Alexis Bellanger

Clinker built boat used on the Fraser River

Alexis Bellanger was steersman of a boat like this, when he was shot and killed at the mouth of Quesnel’s River and the Fraser. Clinker built boats similar to this Fort Langley boat were used all through the fur trade, mostly west of the Rocky Mountains

With some hard work and a little luck, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here:

This is a British Columbia story that many have heard — a story of multiple deaths and murders. The first murder (that of Bellanger) happened on the Fraser River just after Alexander Caulfield Anderson had left to take charge of Fort Colvile. But Anderson had sheltered the First Nations man that later murdered Bellanger. This is what James Robert Anderson, eldest son of A.C. Anderson, had to say about the murder of Bellanger in his unpublished manuscript, “Indian Tribes of British Columbia,” [Mss. 1912, Box 16, file 1, BCA].

“About the year 1846, an Indian, destitute and starving, made his way during the winter to Fort Alexandria, then in charge of my late father, where he was cared for and fed until spring, when he returned to his tribe. Some time after, the bowsman, one Alexis Belanger, of one of the bateaux conveying furs from some of the up river points, was shot and killed when nearing Alexandria [incorrect]. Supplies were immediately stopped and all relations with the Indians broke off until the murderer was delivered up, dead or alive. The story then leaked out, that on his return to his people the recipient of charity had been held in derision and was told that he was the white man’s bond man or slave and that he would not dare to kill a white man and so on…

“Goaded by these marks of ridicule he took the earliest opportunity of showing his courage by committing the murder in question. He then fled into the mountains and ensconced himself in a barricaded position where he remained hidden for some time. Eventually one of his relations and another Indian agreed to deliver him up to the authorities.

“Guided by the barking of a dog, the two men made their way to the place of concealment and while, by agreement, the relation parleyed with the outlaw, the other man made his way round and shot him from behind. And here arises another queer trait in the Indian character, for no sooner was the deed accomplished as designed, then the relative turned on his companion and threatened to shoot him. However the matter was patched up and friendly relations restored between the native and the Fort.”

Now James was only ten years old when this incident happened, and he recorded it after his father’s death. In September, the boats were going upriver, not down. Nor was James’s recollections a primary source, though he may have had inside information. But Alexander Caulfield Anderson knew Alexis Bellanger from many years earlier: Anderson was temporarily in charge at Fort St. James in 1843, when Bellanger argued with William McBean:

Fort St. James Post Journals, 1840-46, B.188/a/19, HBCA: Friday 3rd [March, 1843]: “Mr McBean [at the Babine post] wrote that the Indians are apparently well-disposed, and professed amicable intentions; but he advanced serious complaints against his interpreter Bellanger, whose removal he urged in the strongest terms. The man has, it appears. threatened to leave the establishment & in all respects seems, by Mr. McBean’s account, to be more attached to the Indians cause than to ours. Fear is the ascribed reason….

“Wed. 8th… Last night Alexis Bellanger cast up from Babines, bearing a note from Mr. McBean, notifying his serious illness & requesting medicines. This morning I sent Alexis back with medicines and directions for their use, together with a little rice. I questioned Alexis as to his misconduct towards Mr. McBean, part of which he did not attempt to deny, but gave a different colouring to the accusations preferred against him. After receiving a severe reprimand he promised to afford ground for no further complaint. I am happy to remark that affairs are pretty tranquil in that quarter….”

So Anderson had no further difficulties with Bellanger, but it seems that others did. From Bruce McIntyre Watson’s book, Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858, here is Bellanger’s bio:

Bellanger was described as impetuous, bright, and complex character. “Entering the HBC around age thirteen, Bellanger was quick with languages, moved with a rough crowd and married when he was twenty. In 1837 he had his superior removed as he said he had been unduly familiar with his wife. In turn, the superior claimed that Bellanger was an over-jealous wife beater. From that point he was accused of stealing, evicted from posts and deserted several times. In spite of receiving “sound drubbings” he was back in the employ of the HBC, often as a freeman. By 1848 he was a guide on one of five boats that traveled from Fort St. James down the Fraser to Fort Alexandria. [Again, incorrect, as the boats would have been going upriver in September]. On September 22, from a cliff overlooking the mouth of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers, Bellanger was shot through the body by a Quesnel Native, apparently in a revenge killing. He was taken to Fort Alexandria only to die eight days later; he was buried at the post in a ceremony attended by a large number of people. Punitive measures for the killing of Alexis Belanger taken by the Company caused three innocent people to be killed. Only later was the accused murderer killed by his own uncle.” [Bellanger’s name is spelled both ways in the HBCA records, in Bruce Watson’s book, and in any records I have].

This is how Reverend A.G. Morice describes Bellanger’s death in his book, The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, [London: John Lane, 1906] p. 266:

“At that time there lived amongst the Indians of the Quesnel band a young man named Tlhelh, who, having lost his wife, had sworn to revenge her death on a white man. such, at any rate, is the native account of the cause of the rash act that was to follow; but it is to be presumed that there was another motive guiding Tlhelh in the choice of his victim. As early as the 3rd of March, 1843, A.C. Anderson, writing from Stuart Lake to W. McBean, notiied him that he had just received a note from Mr. Lane, of Alexandria, stating that Natsilh and two other Indians were said to have gone off from Stella (NOT Alexandria, as Morice says — but Fraser’s Lake) in order to kill Belanger, who was then stationed at the opposite extremity of the district. The fact that he was singled out for execution by very distant Indians can be construed, without rashness, as indicating that the miscreant had committed in that quarter another of his usual misdeeds.”

This is interesting: someone has emailed me to tell me that there is a linkage between Fort Alexandria and Stella, as the fort is referred to as Stella or Stella-yeh in some of the later Colonial Despatches, including Lieut H.S. Palmer’s “Sketch of the Route from North Bentinck Arm to Fort Alexander.” This is perfectly believable, as the Dakelh First Nations of that time called First Nations to the south “Atnah,” meaning “other.” Those to the west of them were “Atnah yoo.” So, to return to Morice’s story:

“Be this as it may, the Stuart Lake brigade had been for a few days on its way back [on its way back to Fort St. James], and its boats had just been painfully poled up to the site of the Quesnel native village, when Nadetnoerh, Tlhelh’s maternal uncle, scornfully addressing the young man, exclaimed:

Here is the one who was to kill a white man. See how many of them have just passed; how many did he shoot?

“And seizing his nephew’s gun, an old piece with a short barrel, he threw it away some distance in the direction of the river, shouting at the same time:

There goes that good-for-nothing gun!

“Tlhelh, mortified at thus being directly accused of cowardice, silently took up his arm, blackened his face with coal, and ascending the cliff close by, came in full view of the brigade, which was already in the act of crossing the stream to avoid the angry billows caused by the meeting of the Quesnel River with the Fraser.

“All the boats, the last of which was steered by Belanger, had already left the left bank of the latter stream, when a detonation from a fire-arm took every boatman by surprise, a ball striking at the same time the water by the side of the last boat.

“”My! they seem to be firing at us,” exclaimed Belanger, who continued to hold fast in the water the paddle he used as a rudder.

“Presently he was seen to grow pale and, sinking slowly on the Indian next to him, he remarked that he thought he had been shot. Having reached the other side of the river, they put ashore, when a slight examination brought out the fact that a musket ball had traversed his breast. After attending to his wound, and bestowing on him what little care the circumstances permitted, [Donald] Manson sent him back to Fort Alexandria, where he died eight days afterwards.”

Here’s how the story goes, from the primary sources of the HBCA:

From the Fort Alexandria Journals, 1848-1851, B.5/a/8, HBCA, journal kept by Donald McLean:

[13] “Tues. 24th [September, 1848] Hear very unwelcome news from Mr. [Donald] Manson today. One of the men Alexis Belanger was shot through the body by an Indian of Bear’s Lake & [was sent] down here for recovery. From what I can judge at present I don’t think there is any danger. The post is entirely destitute of medicine & it is only through kind providence to amend for the better. The wretch who perpetuated this deed is an Indian who Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson save the life last winter after having done this kindness for him — the wretch — the first thing that he did was to kill two horses belonging to the company & ever since that affair he has never dared to show his face here.

“Monday 25th. Bellanger going on favorably. Gave him a dose of calomel but had not operated [?] towards evening I tried two suppositories (made of calomel & soap) in the rectum but without effect. [Good heavens!]

“Wednesday 17th. Bellanger going on favourably. The greatest pain lies about the region of the Stomache. He has been to [the] stove two or three times during the day…

“Friday 29th. Bellanger a little better. Complains of pain about the lower region. Poor man I cannot alleviate his sufferings as I am entirely destitute of medicines…

“Saturday 30th. Belanger died about 10 o’clock last night. Before death he discharged large clots of blood. To the last he appeared conscientious [conscious].

“Sunday 1st [October] The Indians of this place in a state of commotion. An Indian Lad who was watching our baggage of salmon on the opposite side of the River was shot at with an arrow by an Indian who is supposed to be the accomplice of the Murderer — but luckily he missed his mark the arrow [14] went through his shirt.

“Monday 2nd. Interred the remains of poor Belanger. All the people of the Fort & a great concourse of Indians attending. After the ceremony was performed all the Indians departed to their respective places…”

Someone else [probably Thomas Charles] is keeping the Fort Alexandria journal in January, 1849: [20] “Monday 5th. Today Mr. [Donald] McLean spoke to Whaleteh [chief of the Fort Alexandria band] & several others of the principal Indians of the Fort & the reasons assigned for the murder of poor Belanger. that several years ago the murderer’s friends had been cut off by a party of Crees at Tete Jaune’s Cache & for this reason he took his revenge upon a half breed Cree as Belanger was one.

[21] “Saturday 10th [February] … early this morning I was advertised [sic] by Martin that Mr. McLean & party had killed the chief of Quesnel’s River & another Indian Loon [?] after this intelligence Mr. McLean & party arrived [when] the former truly confirmed the report of Martin. Mr. McLean went up with the intention of killing the murderer of poor Belanger & as there was no chance of his falling in with him he killed the instigator (the chief). The other young man (a son-in-law of the Chief) was shot in mistake.”

At this point, Donald McLean takes over the journal-keeping again: “1849 Sunday 11 [February] Weather clear and cold, It appears that the chiefs son in law killed by me was an Indian of this place and some of his relatives being near the Fort I send them word to cross to the Fort, one of them Grand Corps made his appearance to whom I endeavoured to explain matters — he appeared satisfied and spoke very well the Brother of the young man killed also sent word that it was not his intention to do anything against the Whites [we] however keep upon our Guard.

“Monday 12th. News has arrived from above that a woman was severely wounded and her child killed, by our fire. Should this be the case I am sure that it should have happened as it was not my intention to injure the Woman or children. The woman said to be wounded passes for a daughter of Plomondo…” [Simon Plamondon, perhaps?]

The wounded woman arrived at the fort and was nursed back to good health. McLean said, on 21st February, that “she arrived yesterday in a very low state, she is wounded in the shoulder. I shall endeavour all in my power to assist her more particularly as it was never my intention to have injured her.” [fo. 23]

In August 1849, McLean wrote: [35] “Wednesday 8th… Some of the Quesnel River Indians are making their appearance — they intend to work on Salmon in this vicinity and say that the Bears Lake Indians are coming this way also. No news of the Murderer of Alexis Bellanger — I suspect that the Nascaly Indians know his whereabouts but wish to conceal it from the whites. Time will tell if my conjecture is right or not. Confound the Black vagabonds the whole squad deserve a drubbing if they conceal the [murderer].” McLean was known to not have any fondness for the Natives of any part of the territory he lived in.

In March, 1850, [50] “Sunday 10.. I have this day been given to understand that Tlhelhe the Murderer of Alexis Bellanger is encamped a couple of days March from this, and I have [set] on sending my Interpreter P[ost] M[aster] [Francois] Boucher and Pierre Turcot with a couple of Indians to reconnoiter, and if possible to [51] kill the scoundrel, who has threatened to murder more whites — he merits no mercy, I have instructed my men that should they not chance to discover him, they must at all events destroy his stock of Provisions which he has cached at a fork in the upper part of Quesnel’s River. The Quesnel River Indians ought to be severely punished as they no doubt one and all know of his whereabouts but not one of them gives me any information…

“Friday 15. As Yesterday. This evening Bouche[r] and Turcot arrived they discovered the place where the Murderer had remained during the Salmon Season but the Rascal had changed his quarters and they could not discover what route he had taken nor could they find his Cache owing to the quantity of snow. I have given the Indians notice that I do not at all approve of their conduct, and that it will eventually bring a severe punishment upon them if they persist in protecting the villain. Whaleteh, the [Fort Alexandria] chief says that he is anxious to have him killed and a party of 10 Indians have volunteered to search him out and bring him dead or alive….” When the fur traders cut off their essential supplies of ammunition and tobacco, the Natives caved pretty quickly.

This is not by any means the full story: Reverend Morice has plenty to say about the likelihood of a First Nations man killing his nephew. We only know what was written in the fur trade journals of the time. Morice says that the uncle, Neztel, whipped Donald McLean’s face with the scalp of his nephew — but of course that story does not appear in the Fort Alexandria journals. It may be elsewhere, but I have not yet found it. I doubt that Donald McLean would have reported that to anyone!

This was a long chase — two years, or more before the murderer was discovered and killed! this was a case where the deaths and murders stacked up, one after another. Donald McLean was shot and killed some years later, supposedly to revenge this death — a death that resulted from McLean’s shooting of the two innocent men and a child: a shooting that was a direct result of the murder of Alexis Bellanger: that supposedly was caused by a murder at Tete Jaune’s Cache! And that is, at times, fur trade history!

For your information, Montrose McGillivray was one of the men who accompanied Donald McLean on his journey to avenge the murder of Alexis Bellanger. He took part in this murder, but he died a natural death before he could be murdered — if he would have been murdered. I liked Montrose McGillivray and it shocked me that he was involved in this shooting. However, it seems he did not take an active part in the unnecessary shootings, though there is always a “story” behind the story that we will never know.

You might also enjoy reading Montrose McGillivray’s story. I have written about him here:

An Update: In the HBCA records I found an additional piece of information about Bellanger’s death, in a letter from Donald Manson:

Stuarts Lake, 20th Feby 1850 to the Governor, Chief Factors and Chief Traders: “Mr. McLean.. in reaching Alexandria, learnt the whole truth [of the murder]. It has been satisfactorily proven by the voluntary testimony of every Indian of the Tribe, that the Murderer, whose first intention it was, to have shot me in passing a village below Alexandria, having been prevented by a well-disposed Indian, from doing so, took his route upwards, preceding our ascent with the boats, & actually passed a night or two with us in our encampment, though entirely unknown to any of us. On reaching the [native] village of Quesnells River he had entirely abandoned all idea of injuring any of us and with this determination put away his arms. The Chief of the village, the same who was shot by Mr. McLean last winter, in perceiving this, took down the Gun saying with a sneer, “Oh, this is the Gun that was to have killed so many whites, see, look, look my friends how the bodies are drifting down the river, well, I always thought my young man, naming the Murderer, brave, but I am now sorry to find he is no better than an old woman;” on finishing this speech, he contemptuously threw the Gun on the ground. The murderer, incensed by these remarks, again determined to do evil, and the Boats arriving about the same time, he had I regret to say, little difficulty in executing his diabolical scheme. The son in law of the Chief likewise took a very active part in spurring on the murderer, & indeed all the Indians present on that occasion are more or les implicated in the crime being perfectly aware of the murderer’s intentions, still not one advertised us of our danger. I have sifted this matter in every imaginable shape & manner, and have failed in tracing out any cause which could have led to the perpetration of such an outrage upon us. The fact is, they thought they could shoot us at any time with impunity, & that the actual murderer would be the only one who could run any danger of being punished afterwards. [D.5/27, fo. 309, HBCA]

Donald Manson is right. The First Nations men could shoot the HBC men at any time. They did not usually chose to do that — partially because they knew what the punishment would be. But also, because they chose not to.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.