by Dorthea Calverley
Note: “Thomas” is the Anglicized form of the original family name.”
Every pioneer community has a “first settler”. Recognition of Dawson Creek’s own notable earliest comer appears in an unexpected place — the 1897 report of Inspector J.D. Moodie, of the Northwest Mounted Police. It is not, as you might surmise, because of a crime, but to commemorate an honour ascribed to the head of the family, Napoleon Tomas (pronounced “toh-mah”). The record stands under the anglicized name Thomas as he was known to later settlers and Napoleon Thomas is still a respected name in the area.
Napoleon was the Iroquois-Metis headman of a large family who resided on the N.E. Quarter of Section 25, Township 78. He had been settled there since 1891, seven or eight years before the first white settler, Hector Tremblay, located in the Pouce Coupe vicinity. Some surviving members of the family are known as “Napoleon’s”, according to old Indian custom. Natives had no hereditary surnames until they were assigned them by missionaries or treaty-makers, who often used the father’s personal name to designate members of a family group on treaty or church records.
In 1897 Napoleon Thomas “held up” the Northwest Mounted Police in a sense! Inspector Moodie had been ordered to lay out a route for a cart road through the unsurveyed territory from Edmonton to the Yukon goldfields.
On November 1, 1897, Moodie reached Fort St. John from Lac Ste. Ann, led by guide Francois Thomas whom he hired near Spirit (or Ghost) River. Moodie could not hire a hunter at Fort St. John from among the Beaver Indians there. After three days his diary records, “(I) am sending out for Napoleon Thomas, reputed to be the best hunter around . . .” On November 8 he turned up. Four hours of bargaining followed. Moodie offered Thomas $75 a month, although others received wages of only $45 to $60. Thomas refused because his children were sick. He returned to his camp. Another bargaining session and the offer was raised to $90 — a princely sum in those days — if he got back by April. Another stall because of children, and then more sophisticated bargaining. Moodie now was to return by way of Alaska to Vancouver by boat and to Edmonton by rail. The Indians demanded to do the same. The bargain was made. Meanwhile the women of the band had been commissioned to supply mitts, caps, and moccasins — “at least 100 pairs” — as well as specially designed sleighs, snowshoes, harness and clothing.
By 1898 members of the family had traversed the continent, from east to west and south to north. Being of Iroquois ancestry, their forebears belonged to that aristocracy of Ontario Indian tribes who had devised a political system. They had lived in palisaded villages and practiced some agriculture long before the white man came. They were preferred by the fur traders as the hardiest, cleverest voyageurs. Many, retired by age or injury, settled down around Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to become Red River settlers. They added farming to trapping and looked forward to join in organizing their own province. After the Riel Rebellion of 1870 some joined similarly minded leaders like the Callious at Lac Ste. Ann, but the rush of settlers that followed the railway pushed some of them forward again. The buffalo being gone, the more adaptable Metis took up ranching.
Napoleon’s son, Jack, recollected in 1973 that his people had originated in Eastern Canada, had left Manitoba, and that his father had been born in Alberta.
When white settlers came to the Dawson Creek area they found the Napoleons living on land they had chosen in 1901. They squatted on the land continuously — as many others did to reserve it — until the patriarch could apply to homestead it in 1911 or 1912. Napoleon described himself as a farmer on the application. Old timers remember that the Thomas family were running a herd of black cattle (Aberdeen Angus) on the free range north of Arras and west of Dawson Creek over the height of land between Dawson Creek and the Kiskatinaw. They also raised a lot of good horses. They also trapped over a large area, and Mrs. Napoleon was noted for her superior workmanship on moccasins and jackets.
After his notable exploit with the police, Napoleon was in great demand as a guide. He led groups west to the mountains, north up the Halfway River, south to Prince George, and according to his son Jack, even to Vancouver. He trained his boys in the old arts as well as in modern trail and trapping lore. They were apt pupils, especially John or Jack, known as Johnny Napoleon, an outstanding athlete and rodeo star.
Napoleon Thomas preferred to think of himself as a farmer” as he described himself on his application to homestead the land he had squatted on since 1891. To do this he had had to relinquish his treaty rights, although he had been recognized as a headman and Treaty money was always paid at his camp a few miles northwest of the present day city limits. It might be marked as a historic site for old-timers can still identify the site of the “Indian Bridge” over Dawson Creek. The old Indian graveyard has long since been ploughed over. On a nearby hillside one can still find arrowheads or points which were there in such great numbers as to identify an ancient battleground, though who fought or when, even the oldest Indians could never tell. The first Thomas buildings were destroyed by fire sometime between 1915 and 1922. None now remain.
Statistics concerning the family show that when Napoleon was sixty-six years of age around 1916, the family consisted of twenty-two individuals. Besides himself there four men under twenty years of age, ten adult women, three teen-age boys and four children under four.
Mrs. Napoleon was highly respected for her skills in native crafts, and as a medicine woman and midwife. A kindly soul, she is still remembered by senior members of the Tremblay family who tell how she came riding ten miles or more when she heard that Mrs. Tremblay had given birth to a child. She had prepared her native brews for the babe and the mother who found the medicine unappealing, but not so the ministrations of the kindly neighbor.
From 1915 to 1922 Napoleon was involved in an incredible struggle with the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of government red tape while trying to “get a patent” on his homestead. The files of correspondence of various officials can still be read in the archives at Victoria. An account of the delays and frustrations can be found under the title, “What Price Integration?” elsewhere on this site.
When Napoleon died sometime before January 1921, the land was left by will to his son, Jack, but the delaying tactics went on for another year. Some local officials, through the Government Agency at Pouce Coupe, did their best to help speed up the Department of Indian Affairs. Although Jack eventually was granted a patent in January 1922, nobody (so he says), explained to him the business of paying taxes or reclaiming the land if it were sold for arrears.
Surely the Napoleon Thomas family merits the title of “first settlers” and “old timers”. Several descendants still live in this area and others around Moberly Lake.
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