“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.

Resources

“The End of One-Pound-One,” or, the Long Suffering Gladstone Hates His Boss

Have you ever had a boss that you absolutely despised? W. Gladstone certainly did. Not to be confused with the nineteenth century British Prime Minister of the same name, Gladstone was a labourer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in his youth during the 1840s and 1850s and decades later wrote a really evocative biographical account of his life during the fur trade era. Here is the amazingly vicious description Gladstone wrote of the death of John Rowand: Chief Factor of the Saskatchewan District and his ultimate boss in Rupert’s Land. One of Rowand’s nicknames was “One Pound One” after his shuffling footstep from a limp he’d acquired after a hunting accident in his youth. He was known for his “tyrannical” attitude and impatience towards the labourers under his command. Historian John MacGregor wrote of an incident described by Father Albert Lacombe, a Catholic Missionary, at Fort Edmonton:

“[Lacombe] sympathized with the overworked boatmen. Never had he seen such travail and his warm heart went out to the voyageurs to the extent that on behalf of one of them who was ill but carrying on, he tried to induce John Rowand to give the man a rest. Rowand was flabbergasted and scolded the priest for being impertinent enough to approach him in such a case. In Rowand’s defense, it may be said that if he had permitted himself to relax the man’s labors, he would soon have been overwhelmed by all his trackers trying to take advantage of a man they considered a weak boss.

‘But the man is ill,’ pleaded the priest, ‘and has been ill for a week.’

‘Bah!’ said the rugged Rowand. ‘He’s all right. Any man who’s not dead after three days’ sickness is not sick at all.'”

(J.G. MacGregor, John Rowand, Czar of the Prairies (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), 161-2.)

Image
“A first-class devil”? (According to Gladstone.) The only known photograph of Chief Factor John Rowand, circa 1847. Note the jowls. Image courtesy of the Glenbow Museum and Archive.

The year was 1854…

“Chapter XIV

THE END OF ONE-POUND-ONE

Having ended my first five years with the Hudson’s Bay Company, I commenced my second term as a journeyman boat builder and soon after I signed a contract for two more years, the boats left for York. About three weeks after their departure, a son of One-Pound-One came from Fort Pitt to take charge for the summer at Edmonton. He told us all the particulars of his father’s death.

It seems that when the men arrived at Fort Pitt they got into a general fight and raised a row that reached the old man’s ears. He hastened to the scene of the fight, fuming with rage and frothing at the mouth. He got himself worked up to a great pitch, trying to stop the fight and swore like a madman.

Suddenly he dropped in his tracks and when lifted up was found to be stone dead. When the men who were on the river bank heard the news there was a great rejoicing and all around the country.

His son threatened to kill the man who was the innocent cause of his father’s death, but this man escaped to the woods and with a French half-breed and his wife as guides, fled from pursuit. One night they camped at Vermillion River. The fugitive, whose name was Paul, took his axe to cut timber for a raft and the half-breed with his gun, left the camp to hunt game for supper.

While Paul was engaged in felling a tree he was shot dead by the frenchman who claimed that seeing him dimly through the underbrush, he mistook him for a wild animal and fired. We all believed that the truth of the matter was that Paul had been murdered by the half-breed and that One-Pound-One’s son had bribed him to follow Paul and killed him. The poor fellow was buried where he fell and nothing further was said about the matter.

The chief factor was the only judge and jury then and could do pretty much as he liked even to the extent of making away secretly with an enemy. There was no one besides him to represent the law and no one to insist on justice. One-Pound-One was buried at Fort Pitt. Next spring his body was taken up and an old Cree boiled all the flesh off his bones which were sent to St. Boniface for burial.

The women say that long before the water boiled in the cauldron they heard groans and hisses issuing from it. It did not take much to make the old man hot when he was alive and perhaps even his inflammable carcass resented being boiled in a pot like beef. Women are always a trifle superstitious and I didn’t put much faith in that story.

Perhaps it grew some since, for there was also a yarn about them making a by-product of soap from his remains, so that on wash days, the old man, in the form of soap, became a blessing to the fort. But I don’t believe that story either, for he was too far from godliness when alive, to become an agent of cleanliness after death.

So, good-bye to old One-Pound-One, and I hope he is not in that hot place to which he was always sending us, but if he is Satan must have given him a place among his advisors, for he certainly had all the qualifications to make a first-class devil. His son was a chip off the old block and when we got rid of him too, a year later, there was not one of us who did not bear his grief like a man and if we needed our handkerchiefs, it was to hide our smiles.”

(W. Gladstone, The Gladstone Diary: Travels in the Early West(Lethbridge, Alberta: Historic Trails Society of Alberta, 1985), 40-1.)

[Unprofessional aside: OH SNAP.]

Gladstone’s account is one of the few written sources we have written from the point of view of the labouring class during the fur trade, and as such he represents a unique perspective of what life was like on the ground – and working under intimidating figures like John Rowand. You can really feel the hatred for his boss oozing off of the page, written decades after the events he describes. Rowand is described in animalistic terms – “frothing” at the mouth, for instance. I love the “first-class devil” description. Even when Gladstone was casting doubt on the nasty rumour that Rowand’s considerable fat was used for soap, he made it into an insult; in essence, “there’s no way that could have happened, because cleanliness is next to godliness and there was nothing godly about John Rowand.” Of course, as he was not present, much of what he evocatively describes of the incident is malicious rumour, but we do know that Rowand’s body was disinterred from its burial spot at Fort Pitt, rendered to the bones, and sent to Montreal in a barrel. Rowand was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery over four years after his initial death.

The story of the death of John Rowand (or “The Tale of the Pickled Factor,” as one of my friends and former colleagues describes it) remains a popular narrative at Fort Edmonton Park. I am currently finishing a term paper on interpretive techniques and myth making at historic sites using this story as a case study. Keep an eye out for video and audio recordings of a fuller version of this tale on this blog in the future.

Further Reading and Related Posts