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

Matthew Baillie Begbie

[ Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, Chief Justice, Undetermined, BCA A-01099 ]

Matthew Baillie Begbie was the judge that presided over the trials of Klatsassin, Telloot, Chessus, Piell, Tahpit and Chedekki held in Quesnellemouth in September 1864. After the jury found the first five guilty of murder, he sentenced the prisoners to be hanged on October 26 of that year.

Begbie spent his early years in Great Britain, graduated from Cambridge University, and established himself as a barrister in London. In 1858, at the age of 39, he accepted the position of judge in the newly-formed colony of British Columbia. Begbie was made a member of the Executive Council and prepared the legislation that governed immigration, commerce, and settlement in the colony. His most significant contribution, however, was to bring British law to the mining communities scattered throughout the colony.

Begbie was known as a man of great vigour and stamina, qualities that enabled him to travel through the wilderness of B.C. by horse and on foot. Each year he travelled a circuit, holding court in virtually every settled area in the colony. Court was often held in the tent he slept in but he always wore his judicial robes and wig.

Begbie’s famous nickname was “The Hanging Judge,” but it is possible that "hanging" was a corruption of "haranguing." Although he did impose a number of death sentences during his career, some academics, including his biographer David Williams have suggested that he made significant efforts to protect aboriginal land and fishing rights and fought legislation that was discriminatory towards Chinese and other minority populations.

Begbie’s Supreme Court bench books contain detailed records of all his cases, but some of his notes were written in a complex shorthand that is difficult to decipher. He also included in his notes pen-and-ink drawings of witnesses, spectators, and evidence.

Begbie was a gregarious man and an active participant in the community, regularly singing Italian opera and giving public concerts. He also is remembered as an able athlete and a great intellectual who dabbled in theology, languages, and mathematics.

Begbie became Chief Justice of the province when B.C. was confederated in 1871. Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1875, Begbie spent his retirement in Victoria, where he died in 1894.

Secondary Sources

Williams, David. “…The man for a new country”: Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie. Sidney: Gray’s Publishing, 1977.

Williams, David. “Matthew Baillie Begbie.” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. XII. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1990.

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History