“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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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!

Mystery Photoset: “Calf Robes Resisting Capture,” “Susie’s Blind Husband,” and Other Unique Postcards

PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby” Note the two ladies from the previous image having their photograph taken in the back1ground, likely taken on the same occasion because they are wearing the same outfits. This photograph also confirms that there were two cameras at play. This photo series may only be the results of one of those Kodak Brownies, though. Note that cameras were not held to the eye - you looked through the viewfinder from up above and hold the camera at waist height.
PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby”

Postcards were not always mass produced. In the early twentieth century, one could print Kodaked images onto postcard stock and create one’s own unique postcard to mail off to friends and relations. The University of Alberta Archive’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces has just recently doubled its collection of early Western Canadian postcards to nearly 30,000 examples, some entirely unique. I had the opportunity last summer to examine some of the ones that weren’t yet digitized. Among the picture postcards of Banff’s main street, parades at the Calgary Stampede, European pioneers in Saskatoon, and everything in between, I ran across a series of privately produced postcard images that I find incredibly intriguing.  They are a set of photographic postcards that have been cut from a photo album – the backs are blank, glued to pieces of black paper from the album sheets. The same people appear in multiple images, but aside from a few telling details and a few names which may or may not be jokes or pop culture references I cannot understand over a century later, these images are now relatively anonymous. This photoset may not even be complete. I confess I was scanning them alongside about 300 other images over the course of a single day and I only noticed that they were from the same grouping later on when I began looking at them more deeply for my major research essay. I also only examined a few boxes of cards which had been separated out by the archivist for having explicitly Aboriginal subjects, so it is possible that there are other postcards from these photographers in the Peel’s Prairie Provinces Collection, yet to be digitized. I was initially hoping to incorporate them into my major research project, but they have far more in common with anonymous photo album pages than they do postcards, as fascinating as they are. Ah, well, a project for another time!

I have placed these images in an order that made sense to me, placing them either in what amounts to a sequence, or beside images that share the same photographic subjects for ease of comparison. Do not ascribe meaning to the order as it was imposed by me. I now invite you to consider these photographs for yourself. I have included a few preliminary observations, but I welcome any further commentary from my readers. Maybe we’ll find the proverbial smoking gun that identifies these people. Please click the images to enlarge them and see my annotations. (Note: The strings of numbers beginning in “PC” (“post card”) are their Peel’s Prairie Provinces call numbers, so you may cite them or look them up when they finally become digitized.)

So, in summary: these photographs were taken on at least two occasions, as evidenced by the same figures appearing at least twice in different outfits and the presence/lack of snow on the ground. These photographs were likely taken South of Calgary, as one of the figures is identified as “Sarcee” (Tsuu T’ina); that is, of course, if the writer identified the band correctly. The photographs likely date from circa 1899-1922, but are more likely from 1905 or 1912, when gigantic Merry Widow hats were popular. There were two photographers present, but these photographs may have only come from one of their cameras. I am unsure of the relationship between the people in the photographs. Why do “Calf Robes” and the others play along in staging scenes of violence? Is “Susie” truly on a first name basis with the photographer and the man she stands arm-in-arm with? Are these white folks tourists, locals visiting Tsuu T’ina friends, or the family of an Indian agent with political power over these people? Furthermore, if these photographs were all taken by the same person, there may be a (sixth?) person in the party who is never pictured because they are always behind the camera and not in front of it.

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