Governor George Simpson’s report April 22, 1824 gives his version of the reason for the closing of Fort St. John:
“Mr. D. Finlayson, one of the finest and most promising young gentlemen in the Service has by the last Accounts from Peace River, been mortally wounded by the accidental discharge of a Spring Gun … Also that of one of our clerks at Dunvegan has been wounded by an Indian [who] was immediately put to Death by the people of the Establishment. This last affair I think calls for particular investigation. If it is found that the Indian was to blame I think it will be a favorable opportunity of giving Peace River a few years respite by withdrawing the Establishments. [This] will be attended with important benefits to the concern and effectually punish the Beaver Indians for their late atrocities.” (Referring to the killing of Guy Hughes.)
This writer has seen in Peace River Chronicles a bit of gossip to the effect that Samuel Black, a violent, former Nor’Wester, had stolen the Beaver Chief’s wife. The Beaver women were jealously guarded by their husbands, while the women scorned men of other tribes and white men too. Black is said to have made a get-away up river. It was assumed by some that the Indians, seeing Guy Hughes at the post, supposed that it was he who offended the Chief. They took a vengeance that many white men have taken under similar circumstances. In any case, Guy Hughes was buried at Dunvegan, and the headquarters at Fort Chipewyan was notified. A force was sent out to capture and punish the Indians, but somewhere along the route to Fort St. John, the pursuers were recalled. Nothing further was done until Simpson, the new Hudson’s Bay Governor, mentioned the incident in connection with two others as an excuse to close Fort St. John and Dunvegan. One can be sure that the region had already been trapped out. If it were not, such small considerations as a few acts of violence would not have prevented the money-hungry fur company or its Governor from keeping the trading post going.
The Beavers were not warlike. “Spilling blood on the ground” was less honourable in their thinking than effecting a “coup” (French voyageur’s word) – that is, causing the humiliation of their enemies. J.G. MacGregor gives this account of the “coup” in his book, The Land of Twelve Foot Davis:
The Cree sent the largest invasion force of all time but runners from the east and south had warned the Beavers. For once, all the bands along the Peace were called to repel the invaders, who now had guns, which the Beavers lacked. As fine a piece of strategy as anyone could devise wiped out an army, with almost no causalities on the defenders’ side. The encounter, which was no “fight”, occurred near a stream now known as Battle River not far from Notkiwin, Alberta.
“When the Crees struck, every thicket on the North side of the Battle River was alive with Beavers. The dry grass concealed hundreds of painted, vigilant warriors.
…Between the opposing armies flowed the Battle River sweeping around in rounded, indolent bends. Most of the Cree force was hidden in a peninsula formed by horseback bend in the river. Over all the sun shone on the Battle River prairie, glowing in all the golds, reds and yellows of autumn. The painted leaves rustled in the brisk wind…as it bent and swayed dry grasses.”
“Hidden by a bend in the river, a group of Beavers swam across carrying only their tomahawks and their flints and steels. Quickly they ran up the bank and hid in the sheltering grasses. They gathered handfuls of grass which they placed carefully beside them. Then one of them struck a spark…in an instant the grass flared up. They snatched up the clumps of gathered grass, ignited them and ran, spreading the fire along a wide front…In an hour the remnant of the invading host was in full retreat south.”
The story has entered into the folklore of the Cree now living in the area who told researcher, Richard Belcourt, of a further event in the massacre. Twelve women and girls who had accompanied their men tried to escape across the river. Forming a human chain, they waded out from the shore but the whirlpool swept the leader off her feet. One by one the rest were carried away, although those nearer shore hung on to their comrades, but only a remnant. The rest lay charred and black where they had choked in the dense smoke. In 1782 the Crees got another of the white man’s imports – smallpox. They died in entire families. Now the Beavers were more numerous than the Cree. They could dictate terms. Both parties came together at Peace Point about fifty miles upstream from the mouth of the Peace River, and concluded a truce or “peace treaty”. The Beaver word for peace is ‘unchagah’ or ‘unjigah’. The great river thereafter was known to them by that name. Previously it had been TSADES meaning “the Rivers of the Beavers”.
J.G. MacGregor, again in The Land of Twelve Foot Davis, describes the next incident in 1898, nearly one hundred years later. In this case the action of the Beavers was generally approved except by the American Klondikers who carried over into Canada the belief that “the only good Indian was a dead one” practiced in the American “wild west” To MacGregor’s account should be added other atrocities by the white men. By 1898 the buffalo were gone; forest fires had killed or driven out moose and deer and the Indian were living largely on bear meat.
Pits dug to trap the bears had caught a number of Klondiker’s horses. The Klondikers sent scouts out ahead to destroy the bear traps, thus depriving the Indians of food to dry for winter, and the grease they needed for energy, since they had almost no carbohydrate food.
The Klondikers were notoriously hard on their own horses, which died off in great numbers. For their pack trains the Klondikers simply took Indian horses which the Indians counted as their wealth. Furthermore, the Indians had several spots where there was plenty of grass for pasture. One was at Dawson Creek’s present site, where there was also a large salt lick that can still be seen in a white-encrusted slough just west of town on the Alaska Highway. Here and up the Halfway River the Indians made their winter camps. The Klondikers burned the pasture leaving no feed for the Indians’ chief pride and only method of getting around. In other words the Klondikers were “asking for trouble”.
In frustration and justifiable anger, the Beaver waited until a party of Klondikers had hauled their wagons up a high bank on the Peace River near Fort St John. Then, the Beaver pushed all the wagons and their contents over the edge, greatly enjoying the effect as the vehicles bounced, turned over and disintegrated.