We do not know his name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War

Unprincipled Journalism

The British Columbian, July 16, 1864

The extraordinary course which our Victoria contemporaries have thought proper to adopt in reference to matters transpiring in this Colony has not been such as to elevate the island press in the estimation of right-thinking men. The unfortunate and bloody, although not altogether unprovoked, massacre at Bute Inlet furnished them with a rare opportunity of indulging in their peculiar style. In treating of our Indian difficulty, these journalists have displayed a wanton recklessness rarely to be found in the history of journalism. A cowardly murder, committed by a few Indians, has been eagerly invested with all the importance of a native war, while every loose rumor has been seized and published for fact with an avidity almost unaccountable.

One week we have a thrilling account of the massacre of eight or nine men, upon which startling information a mass meeting is held; public feeling, vamped up by sensation newspaper articles, is ready to explode; clergymen, some of them grown grey in the service of the Prince of Peace, make long and exciting war speeches; the shout of indiscriminate extermination is raised, and next day hundreds flock to an inlistment office, apparently eager to have a hand in the bloody work. Next week we have an account of 40 of Cox’s party being killed and the balance taken prisoners. And in all these sensation articles and bunkum speeches the blood of the imaginary victims is carefully laid at the door of Governor Seymour. But when it is discovered that the whole thing is a mistake or a miserable sell, not a word of regret or apology for having been the medium of propagating bogus news, skilfully and maliciously spiced with insidious slander. All the acknowledgement they condescend to make is a laconic “We learn that so and so did not take place.”

No less industriously has the unfortunate stranding of H. M. war frigate Tribune been turned to similar account. With ill-concealed joy these papers teemed for weeks with the most sarcastic and malicious allusions to the circumstance, always taking care, first, to damage the navigation to New Westminster, and, secondly, to throw the responsibility of the disastrous circumstance upon Governor Seymour’s shoulders. The noble ship, while lying upon sands at the mouth of the Fraser, much more securely from rough weather or submarine rocks than she would be in Victoria harbor – were it possible to lift her into that little pond – was described as in the most imminent peril, “knocking heavily upon the bottom,” “badly bogged,” “making water fast,” “almost a total wreck,” “extremely unlikely ever to be made sea-worthy again,” and the most disgusting – because hypocritical – lamentations were indulged in about the loss of so fine a vessel. But in due time the Tribune was got off, and the following is the only notice of her arrival at Esquimalt we have as yet seen in a Victoria paper: —

“AT LAST.- H.M.S. Tribune arrived down from the Fraser River sand-heads yesterday afternoon. She came down under easy steam. She looks as neat and trim as ever, and to all outward appearance is none the worse of her long and uncomfortable imprisonment on the Fraser sands.”

Is that all you have to say? Is a disaster, which called forth so much comment and mock lamentation, when it turns out to be no disaster, entitled to no more notice at your hands? If you were sincere in your vaunted loyalty and flaunted regret, how does it come that in noticing the arrival of the fine ship, whose loss you so deeply mourned, looking “as neat and trim as ever, and to all outward appearance none the worse,” you do not make use of a single word to show that you are gratified to find that your fearful forebodings as to the fate of that ship, as well as your sensation paragraphs as to her actual condition, were all a mistake?

Shame upon such journalism as this. It is calculated to bring the “Fourth Estate” into disrepute and disgrace. The best and most careful of publishers may be occasionally imposed upon, especially in these Colonies, where the means of obtaining information are so crude and unreliable; but surely such misstatements as those to which we have alluded entitle the public to some expression of regret and apology on the part of those who promulgated them. Surely a proper sense of honor and justice would suggest such a course.

The indulgence of this unfortunate propensity by Victoria journalists is generally harmless, if we may except the injury to themselves. But we look upon their persistent determination to misrepresent and exaggerate the Indian difficulty, and give it the character of a general up-rising of the natives inhabiting the north-western portion of this Colony, as a more serious affair, and calculated to do real mischief amongst those tribes in our immediate vicinity. Like the boy in the fable they have raised the cry of the wolf so often that those who read the papers are not much exercised by such things. But it should be rememberd that the Indians are a shrewd people; and knowing that expeditions are out against certain of their breed, they very quickly catch hold of any intelligence from the seat of the trouble and it is wonderful how rapidly such news spreads amongst the various tribes. It may, therefore, be a serious matter to have the intelligence of the killing and capture of a whole expedition circulated amongst the natives. Situated as we are in this Colony our policy is certainly not to magnify the difficulty, and above all things to guard against a display of fear or excitement in the presence of the natives. We cannot, therefore, too severely censure the course pursued by the Victoria Press in respect to the whole difficulty from first to last.

Source: "Unprincipled Journalism," The British Columbian, July 16, 1864.

Return to parent page

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History