“Additional Information: Ate His Family”: Wendigos and Murder Trials in 19th Century Western Canada

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.

A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:

“Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.” 1879-1880. Photographer: G.M. Dawson. Image from Library and Archives Canada.

The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie.  I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.

I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.

What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”,  reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.

I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”

Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.
“Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.” Photographer: G.M. Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.

Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.

So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.

What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.

In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder. 

A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:

“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308: Incident peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/BRM/1896/04/30/3/Ar00308.html
Newspaper headline for an article recounting the Wendigo incident at Trout Lake described by historian Nathan Carlson. The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so.  A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”

– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.

Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.

After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.

Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.

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Flowers From No Man’s Land

Last winter, I worked as a research assistant for an author writing a book on the Battle of the Somme. While I was at the Canadian War Museum, going through boxes and boxes of mud-splattered diaries and letters written on battered paper from a century ago, I ran across this surprising object. It is a little glass circle containing a clipping of a poem, perhaps from a newspaper, with pressed flowers, presumably from No-Man’s-Land. Holding it in my white gloved hands, I shivered.

Flowers From No Man's Land

We will remember them.

A Few Lesser-Known Online Libraries and Archives You Should Know

The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.

  • Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project).  Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!

    Group of children in costume showing the allies of the British during the First World War. PC002348, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Autumn outfits, 1915, courtesy of the University of Washington collection.
Autumn outfits, 1915, courtesy of the University of Washington collection.

Please post further online archive recommendations below!

Visiting Archives Large and Small

As friends and long time readers (and perhaps even long time readers who become friends?) have no doubt divined, I am currently an MA student in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa. Before working at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) this summer, the only experience I had in archives was as a researcher. One of the advantages of my summer internship at LAC (aside from the long but gorgeous bicycle commute that takes me all along the Ottawa River, past the Chaudière rapids, Parliament Hill and the Rideau Falls) is getting a fresh perspective on archives. Namely, we interns have been learning a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes at archival institutions. We are the cogs behind the scenes making certain functions of the LAC run: we get to edit files at the “back end” of the website, spend a lot of time using the databases, get our hands dirty processing files that won’t be available to the public for quite some time, and of course we get the chance to visit other archives, storage facilities, and research centres in the area to see how such institutions are run in the National Capital region.

(Side note: I won’t/can’t speak to what’s happening at LAC (loose lips sink ships, etc.) and I should probably make a point of saying that what I say here on this blog in no way represents LAC policy etc. etc. ad nauseam, but there are definitely interesting developments occurring behind the scenes. The intent of this blog post is to help researchers who have little experience with archives prepare themselves for their first visit.)

I have now visited numerous institutions in the Ottawa area, both as a researcher and behind the scenes as an intern on a tour. They include but are not limited to: the 395 Wellington Street LAC branch, the University of Ottawa archives, the War Museum Research Centre, the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationale du Québec (well, its regional office in Gatineau), and others. As of July, I added three new places to that list: the University of Alberta’s rare books collection, the Glenbow Museum and Archive in Calgary, and the Whyte Museum and Archive in Banff. In many ways these institutions differ widely in the focus and size of their collections as well as their access policies. Nevertheless, there are a few main commonalities. I thought that I would take the time to explain a few things and hand out a few pieces of advice for all of the awesome researchers who are just getting into visiting archives for the first time. Archives can be intimidating, but can be fonts of knowledge. If you have never visited an archive before but need to for research purposes, here are a few pieces of friendly advice for you.

Wartime found Government employees working in poorly-lit, crowded offices such as the Records and Files Department of the Experimental Farm.  Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN no. 3202901.
Wartime found Government employees working in poorly-lit, crowded offices such as the Records and Files Department of the Experimental Farm. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN no. 3202901.

I’ll get the most important piece of advice out of the way right off the bat: don’t just show up on the doorstep of the archive. Plan ahead. This is extremely important. Why? If you don’t, you will waste your time and the archivist’s time. Be prepared. How do you prepare yourself?

1) Know what documents you want to access ahead of time, insofar much as possible.

  • Does your archive have an online catalogue or database? Many do. Do some searching, find out what you want to see well before you visit. Ask what numbers are needed for the archivist to retrieve the files for you. Sometimes it is evident – i.e., there is only one call number/identification number, but in other cases (I’m looking at you, LAC!) there are a preponderance of numbers available: box numbers, MIKAN numbers, file numbers, accession numbers, system control numbers, and numbers from now-defunct systems of organization. Don’t be afraid send a message to the archivist asking what number as they need to find the box. Have these numbers and the names of the fonds/collections you want to access with you on the day of your visit. Print out any e-mail correspondence you had with an archivist; as I found out once, the archivist I had been in communication with was on holiday the day I was visiting, and the archivist on duty hadn’t been told I was coming and so didn’t have the call numbers on hand: that was in her colleague’s password protected e-mail inbox. It’s your responsibility as a researcher to know what you want to look at.
  • Are any digitized images or documents available online, through the archive’s website or otherwise? If so, to avoid wear and tear on the documents you may not even be allowed to access the originals in person without a very good reason. That’s why there are copies online and made available, so the document doesn’t get undue damage from being handled over and over. Make do with the online content, particularly if you are interested in the information within the material, and not, say, the actual material reality of the document – like what paper it is made out of.

2) Contact the archivist ahead of time. Call or e-mail ahead to request information. Tell them who you are, a brief summary of your project (like, measured in sentences, or one small paragraph), what institution (if any) you are associated with, when precisely you will be coming to visit their archive, and what specific items you want to look at, including call numbers. The contact information is often easily found on the archive’s website, usually under a dropdown entitled “Contact Us” or “Planning Your Visit.” Often archives request at least three to five days advance warning of visits, particularly at larger institutions like Library and Archives Canada.

This delay isn’t the archivists maliciously putting needless roadblocks in your way. There are good reasons for needing advanced notice to give you access to documents. For example, if you’re going to be looking at delicate material, like, say, nitrate photograph negatives (immensely popular from the 1880s to the 1940s), it likely stored in different conditions than textual documents and therefore may be in a different location. In fact, nitrate film should be stored far away from textual documents, in low concentrations and in cool conditions, to avoid the risk of degredation and spontaneous combustion. Yes, spontaneous combustion. In fact, Wikipedia has a whole page listing Ammonium nitrate disasters. Long story short, some documents may have to be stored in very specific conditions off site. When I visited LAC’s nitrate storage facility last month, it was way out in the boonies, far away from human habitation (fire regulations), and stored in concrete and metal vaults in varying temperatures depending on if it was about to be consulted or not. It’s taken from the coldest vault to a slightly less cold vault to acclimatize, then to a warmer one, then to room temperature. Even then, the boxes stay in plastic bags. You see, it can take up to three days to acclimatize the documents properly, and then it has to be shipped to a place where the researcher can consult them, which could be in a different city – or province. So, it’s not often just a simple matter of asking the archivist to go to the back room and collect the boxes for you. Don’t expect your documents right away, or even that afternoon. If you’re only in town for a few days, calling ahead is a priority.

2.5) Does your archive require an access card? LAC certainly does; you need your identification number to order anything, and must order the card ahead of time so it’s ready for you when you arrive. Other archives, particularly smaller ones, you can generally access without one after giving your name at the desk. Some may request you to leave ID.

3) Know your archive’s opening hours. In this time of fiscal responsibility and belt-tightening, archives are unfortunately one of the first things to get their funding cut. Out of sight, out of mind: people don’t realize how much maintenance and public service archives provide. So, often, archives have limited hours. During a staff open house at LAC last month, we had the chance to watch archival footage from the 1970s lauding the fact that LAC was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the dedicated researcher. Archivists in the room laughed, ironically, or maybe a bit bitterly. It’s hit or miss as to whether an archive is open on the weekend – often they aren’t – and some archives aren’t even open for the five work days of the week, but on odd days, or only by appointment. Sometimes they’re only open for three days a week. Sometimes there are longer hours if you’re only looking at microfilm and don’t need as much supervision. Sometimes smaller archives close for an hour around lunchtime. You should also check for holidays. Particularly if you’re doing research in a region or country that is not your own, there may be local or national holidays for which the archive is also closed. Check ahead of time; don’t be caught out upon your arrival.

If you’re coming from out of town, plan your visit carefully. If possible, give yourself an extra day on top of what you guestimate it will take to go through the documents at the archive. Maybe it will be a wash and they won’t have what you want. However, there may be unexpected delays in retrieving your documents, or, ideally (and this has happened to me), there is far more useful material than you anticipated and you need longer to go through the documents than you thought. Give yourself the ability to stay for extra time if you need it.

4) Know what tools you are allowed to bring. Ask questions like this:

  • Can I take photographs of the documents for consultation purposes? (Some archives don’t permit digital copies of any kind, even if you don’t use flash.)
  • Can I bring a tripod for my camera? (Some don’t like that either, possibly because it could topple and damage the material? To me, it is better than leaning over the documents at odd angles.)
  • Are flatbed scanners permitted? (Not often, but sometimes!)
  • Are there wall plugs so I can recharge my laptop or camera battery? (Always remember your power cords and camera rechargers/extra batteries.)
  • If photography is not permitted, are there photocopiers available for researchers?
  • What charges are associated with making copies?
  • Note: all archives should ban the use of pens and the presence of food and drink, even water, around historical documents, for conservation purposes. Do not try to sneak them in. Many institutions have lockers or cubbies for your valuables and your refreshments.

However, in an ideal world you will have: a pencil and notebook, laptop (if you want to type your notes or connect your digital camera directly to your computer), digital camera, and tripod. (Your camera will point downwards to take photographs of documents in the absence of a scanner.)

5) Know handling procedures. If it’s not clear from the website: ask. If you are unsure: ask.  If you have any concerns about handling procedures: ask. The archivists would probably rather you bothered them with these questions ahead of time than have you accidentally damage the documents through carelessness and have to deal with that later. Ask these kinds of questions:

  • Does an archivist need to be present when you examine the documents?
  • Are there stands and spacers available so you don’t damage the spines of bound documents by opening them incorrectly?
  • Are researchers permitted to make copies (photographs, scans, photocopies?) of the documents, and what paperwork needs to be filled out to do so? Some institutions require you to fill out a form for each copy, some require you to place a little acknowledgement card in the frame of each photograph. Note: most, if not all, archives ban the use of flash photography because light can damage archival material.
  • Can your documents (particularly if they are non-textual or oversized) be viewed in the normal reading room – or building – or must they be viewed elsewhere for conservation purposes? Some pieces, for example, particularly artwork, in the LAC’s holdings can only be consulted by researchers at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, QC, which is about a 20 minute’s taxi ride (longer by bus) across provincial boundaries from the consultation rooms at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. In the case of fragile documents, they aren’t shipped to you; you go to them.
  • Does the institution require you to wear gloves? Some archivists insist upon it to protect the documents from the oil on people’s fingers (especially if it’s photography), but others believe that loose gloves and fumbling hands do more to damage documents than any residue on clean and dry hands would.

First and foremost: follow the instructions of the archivist in front of you. Don’t try to argue with them. It’s often not them making the rules, but the institution – and definitely not you. They control your access to the documents, so follow their rules.

6) Consult the archive’s FAQ page. So many of your answers will be found there. However, don’t be afraid to ask your friendly neighbourhood archivist! The front end staff are there to help researchers. In theory, it is their job not just to be the guardians of storehouses of knowledge, but gatekeepers. The mandate of Library and Archives Canada is to “preserve the documentary heritage of all Canadians” … AND “to be a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all.” (Emphasis added.) Archives are generally supposed to make information publicly available, unless they have very good  reasons for going against their inherent reason for being (i.e., because of preservation, privacy, or national security restrictions). The archivists are there to help you, the researcher, do something with the documents under their purview. Most are generally helpful if you are respectful in return.

Caveat: not all archives have enough funding, staff, or staff training to be as helpful as one would like. This list of general advice is based on my experiences with Canadian archives. A friend of mine working as a research assistant and performing research in the UK and India (yes, we are all exceedingly jealous of her) struggles to find basic and clear finding aids in the regional archives, and is often confronted with the fact that some documents in the archives’ own catalogue just are not in the holdings. For more tales of adventure and woe from these archives, please see her travel/research blog posts on the subject. Some archives are more organized than others; some don’t have any websites or online databases at all, or don’t have a complete catalogue of all of their holdings. It may be in the building, but it may be impossible to find. Your archivist is your closest ally in this endeavour.

I cannot stress these points enough. Contact your archivist early, be grateful and enthusiastic, and be respectful of their time. A bored archivist is a rare being; with staff cuts everywhere, they often have more work to do than they should rightfully be expected to perform.  If they have time, and especially if they show interest, tell them about your project. They often know their collection better than you do, and they may be able to suggest fonds or collections that would never have occurred to you. If you speak with them for any length of time, give them your business card. (Yes, you should have a business card, even as a student, with your name, e-mail address, associated institution,phone number, possibly a URL to a professional online profile like a research blog or work Twitter.) Sometimes they will contact you at a later date with more information. It really depends upon the archivist.

Always be prepared. Your visit will be so much more productive and will go so much more smoothly if both you and the archivist know what to expect. Happy researching!

(I am also almost certain that I have forgotten to mention a few crucial things. Please comment if you feel there’s anything that should be added to this To Do (To Know?) list.)