger if they chose to become one. Settlers both acknowledged this problem and determined a solution. The problem, in their view, was that the Ktunaxa had, “an exaggerated idea of their own power and importance,” and the solution was to make an opposing show of force.52
The arrests of Kapla and Young Isadore, followed by the deployment of a detachment of North West Mounted Police to the area, served to make that demonstration and re-assert settler control, all under the guise of British justice. Both actions were carried out with the weight of the authority of the Province, the Dominion of Canada, and through them the British Empire. If settlers were concerned about the power of the Ktunaxa, they were reassured by the power of the British Empire and a show of military strength. The military power of the NWMP was a tool of intimidation.
For all a group of settlers acted recklessly in arresting the Ktunaxa men and escalating tensions over land ownership, those settlers ultimately benefited from their actions. The Ktunaxa were assured the matters of the reserve had been looked into, even if very little changed, and Chief Isadore was convinced to abandon his father’s land. Settler control over Ktunaxa land solidified. The unexpected outbreak of tyhpoid fever at the Fort and spreading to Ktunaxa in the area was a further devastating distraction to people already coping with so many changes.
It is important to note that historic accounts of these events tend to frame the Ktunaxa as the drivers and instigators of the incident. There is an assumption of guilt in these reports: the assumptions that Kapla and Young Isadore murdered the miners, that the Ktunaxa did not have any right to the land, that the Ktunaxa were subverting justice by breaking the two men out of jail, and that the Ktunaxa were arming up in preparation for an uprising against the settlers. Even later titles describing the incident, from “Indian Unrest” to “When Chief Isadore Ran Riot” suggest that the problem started with the Ktunaxa.53 It’s worth taking the time to acknowledge that this perspective changes how the story is told.
The incident shifts when it is framed as a series of reactions by the Ktunaxa to settler actions. The reserve land the Ktunaxa were ordered to live on was not large enough or of good quality: they needed more land to survive. An investigation into the murders of the miners had already been conducted and closed: the later arrest of two men for those murders was unjust. Chief Isadore had been given a farm by his father: he wanted to keep that land. Settlers were arresting and killing Ktunaxa men without cause or reason: the Ktunaxa did not trust those men to protect them. Perspective makes a difference, and it is very difficult to tell a story such as this one when only the perspective of one side was recorded at the time.
The murders of Kemp and Hilton, the event that started it all, remains unsolved. The official name of the creek, Body Creek, comes as the last in a series of official names for the place. In 1922 the creek reportedly had a different official name (Page Creek), however even at that time E.T. Johnston remarked how, “We used to call that creek “Deadman’s” and “Murder”, but people seem to be getting squeamish about such things and place names.”54 It might be noted that if “Deadman’s Creek” still hasn’t disappeared among the locals a century later, it is unlikely that it ever will.
The British Columbia Geographical Names database suggests that authorities eventually came to at least acknowledge the local name for the place. According to that source, “Body Creek” was eventually adopted, in 1955, “as a way to retain the significance of the original name while avoiding confusion with numerous other “Deadman” features.”55 Although the connection between the name of the creek and the deaths of the prospectors remains, the tie between the incident and the dispatch of the North West Mounted Police to the area is rarely addressed. While the name “Deadmans” persists, memory of the lasting consequences to the Kootenay First Nation has been less enduring.