Local historian uncovers dark secrets

One hundred and fifty years ago, half of B.C.’s indigenous population lost their lives to smallpox in the space of 10 months.

One hundred and fifty years ago, half of B.C.’s indigenous population lost their lives to smallpox in the space of 10 months. Anywhere from 25 to 100,000 indigenous men and women were laid to rest in mass graves, which remain hidden beneath the foundations of B.C. today.

Popular history dismisses this period, citing accident and poor immunity as the cause of the tragedy, while ignoring evidence of its darker roots. For local historian Tom Swanky the epidemic was actively guided by the vision of Victoria’s celebrated founders. It was their greed and political ambition that required control over land occupied by the Tsilhqot’in, Nuxalk, Haida and many other nations. It was their surveying expeditions that deliberately seeded every village that they visited with infected settlers. It was their orders that spread smallpox to the interior.

Not everyone accepted the epidemic as an accident at the time. “For some reason, the Tsilhqot’in discovered what [the surveyors] were doing there,” says Swanky. After the colonial government passed a law allowing any colonist to claim uninhabited land, smallpox was being used to clear that land.

For the Tsilhqot’in people, the Tsilhqot’in War began with the epidemic of 1862. In 1863, their warriors started killing those settlers who were spreading the disease in a conflict that carried on until 1864 when the colonial government decided to meet self-defence with force and treachery.

For the authorities in Victoria, the war was over the same year it began. In the fall of 1864, several Tsilhqot’in leaders were lured to a conference with the promise of negotiating a treaty, only to be hung on the site of one of their own people’s mass graves.

Swanky pieced this narrative together from oral history, newspaper clippings, and scattered scraps of information. “The official narrative,” he says, “is that the smallpox epidemics are a natural disaster, and that the causes of the Tsilhqot’in War are indeterminate and mysterious.”

For Victoria’s founders, James Douglas, John Helmcken, Matthew Begbie, William Tolmie, and Joseph Pemberton, the war on B.C.’s indigenous peoples was over as soon as it began. For the Tsilhqot’in and thousands of others, the struggle to retain control over their homes has never ended.

Tom Swanky will be speaking on the Tsilhqot’in War at UVic’s David Lam auditorium Fri., Nov. 23, 7pm. Suggested donation $10. M

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Tomo Vranjes, a Greater Victoria musician and longtime fan of late rock guitar icon Eddie Van Halen, joins artist Paul Archer behind the latter’s Fort Street gallery. Archer, whose airbrushed paintings of rock greats have made him many connections in recent years, painted a likeness of Van Halen following the guitarist’s death last month from cancer. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Victoria artist’s king-sized tribute to Eddie Van Halen draws on personal connection

Paul Archer had an up close and personal day with the legendary guitarist in 1980

A sample of some of Lou-ann Neel’s jewelry.
Lou-ann Neel wins the Fulmer Award in First Nations Art

Originally from Alert Bay, Neel’s family is steeped in renowned Kwakwaka’wakw artists

I-Hos Gallery manager Ramona Johnson shows some of the paddles available at the retail outlet. Photo by Terry Farrell
I-Hos Gallery celebrates 25 years of promoting First Nation artwork

K’ómoks First Nation-based outlet has art from all over the country

Bard to Broadway Theatre Society may stage shows outdoors next summer. (PQB News photo file)
Qualicum Beach’s Bard to Broadway group may stage shows outdoors

Theatre society plans smaller productions due to ongoing pandemic

A new short film festival called MORVENFEST is encouraging B.C. secondary students to step into the world of film during their Christmas break. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
New film festival gives Victoria students exciting opportunity

MORVENFEST is open to all B.C. secondary students over Christmas break

Port Alberni author Diane Dobson has put together a collection of childhood memories, with proceeds going towards the Ty Watson House. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Port Alberni writer looks through the eyes of a child

Book raises funds for the Alberni Valley Hospice Society

The Old School House Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach has temporarily closed its doors to the public as of Nov.18. (Mandy Moraes photo)
COVID-19: The Old Schoolhouse Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach closes until 2021

TOSH takes proactive approach to ‘protect the well-being of the community’

Edie Daponte and Joey Smith share the stage Saturday at the Sid Williams Theatre. The show is also being livestreamed. Photo supplied
Edie Daponte brings show up-Island

Second World War tribute live and livestreamed in Courtenay and Campbell River

Most Read