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Setting the record straight on one of Vancouver's oldest urban legends

The legend of Slumach's gold has very little to do with his actual story.
Panning for gold
The legend of Slumach's gold ignores the real story of the man.

It must be acknowledged that many of Vancouver's urban legends are steeped in racism. We can't tell these stories without first examining the continual systemic abuse that the subjects faced.

The tale of Slumach's gold is one of fascination and tragedy. The urban legend portion of his story takes place after his death but rather than sensationalizing his story, let's begin with the facts.

Slumach's passing

While Slumach is the most common spelling of his name today, it was misspelled several different ways by the media during his trial and according to an “Indian Census” of 1879 it may actually been Slum.ook. His last name appears to be unknown.

In 1890 an approximately 60- to 70-year-old Slumach, a Katzie First Nations man, was accused of shooting and killing Louis Bee unprompted on the western shore of Pitt River. Bee's companion at the time, Seymour, fled the scene and reported the incident to police and a manhunt for Slumach ensured. He was found guilty by the jury before he was captured. 

Newspaper reports from the time indicate that police cornered him in his cabin in the woods but he fled. A Colonist article from 16 September 1890 reads: "to prevent Slumach returning there for shelter, the shack was burned to the ground. His canoe was also destroyed. Slumach will now have to keep to the woods until cold weather and starvation drives him in."

Articles also suggest different reactions from the local Indigenous community ranging from fear of Slumach and accusing him of a previous murder to helping him evade police. An excerpt from the 13 September 1890 issue of the Daily Columbian states that the deputy sheriff hunting Slumach interned a group of local Indigenous people to prevent them from aiding him.

"Mr. Moresby found a number of Indians gathered there, all relatives and friends of Slumach, and they acted in a very threatening manner. Being convinced that they were assisting the murderer to evade the officers and defy the law, and not being the kind of man to put up with interference of this kind he ordered the whole lot to pack up their goods, board the steamer and go down to the Coquitlam reserve. There was a general objection to this and one of the Indians, a brother of Slumach, showed fight, but after Mr. Moresby had favoured him with a heavy fall, he agreed to go. The Indians were put on board of the steamer Constance, and taken to the Coquitlam reserve and notified that if they left there they would be arrested and their cabins and chattels destroyed."

Much of what is written about this case uses slurs, hyperbolic language, and seeks to villainize Slumach, even calling him "the blood-thirsty old villain." He may have shot Louis Bee in cold blood or in self-defence but there is no way of knowing if that is true. The consensus that the murder was unpremeditated, brutal, and deliberate was reached before Slumach was in custody.

When he turned himself in late October 1890 he was severely emaciated after weeks of hiding in the wilderness. There were calls to postpone the trial until spring and arguments made for clemency on account that he was elderly and hadn't had any run-ins with the law previously. Many assumed that postponing the trial would mean that Slumach would pass away before it happened and would not have to face being hanged.

When that motion failed, several witnesses were brought forth and it was revealed by the Daily Columbian that "Louis Bee had been in the habit of taunting Slumach with being a sorcerer, pagan, and a devil, which, in the Chinook language, is about the worst epithets that can be applied to a person," it was also said that "Bee, the victim of the murder, was in the habit of blustering at and threatening almost everyone with whom he came in contact. Against Slumach he indulged something like a grudge and for a long time there was bad blood between them. The Indians who were with Bee at the time of the murder were fishing, and on Slumach emerging from the adjacent woods a slight altercation ensued between him and Bee, with the result that Slumach shot him dead."

Slumach was baptized, renamed Peter and hanged in New Westminster in January 1891. After, several tone-deaf white moral superiority articles were published in sympathy for him.

Slumach's Gold

About two years after his death, rumours began to spread that Slumach had a secret cache of nuggets that he buried somewhere along the Pitt River while he was on the run from the police. A newspaper clipping from the Mainland Guardian in 1869 suggests there was gold along the river at one point: "An Indian brought in a good prospect of gold a few days ago which he states he found in a little stream on the north side of Pitt Lake."

But the story developed in 1901 when prospector Clifford Wellington spoke to The Province and indirectly told them that Slumach (although he wasn't named) revealed the hiding place to his nephew but that the nephew suffered an accident and couldn't go after the treasure so he told an old miner, who then told Wellington.

In 1903 headlines read: "Pitt Lake may be the next of the great gold fields" after a George Moody returned from the area with $1200 worth of gold dust, tight-lipped about the exact location where he'd found it.

There were also other stories of a major gold store in Pitt River belonging to an Indigenous man who died of natural causes. He had allegedly passed on his secret to a friend who enlisted a white man to help him find it and when they couldn't they shared the secret with others and every year set out to find the treasure to no avail.

The legend of Slumach didn't fully materialize until after 1915 when a 72-year-old Washington prospector named Wilbur Armstrong explicitly connected Slumach's name to his stash and from there the story snowballed with details added on or changed with each telling.

In 1926 the Sunday Province published a history of Slumach with details about his and his brother's life before Pitt River, indicating that they have scalped people who infringed on their territory but the account is unsubstantiated. It does however mention the secret of gold that died with Slumach.

Many subsequent accounts manipulate the facts of Slumach's story, the nature of the gold rush, and the players involved in the hunt for gold in that area. They even go so far as to introduce a curse that Slumach supposedly placed on anyone who tried to find his gold.

History has never let the truth get in the way of a good story.