The Capture of A-Chu-Wun

N. DE BERTRAND LUGRIN January 15 1936

The Capture of A-Chu-Wun

N. DE BERTRAND LUGRIN January 15 1936

The Capture of A-Chu-Wun

A tale of the Big, Bad Indian; his raids and how he met his nemesis


THE YEAR 1863 seems to have been a banner one for Indian murderers on the coast of British Columbia, and the name of A-chu-wun, chief of the Penelakits, a branch of the Cowichan tribe, stands out as that of the archcriminal. Not only on the testimony of other Indians and white men but on his own boasted'admission, he was guilty of the wanton killing of eleven white settlers, ten chiefs and an uncounted number of other natives.

Known up and down the Coast and through the islands of the Archipelago as a mysterious figure of whom the colonists never secured more than a fleeting glimpse, he was powerful in build and more like the handsome Haidahs of the Queen Charlottes than the squat, broad, flat-nosed members of the South Vancouver Island tribes. The natives invested him with supernatural powers and claimed his arrows never missed their mark, and he used them preferably for hunting not only legitimate prey, but his enemies as well. His canoe was the largest and fleetest of any native craft. His eye could see farther, his sense of smell was stronger than that of other Indians. By raising his hand and moving his fingers a certain way, he could make the rain clouds gather over the mountain summits; and though he was nearly 100 years old, he still looked like a young man. One heard his warrior song a long way off, and shivered, knowing what it meant—that some village was being attacked and soon his war canoe would be threading its way among the islands, carrying aloft the heads of his victims, while the enslaved women and children crouched wailing at the feet of his paddlers.

He had a secret cave on one of the mountains of Galiano, big enough to hold half a tribe. No one dared venture near it except those of his chosen. It was said he used it for the pleasant purpose of imprisonment and torture, as well as for the testing of medicine men and young chiefs.

Augustus Pemberton was then head of the Police on Vancouver Island. He had been appointed about the same time that Chartres Brew was given his post on the mainland. A less picturesque character, Pemberton was quite as efficient an officer as Brew. Very tall, with a commanding but quiet presence, he was a conspicuous figure among the motley crowd that thronged the streets of old Victoria. The

Policing B. C. Series No. 4 :

Fort was then the rendezvous for the red-shirts going into the Cariboo; for toqued and gay-sashed Hudson’s Bay trappers; sailors from H.M.S. fleets in Esquimalt; Kanakas and Chinese; as well as the ubiquitous savages, the latter clad only in a single blanket, though many of their squaws strutted about in crinolines, aping the few Englishwomen who had arrived in the Colony. The town was wide open, but though there was revelry by day and night, Pemberton kept a check on the roisterers, even the Indians.

Ugly Stories

T)OLICE surveillance did not, however, extend beyond the

Fort, and fifty or sixty years ago liquor smuggling was constantly going on, as it has been, more or less, ever since. Brigs and sloops from the South came sailing up to the Indian villages, offering to the natives, in exchange for their furs, four-gallon tins of ninety per cent liquor. When it is realized that it takes only a ten-cent bottle of vanilla to make an Indian drunk, one can appreciate what the effect of that fluid, drunk by dipperfuls out of tin tubs at the potlaches, had on the natives in those days. It was against the law then, as it is today, to sell an Indian any sort of liquor. The Indians knew this, recognized too the demoralizing effect it had on them, so that with proverbial inconsistency they felt entirely justified in first trading with the smugglers and afterward shooting them, if it were found convenient.

Early in tire spring of 1863, Pemberton decided to take drastic action against Indian criminals and aimed at the capture of A-chu-wun as a coup d’etat. Word had been brought to Victoria that year of a score or more of Indian outrages.

Schooners putting in for shelter up the West Coast in winter storms had been attacked, their crews massacred, and the ships looted and burned. Closer home there had been horrible murders which those who knew of the mysterious Cowichan chief laid at his door, believing him either directly or indirectly responsible.

There was the case of William Brady, a peaceful citizen of the United States who had come to Victoria for the sole purpose of big-game hunting and fishing. With an Indian guide he had landed at one of the Gulf Islands one night to make camp, and been visited by a party of the dreaded Cowichans. Brady had given them supper and presented them with sugar, tea and other things, and they had departed apparently satisfied. They returned at night, however, while the white man and his companion slept, and shot them through the canvas walls of their tent. A friendly Indian had brought the news.

There was an ugly story of the disappearance of a German settler, Marks, and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Caroline. They had left their island home to visit a neighbor when, a squall coming up, they put in for shelter dangerously close to Galiano, where A-chu-wun had his cave. They had not been seen since, but their boat was found broken up, and remnants of the girl’s clothing, stained with blood, lay on the beach just above high tide.

There was no way to ferret out these crimes or hunt the criminals except with the aid of the gunboats. Pemberton decided to call on them.

A Fight With Indians

HE HAD an excellent superintendent, Horace Smith, who had had many dealings with the natives and understood their language. The Forward, Captain Lascelles commander, was put at the services of the Police, and with Smith aboard, set out to find and arrest the guilty parties.

Straight to Kuper Island, one of the strongholds of the Cowichans, they sailed, and anchored in a small bight between two thickly wooded peninsulas. The village lay directly before them, with no sign of life except the barking of a few dogs. Smith and two of his men went ashore in a small boat and walked up the beach.

Suddenly, as if at a signal, warwhoops rent the air and a horde of natives, naked and painted, dashed from the bush and surrounded them. Fully armed, they presented a menacing spectacle, but Smith stood his ground and told them he had come for the murderers of Brady, who must be delivered up to him at once or the gunboat would shell the village.

This demand was promptly refused, and the Indians disclaimed all knowledge of the criminals. But they agreed, if Smith would return to the Forward, that they would summon another chief and hold a parley on board the boat.

They did nothing of the sort. No sooner had the superintendent left than the Indians disappeared, and in a few minutes a barrage of fire swept the Forward from both sides of the peninsula. One of the seamen fell mortally wounded, and several others were put hors de combat before the guns of the ship could be brought into play. The battle went on until nightfall, when the gunboat backed out and anchored off Cowichan Bay. It was an ignominious situation and Lascelles was furious.

Early the next morning, Smith, aboard the ship’s gig, waylaid a canoe full of Indians who were making for the North, among them one of those implicated in the death of Brady. Taken by surprise, the Indians surrendered the man. But they would give Smith no information regarding

the others, and when he asked where A-chu-wun was, their only answer was to paddle swiftly away. Later on he landed again at Kuper Island, to find the place empty. It was strongly fortified, had deep rifle pits and a blockhouse of logs so thick that the cannon balls of the Forward had not penetrated them. In a small copse of alder not far from the water, the body of Brady was found, decently wrapped in his blankets, his effects intact.

According to the prisoner, two other men and a woman had a hand in the murder of the American, but he denied that A-chu-wun had figured in the crime at all. The great chief was in his mountain fastness on Galiano, and had not been seen for a long time.

Smith went up to the village of Cowichan itself. Bishop Demers was there. He had great influence over the natives. Before a day had passed, the two other men and the two women who had been members of the party which attacked Brady, were brought before the superintendent. But by this time hundreds of Indians had gathered, all of them in an ugly mood. Even the bishop could not quiet them. Said one of the chiefs:

“What for you want more than one Indian? Already we have given you one man to suffer for the killing of this Boston man.” They refused to deliver the murderers.

The bishop counselled Smith to have patience, and the superintendent left to report to the ship. But he came back in a few days time, and meanwhile the criminals were still in custody.

Once more a parley was called and the tribe assembled.

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Once more the chiefs insisted that one Indian only should pay for the life of Brady. Botli Smith and the bishop tried to explain the point of law that if all three or four had had a hand in the murder, they were equally responsible. But the chiefs were adamant.

Smith was playing for time. Now he made a gesture toward the open waters of the Bay. The Forward rode at anchor there, and while they watched three more gunboats could he seen sailing majestically into view—the Devastation, Gruppier and Chameleon, a formidable array. One concerted sweep of their guns and the whole tribe of Cowichans would be wiped out.

The four criminals were handed over to Smith.

Thus ended the chase for the murderers of Brady, but the disappearance of Marks and his daughter still baffled them.

A-chu-wun Escapes

THAT A-CHU-WUN was responsible, the Police felt certain, for the crime had been committed at his very door. Once more the Forward was pressed into service, and day after day it patrolled the winding waterways of the Gulf of Georgia, searching for clues. It was Smith who at length ferreted out the truth. He was abroad in a ship’s smallboat, working up Chemainus way, when he saw a man signalling him from the shore.

It was an Indian, worn to a skeleton, a slave of A-chu-wun. He had been in hiding ever since the .gunboats set forth. His own people would not help him.

Smith fed him and got his story. His name was Um-che-wuk.

He had been at the cove on the stormy day that Marks and his girl had put in for shelter. There were two other Indians there and a squaw. The Indians had accused Marks of trying to take their land away from them, and there had been a fight and Marks was shot. The young girl had then run up to the top of the rocks, screaming, and the Indians had followed her.

They had made him, Um-che-wuk, hold her, and the others had killed her, using their knives. They had nothing against her, but the Indian woman had wanted her clothes.

Um-che-wuk swore that one of the men, the one who shot Marks and stabbed the girl, had been put to death by the order of A-chu-wun for his crime. He implored them to let him go free, as he had been forced against his will to lay hands on the girl.

“Where is A-chu-wun.''” demanded Smith. “Suppose you tell where A-chu-wun is, maybe you not get very bad punishment.” But Um-che-wuk could be neither cajoled nor forced to say a word against the chief.

Protected by the Forward, Smith started for the headquarters of A-chu-wun. The gunboat lay off-shore, while the superintendent and some of his men elfected a landing on the island under cover of darkness. Recent footprints in the sand told them that a party of Indians must be somewhere on the mountain. They bided their time until daybreak.

Then Smith placed his men strategically and. taking only one of them with him, started up a narrow, devious trail. It led them almost to the summit and they saw no sign of life for hours. They reached a plateau, a massive outcropping of rock, thickly carpeted with lichen. In the deep crevices between the huge boulders, gnarled Garry oaks thrust up, and the pale stems and shining leaves of the arbutus. There were lilies and tall saxifrages and other mountain flowers. It was a paradise of a spot, with a view that commanded the whole of the Gulf Islands and the snowpeaks against three horizons. From here a lookout might be kept for any enemy craft, or a smoke signal lighted which could be seen almost out to the Straits.

A slight sound broke the early morning stillness; Smith and the other policeman crept to cover. They saw two heads coming

into view from below the plateau, then two more. Four Indians climbed up.

Smith, his gun at the ready, stepped forward, shouted to them to surrender. The other policeman covered them from another angle. But A-chu-wun and his companions, agile as mountain goats, leaped over the lip of the plateau, and the next moment their guns spoke as they fired back over the ledge.

Capture and Trial

HTHE POLICEMEN hid behind the oaks.

Meantime the outposts began to close up. There was firing on every side. Then the Indians disappeared; literally dropped out of sight.

The scouting parties spread out again, but found no trace of them. All day they searched. Later on, reinforcements arrived from the ship. Toward afternoon, an outpost came running up to Smith where the latter was stationed for the moment on the plateau. The outpost was breathless with excitement. He had found the entrance to the cave !

Cunningly concealed under overhanging boulders and Oregon grape, bracken and salai, it gaped, a narrow black cavity, menacing and silent. A cordon of men was set to guard it, while others were deputed to look for any other outlet by which A-chu-wun might escape.

If it indeed resembled the place which had been described, the chief and his followers might hide there for days or weeks. Doubtless it was provisioned, and well stocked with ammunition. The Police were in a quandary.

At sundown a voice hailed them from the black hollow, innocently demanding what was wanted.

Smith ordered the chief to come out. He would be tried for participation in the murder of Marks and Caroline, and for the confessed killing of eleven other white settlers. If he did not give himself up, they would fire into the cave. This was mere bluff on Smith’s part. For all he knew, a thousand shots sent into that mysterious hole might not do any damage. But to his surprise and relief, A-chu-wun himself stepped forth. He would surrender himself but not his men. They were not guilty.

“I am old,” he said. “I have lived my life. But these others are my sons and grandson. They must go free. They have done no murder.”

So far as the Police knew, this was true enough. They had coralled all the rest of the guilty parties with the exception of A-chuwun, and now he was delivering himself into their hands.

He laid down his rifle and, drawing his blanket around him, followed them down the trail to the beach, a dignified old figure.

During that summer at Fort Victoria seven Indian murderers paid the extreme penalty and two were given life imprisonment.

To the veryend, A-chu-wun kept his proud pose, gratified that he alone was paying the price for nearly all the white men he had killed.

“For Brady, the Boston man, three Indians go hang,” he said, “and one squaw go to jail for life. For Marks and his girl, three more. But for eleven Boston and King George men I have shot with my arrows and my gun, only one Indian pay with his life. Because he great chief, he worth many men and women—A-chu-wun, me!”

Punishment was meted out in a roundabout way to the savages who had attacked the ships on the far West Coast and killed their crews. It was impossible to land and make arrests for several reasons. The coast itself, wild, rocky and storm-lashed, offers an insuperable obstacle except under favorable weather conditions. Besides, at the approach of an enemy the Indians could at once abandon camp, and hide

This they did when the Police, aboard the gunboats, sailed up to try and bring the

guilty parties to justice. The natives vanished apparently from the face of the earth, [leaving only their empty villages. Though idle shelling and burning of their vacant shacks and lodges seemed little more than i gesture, it evidently had the desired effect. The flats above high tide were the native’s natural habitat. He lived by deep-

sea fishing and could not exist inland for long. Therefore, it behooved him not to incur attacks by the “King George fireships.”

Following the wholesale hangings and the punitive expeditions of 1863, Indian crime on Vancouver Island and adjacent islands began noticeably to decrease.