The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

As you will see in this post, , there was an Indigenous man at the Fort Alexandria post that creeped everyone else out, because of his supposed direct involvement in a cannibalism story. Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote:

The only instance that might in any way countenance the shameful accusation [of cannibalism] that I ever knew, took place, or was reported to have taken place, many years ago at Fort George [Prince George], in the remote interior, where an Indian was said to have had recourse to the horrible expedient, to save life while starving in the mountains. The Indian thus accused, however, was regarded as a kind of pariah by the rest; and by the voyageurs, with a pious horror, wad designated the Mangeur de monde, and scrupulously shunned…[“Guide to British Columbia,” by A.C. Anderson, also in “Dominion of the West,” by A.C. Anderson].

I always wondered why the Canadiens at Fort Alexandria were horrified by this story, more so than Anderson, an Anglican, was. They were Catholic, of course, and so I asked a Frenchman I knew, who I correctly presumed was Catholic, if Catholics would have had a particular horror about someone who had cannibalised another man, even in situations of desperation. No, he said, there was no particular thing against cannibalism, other than the normal creeping horror we would all feel.

So, it was not Catholicism that caused the horror among the Canadiens at Fort Alexandria. But this paragraph is supported by another story of cannibalism, which was recorded in Alexander Ross’s book, The Fur Hunters of the Far West: a Narrative of Adventures in the Oregon and Rocky Mountains [London: Smith, Elder & co., 1855], which says:

From Hostile Island our friends continued their voyage without any other casualty, until they reached the Rocky Mountains; but there fatal disasters awaited them. The waters being unusually high, much time was lost in ascending the current [of the Columbia River], so that by the time they arrived at Portage Point their provisions got short; some of the hands falling sick also and being unable to undertake the difficult portage of eighty miles on foot, the gentleman in charge had no alternative left but to fit out and send back a boat from that place with seven men, three of whom were unable to undertake the portage. After being furnished with some provisions, the returning party took the current; but on reaching the Dalles des Morts they disembarked, contrary to the usual practice, to haul the craft down by a line; unfortunately, they quarrelled among themselves, and letting go of the line, in an instant the boat, wheeling round, was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and lost.

The sick and feeble party had now no alternative, but either to starve, or to walk a distance of 300 miles, over a country more fit for goats than for men. All their provisions were lost with the boat; neither were they provided with guns nor ammunition for such a journey, even had they been in health. In this forlorn state, they quarrelled again, and separated. Two of the strongest and most expert succeeded in reaching the establishments below, after suffering every hardship that human beings could endure. The other five remained, of whom one man alone survived, deriving his wretched subsistence from the bodies of his fallen comrades. This man reached Okanogan, more like a ghost than a living creature, after a lapse of two months. [Peel Prairie, Peel 318].

I read this story in another place, and although it is said to be in A.G. Harvey’s manuscript, “Douglas of the Fir: A Biography of David Douglas, Botanist” [Harvard U.P., 1947], I am not aware of having read this piece. But it is in Wikipedia, and so this must be the source, as it is almost the same story that I remember:

The French form [Dalles des Morts] originated with NWC voyageurs in 1817, when seven men were wrecked here and all their food was lost. They began walking along the river hoping to reach Spokane House, the nearest establishment, over 300 miles away. High water forced them up into the almost impenetrable forest. One by one they died, the survivors resorting to cannibalism. The last one was found by Indians on the shore of Upper Arrow lake and was taken to Kettle Falls, whence he was conducted to Spokane House. His story that he had killed his last companion in self defence was not believed, and he was dismissed from the NWC service, escaping more serious punishment owing to lack of evidence against him.

Well, its not exactly the same story. I remember that pieces of the smoked body parts of his companion were discovered in his baggage and the full story then came out, with all its horrors. The incident is also mentioned in Ross Cox’s book, Adventures on the Columbia River [London: 1831]. And it is also mentioned in Edward Affleck’s The Kootenays in Retrospect, vol. i: Columbia River Chronicles. I don’t own his book, but I read all of his books years ago.

Update: I did find another version of this story, and it is the place where Edward Affleck got his narrative. You will find it here:

So we are left with the supposedly horrified voyageurs at Spokane House. Again, why were the voyageurs so horrified, and the gentlemen not so bothered? This story has circled through my memory every year or so, and I never found a solution to it — until I learned about the Windigo!

In Algonquian folklore, the windigo or wendigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada/Manitoba. The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.

I saved this from Twitter, and hadn’t realized that this, too, comes from Wikipedia. But there is lots of information here, and it describes the Wendigo as being “gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones… [Its] complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave…”

So, how does knowing this make a difference? Firstly, even in the early days, many of the voyageurs that crossed the mountains into what is now British Columbia were metis — Canadien and Cree, for the most part. These mixed-blood men would have brought their Indigenous culture across the mountains with them. In fact, I know they did. Although I have never paid attention to this before now, in his memoirs my great-uncle, James Robert Anderson [son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson], wrote down the story of the “windigo,” as he heard it from an HBC trader. (He might also have heard it from his grandmother, who was Cree/Metis). On page 40 he wrote, sometime after 1914, that someone might have “been put down as a harmless lunatic, or possibly in the estimation of the Crees, as a Wih-tee-coo# and shot with a silver bullet, the only means of encompassing the death of those fabled ghouls.” The # meant, “see note at end of chapter,” and this is what he recorded there:

A Wih-tee-coo amongst the Crees is a person who through some occult cause becomes Wih-tee-coo, in point of fact a ghoul being, as it were, possessed of the devil, and in that state the only food craved for is the human flesh, and therefore held in great dread. A Wih-tee-coo was supposed to be afflicted with a lump of ice in the chest. These unfortunates, probably through illness, becoming emaciated from loss of appetite, are at first regarded with suspicion and finally it is whispered amongst the tribe that he or she becomes Wih-tee-coo and thereupon the only remedy is death. Ordinary methods are of no avail against the possessed one; a silver bullet along being the effective missile. The following incident was related to me by Mr. H.B. Round, late of the Hudson’s Bay Company and who spent a number of years in the North West. It happened that an unfortunate woman became ill and in the course of time was pronounced Wih-tee-coo. The obvious remedy to the untutored savage was of course death, but before proceeding to extremes it was decided to consult Mr. Round, as the head man in charge of the post. He listened to the evidence and after due consideration he said that being only a lay man he had no power, but he advised laying the case before the Roman Catholic Priest for his advice. This was acted upon and on the return of the delegation they were asked what had been advised. He was told that the Priest had given a bottle containing a liquid which was to be thrown over the woman in the presence of the tribe and that thereupon she would be cured. Mr. Round asked to see the bottle, and he found it to be a disused Pain Killer bottle filled with holy water. Needless the say the cure was effective.

A case was related to me many years ago to the effect that a Wih-tee-coo having developed in a certain Cree village he was hunted out and unavailing attempts were made to kill him by ordinary means. He at length took refuge in an outhouse where he was eventually killed with a silver bullet. [Memoirs, James Robert Anderson, in Mss. 1912, BCA, but this comes from my personal copy.]

So, there you have the Windigo, or Wendigo, stories that came to the west side of the Rocky Mountains with the Cree/Metis. Where would the Indigenous people have obtained silver bullets? Other questions arise, of course, but its always fun to follow these stories to wherever they may lead. Maybe some of you will have something to add, or something to learn from it. I hope it answers a question for you: or if not, that it at least amuses you.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.