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

A Tsilhqot’in Account of the Death of Donald McLean (Samandlin)

[ Alexis Map, Detail Showing Where McLean was Killed, Detail from the Alexis Map showing where McLean was killed. From map originally drawn by Indians Alexis and Ualas as interpreted by Mr. Ogilvie, signed W. Cox, Benshee Lake, 22 July 1864., Alexis and Ualas, Public Record Office, Great Britain MPG6541 ]

by Eugene Williams with Terry Glavin

Samandlin is the name that Chilcotin people, for their own reasons, have given to Donald McLean, a retired Hudson’s Bay Company trader who was hired by colonial authorities to help command a group of white volunteers in an expeditionary force against the Chilcotin warriors of 1864. It may be that the name Samandlin evolved from a Chilcotin pronunciation of the French monsieur — some Chilcotins developed a familiarity with French from the days of the fur trade — coupled with an abbreviated pronunciation of McLean. Whatever the case, his killing was a crucial event in the incidents of 1864, and from the Xeni gwet’in point of view, Samandlin’s death was the decisive encounter in the struggle for the defence of their homelands.

[From Eugene Williams:]

“So, Samandlin, he come over there, Eagle Lake. He went out on a trail. That’s an Indian trail, huh? Indian had no horses, just walking, up in that mountain. He dig the wild potato up there, I guess.”

“So they went down to check the trail, eh? Two guys went down there, to check everything. Then pretty soon, Samandlin. He’s coming up that trail. He don’t know that trail, but he’s coming up that trail.”...

McLean shows up as a “devoted family man” with a “reputation for fairness” in a popular account of the events of 1864, aptly titled The Chilcotin War, written by Kamloops journalist Mel Rothenburger, himself a descendant of McLean. McLean also shows up in a book of reminiscences written by the Protestant missionary R.C. Lundin Brown, entitled Klatsassan after the reputed leader of the Chilcotin warriors. Brown describes McLean as a man who was “immensely popular for his kindliness, his unwearying energy, the good will with which he undertook any work that wanted doing.” This is the same man to which even the Reverend Brown attributes the deaths of as many as nineteen Indians prior to the outbreak of hostilities in the Chilcotin country, the same man who distinguished himself in the winter of 1849 by murdering an unarmed elderly Indian in a Carrier village near Quesnel because the old man didn’t know where a murder suspect was hiding. During the course of that same “investigation,” McLean’s party shot and killed another unarmed man, fired a musket point blank into the head of an infant, and shot the dead child’s mother in the shoulder....

It certainly wasn’t McLean’s kindliness that prompted colonial governor Frederick Seymour to hire him out of retirement at his ranch down at Hat Creek for the mercenary work that needed doing in Chilcotin country. And McLean was anxious to get on with his work. He put on his trademark bullet-proof metal vest, quickly raised two dozen of his own volunteers to head off into the Chilcotin, and was out scouting for the enemy on his own the day he died, defying explicit orders from expedition leader and colonial commissioner William Cox to stay back in camp with the others.

“He find the trail all right, that Samandlin,” says Eugene.

“Then somebody, he take out his knife out of its sheath, and cut from kind of a tree, right down on the trail. Leave ‘em on a trail.”

That was the trap.

At this point, Eugene takes a firm hold of his knife, holds his thumb against the dull edge of the blade to steady his hand, and cuts a thin slice from the stick he’s whittling. He takes the strip he’s cut and puts it on the ground in front of him.

“He put it on the trail,” he says, pointing with his knife to the strip of wood on the ground between his feet.

“He leave it on the trail. That one, like this,” he says. Again, Eugene takes a firm grip of the short pole in his left hand, and pulls the blade of his hunting knife towards him with his right hand, peeling off a strip of wood and dropping it to the ground. He looks at the two shavings between his boots, then looks up, and starts whittling some more.

“So Samandlin come there, and he’s a long time on the trail, I guess.”

Eugene sits upright on his woodblock and looks down on the ground in front of him. “He wanted to find out how long ago that one there. So he put it in his mouth.” Eugene picks up the shaving and puts it in his mouth. “I guess, green tree, I guess. He want to find out. Maybe it’s dry, maybe it’s wet yet.”

Samandlin takes the bait. A Chilcotin marksman takes aim.

Eugene’s quiet for a moment. “Pretty soon, somebody. . . bang. Over there.” Eugene points towards the trees out behind the cabin.

“Well, that first one, I guess he miss. Two guys. So the second one, he shot him, Samandlin.”

“Two guys,” I repeated. “Second one shot him.”

“Yeah,” Eugene said.

“I guess he’s going up a hill, eh? Kind of warm, eh? Kind of hot. So he took off his shirt, like that. Somebody heard they got steel shirts. I don’t know what kind of shirt that is.”

“I heard about that,” I said. “I heard about it.”

“So that time, he’s not wearing his shirt, I guess. Bullet, he can’t go in that shirt. It just fall down, I guess. But it was opened up. Right here.” Eugene points to his chest. “Right here. That’s where the Indian hit him, with a bullet. That’s why he killed him.”

Eugene slowly whittles a few more shavings from the sharpening end of the stick in his left hand.

Who killed him? I asked.


Mabel was standing by the fire. Eugene asked her the same question, in Chilcotin. She had been listening a while, turning some bannock on the iron griddle.

They talked back and forth in Chilcotin, then Eugene said, again, “Sachayel.”

He thought for a moment, and then he said: “Two guys, I know. I don’t know which one.”

Rothenburger names the marksman as somebody named Anukatlk, a scout that joined the warriors late in the war. The Reverend Brown says it was someone named Shililika. Mabel was standing quietly at the iron griddle over the open fire. She glanced over and said to Eugene, “Hatish.”

“Hatish?” asked Eugene.

“Hatish,” Mabel answered.

“Hatish. Yeah,” Eugene said. He nodded in agreement, but he looked uncertain.

“He was the other guy?” I asked.

“Sachayel,” I said, “but maybe Sachayel, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Eugene said. “Maybe that one. I don’t know. Don’t know for sure.”

So maybe Sachayel, maybe Hatish, and then there are the names Anukatlk and Shililika, and I’m reminded about the clouded identity of the very leader of the Chilcotins who was hanged at Quesnel with the others. In the official court records he’s identified as Klatsassin, sometimes known as Klatsassan, sometimes Klatsassine, and sometimes Klatassin. In Chilcotin, it’s Lhasas?in, and Adam William explained to me one day that translated into the English it means “we don’t know who it is.”

It’s not clear who might legitimately claim credit for shooting Samandlin but like Eugene said, the idea was that if he won at Eagle Lake, he’d win everything, that he’d get it all. But he lost. He got killed. And Commissioner William Cox’s expeditionary force of 50 men turned around and headed back on a quick march to Puntzi Lake, leaving Samandlin’s body buried somewhere in the bush.

Source: Eugene Williams, "A Tsilhqot'in Account of the Death of Donald McLean," Nemiah: The Unconquered Country Terry Glavin (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1992).

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History