Louis Sam's rifle barrelBarrel from the musket of Louie Sam. From the Museum of Vancouver archives.
A musket barrel and a set of old handcuffs are mute evidence of what is said to have happened and not to have happened near Sumas Lake, B.C.
Sources are given at the end of the text.
On the night of the last Wednesday of February 1884, at about ten o’clock, a gang of armed men entered a farmhouse near Sumas Lake in southern B.C., woke the inhabitants at gunpoint and took away with them a teenage boy who was being held in the custody of Thomas York, who owned the farm, and a neighbour who was staying overnight. The two men had been deputized earlier in the day as special constables for the purpose of holding the boy and taking him to the court in New Westminster in the morning.
The boy’s name was Louis Sam; he was fourteen years old, and he was a member of the Sto:lo Nation. The men who came for him had blackened their faces and painted red stripes over their eyes, and their heads were covered in sacking and bits of torn bedsheet. They had their overcoats on inside out, and they were wearing women’s skirts over their trousers. The account that appeared in the Saturday edition of the British Columbian, a newspaper published twice a week in New Westminster, described them as “a body of men, armed and disguised.” Ten of these armed and disguised men went into the York farmhouse. Another eighty or perhaps ninety waited on horseback in the yard. Ann Maria, the wife of Thomas York, testified later that a “mysterious stranger” had slipped into the York farmhouse while the household was asleep and unbolted the door to let the men in.
Louis Sam had been arrested that afternoon by William Campbell, justice of the peace at Matsqui, and charged with the murder of a sixty-four-year-old man named James Bell, in the village of Nooksack, about five miles south of the Canada-U.S. border, on the previous Sunday. William Campbell was acting on the advice of a sheriff from Washington Territory, who, with a man named Robert Brackenridge, had ridden up from Nooksack in pursuit of the boy and accompanied Campbell to the Sumas Reserve to observe the arrest.
When Louis Sam’s abductors dragged him from the York farmhouse that night, he was still wearing the handcuffs that William Campbell had put on his wrists; one of the gang told Thomas York (who was also William Campbell’s father-in-law) that he would have the handcuffs back in the morning. In another account, printed years later, the man is said to have called the handcuffs “bracelets.”
Three days earlier, on Sunday, Louis Sam had gone down to Nooksack to take a job making telegraph poles for a man named William Osterman, but when he got there, Osterman had cancelled the job and told Louis Sam to go home. A short time later, James Bell, who is listed in some genealogies as “Captain Bell,” was shot to death and his house was set on fire. A hue and cry went up for the murderer, who was readily assumed to be Louis Sam, who had been seen in the neighbourhood carrying his musket and who was recalled by at least one witness as a “renegade Indian.”
Louis Sam managed to elude his pursuers with the aid of Sto:lo friends, and to get back over the border to the Sumas Reserve, here he was finally arrested on Wednesday afternoon by William Campbell. At about the same time on Wednesday, the funeral for James Bell was underway in Nooksack; when the funeral was over, the men who would abduct Louis Sam that night went home and painted their faces and changed into clothing borrowed from wives, sisters and girlfriends, and then they rode up the Whatcom Trail and over the border and straight to York’s farm near Sumas Lake. They arrived at about 10:00 p.m. James Bell had been in the ground for less than half a day.
The gang of men disguised in face paint and skirts took Louis Sam back down the Whatcom Trail in the dark and into a clearing in the forest, and one of them rode back up the trail to see if they were being followed “by British Columbia Indians.” When it was clear that they weren’t, someone threw a rope over the branch of a cedar tree and fastened one end to a stump and the other around the boy’s neck. The mob began hooting and jeering and the boy remained silent for a moment (one of the mob, equating silence with a criminal nature, said that he was “dumb as a brute”).
Then Louis Sam turned to one of his captors and said: “I know you, Bill Moultray, and when I get out of this I will get you.” The man he recognized slapped the horse away from under him. And then Bill Moultray and William Osterman and Robert Brackenridge and the huge gang of men surrounding them watched Louis Sam twist and writhe and die slowly at the end of a rope, in the dancing light of bull’s-eye lanterns. It was a clear, cold night and the sky was filled with the distant icy brilliance of the Milky Way; it was very dark. No moon was visible on the night of Wednesday, February 27, 1884, which astronomy tables show to have been a night of the dark moon; nevertheless, many accounts of the lynching of Louis Sam evoke the scene in moonlight, and indeed, we expect hordes of men on horseback to commit their murders in the cold light of the moon.
To imagine it otherwise is not to remember how stories like this one are scripted, and so when the Office of the Governor of Washington State announced in February 2006 that it planned to acknowledge the injustice done to Louis Sam in 1884, the spokesman for the governor (or perhaps the reporter quoting him) referred to the murder of Louis Sam as a “lynching from a tree on a moonlit night.”
The youngest people present at the lynching, other than the victim, were two teenage boys named George Gillies and Pete Harkness. (It was Gillies decades later who applied the epithet “renegade Indian” to the name of Louis Sam.) When Pete Harkness was in his mid-seventies, he described the lynching to a Nooksack historian named P. R. Jeffcott, and he too bathed the scene in the light of the moon: “We heard horses approach in the darkness from the north,” he said, “and soon the posse appeared in the moonlight with the Indian mounted on a pony”; but there could only have been the flickering, stabbing beams of bull’s-eye lanterns cutting through darkness.
Pete Harkness recalled that on the Sunday afternoon when James Bell was murdered and the cry for revenge went out, he had encountered Louis Sam hurrying along the road out of Nooksack, and that the “look on the Indian’s face” had frightened him and caused him to cross over to the other side of the road. The “look on the Indian’s face” had seemed to Pete Harkness, in the story he told sixty years after the incident, to be evidence of Louis Sam’s guilt. Harkness did not seem to remember that Louis Sam had been a boy of fourteen when they had encountered each other on the road out of Nooksack (a fact that no one seemed to remember: the age of Louis Sam is never mentioned in any account of the lynching published before 1996), although Harkness was aware of his own status as a boy at age fifteen: it was “boyish curiosity,” he said, that made him and Gillies trail along behind the lynch mob (always “the posse” in his words) as they rode up to Canada.
There were limits in those days as to what was good for “boys” as opposed to men: according to Pete Harkness, the “posse” ordered them to stay back and not to accompany the gang as they approached the farmhouse, “as they did not want boys mixed up in what they were about to do.”
In the story that Pete Harkness told to the historian, the “posse” had been fearful of Indians but not police; perhaps a fear of Indians would explain the enormous size of the gang of hangmen, which, according to other commentators, would have included nearly every able-bodied man in and around Nooksack, WT. But the story that Pete Harkness told did not include three details well known in Nooksack.
First, his own father, Dave Harkness, had been a leader of the “posse.” Second, Dave Harkness had been living with the estranged wife of the murder victim, James Bell, for nearly a year, and James Bell had been threatening to sue Dave Harkness for alienation of affection (a tort action recognized at that time in the courts). Third, William Osterman, another leader of the lynch mob, the man who had offered Louis Sam a day’s work at Nooksack on the day of the murder, was Dave Harkness’s brother-in-law and close friend.
The story of Louis Sam told by the British Columbian, the New Westminster newspaper, appeared in fragments. The first fragment, a brief report of the murder of James Bell in Nooksack, was printed on Wednesday only hours before the lynching: it named Louis Sam, whose father was “serving out a term of years in the Penitentiary and whose name has been connected with the murder of Melville at Sumas a few years ago,” as the likely murderer, and predicted that if captured, “very short work will be made of him.”
Louis Sam “is a dangerous man whose absence from the community will not be regretted.” The Saturday paper confirmed that the lynching had taken place as predicted, on Wednesday night, on Canadian soil; an editorial observed that “Sam and his relatives were a bad lot and there will be few regrets wasted upon the suddenness of his exit.” The executioners of Louis Sam were characterized not as killers or murderers but as “actors in this tragedy,” a metaphor and a euphemism that neatly subsumes cold-blooded murder under the auspices of fate and destinies foretold.
The story told by the Whatcom Reveille to the citizens of Washington Territory characterized James Bell, the murder victim, as a “peaceable old man without an enemy in the world,” who “served up lunch and meals to any who might apply,” and “being of an eccentric disposition, never kept a firearm in the house.” These were necessary elements of a script written for a lynch party. If “the Indian” is guilty, the editorialist concluded in the Whatcom Reveille, “it would seem almost folly to put the county to unnecessary expense.
A little Seattle justice, such as was administered to the trio of toughs in that city two years ago, might have a very salutary effect in Whatcom County.” And before the final edition of the Whatcom Reveille went to press, the following lines were added: “latest: Sheriff Leckie caught the Indian over the British line, and turned him over to Officer Campbell. A crowd of good citizens took him from guards and hung him last night. No costs.”
On the morning after the lynching, Thomas York, from whom Louis Sam had been taken by the lynch party, sent word to his son-in-law, William Campbell, the justice of the peace; and William Campbell and two Sto:lo men rode down the Whatcom Trail and found the body of Louis Sam hanging in a clearing, about five hundred yards (according to a measurement taken by William Campbell) from the Canada-U.S. border, where it had been left, in the words of Pete Harkness, “as a warning to other potential criminals.” The handcuffs that William Campell had fastened to Louis Sam’s wrists earlier that day were still there.
Within days of the lynching of Louis Sam, Sto:lo warriors from all over the Fraser Valley had begun to gather near Chilliwack along the Fraser River, and were reported to be buying up arms and ammunition and preparing to go to war against the Nooksack settlers. The Indian agent from New Westminster hurried over to Chilliwack in an effort to forestall disaster and discovered that the Sto:lo had made their own investigation of the murder of James Bell in Nooksack, and had determined that William Osterman had shot Bell with a pistol and set the house on fire, shortly after telling Louis Sam that he had no work for him and sending him away.
William Osterman had also been seen galloping away from Bell’s house while it was in flames, and among the tracks left in the trail by Bell’s house were several fresh prints made by an iron-shod horse. Osterman owned the only shod horse in the area. The story that the Sto:lo told of the lynching of Louis Sam also identified William Campbell, justice of the peace, and his father-in-law, Thomas York, as “consenting parties” to the lynching.
As word of the Sto:lo version of events circulated, the British Columbian adopted, for one week at least, a more conciliatory posture (possibly induced by “diplomatic” pressure from the government): “an innocent man may have been rashly sent beyond the realms of recall while the guilty criminal is enjoying the profits of his well laid plans . . . Although only an Indian, Louis Sam had a life as precious to him as any of our lives are to us, and he was just as much entitled to the protection of the law.” But the details of the Sto:lo version were discounted in an editorial on March 15, 1884, as “an improbable story, and we are inclined to doubt it.”
The alternative version of the murder of James Bell was never discussed in public again until 1996, when “The Lynching of Louis Sam,” an article by Professor Keith Thor Carlson, appeared in B.C. Studies, an academic journal published at the University of British Columbia. Carlson’s research was carried out with the encouragement of Sto:lo elders and became the basis for a movie made in 2005: The Lynching of Louis Sam, directed by David McIlwraith and produced in Vancouver. The movie prompted the negotiations that resulted in a resolution “acknowledging this unfortunate historical injustice,” passed in the Washington State Legislature by House and Senate in 2006.
Governments, too, need to find stories to tell. The story told to the Sto:lo warriors was that the Queen was proceeding against the perpetrators (John A. Macdonald, prime minister of Canada, is quoted by Thor Carlson as saying that the Americans “would much regret” a request to take action against the lynch mob). The provincial police force dispatched two undercover agents named Clark and Russell to Nooksack to try to identify members of the lynch mob. They were themselves quickly identified as police agents (how does one go incognito into a frontier village?), but were able nonetheless to confirm the Sto:lo version of the murder of James Bell and to name several of the murderers of Louis Sam, who spoke openly of their actions.
One of them, Robert Brackenridge, who had accompanied the sheriff in pursuit of Louis Sam and then returned to Canada at the head of the lynch mob, said to Agent Clark, “I would kill a Chinaman as quick as I would an Indian, and I would kill an Indian as quick as I would a dog.” Mrs. Robert Brackenridge supplied Agent Clark with details of motive and circumstance supporting the likelihood that William Osterman had killed James Bell.
Agent Clark was finally warned out of town by Annette Bell, widow of the murdered James Bell and lover of Dave Harkness, who told Clark he was in danger of catching an “incurable throat disease.” Before returning to Canada, Agent Clark learned that James Bell’s estate would be shared out between Annette Bell, Dave Harkness and William Osterman.
The other undercover man, Agent Russell, acting on rumours picked up in conversation with “Bonty Judson and Mrs. Akerman of Nooksack,” learned that Thomas York, the special constable who had had custody of Louis Sam, and who may have played a part in the lynching, had taken the steamship to Seattle and was lying low with his wife, out of reach of Sto:lo warriors and Canadian government agents. According to Agent Clark’s report, he trailed York to Seattle and followed him around for a couple of days with the intention of getting him drunk so that he could “work him,” but never found the opportunity to do so.
The question that Agent Russell might have asked Thomas York, had he found the opportunity to “work him” in Seattle, is the question that haunts the story of the abduction and lynching of Louis Sam: what happened in the York family home after the invasion by a gang of armed men wearing women’s skirts who then abducted Louis Sam? Thomas York was seventy-four years old, and his wife Ann Maria was sixty. Did they just call it a night and go back to bed?
The record is silent. Not until morning was word of the lynching sent to William Campbell, justice of the peace and son-in-law of Thomas York. Why had no protest been raised in the wake of the mob? The Yorks were perhaps the best-known settler family in the Sumas valley, celebrated for having given the province its first white baby, a boy they named Fraser in honour of the Fraser River, at Yale in 1858 during the Gold Rush. In 1876, Fraser York had been granted 140 acres of fine Sumas farmland in recognition of his elevated or magical status as first white baby.
At the time of the lynching he was twenty-six years old and had been living with his wife Josephine, a schoolteacher, for three years at Sumas. No account of the lynching mentions Fraser York, son of Thomas York and Ann Maria. Can we be allowed to wonder whether the “mysterious stranger” who opened the door to the mob was no stranger at all, but a member of the family? Another narrative might even suggest that the Thomas York who fled to Seattle was not the old man of seventy-four but Fraser York, whose first name was Thomas and who was twenty-six, and perhaps a more likely candidate for reprisal than his father—that is, if he had had anything to do with the abduction of Louis Sam.
The story of the bad Indian faded from public (that is, white, settler) memory in the decades after 1884, but persisted in personal memory. While Keith Carlson was researching the article he published in 1996, he was encouraged by Sto:lo elders wishing to put an end to a wave of teenage suicides (by hanging) on Sto:lo reserves, which they linked to the memory of Louis Sam. Clarence Pennier, grand chief of the Sto:lo, made it clear at the ceremony at the Washington State Legislature that the Sto:lo have never forgotten Louis Sam’s death.
In 1932, when Fraser York, celebrated first white baby of the province, was seventy-four years old, he told his version of the story of the bad Indian to the editor of the Sumas Times for an article titled “First White Man Born in B.C. Recalls Past.” He did not mention that his father Thomas had had custody of Louis Sam the night he was taken and lynched, nor that William Campbell, who had married Fraser’s sister Phoebe, was the justice of the peace who had arrested Louis Sam.
“Some of the Indians were pretty bad,” Fraser York said. “One of them was lynched where my farm is now located. I saved the barrel of the gun that the native, Louis Sam, used in shooting Mr. Bell at Nooksack with. The firearm was badly battered by one of the lynchers who had banged it over the tree.” This detail is uncorroborated by other stories of that night, but the gun barrel itself, like a piece of the cross, lends an aura of “authenticity” to the story that Fraser York wanted to put on the record.
The editor of the Sumas Times was careful to state that “the story related by Mr. York is authentic from every viewpoint,” although he doesn’t state why he feels the need to make such a statement. Did no one ever ask Fraser York what he was doing on that Wednesday night in 1884, while his parents were recovering from the trauma of what today would be called a home invasion? Or had there been no trauma? In June 1945, three years after the death of Fraser York, his wife Josephine York, aged eighty-six, offered her reminiscences to Major Matthews, the Vancouver city archivist, who, accompanied by his wife, travelled on the electric railway out to Huntingdon, where Mrs. York still lived on the Canadian side of the Sumas border crossing, on a Sunday afternoon.
The York residence, he wrote in a memorandum of the interview, was “hidden beneath huge acacia trees looking very pretty in their white flowers and beneath a bower or two of roses red.” Mrs. York, whose memory, Matthews noted, was “astonishing,” remembered that Louis Sam had been a boy and not a man: “They lynched a boy,” she said, “a boy or youth who went over to Nooksack in the United States and shot a man.” She told the story of the lynch mob and “old Mr. York,” her father-in-law, who, she said, refused to hand over the boy, “but the gang of Americans broke in the door and took Louis Sam out and went towards the boundary and strung Louis Sam up to a tree: they lynched him.”
She related the story of William Campbell finding the body and did not mention that William Campbell was married at the time to her husband’s sister Phoebe. She produced the gun barrel described by her husband fifteen years earlier to the editor of the Sumas Times: “This is the gun he used; rather, the barrel of the gun.” She said it had been found several years after the lynching (which, she confirmed, had taken place on their land) while her husband was clearing “a little spot to build the customs office on” (Fraser York worked as a customs official at Sumas for twenty-three years, from 1892 to 1915).
Major Matthews did not ask what might have led her and her husband to conclude that the gun barrel had once belonged to Louis Sam. Josephine Fraser handed the gun barrel over to Matthews for the archives, along with another “old relic,” an apothecary’s bowl that had belonged to “Doctor Fifer,” she said, “who was shot by a man named Bill Adams.”
The story of Louis Sam the bad Indian, as developed in the pages of the British Columbian, was the story that “became history,” the story that “got remembered” in one form or another. It was always a narrative shaped by theatrical conventions of destiny and fate: its protagonists are “actors in a tragedy”; at the end, the audience goes home to bed. In the world of the Sto:lo, the story of Louis Sam is still evolving. It is not a story of a bad Indian, and it is not a theatrical performance: it will have no final act.
The world that celebrates “first white babies” is nearly as widely separated from the world of the Sto:lo today as it was 122 years ago. On the day that Louis Sam died, the lead story in the British Columbian was an encomium to General “Chinese” Gordon, hero of the British Empire, who was embattled in Khartoum in the Sudan; it compared him to Christopher Columbus, Oliver Cromwell, Stonewall Jackson and Jesus Christ. (The Middle East, then as now, provided “real” news to a complacent citizenry.) At home, signs of an early spring occupied much of the Wednesday edition: Doctor Trew, “Surgeon to the Penitentiary,” had been seen wearing “a fragrant button-hole bouquet gathered from his garden”; Captain Peele “reports the thermometer at 58 degrees in the shade.”
The Saturday edition containing the report of Louis Sam’s last comments is devoted largely to “The History of A Raindrop” by Professor Osborne Reynolds, excerpted from Cassell’s Cyclopedia, and a lurid tale of body snatchers purveying corpses to the Ohio Medical College at Cincinnatti for $15 each. Events such as war, struggle, murder and scandal are emanations from a distance; other worlds nearer home are barely to be glimpsed. The only “story” to take notice of First Nations people (or Chinese people) in the British Columbian in the week of the lynching is a court notice that reads, in full: “Harry, an Indian, has been sent up to the chaingang 11 months and 21 days for larceny; Johnny, a halfbreed, got 9 mos for a similar offense; Swift, a gentleman of colour, got 4 months for supplying liquor to Indians; and a drunk and disorderly native got 1 month.
Two Chinese cases were remanded.” John Robson, publisher of the British Columbian, admired for his agitation against the Chinese and for his success in reducing reservation lands set aside for First Nations, became premier of the Province of British Columbia three years after the death of Louis Sam. In Washington State in 1891, five years after the lynching, Bill Moultray, the man recognized by Louis Sam in his last moments despite the blackened face, the red stripe painted over his eyes, the sacking on his head and the skirt over his trousers, the man who slapped Louis Sam’s horse out from under him, was elected to the first House of Representatives, and a year later he was a senator.
One morning in Vancouver in August 1945, a Mr. Charles O’Donal, retired magistrate and justice of the peace from Matsqui, visited Major Matthews, the Vancouver city archivist who had received the gift of the gun barrel from Josephine York. As Major Matthews noted in his memorandum of the meeting, Mr. O’Donal “very kindly brought with him a pair of very old handcuffs.”
O’Donal was the son-in-law of Phoebe Campbell, who was the sister of Fraser York and the widow of William Campbell, the justice of the peace who had arrested Louis Sam, “the bad Indian at Upper Sumas,” as Major Matthews wrote in his memorandum; and the handcuffs had been hanging on the wall in Phoebe Campbell’s living room since their removal from the lifeless body of Louis Sam in 1884.
When Phoebe Campbell left the house to be rented out, O’Donal said, “I simply annexed the handcuffs, and took them home, and have kept them ever since to this day, and now I give them to the City Archives.” The closing paragraph of Matthews’s memorandum contains a statement by O’Donal that seems to be offered as an afterthought, or possibly as a response to a question asked by Matthews and not recorded: “There is no blood relationship between the Campbells and the Yorks of Upper Sumas; they were simply early neighbours.”
The musket barrel that may or may not have belonged to Louis Sam resides now in the Vancouver Museum, bearing a label inscribed in the hand of Major Matthews: “Lynching at Sumas 1884 / The Culprit Indian’s Rifle / Presented by Mrs. Thomas Fraser York.” The handcuffs are there, too: “Handcuffs used by W. Campbell of Upper Sumas at the time of the lynching (only case of lynching in Canada) of Louie Sam, the Indian.”
The stories told here have been patched together from “sources” that make up what is called “the record,” the microfiche, the microfilm, the local histories, footnotes, genealogies and archival memoranda, all of which say much (and withhold much) about the extended families of the “actors in this tragedy,” but say nothing at all about the extended families of Louis Sam and his relatives (who, under threat of further violence from Nooksack, abandoned their homes forever), nothing of the elders and the warriors who faced the Indian agent, of the Sto:lo witnesses who knew within hours what had happened to James Bell of Nooksack.
Nor does “the record” speak of the teenagers lost to suicide on Sto:lo reserves. A few facts gleaned from chronologies offer a glimpse of narratives almost wholly obscured from view: later in 1884, the year of Louis Sam’s death, the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremony; soon it would limit the Native fishery and put an end to the Aboriginal economy. One year later, in 1885, the CPR reached the west coast and a flood of settlers began flowing into the province; the Canadian government imposed the first head tax on Chinese immigrants.
In 1891, seven years after the death of Louis Sam, the non-Aboriginal population of British Columbia for the first time exceeded the Aboriginal population.
A Note on Sources
Many important details and a summary of events can be found in “The Lynching of Louie Sam,” an article written by Keith Carlson and published in B.C. Studies No 109 (Spring 1996). The B.C. Archives (as referenced in footnotes to Carlson’s article) contain the Coronor’s Court records and records of the investigating detectives. Relevant issues of the British Columbian are collected in microfilm at the Vancouver Public Library.
The stories of Pete Harkness and George Gillies are collected in Nooksack Tales and Trails by J. R. Prescott, published in Ferndale, Washington, in 1949. Relevant issues of the Whatcom Reveille are available online for a fee; the issue of March 12, 1884 is excerpted in the British Columbian of March 15, 1884. Information on Fraser York and his parents Thomas and Maria can be found online in the B.C. Archives.
The interview with Fraser York was published in The Deming Prospector, July 15, 1932, and is available online through the Whatcom County, Washington, GenWeb project. Major Matthews’s memoranda of conversations with Charles Odonal, who donated the handcuffs, and with Mrs. Thomas York Fraser, who donated the musket barrel, are part of MS 54 in the Matthews collection at the Vancouver Archives. The musket barrel and the handcuffs are in the collection of the Vancouver Museum. Various biographical details were gleaned from online genealogies.