by Dorthea Calverley
When Inspector Moodie of the North West Mounted Police arrived in Fort St. John in 1897 with a party to cut “The Mounted Police Trail” to the Yukon, his journal mentioned Napoleon Thomas. Thomas, he said, was “reputed to be the best hunter around here”. “Here” was the territory tributary to the fur-trade centre of Fort St. John. It included the Beaver Plains and Pouce Coupe Prairie, where Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe are located and also Kelly Lake. The complimentary remark about Thomas was a very significant one.
Moodie was looking for a guide and hunter for a tough assignment. From Dunvegan to Fort St. John, Moodie had employed Francois Thomas as guide. The guide’s headquarters was likely Sturgeon Lake, where Dave Williamson recorded one Antoine Thomas, an Iroquois, as the best moose hunter in the area in the early years. Now Inspector Moodie sent out for Napoleon Thomas, whom he described as “a half-breed Iroquois”. Napoleon Thomas appeared four days later, but refused to hire on because his children were sick. The inducement which he turned down was considerable — $75.00 a month. Napoleon’s brother, Duncan, had asked $90.00 a month with a $5.00 bonus for each moose he killed. Moodie waited for the man he really wanted, meanwhile hiring “Tom Sinclair to go through as dog driver … $45.00 a month .. an A-I man.” Wilson, the guide from Dunvegan, had got only $60.00 a month. After ten days, when Moodie felt he could wait no longer, Napoleon Thomas showed up again.
Unlike the Callious, the Thomas’ were Treaty Indians. There was no reserve near Dawson Creek, but in the early 1920’s the family was squatting on land north of present day Arras district, and west of Old Dawson Creek. The site had once been an old battleground for a big fight between forgotten native foes. Napoleon seems to have been a recognized leader, though there were no “chiefs” in those days. In any case Treaty money was paid on the Napoleon Thomas land every year.
An old-timer, Orville Bentley, recalls that there was free range for miles. The Thomas’ had a herd of “Black” cattle, Bentley remembers and a large number of range horses. Another old timer, Art Young, remembers that Thomas had good stock – not purebred horses but superior grade animals for packing and riding. Jim Keener recalled that the occupants of the large Beaver village further North were not such industrious natives, and were much given to begging whenever they saw a smoke from his chimney. Not so the Napoleons who were not Beavers.
Napoleon seems to have trained his large family of boys in his skills at cattle-handling and rodeo performing, as well as hunting, tracking, and guiding at which they were notably expert. One son, known as “Johnny Napoleon”, is famous all over the North as a rodeo champion.
Art Young reports that the Napoleons were highly respected, mingled as equals with the white men, and, and “their word was as good as a bond.” They were eminently honest and trustworthy.
In time, Napoleon Thomas took himself off the Treaty rolls, and filed on a homestead just west of present day Dawson Creek. The legalities necessary to “proving up” did not fit too well with native hunting, trapping and guiding pursuits. Both Thomas and the homestead inspectors had their difficulties, but in the end it was finalized. Napoleon Thomas ranched until he died.
Some of the sons did not, like John, remove themselves from treaty. They moved out to Moberly Lake where they prospered, and where they have good homes and animals. This branch is known as “Napoleons”. John, now know here as “Jack Thomas” instead of the farmer “Johnny Napoleon”, assumed his proper surname. It would seem that the family had formerly come from places where missionaries had baptized them and given them surnames, which Indians did not originally use at all. Jack Thomas said that his people had originally come from Eastern Canada.
The correct pronunciation of the surname had formerly been “To-mah” indicating French ancestry somewhere.
The Calliou family, non-Treaty, and the Thomas family, Treaty, show that the Indians of either class could integrate successfully, could and did succeed at ranching, and could equal or out perform the white men in that field in which they had native skills. After all, the natives had always felt an affinity with animals, and successful natives wisely stayed with adaptations of the life they know.
Diary of Inspector Moodie, Northwest Mounted Police, Provincial Archives, Parliament Bldg., Edmonton.
Orville Bentley and Art Young tape transcriptions in Interview volumes.