‘The Napoleon Thomas’ “case history” is a voluminous file, referring to the NE 1/4 of Section 25 Township 78, Range 16.
At the date of the first record in July 1914, Napoleon Thomas was “squatting” on the above-named land. The B.C. portion of the Peace was under Dominion of Canada Jurisdiction (The “Peace River Block”,) and Federal law applied to land ownership. Under that law a person who had established residence on a piece of land that had not been surveyed, and had done some improvements had firstclaim when the land was surveyed and “thrown open for application,” – a prior right to “file a claim.” If he failed to submit a claim within a specified time, anybody could do so, and dispossess the “squatter”, as if it were virgin land. In July, 1914, Napoleon Thomas’s statutory declaration was filed, signed with his mark, and accompanied by a memo detailing improvements as 4 acres broken to the plow in 1911. As later memos show, Thomas had resided there since 1891. In 1897 Inspector A. E. Snyder, NWMP, summoned him to Fort St. John. At this time Thomas was carrying on a profitable fur trapping and guiding business and had won fame as “the best hunter” in the district as far as least as Fort St. John. Thomas was “an old timer” in the country in 1914. He was also carrying on a considerable ranching operation, – horses, and some good black cattle. In November 1915, the Department of the Interior sent him a letter giving him six months from December 22 in which to apply for a homestead or the land would be made available to other applicants. On July 4, 1916, a letter advises him that the land was now available to others. Thomas did not apply at once, but an additional sixty days was granted when, as it appears, a returned soldier, G. Wilford had attempted to file an entry on it. Sub-agent Fletcher seems to have done his best to hold it for Thomas by granting extension of time. Someone tried to cancel Thomas’s rights during this period of grace July 31, 1916. The application for a homestead was filed showing “Napoleon Tomas” (later spelled Thomas locally) to be sixty-years old, born in Alberta in 1850. By occupation he was a farmer and head of a family of twenty-two members, with the surname spelled “Thomas”. The family comprised four boys between twelve years of age and eighteen, ten women aged twenty to thirty-eight, three teenage girls and four children under twelve. On August 18, someone had evidently tried to cancel Thomas’s application during the sixty days of grace, for Joshua Fletcher, sub-land agent at Pouce Coupe, wrote the Department referring to an application for “canceling the proceedings against the later application of July 31.”
There follows a series of dull letters during September and October between members of the civil service who reached the decision that the above mentioned cancellation proceedings had never been started, because Thomas had indeed filed an entry, in time. So, too, had a returned soldier, George Wilford, on the very same day as Thomas, July 31. Had some of Thomas’ friends, perhaps the police gotten wind of Wilford’s intention and rushed Thomas to Pouce Coupe? The Thomas’s were well liked by the other settlers according to Mr. O. Bentley, who lived near them.
A period of three years now passes and the correspondence resumes on November 3, 1919. In the intervening three years Thomas should have erected a house, lived there for six months each year and broken thirty acres of land. That is what the rules demanded. Actually, he was ranching, raising horses and cattle. A Mr. J. MacDiarmid had informed the Department that there were no improvements, and that Thomas had merely lived on the land in a tent for six weeks to hold the land against cancellation. MacDiarmid complained that “this policy of obstruction is quite common here on the part of persons who have no apparent intentions of doing the required homestead duties.” MacDiarmid inquired when he might cancel Thomas’s application.
In the fall of 1919, Thomas’s house burnt down. In December 1919, The Dept. of the Interior instructed the Land Agent at Grande Prairie to have a homestead inspector investigate and report. As it happened, on November 18, 1919 the Grande Prairie Land Agent had “passed the buck” to J. Fletcher, sub-land agent at Pouce Coupe, asking that he report on the nature of the land.
A month later on December 22 the Department of the Interior wrote Fletcher again asking for the same thing. On February 23, 1920 George Wilford wrote asking what had happened to the cancellation proceeding he had initiated six months earlier. On March 23, he was informed that the Department was still waiting for the Land inspector’s report, which had, as it happened, been filed March 18.
On March 18 Fletcher had advised that nobody was resident at the time of inspection but it had been Thomas’s home since date of entry, July 31, 1916, except when Thomas was away trapping in the winter. There was a log house worth $150.00 but no other buildings. The soil was loam, subsoil clay. A hundred acres were fit for cultivation, there was no timber and no hay land, and 20 acres were in a lake. Sixty acres were too low and wet for grain. Inspector Fletcher showed compassion toward the native, saying that, “Napoleon Thomas is an ‘old’ Indian and he performs his residence in a manner very common to Indians [of his generation]”.
Fletcher recommended that Thomas be allowed to keep the land. If he could not, Fletcher worried that he will be “a charge to the public and a burden to himself”. At this time Thomas would be about seventy years old. Fletcher must have read Thomas’s character very well, and with sympathy, for Napoleon was known to be honest, proud, self-sufficient and highly respected by “non-natives”. Being “a charge to the public purse” would have humiliated him.
Fletcher had inspected the land to ascertain the acreage broken to the plow, but “could not ascertain the amount due to extreme depth of snow”.
During the early months of 1920 there were continued inquiries about cancellation procedures. Evidently someone was out to get this quarter of land. The conduct of the Land Inspector, and whoever was helping the old man through the legal tangles (probably the Government Agent) cannot be interpreted as unfair to the native, for their patience is shown to be extreme in his favor.
In any case, we find:
June 22, 1920.
A telegram from Napoleon Tomas to the Dept. of the Interior telling them that he filed entry on the land “a year ago”, he was lived there for 29 years and is currently in residence.” This shows that Thomas was indeed living on this piece of land since 1891.
During the later summer of 1920 there is more letter exchange with the Dept. of the Interior to ascertain whether or not Tomas is performing his duties.
November 11, 1920. The land inspector from Grande Prairie, Lance Smith, had visited and submitted a little different opinion from Fletcher’s. Five acres, he said were broken, eighty were fit for cultivation, and eighty were fit for pasture.
Another exchange of letters took place because half of Smith’s report had disappeared. Three weeks later the missing half of Smith’s report had reappeared and, like Fletcher’s earlier report, it showed that fifteen acres had been broken but was not cleared of roots and fallen timber. Also the house had burned down. The Land Department therefore could not “give Thomas a patent [document of ownership].”
January 4, More letters, inquiring how much more land would have to be broken before a patent would be given. January 19, 1921, Lance Smith replied that five more acres would suffice.
In the meantime Napoleon Thomas had died. His son John Thomas reported later that his father had willed his land to Jack, then known as Johnny Napoleon.
February 14, 1921. The Department of the Interior at Ottawa wrote that enough land had by then been broken, but a new regulation had now to be met. “The land had to be cropped before we give patent to his heirs.”
Then followed more letters to find out who was in charge of family affairs. This completely ignored a form letter, which Napoleon Thomas had signed when he applied for entry in 1919 naming his son John as the person to deal with.
June 24, 1921. The Pouce Coupe land agent wrote to say that Napoleon’s son would crop the land.
At this point, R. D. [Robert Drysdale] Moore (known locally as “Dinty” Moore) enters the picture as “Government Agent”. As such, he was the public administrator of estates and head of just about every other legal and social service in the Block. Not being a municipality with any degree of self-government such as the prairies had, the government office became a more or less benevolent dictatorship. For the rural parts of the Peace River Country the government office still takes the place that municipal councils do the Prairie Provinces. Naturally the on-going legal hassle fell into Moore’s hands.
Dec. 9, 1921. “Patent” was applied for.
June 21, 1922. Six months later the application for patent was examined and found to be OK.
Then a number of letters passed back and forth concerning a timber permit which had been issued to Napoleon Thomas, and was now being cancelled. Also a letter to the Grande Prairie agent suggesting that he is now authorized to “abandon the cancellation proceedings”. These were evidently those initiated by J. MacDiarmid in November 1919. MacDiarmid seems to have waited three years for a reply!
July 6, 1922. A copy of the “Land Grant” was sent to Moore to fill in some information. Now followed a number of letters asking for a “draft of the patent”.
Sept. 11, 1922. Patent was granted to R. D. Moore, administrator for the Estate of the late Napoleon Thomas (Tomas).
It had taken Thomas from July 1914 to September 1922 to complete the transaction, a period of more than eight years to “prove up on a homestead” which was supposed to be a three-year affair.
According to the will, the land was now the property of the son John Thomas, locally known as “Johnny Napoleon” and later as Jack or John Thomas.
In conversation with Mr. Thomas this writer heard the end of the story. No opportunity has occurred to fill in the details, but this is the gist of Mr. Thomas’s story.
After the land became his, nobody made clear to Jack the regulations concerning payment of taxes or the sale of land for delinquent taxes. The Thomas’s had long since surrendered their status as treaty Indians. They were self-supporting and independent hence there was no paternal government services to watch out for their interests. It was common practice in early days, when many homesteads were “thrown-up” or relinquished, for neighbours and others “in the know” to watch for delinquent tax notices and to snap up land for a very few dollars. Jack was away guiding the first summer after he became owner. Returning from his season’s work, he found that a neighbour had acquired his land which his late father had retained since 1891. Jack could not redeem it then and the story ends.