UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Chilcotin uprising: a study of Indian-white relations in nineteenth century British Columbia Hewlett, Edward Sleigh


This thesis deals with a disturbance which broke out in April of 1864 when a group of Chilcotin Indians massacred seventeen workmen on a trail being built from Bute Inlet to the interior of British Columbia, The main endeavours of this thesis are three-fold. It seeks to provide an accurate account of the main events: the killings and the para-military expeditions which resulted from them. It attempts to establish as far as possible the causes of the massacres. Finally, it examines the attitudes of whites towards the Indians as revealed in the actions they took and the views they expressed in connection with the uprising and the resulting expeditions to the Chilcotin territory. Published and unpublished primary source material has given a detailed and verifiable picture of the events of the Chilcotin Uprising, and of various background events. It has revealed, besides, the verbal reactions of many whites and even of Indians who were involved. To seek the underlying causes of the uprising and to get a clear view of white attitudes it has been necessary to probe both Chilcotin and European backgrounds. The studies of others have helped to shed light on Chilcotin society prior to the time of the uprising, on European thought as it developed in the Nineteenth Century, and on the general development of relationships between the white man and the Indian in British Columbia up to the period with which this thesis deals. The causes, of the uprising I have summarized under five main headings. The "chief motivating factor" was the rash threat "by a white man to bring sickness on the Indians. The "predisposing causes" were events and circumstances which had no direct connection with the Chilcotins' decision to kill the whites but which must have helped to shape their adverse attitudes towards the whites. The "aggravating grievances" were a number of occurrences directly connected with the trail-building enterprise which may be regarded as grievances from the Chilcotins’ viewpoint, aggravating the harm done by the threat made against the Chilcotins. The "material incentive" of plunder played its part in encouraging the uprising. Finally, there were a number of "facilitating factors" which made the uprising possible—factors making for the initial weakness of the whites and the strength of the Chilcotins. The attitudes of the whites towards the Indians as revealed during the period of the Chilcotin Uprising are difficult to summarize without distortion. But five main points have been made in this thesis: (1) The whites at this time displayed, in varying forms, a universal confidence in the inherent superiority of European civilization, (2) Only to a limited extent can we identify particular attitudes expressed towards the Indians with particular classes or groups of colonial society. (3) Prejudice and questionings regarding white actions towards the Indian both emerged as a result of the uprising. There is evidence that there were many whites in Nineteenth Century British Columbia who not only used individual judgement in making generalizations about the Indian but were willing to "test their stereotypes against reality" when they had dealings with particular Indians or Indian groups. (4) There was no really general fear for personal safety among the Europeans during the Chilcotin Uprising. (5) As a general rule we may say that those whom circumstances cast in the role of adversaries of the Chilcotins came to adopt increasingly hostile attitudes towards the Indians. Those who were less directly involved or who were cast in roles necessitating some understanding of the Chilcotins tended to adopt less hostile attitudes towards them.

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