The strange case of the Indian who defied the police for thirteen years and emerged from his trial a hero



The strange case of the Indian who defied the police for thirteen years and emerged from his trial a hero



The strange case of the Indian who defied the police for thirteen years and emerged from his trial a hero



SO LONG as there is an Indian alive on the North Pacific slope to sing of the deeds of his ancestors in the lodges or around the camp fires, the saga of Gun-a-noot will ring down the years. He was, outside of their legendary heroes, the greatest figure of all time. Wise, fearless, a dutiful son, a faithful friend, he became a convert to Christianity while a very young man and set a standard for his people, leading an exemplary life, working hard and holding himself aloof from most of the vices so common in rancheries close to the white settlements.

His physical attributes were on a par with his moral qualities. Over six feet in height and strong in proportion, his features were handsomely aquiline. He had perfect teeth and his smile was as engaging as his frown was intimidating. His was the carriage and the easy stride of those accustomed to long trails in summer and winter. Add to this that he was a fine horseman and an unerring shot, and one realizes that he was as fit to fill the rôle of hero as any of the far-famed Trojans.

Ñor is it only in the annals of his own people that he is given praise. The grim records of the Police also bear witness to his courage, his endurance, his fidelity and magnanimity. True, he led them a long, hard chase for thirteen years, during which time some of the members of the pursuing posses passed to their long reward, others fell sick, had their feet frozen, suffered from exposure or collapse, to say nothing of their chagrin at being unable to outwit the fugitive. But not one among them who did not admire and respect him, and who, at the end, did not participate in that widespread gratification which hailed the climax of his story.

The drama had its beginning in 1906, when Alec McIntosh and Max le Claire, half-breed guides and trappers, came to Hazel ton, which is a considerable town not far from the Indian village of Kispiox, to take out a party to hunt big game in the North.

These two, with a score of Indians and whites were in the saloon at Two-Mile House, near Hazelgate. the great Indian fish mart, when Gun-a-noot. just returned from a buying trip to Victoria, 750 miles away, stalked in and across the floor to join the others at the bar.

He was welcomed heartily by everyone and gave back

cheery greetings. Unfeignedly glad to be home again with his family, to which he was most devoted, and having sold his furs to good advantage, he dispensed hospitality to the crowd. Perhaps big Alec McIntosh was a little jealous of the popularity of the Indian. At all events he began to pick a quarrel with him, disagreeing with him first on one thing, then another, and presently bringing up the subject of women.

“They’re all the same,” declared McIntosh. “You can’t trust ’em. I don’t care who they are.”

Now Gun-a-noot’s wife was the apple of his eye, and more than that, he possessed an innate chivalry which at once sprang to the defense of womankind in general. He told the half-breed to take back his words.

McIntosh refused and made his condemnation even more specific, including all the women in that particular section of the world, mentioning by name Gun-a-noot’s wife.

This was not to be borne and Gun-a-noot’s famous fist struck out. The blow was parried, however. McIntosh was as big as the Indian and twenty pounds heavier. Floor space was made and the two men clinched. Both a little tight, they fought madly for a few minutes, until the crowd got in between them. Then Gun-a-noot announced, so it was alleged:

“I’ll go home for my gun and rid the country of this dog.”

Three or four hours later, a party of Babine Indians going toward Hazelton discovered the body of McIntosh lying on the trail, about a half mile from Two Mile House, a bullet through his head. A few miles farther on the Kispiox Road, they found the body of le Claire, with his head blown oil. Immediately it was surmised that Gun-anoot was responsible for both murders, for the bodies were lying on the direct trail to his house, though why le Claire had fallen a victim was a mystery.

News of the double murder spread like wildfire. The Provincial Police immediately swore out warrants for the arrest of Gun-a-noot, and also for Hamidan, his brother-inlaw, who had disappeared.

Posses were formed; the homes of the fugitives visited. It was found that four of Gun-a-noot’s horses had been

killed, evidently to prevent their being used in the pursuit.

A few days later, one of the patrols came upon fifteen of Gun-a-noot’s hunting dogs tied in the bush on the opposite side of the river from Kispiox. Close to their hiding place were fresh tracks leading away from the trail. These were followed till a torrential rain obliterated all traces.

Northwest Mounted Police as well as Provincial Police formed posses to scour the country, without finding a sign of the Indians. Efforts were made to negotiate with the chiefs of the tribes for delivery of the outlaws, who it was supposed were together, but the natives were staunch to their own. Moreover, the officers of the law were warned that it would be safer for all white men to stay away from that part of the country. Even the white settlers in the district dare not lend a hand. Most of them knew and liked Gun-a-noot, but, more than that, they were afraid of the enmity of the natives.

The first winter came on with the losses still out in the mountains of the Skeena. The cold was intense, the snow blinding. Faces, hands and feet were frozen. They were obliged to carry all their equipment, and there was but one trail to follow. Nevertheless they remained with the job until May.

That was the first year. Next year a new party took the field, and so it continued from one year to another.

A reward of $2,(XX) was offered for the apprehension of Gun-a-noot, and the British Columbia Government hired three Pinkerton men from the United States to join the man-hunt. They were expert woodsmen and trained sleuths, but they could not cope with the outlaw. They cost the Government about $11.000, a tenth of the whole amount spent on search parties during the thirteen-year chase. Several times word was received that Gun-a-noot had died from exposure, and once Headquarters was on the point of calling their men back, thankful that fate had interfered and spelled the end of the trail for the now famous outlaw. But the report proved without foundation, and the years and the hunt continued.

And what of Gun-a-noot?

Gun-a-noot’s Secret

THE NIGHT of the fight he had gone home, picked up his gun and started back to Two Mile House, doubtless still intending to carry out his threat. But something happened that chilled all his passion for killing and roused in its place the protective instinct of the strong for the weak.

As he rode along the trail he came upon the body of le Claire, and reined in his horse. Then a woman’s smothered sobs came from the trees at the side of the road. He dismounted and drew forth a huddled figure, and bent to see the face. A young face it was. distorted with fear and grief. He knew it. The face of his pretty niece, Mrs. Hamidan. She clung to him, whispering a pitiful, tragic story, asking him to save her. His own quarrel forgotten, he set his lips grimly and gave his word. Then he bade her slip home through the trees and say nothing to anybody. He, too, would keep her secret.

Early in the morning of the next day, Gun-a-noot’s father came running into the house.

“McIntosh and le Claire have been murdered,” he cried. “The Police are blaming you, my son.”

“But I didn’t do it. I’ve not seen McIntosh since 1 left him in the saloon,” Gun-a-noot was shocked. He had been prepared for the one, but not for the other. He might prove himself innocent of the murder of le Claire, for he had no gun like the one used in killing him, his own being a larger bore, so he decided to give himself up.

But his father would not hear of this.

“Innocent or guilty, you will be imprisoned,” he implored him. “Maybe hanged, maybe shot. Can you, who have always been free, live behind prison bars? No more to roam the hills, paddle the streams, ride like the wind through the grass lands, sleep under the stars?” The old man wept as he pleaded, and Gun-a-noot had never disobeyed him. Unwillingly he consented to hide away—none too soon.

From the woods above his home, he watched the first posse ride up, twenty armed men on their horses. He had shot four of his best ponies for fear they might use them. Needless sacrifice. Grimly he waited. He saw the posse take one trail and took another himself. He knew a dozen. He was not afraid of being caught, but the thought of secreting himself like a criminal hurt him. He knew that if he told the truth about the shooting of le Claire, it would be much easier to prove his innocence ol the other murder, but he was in honor bound to protect the woman.

Hamidan himself remained with lum only for a month, then left him. The Police, believing Hamidan with Gun-a-noot, made no separate search for him. Gun-a-noot was all alone. How great his sacrifice was, nobody realized for a long time. Voluntarily giving up all he held dear—his home, family, his place in the community, his business, his mill and his store, and living an outlaw through the years for the sake of what he felt to be his duty—-there have been few parallels to this in history. True, he did return to Kispiox now and then, cleverly disguised, but hating the secrecy of it. And he was always in touch with his friends,

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most of whom would gladly have laid down their lives for him.

It was not till several years had passed that the Indians themselves knew the truth of the killing of le Claire.

Mrs. Hamidan. who had been ailing a long time, lay dying. She summoned all her family around her, and among them was Gun-a-noot. With her last strength she told her story. Le Claire had met her on the road, in the dark. Like McIntosh, he held all women lightly. In the end she had shot him, not thinking of the consequences. Then Gun-a-noot had come. He had promised to shield and to save her. Her last words were her thanks to him.

Preparation for Surrender

NOW THAT the young woman had gone beyond mortal punishment, Gun-a-noot prepared to surrender himself. He felt sure that if the truth about le Claire were known he would go free, even though the murder of McIntosh wras still a mystery. But again his father interfered and Gun-a-noot took up the lonely ways again.

Only once was he ever in actual danger of arrest, and that was in the winter when Otway Wilkie. Sergeant of Provincial Police, and the three Pinkerton men camixxl on his trail. From his lookout on the mountain which has since been named for him, Gun-a-noot saw them come and prepare to stop. He was in desperate plight. Bitter cold, his shoes and trousers tom to ribbons from the rough going, he had contrived clothing of the hides of rock ground hogs. He had no blankets, no underwear or socks, and nearly all his fixxl was gone. He had been on the verge of trying to return to some Indian village, for starvation stared him in the face. But the arrival of the Police prevented this.

He moved his tent around the peak of the mountain to be quite out of sight ; then, one morning, he saw his pursuers leave on snowshoes to resume their hunt for him. He knew that more snow was coming,

and when they were safely away he slipped down the incline to look for their provision camp.

To his delight he found it thoroughly stocked, and he helped himself liberally to flour, bacon, beans, coffee, tinned milk, sugar, tea and so on. The snow had begun to fall when he left, so that his tracks were obliterated. His little brush hut was also buried in snow, defying detection by the uninitiated. With his replenished larder, he fared well for weeks, especially as hunting and trapping were gcxxl thereafter. It was with relief, however, that he saw the officers at length break camp and depart.

One spring, word was brought to him that his father was dying and wished to see him. He managed to reach the old man’s side before the end, and to hear his last request. His father asked Gun-a-noot to bury his body at Bowser Lake, in a sixit which he had chosen. It was a long trek. But as he had obeyed him in life, so Gun-a-noot respected his final command. Strapping the dead body on his back, he walked the whole distance to the lake. 100 miles, all alone. There, under the cottonwood trees, he dug a grave and laid the old man to rest. Being a Christian Indian, he set up a cross to mark the place and knelt to offer prayers.

The last reason for his remaining an outlaw was gone, and, secure in the knowledge of his own innocence, he decided to give himself up. He had friends everywhere. among them the men on the \ ukon Telegraph line and the packers who brought in provisions to the camp there. These latter had, throughout the years,' often given him provisions in exchange for furs.

Among the {lackers was George Biems, and to him Gun-a-noot explained that he would like to come out if he could secure a

good lawyer to defend him. He wanted Stuart Henderson, who had practised in Ashcroft for many years and was always in demand by the natives when they were in trouble. Mr. Henderson was then living in Victoria.

On March 5, 1919, Mr. Henderson arrived at Hazelton in the evening, and was escorted by Bierns to his cabin, passing Indian pickets all the way who were alert for any appearance of treachery and ready to warn Gun-a-noot.

There was a fire burning in the heater in the cabin, and the white men sat down and waited.

Neither of them heard the back door open, but looked up suddenly to see Gun-anoot.

Straight and tall and lithe, dressed in buckskin, the fugitive had his snowshoes strapped on his back. Smilingly he greeted them in English. He had walked sixty miles that day. but was not fatigued. Pleased with the appearance of Mr. Henderson, he agreed to retain him as his counsel and to follow his advice. The lawyer promised to return for him in a month’s time.

The Trial

BUT WHEN he did so. it was to find the Indians in an uproar and no Gun-anoot on hand. The latter was more than 100 miles away, hunting and trapping, but the chiefs had called a meeting at their church in I lazelton. which was packed with Indians and klootchmen. Several of the chiefs delivered themselves of fine harangues. attacking the white men. and they warned the lawyer to leave Gun-anoot alone or it would be the worse for him. He was equal to the occasion however. Though he and Biems were the onlywhite men present, Henderson held his

ground and made an excellent impression, for nothing appeals more quickly to the natives than fearlessness.

At the request of Gun-a-noot, Mr. Henderson returned once more to Hazelton, and he and Bierns pursued a secret and circuitous way to the camp where it had been arranged to meet. Against the protests of his wife, Gun-a-noot agreed to return with the white men, and, after thirteen years, came back of his own accord to civilization. At the jail they were met by an amazed policeman. Sergeant Kelley, who took the Indian in charge to be held until trial in October.

That night several Indian chiefs called on Mr. Henderson in his hotel and gave him $3.000, part payment for defending their hero.

“If you clear him, all the secrets of the North country shall be yours,” they told him, “and the Indians your friends for ever. But if you don’t, never dare to return to our land again.”

At the preliminary hearing. Gun-a-noot was committed for trial. Superintendent of the Northern Division (now Assistant Commissioner) Parsons brought him dowr. to Oakalla. On the way and at the prison, Gun-a-noot filled in maps sent him from the Surveyor-General’s Department, giving his key to the little known Bear Lake and Babine country. He told of meadowlands, for instance, at the head of the Stikine. so situated that never more than four inches of snow came in winter; where moose and caribou and deer resorted, and where cattle could find easy grazing all the year through. In his cell at Oakalla, he was visited by the Chief Geographer and the two worked together on surveys, the Indian’s information being of inestimable value.

But in regard to himself, Gun-a-noot merely said:

“I am come out because my mother and father both die, and I want to look after my children. I am not afraid because I am not guilty.”

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At the trial in Vancouver, the venue having been changed from Prince Rupert, a former Attorney-General prosecuted. Not one of the witnesses who had given evidence at the coroner’s inquest was missing. Thirteen years had dealt kindly with them all. They broke down, however, under the cross-examination of Stuart Henderson and, without going into the witness box or introducing any evidence for the defense, Gun-a-noot was acquitted, the jury being out not more than twelve minutes.

In the thirteen years of Gun-a-noot’s outlawry he had accumulated enough to be considered rich, and he returned to Hazelton to take up trapping and hunting again. In 1926 he and Mr. Henderson

made a long trip together, and were planning another trip two years ago when Gun-a-noot, who was then at Bowser Lake, where he had buried his father, died suddenly himself. Out in the open, near the sound of water, in the wilds that he loved, he could not have asked a happier end.

Hamidan, who surrendered himself shortly after Gun-a-noot had gone “outside,” was also found “not guilty.”

To this day the murder of McIntosh remains a mystery.

And to this day, if you ask the Provincial Police about Gun-a-noot, they will tell his story with gusto, making light of their own unwearied efforts in his pursuit, warm in their admiration for him—“the finest Indian who ever lived in British Columbia. ’ ’