Au Pays de l’Ours Noir: Part 1

Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir

Dispatches of a Missionary 1897, by Father

Adrien Gabriel Morice




Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan


Dispatches from a French Missionary, Father Adrien Gabriel Morice to his former parish in France to ask for support in his work among the First Nations in British Columbia.

He wrote in 1897 about his travels and work in British Columbia from 1880-1897

Au Pays de l’Ours Noir



A beggar, though not in rags, has come and dares to stretch out his hand to you dear Reader. In buying for yourself these “Dispatches of a Missionary” you achieve a double object: you acquire a book which can do you no harm, and we cannot say the same of everything that is printed today. And what is more you contribute to the instruction of the poor Children of the Woods and their continuance on  the path to goodness.

In spite of the multiplicity of good works, I dare say there is enough charity in our dear France that perhaps some will wish to go even further than these indirect means of helping a missionary who is rich only in goodwill. To these charitable souls I will say that until next April, at which time I return to my distant mission, my address will be: N.-B. de Pontmain, par Landivy, Mayenne. To give to the poor Natives through their Pastor, is to lend to God who will repay a hundredfold.

As for the pages which follow, they hardly have need of any introduction. They have no literary pretension. But what they may lack in elegance is compensated by a quality just as sound: I mean their scrupulous veracity. There are no stories for effect, exaggerated situations, unlikely adventures. In the life of the missionary in North America there is quite enough action; there is no need to spice up the action to avoid monotony. Dangers are forever his lot. In a country where the thermometer goes down to -47 degrees centigrade, this extreme cold results in long sleepless nights. One is sometimes five months without communications with the civilized world. Privations are always the order of the day.

I have wished above all to give, without exaggeration or reticence, a fair idea of our mission, of our travels and of the ineffable goodness of Divine Providence towards this envoy living with a tribe which until yesterday existed in mortal darkness. Writing on such a theme should interest a Christian heart, it seems to me. The Reader will say if I am wrong.

  The Chilcotins (Noenhai-Toeni) “the Men of down here” or simply Toeni (the Men) from west of the Rocky Mountains, the most southerly branch of the great family of Aborigines to which I have given elsewhere the name Dene. Their language betrays a common origin with this family: no one the least conversant with ethnographic and philological studies could doubt it for a moment. These Natives owe their distinct name to the river Chilco, whose valley they inhabit: the Whites call the river Chilcotin. This River rises at latitude 53 degrees north and flows between 124 and 125 degrees of longitude west, first south-east for a hundred miles, then curves to the east and almost in a straight line flows with force into the Fraser River after a course of about 250 miles.

But the Chilcotin territory is far from being confined to the narrow limits of the valley. As they are still nomads for the most part (or were 14 years ago), one can regard the immense forests or prairie-plateaus which extend from 50 degrees to 52 degrees 30 minutes of latitude north as their hunting and fishing territories. To east and west their territory is bounded  respectively by the Fraser and the Cascade chain of mountains.

In this immense extent of land wander the handful of Natives called the Chilcotins. Once numerous enough but decimated by continual wars with other tribes and above all by smallpox on the arrival of the Whites, the Chilcotins, properly called, hardly number more than five hundred today. They are divided into four or five bands having each at its head a chief whose authority is more or less effective. If we add to these bands two other camps or villages situated close to the 53rd parallel whose population is composed mainly of Carriers, a separate but related tribe with which we will make acquaintance later, we will have an exact idea of the extent of the first parish assigned to me so confidently by my Superiors.

My predecessors at the mission on Williams Lake, which includes this territory and the surrounding country in its marches, had not yet been able to attend to the Chilcotin people: to do all is impossible. Therefore while wherever the Priest has been nearly everyone is Christian and passably instructed, there was as yet no one baptized among the Chilcotin except those baptized in infancy or in the article of death and their ignorance of the verities of the faith were such as to justify fully what Monsieur d’Hebomez wrote in trusting them to me: “You will find it a hard row to hoe.”

Moreover these Aboriginals have always enjoyed and still enjoy an unenviable reputation among Natives and Whites. It must be avowed that their recent history is far from edifying. I would not wish to speak ill of my former flock, but since I have started to speak of them I owe the Reader the truth: I will tell it as it is.

Numerous are those among them who have shed the blood of their kind. I cannot go into personal details: let me say only, that their great chief Anarem can boast, or accuse himself of having directly or indirectly caused the death of three Chilcotins.

The Carriers still remember one of their village whose inhabitants were almost all massacred in one night by the Chilcotins.

In 1863 when the gold mines of the Cariboo attracted so many strangers into the colony, a party of Whites opened a trail or path between the sea (Butte Inlet) and Fort Alexander. The Chilcotins fell on them because they thought the Whites had come to take possession of their country, or as some said, to avenge the liberties they had taken with their women. Of twenty four men who composed the party of Whites they massacred twenty one. The government of the Colony was obliged to organize a very costly military expedition against the murderers and after a long search with blood spilled on both sides, it managed to get hold of the instigators of the massacre and hand them over to justice which sentenced them to hang in their own Country to serve as an example.

About twelve years ago an Irishman who was established in their neighbourhood had to give way to their death threats and abandon what he and sweated to gain. He settled where he is today, in a part of the forest cleared out some time ago by the present Governor of British Columbia. This settler had  reasons enough and more for quitting as fast as he could: he could remember the fate of others, more valiant than discrete who had been done in before him. He could form an idea of what was reserved for him if he had not bowed before the whirlwind.

But there is no need to go back so far in their annals to find indisputable proof of their spirit of independence. Only a few days after the first visit that I made to them, two Natives finding themselves at the mouth of the Chilcotin River went into a mean looking cabin where two Chinese men lived. They (the Natives) ate what was offered them: then because the Chinese refused to put them up for the night on the grounds of the smallness of their lodging, my Chilcotins seized their rifles and without further ceremony, fired two shots at their hosts which stretched them dead at their feet.

Then, not content with this exploit, they ran through the country seizing and pillaging from the homes of the Whites whatever fell into their hands. It is said that they even planned to cut the throat of all the Whites, which certainly would not have been difficult for them. But the Whites, moved to action by the threatening danger, made up their own defense force and even before the arrival of the regular police were able, with the help of other better disposed Indians, to take one of the murderers by surprise. Nearly two months of search and pursuit by twenty men were needed before they were able to get their hands on the second murderer.

They were taken to Clinton for trial, and one of them called Taratsilsinat, being subjected to the usual questioning for such an occasion cried out impatiently, “Why all these questions? I have told you and I say it again: it is I who killed the Chinese man. My Father died by the rope and by the rope I wish to die.”

He was the son of one of the principal conspirators of the massacre of 1863. Since that time, the brothers of the prisoners, no doubt to perpetuate the family traditions, have deserved by their depredations among the Whites to get themselves arrested for their turn. One of the two murderers revealed in the course of this interrogation the name of another Chilcotin who in 1880 killed a White Man with his wife and two children and then burned them with everything they possessed.

So you see our Natives were far from being saints, and just as my Bishop had made clear to me, I needed a good dose of patience and good will to try to make them good Christians. It would be to go too far however, to apply the axiom: Ab uno disce omnes. It would be an injustice to believe them all thieves and assassins, and the good Lord has already had His elect among them as everywhere else.


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