Valley of Mystery

The gold and head-hunters of the Nahanni may be myth —its murders are hard fact

PIERRE BERTON March 15 1947

Valley of Mystery

The gold and head-hunters of the Nahanni may be myth —its murders are hard fact

PIERRE BERTON March 15 1947

Valley of Mystery


TAKE your map of Canada and find the corner where British Columbia, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories meet. Now go a few score miles directly north. You’re looking down into the fantastic never-never land of Headless Valley. There, between the Mackenzie Mountains and the Selwyn Range, lies the 200-mile-long twisted river system of the South Nahanni, the supposed haunt of head-hunters and of gigantic prehistoric mastodons, and the actual spawning ground of stupendous myths.

The South Nahanni, a spectacular enough river in its own right (its falls are almost twice the height of Niagara, its gorges are 1,500 feet deep), is fast becoming the most talked-about river in North America. Around it. cluster more rumor and legend - and fewer facts than around any comparable water system on the continent. This is a pretty good showing for an area that attracts the merest trickle of travellers, especially when you consider that a healthy proportion of those travellers meets a sticky end.

For this is forbidding country, which has been disastrous to both white man and Indian. According to the U. S. Geographical Survey, virulent meningitis once wiped out an Indian village in the area. Some Indians say the valley’s haunted. At any rate, no one lives there now. Of the relatively few whites who have explored and prospected along the Nahanni, three have been murdered, another may have been murdered, and almost a dozen, including a girl, have simply vanished.

The body of one of the murdered men was found without a head. Although it was fairly well established at the time—30 years ago—that wolves had hauled the skull away from the skeleton, the gruesome find gave rise to the head-hunter legend and gave the region its popular name, Headless Valley.

Actually, the “valley” includes two rivers (the Nahanni and the Flat), several valleys, three canyons, a flock of tributary creeks (with hot and cold running water), immense falls, rapids, gorges, limestone caves and a few other added attractions, all of which add up to some pretty breath-taking scenery.

The Lost Eldorado

BUT in popular myth, Headless Valley is a long, brooding, mist - shrouded, mountain - ringed stretch of country, unexplored and uncharted, where head-hunting Indian ‘‘Mountain Men” and prehistoric animals roam through luxuriant tropical foliage, guarding a fabulously rich lost gold mine to the accompaniment of weird, wailing winds that chill men’s souls. As such, Headless Valley has long since taken its place as a leading and genuine piece of Canadian folklore. Although it has been explored, charted and photographed many times since the beginning of the century, its position as the number one legend of the Northland remains unshaken.

“A tropical valley set in the midst of Arctic wastes,” one writer called it. “An evil, poisonous Shangri-La in the heart of the Yukon.” The very name “Nahanni,” which means “people Over there, far away,” has a will-o’-the-wisp sound in transía-

tion. It was tagged onto the mountain Indians by white men, to distinguish them from the woods Indians of the Mackenzie River. Early stories about the Nahanni region were circulated by Indians who feared the white man would disturb their hunting grounds. Friendly now, but still deeply superstitious, the Indians have helped to advance the legends about the valley, and they have been aided and abetted by glib-tongued prospectors who like to spin yams.

Side by side with the story of the head-hunters is the tale of the lost mother lode which prospectors believe is somewhere on Bennett creek, a tributary of the Flat River which runs into the Nahanni. This is in the same general area as the fabulous McHenry mine, which is supposed to be located somewhere between the head waters of the Ross and Nahanni. Prospectors have searched for it for years without success, still strong in the belief that years ago a man named McHenry brought 40 pounds of rich ore out of the district.

But there has been little actual gold discovered from the day in 1905 when Willie McLeod came down the Nahanni with an Eno’s Fruit Salt bottle plugged with coarse nuggets, up to the fall of 1946 when Frank Henderson returned from the Nahanni district with 30 ounces of coarse gold. Henderson is a nephew of Bob Henderson, the man credited with the original discovery in the Klondyke in 1896, and he is the central figure in the proposed expedition of U. S. Marines into the Headless Valley area. Henderson’s partner, John Patterson, has been missing in the country since last summer.

The third major legend about the South Nahanni is a hardy perennial. It is still popularly supposed that the valley of the Continued on page 33

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The gold and head-hunters of the Nahanni may be myth —its murders are hard fact

Valley of Mystery

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Nahanni is lushly tropical in climate, fed by a network of hot springs, supporting luxuriant, growth of rare and exotic species, where game is fat and plentiful and the thermometer never hits freezing. This tale appears to be a direct steal from legends which once centred around the so-called “Tropical Valley” on the Toad River a few hundred miles to the south. This Tropical Valley was consistently hitting the headlines from 1924 until 1935, when Dr. Charles Camsell, Deputy Minister of Mines, explored the valley, discovered several hot springs and effectively quashed the legend b3r reporting that the springs “have no effect whatsoever on the climate and tropical conditions do not exist at any time.” The Alaska Highway now crosses the area.

The presence of similar hot springs about 40 miles up the Nahanni has transferred the legend of the discredited Tropical Valley to Headless Valley and the story has persisted despite the known fact that a trapper named Andrew O’Brien froze to death beside the Nahanni River not 10 miles from the springs in 1929.

Then there’s the legend of the prehistoric animals. The bones and tusks of mastodons, huge extinct members of the elephant tribe, litter the North Country from the Peace River to the Klondyke, but no white man has ever laid eyes on a live mastodon. Indians have returned from the Nahanni country with fairly accurate drawings of mastodons burned on raw hide. Did they see them alive or did they make them from skeletons of t he beasts? The probabilities are all against any mastodons surviving, hut those drawings were enough to set rumor rolling.

Other minor stories about the Nahanni country that have helped to weave the close mesh of legend that now surrounds it centre around the “Mongol Caves,” cliff dwellers, mists, wailing winds, and the curse that is popularly supposed to haunt the place. Frank Henderson himself, a man who perhaps has good reason not to want too many people rushing into the valley, was quoted as saying, on his ret urn from the area last fall, “There is absolutely no denying the sinister atmosphere of that whole valley. The weird, continual wailing of the wind is something I won’t, soon forget.”

In the slack months right after the war, Headless Valley made the perfect, escapist story for the newspapers. It made fascinating reading for war veterans who had tasted adventure and found time hanging heavy on their hands. To the average citizen, who marked the high points of his life in terms of a perfect crib hand or a birdie on the ninth, the story of an unmapped mystery valley in a too-well-explored twentieth-century world sojmed almost too good to be true.

They All Want to Go

But nobody, certainly not Tom Carolan, New Westminster, B.C., or Hal Hendrickson, a miner of Zeballos, B.C., realized the unutterable yearning for adventure on civilization’s rim that seemed to lie in the hearts of everyday people, until, in the first month of 1947, they started to talk about forming expeditions to explore the secrets of the “valley” and search again for its gold.

First to announce an expedition was Frank Henderson. He and a group of U. S. Marine veterans plan to enter the valley in June to look for Henderson’s missing partner and to locate gold.

Hard on the heels of this announcement, Hendrickson put a two-line

classified advertisement in a Vancouver paper asking for a couple of volunteers to accompany him to Headless Valley. Then Carolan announced that he and some fellow veterans would beat the Americans to the spot in March if they could get money and volunteers to go along. Carolan, a veteran of the Army’s Polar Bear and Muskox exercises, had only vague information on the Nahanni country, but he was out for adventure and pictures for the struggling company he and his friends worked for, North American Film Productions.

Hendrickson’s little ad drew 154 letters within a week. And sooner than you could say “Northwest Territories,” Carolan was snowed under an avalanche of letters, telegrams, phone calls and personal interviews. Within three days, more than 500 people begged him to take them along. Lengthy, pleading letters came from men, women and children in Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; Skowhegan, Maine; Cobbtown, Ga.; Salem, Ore.; Moscow, Idaho, and Blocksburg, Cal., not to mention a religious pamphlet about the northland from the Free Tract Society of Los Angeles. The majority were from veterans; all of whom announced they stood well over six feet, weighed close to 200 pounds and were crack shots.

They Want “to Beat the Yanks”

A 14-year-old boy wrote from Albuquerque, N.M., and said that the announcement of the expedition was the “most important thing that has happened in my life.” A 65-year-old woman told a reporter that she’d “go like a shot” if she had someone to go with her. A Canadian Scottish veteran wrote Carolan that “I’ll mortgage and sell everything I own, including my bagpipes, if I can go along.” A man who started out to paddle a canoe from Victoria, B.C., to New York City, wrote from the Peace river district that he stood ready t.o scrap the rest of the trip if Carolan would take him to Headless Valley. An amateur taxidermist pointed out that he would be invaluable because he would be able to stuff specimens of rare animal life on the spot.

Everybody volunteered to give up his job to go, offered any money he had (although one applicant said the only thing he possessed was a Luger pistol). Each said that he was fully aware of the dangers and hazards of the trip and most letters paralleled the one that said, “I realize there is no material reward to be gained except the mental one.”

Carolan got healthy financial offers from three mining concerns who wanted to send engineers on the expedition, and the president of an aircraft corporation wrote offering a plane. And scores of Canadians wrote in to say they’d give anything to “beat the Yanks” to the goal.

By the end of January, the Headless Valley expeditions had developed into contests with Carolan in the ticklish position o: choosing the six lucky winners to go with his party, and Henderson faced with selecting two. Carolan still hadn t made any definite plans for the trip nor had he accepted any financial offers. He still intended to make the expedition, but his curiosity about the valley had been at least partially dulled by the flood of information that started to come his way. It seemed almost as if half the country wanted to go to Headless Valley and the other half had been there.

There is mystery on the Nahanni and Flat Rivers, but not so much as at first meets the eye. Many men have come out of the country with tall tales, but

many more have emerged with facts, Probably the first white man to explore the Headless Valley area was Poole Field, whose deserted cabins are still strung along the shores of the two rivers. Field once operated a trading post on the Ross River, which is separated from the headwaters of the Nahanni and Flat Rivers by mountains, Later he lived along the Nahanni.

Except for prospectors and trappers, there was no exploration of the Nahanni until 1928 when Fenley Hunter, a U. S. explorer, went up the river as far as Virginia Falls, which he named, and then turned back, disappointed at not finding gold. The same year, R. M. Patterson explored the Flat River as far as the cany»n which is 60 to 80 miles up the river. He, too, turned back before reaching Bennett Creek without finding appreciable quantities of gold.

A former partner of Field’s, “Sourdough Jack” Stanier, is one of the bestinformed men on the Nahanni country, In the course of his 20-year search for the lost mother lode of ill-fated Willie McLeod, Stanier has made five trips up the river by boat and four more in by plane. In 1934, with the aid of Willie’s map, which he obtained from a priest at Fort Liard, Stanier stumbled on the original McLeod stakes on Bennett Creek and found the rusty pan and shovel that McLeod and his brother left behind them before they were murdered. There was some placer g°ld, but Stanier never discovered the mother lode itself

Stanier’s discovery reawakened interest in the valley. The same year the RCAF carefully photographed the entire river and present maps are based on these pictures,

I*1 1935 Alan E. Cameron, associate professor of mining and metallurgy at University of Alberta, went up the valley. He reported strong chinook winds blowing in from the east the year round, said that the river was often ^ree °f ice in January and came upon eight sulphur springs on a small creek flowing into the Nahanni at the mouth °f the first canyon about 40 miles up the river. He said that in July “it is as hot here as I’ve felt it anywhere in the north.”

The same year, Harry Snyder, a millionaire Montreal oil man, made an extensive journey up the Nahanni by plane and boat and shot mountain sheep and grizzlies on the mountain slopes bordering the river. He took motion pictures and still shots of the area. Travel up the turbulent Nahanni itself calls for skilled boatmen who can handle small craft in a current which often runs at 10-mile spéed. The “ducks” and amphibious equipment which the Americans announced they would use to enter the valley would be doubtful value, nor is it necessary to parachute into the area for there are several places where planes can, and have, landed,

Deadman’s Valley

At the mouth of the river, Nahanni Butte, a distinctive 5,000-foot limestone mountain, towers over the flat valley through which the river meanders for 10 miles before reaching the Liard. Above this the stream is split into dozens of channels over a wide area for 40 miles and the only safe route is close to the shore line. At the end of The Splits are the hot springs that have given the valley its tropical aura, The vegetation is rank around the springs, and the Fields, who lived here for some years, found that vegetables thrived in the area. Two of the springs are reported to equal in size the spring at the Cave and Basin at Banff,

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The dizzy canyon which the traveller now enters knifes through the mountains for 15 miles before it breaks into Deadman’s Valley. The wind wails

ceaselessly through this dark and gloomy gorge and the Indians think it is inhabited by a devil. Even Stanier, a matter-of-fact prospector who is fond of debunking the valley, calls it an “eerie place.” Sheer walls of cliff rise 1,500 feet from the bottom o the canyon, leaving only a small beach on either side of the river, which is navigable in the canyon. The so-called Mongol caves are on the western side of the canyon on a high plateau. It is possible they were cut out of the limestone, sandstone and slate by the downward erosion of the river.

At the northern end of the canyon the traveller must tail around breaks into some very bad rapids to reach Deadman’s valley where the McLeod’s bodies were found. The valley is two or three miles wide and the river runs through it for 10 miles. At the head of the valley is a second canyon, about 1,000 feet deep and 20 miles long. At its head is a peculiar limestone formation called The Gate. Here the river narrows and the cliffs rise sheer from the water in as breath-taking a bit of scenery as you can find in the north.

Shortly after, the Flat River, around which most of the tragedy of the area centres, flows into the Nahanni. A few miles upstream the Nahanni tumbles 316 feet over the spectacular Virginia Falls. There are said to be cliff dwellings in this area but this has only been vaguely substantiated.

There is a heavy rainfall in the area which accounts for the mysterious mists which are, in reality, low-lying cloud banks. The river sometimes rises six feet in a single night. And if there is little gold for the prospector in the area there is certainly plenty of untapped treasure for the cameraman.

. The stories of death, disappearance, murder and gold which have kept the Nahanni and Flat Rivers in the headlines for half a century starts in 1900 when an Indian named Little Nahanni brought a rich gold-bearing quartz sample out to Fort Liard. He claimed to have found it near the mouth of the Flat River. Until this time the Indians, with the silent co-operation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Roman Catholic church, had done their best, by all accounts, to keep the white men out of their hunting grounds in the Nahanni country. But four years later, a second Indian found gold on a tributary of the Flat and there was a small stampede that petered out except for the persistence of Willie McLeod.

Who Shot the McLeods?

McLeod, tall and fair-haired, was renowned as a hunter who could stalk a moose better than the natives. He lived off the land almost entirely. In the spring of 1905 Willie found gold on Bennett Creek. He filled a box with placer and quartz samples, only to lose it when his boat upset in the Flat River canyon. Undaunted, he returned, panned enough nuggets to fill a 10ounce Eno’s bottle, and went back to Fort Liard. Here he and his brother Frank teamed up with a young Scottish engineer named Weir and headed back for the gold fields. They were never seen alive again.

Three years later, after a prolonged search, their brother Charley found the skeletons of Frank and Willie on the right bank of the river in Deadman’s Valley, close to the second canyon. Both men had been shot as they lay rolled in their blankets, one on each side of the fire. Contrary to popular belief, they had not been

decapitated and their hair helped identify them. Willie’s watch still hung on a branch above his skeleton. The boys had apparently been on the way back from the mine in early winter. There was no trace of their partner, Weir the engineer, and he has not been seen since.

It is considered significant by prospectors that all the men who have met with foul play in the Nahanni have been looking for gold, or have found gold, in the Flat River area. Martin Jorgensen, a hardy Yukon prospector, met a fate similar to the McLeod’s in 1917. He had apparently found gold, for he sent a message to Poole Field, over on the Ross River, that he had “struck it rich.” Field came over the divide only to find Jorgensen’s cabin burned to the ground and Jorgensen himself shot, apparently from a distance. All that remained of Jorgensen was a headless skeleton. His burned cabin was on the eastern bank of the Nahanni not far from the mouth of the Flat. There was no trace of his gold. It is Jack Stanier’s conviction that Frank Henderson stumbled on Jorgensen’s find last summer.

The mystery surrounding the death of “Yukon Fisher,” an outlaw wanted by the RCMP, has never been cleared up, nor is it known where he got the coarse nuggets with which he used to buy his shells from Poole Field’s trading post on the Ross River. Fisher’s bones were found in 1927 on the same Bennett Creek which the McLeod brothers had staked a score of years before.

The Wandering Girl

Nor has the death of Phil Powers, whose charred bones were found in the ashes of his cabin on the Flat River in 1931, been fully explained. The RCMP investigated hi 5 death and blamed a faulty stovepipe for burning down the cabin and cremating Powers, but prospectors have been quick to point up several flaws in this theory. In the first place, Powers was an experienced prospector, who, in common with all sourdoughs, built his cabin so there was plenty of room for the stovepipe to go through the roof without touching the timbers. Further, if the pipe had ignited the roof, causing it to cave in, the poles and dirt would fall inside the cabin, helping to extinguish the fire and leaving several charred logs. The fire that destroyed Powers’ cabin was so intensely hot that it left only the bottom log and very little of Powers. Moreover, Powers’ cache was untouched except that the cans of gasoline which he needed for his power boat were empty. It has been suggested that somebody standing outside the window shot Powers as he lay on his bunk, then burned the cabin down.

Most of the others who died in the Nahanni area have never been found. Somewhere in the Flat River country lie the bones of Annie Laferte, a niece of Mrs. Field. While on a hunting party with the Fields in 1926 she disappeared into the bush. Months later, an Indian named Big Charley told how he saw her climbing a hill nearly naked. Concluding that a devil had got her, he refused to follow. She was, apparently, a mental case.

Greed for gold claimed the life of Angus Hall, a prospector who went in to stake claims on the Flat River in 1928. Impatient of the slowness of his party, Hall pushed ahead and was never seen again.

Bill Epier and his partner Joe Mulholland disappeared on the Nahanni River in 1936. Another partner of Mulholland’s spent years searching for them without success. All he found was their burned cabin on Glacier Lake, 100 miles above Virginia Falls.

It is possible they went through thin ice on their way back to the post at the river’s mouth in late spring.

Besides several unidentified men who went missing in the area, there is Henderson’s partner, Patterson, who was supposed to meet him at Virginia Falls in June, 1946, and didn’t show up.

The story of the Nahanni Valley, its lost gold mine and its brooding, evil spirits, still goes on. But, with dozens of men ready to probe its secrets, the Headless Valley legend stands on

shaky ground, as the legend of Tropical Valley did a decade ago. But old legends, like new fountain pens, are virtually indestructible. You can depend on it that when the tantalizing story of Headless Valley starts to die down, the burning embers of the tale will be used sometime in the future to kindle more folklore about other uncharted valleys in the cloud-mantled mountains of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, far above the fifty-four forty line,