Buried Alive

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area.

Alexander Caulfield Anderson came into Fort Vancouver with the incoming Columbia Express of 1832. As he and his incoming Express party reached Fort Nez Percés, they had an interesting, but apparently not unusual, experience — a Walla Walla chief allowed himself to be buried alive. Here is how Anderson wrote of his experience in his lost manuscript titled “A Narrative of thirteen years residence in various parts between Montreal & the Pacific,” by A.C.A. of the Hudson’s Bay Company service. Mention of this manuscript was made in a letter now found in the Benjamin Tappan Papers in the Oregon Historical Society, Mss 127. Here goes:

“1st April 1846; Dear Son. I have been much interested by a story contained in a manuscript volume (which was lent to me) and I have copied it for your paper, the author of the manuscript Mr. Anderson is now at the head of the British establishment in Oregon… [At the time the letter was written, A.C. Anderson was nowhere near Oregon, but at Fort Alexandria.] The extract read this way:  

The most deliberate instance of suicide I remember to have heard of as occurring in any country took place at Walla Walla near the Columbia River in the year 1832 under the following circumstances as I learned them on the spot.

One of the principal chiefs of the place, rich in an unusual degree in all that constituted Indian opulence, had a favourite son, the only issue of a former marriage (beside a family by a more recent connection). This young man, entitled by parentage to the respect of his tribe, had moreover gained their affection by the suavity of his demeanour & the numerous accomplishments that distinguished him in a marked degree from all his companions. 

The hopes of a fond father became concentered in a son in whom so many [good?] qualities were developed, & every kind of indulgence was lavished on him. After attaining the age of seventeen, symptoms of a decline began to manifest themselves, but the insidious approaches of disease were so gradual that it was long ere any suspicion of the truth arose to alarm his friends: but at length increased debility gave warning of the truth. Still the father strove to persuade himself that the disorder was but of a temporary nature & that the return of spring would bring with it renewed health & activity, but their fond anticipations were doomed to be disappointed. The winter passed over with little alteration, & with the advancing year the dreaded symptoms increased in [violence], then after a month or two the catastrophe arrived. 

Magnificent obsequies were prepared; the finest racers were culled from the herds that roamed free & unfettered around the grave (for the lad had expressed a dying wish to be interred after the fashion of the white men) — had been dug by the father’s directions deeper than is customary & doubly as broad. The deportment of the latter during these preparations had been unusually calm & collected: indeed with his son’s death every incentive to action seemed to cease; & to the astonishment of all he appeared to contemplate that event with a resignation none had ventured to hope for. 

Upon the day of the funeral a large concourse of people assembled. The grave had been dug in a conspicuous situation near the fort; horses were led thither & property of all descriptions was heaped by the side; the first as a sacrifice, the rest as offerings of respect to be suspending around the burial place. Kettles, blankets, pieces of scarlet cloth, broken or torn into shreds… were lying there. At length the body was lowered into the grave & the bystanders prepared to cover it with earth. At this juncture, the father, who during the whole ceremony had stood silently aloof, seemingly inattentive to all outward objects, advanced to the brink of the pit, & arresting those who were about to fill it up, thus addressed the assembly. Commencing with the birth of his son he proceeded to enumerate the several virtues which had distinguished him, detailing all the circumstances of his illness & his premature death, & concluding a long & mournful ovation by expressing a determination not to survive his son. Upon this he sprung into the grave & clasping the corpse which lay shrouded in mats at the bottom, commanded the by-standers to complete their work. Amazed, they resisted & employed every argument which suggested itself to dissuade the father from the horrid determination he had expressed. Wife, children, relatives of every degree strove to move his resolution, but in vain, his will prevailed, the grave was filled & the remains of father & son rest in it together.

And so the chief was buried alive. One would think that this is the only story of live burial that would be written of — but it was not! In his chapter titled “The Burial of the Dead and the Living,” Peter Skene Ogden tells a similar story in the book supposedly written by him, Traits of American Indian Life and Character, by a Fur Trader. In his case, the suicide occurred in autumn 1825. At Walla Walla, Ogden was “enjoying the long disused luxury of a glass of wine, in company with Mr. [John Warren] D[ease] and his companion, when a young Indian entered…

and requested the presence of the former gentleman at his tent. The visit was rather a long one, and on his return, Mr. Dease informed us that the “Eagle,” a chief of this place, had lost a son, who had just breathed his last. This was the second of his children who had died within a few months, and the bereaved father appeared to be in a very desponding state in consequence… 

Dease was invited to attend the burial; and being the commandant of the establishment, could not with propriety refuse showing his mark of respect to the family of the chief. The invitation was likewise extended to the other gentlemen and myself, for whom the same inducement did not exist, so that, in short, we felt disposed to decline. Yielding to the persuasion of Mr. Dease, however, we accompanied him, and, as the event turned out, I was not sorry we did so. The scene we witnessed was unparalleled in my experience, and though horrifying in the extreme, it was yet, from its very strangeness, of absorbing interest.

The grave was dug on a small eminence, some furlongs distant from the fort. On reaching the spot we found an immense concourse of natives assembled, among whom the father and family of the deceased were conspicuous. The former stood on the brink of the grave, in a desponding mood; and though he permitted no outward symptom of grief to appear, it was yet evident to all that a mighty and continued effort alone kept it in restraint…. At length the father gave a stern order that the body should be deposited in the grave; a mandate which was reluctantly obeyed by her who had equal cause to mourn their great loss. The old man then commanded silence, and in a resolute tone of voice began to address the assembled multitude. Having called attention to the different events of his life, as connected with the rank he occupied, he proceeded to remind them — always addressing himself to Mr. Dease — of the domestic afflictions he had endured, concluding with the recent death of his eldest and most beloved son, whose corpse was now before us. “And now,” said he, “the string of my bow is broken, the last hope of my declining days has forsaken me. Seek not to dissuade me from the resolution I have adopted, for I am resolved upon following him and all you can urge will be in vain; life has no longer an charm for me…”

The silence that now prevailed was so deep that not even a breath was audible. the old man folded his blanket around him, cast one farewell look on the fair fields and the broad-rolling river in the vicinity; and then, to the surprise of all present, descended composedly into the pit, and laid himself upon the corpse of his departed son. “Throw in the earth, fill up the grave, cover up my last earthly residence,” exclaimed he, “Nay, do not hesitate, for I am resolved to die.”

And so the old chief, “Eagle,” was buried alive with his dead son, once again in sight of Fort Nez Percés. 

So that is two stories of First Nations (American Indians) being buried alive. I found a third (or re-found it) — and this one is told in 1847, by artist Paul Kane. It is found in his Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. Kane was on his way from Fort Vancouver to Fort Colvile, where he would join the outgoing Fall Express. This burial occurred some years before, according to Kane, and may well be a re-telling of one of the two stories above — maybe all these stories are the re-telling of one story, it is hard to know.

This is what Paul Kane wrote: “While at the fort one of the gentlemen of the Establishment, who had been among the Indians for forty years, and who had resided for the most part of that time amongst the Walla Wallas, related to me the following story, which I shall introduce as nearly as possible in the manner in which it was told to me…” The gentleman is likely to have been William McBean:

The old man now devoted his whole time to the instruction of this boy: he taught him to hunt the buffalo and the moose, to snare the lynx and trap the bear, to draw the bow and poise the spear with unerring aim…. But the Great Spirit took this one too; and the lonely and desolate father shut himself up in the solitude of his lodge, and no one saw him nor spoke to him, nor was there any sound of wailing or of grief heard from that sad abode. At length the appointed day arrived upon which the body was to be laid in its last resting-place, where the chief had ordered a large grave to be made; and the funeral procession being formed, the chief came forth and placed himself at their head, but to the astonishment of all, instead of being dressed in the shabby garments indicative of mourning, he came forth arrayed in full war costume, fully equipped as if for some distant hostile excursion, painted with the most brilliant war paints, and hung round with the trophies of his many bloody and successful wars. 

Calmly and sternly he marched to the grave, and the body of his loved son having been laid in it, with all the Indian treasures supposed to be useful to them in the next world the bereaved father stood on the verge and addressed his tribe….

He spoke of himself, and then of his son who was now dead. His long speech ended with these words:

“You, my people, have never disobeyed me, and will not fail to fulfil my last commands. I now leave you and when I lie extended at his side, heap the earth over us both; nothing can change my purpose.” He then descended into the grave, and clasped the corpse in his arms. His people, after in vain endeavouring to change his resolution, obeyed his commands, and buried the living and the dead. A stick, with a piece of ragged red cloth, was the only monument erected over the warriors, but their names will form the theme of many an Indian talk as long as the Walla Walla tribe exists. 

And so the third Walla Walla chief was buried alive with his dead son near Fort Nez Percés. It seems not be have been a tradition among the Walla Wallas, but it certainly happened. I found it interesting that these three “buried alive” stories were told, and I wonder how often this happened, and if there are additional stories out there. Or are they all retellings of the same old story? I don’t know, but I enjoy the stories.

If you want to purchase my book in which this story would have appeared, were it relevant enough to the book (it wasn’t), you can do so through my publisher: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ The book is, of course, titled The York Factory Express. For those of you who might have thought I had two other books recently published — I do not. But I have upcoming books: one, “The HBC Brigades,” which I am presently submitting to publisher, and another, “Journeys” [working title] which is going to be edited by my editor next month.

Regarding submission to publishers: you all know that my publisher was sick, but you may not know that he died of his illness. So I have to find a new publisher — and publishers that are as good as my old publisher are very hard to find. With these three projects going one (plus the book I am working on when I have time), you can see I am pretty busy — but it also means that you have lots to look forward to!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

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If a historical group wants me to give a talk via Zoom I can manage it, if you give me lots of time to organize it. But at the moment I am working on something else — something that will eventually appear here, if I find it works. Obviously it is something that appeals to me far more than Zoom does. And so, we will see what happens.