Grisdale Woman ‘Killed for Being a Sorceress’ in British Columbia

Posted: September 17, 2013 in Canadian Settlers
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An Ohio local newspaper, the Marion Morning Star, published the rather breathless article below in March 1878. You’ll see that not much has changed with regard to what fascinates journalists.

Okanagan Elders

Okanagan Elders

‘Killed for Being a Sorceress’

Advices received from British Columbia report a singular murder there of an aged white woman by an Okanagan chief named Red Berry. The old woman was the widow of James Grisdale, one of the first white settlers in the Okanagan district. She was reputed to be wealthy, and was accounted a sorceress by the Indians around about. Several of Red Berry’s horses had died of a murrain, some weeks ago, and the medicine men of the Okanagans held that Mrs. Grisdale had afflicted them with disease. Red Berry at once started for her abode, and finding her on her knees at prayer, concluded that he had caught her in the very act of practicing her black art, and with one blow of a club he dashed her brains out. He then informed the white settlers nearby of what he had done, and asked them to reward him for ridding their flocks and herds of an evil spirit. He was arrested, and taken to the jail at Okanagan. Red Berry, beyond doubt, thought he was doing the community a meritorious service.

Map of Okanagan B. C.

Map of Okanagan B. C.

What a great, though sad, story!

But who were James Grisdale and his murdered ‘sorceress’ wife?

Okanagan is a mountainous area in present-day British Columbia, half way between Calgary and Vancouver. For centuries it was a land of native peoples, in this area the Okanagan tribal group. During the early decades of the nineteenth century European fur trappers and traders appeared, as did trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But it was gold that brought the first large numbers of whites to the region.

The first gold obtained by the Hudson’s Bay Company was brought to Fort Kamloops by a native in 1852. He was said to have found it while taking a drink of water from the lower Thompson River. Donald McLean, the Chief Trader at Fort Kamloops informed his superiors in Victoria and they decided to keep it secret so the fur trade would not be disrupted. The traders encouraged the natives to mine the gold and use it for trade at the forts.

Miners in Okanagan

Miners in Okanagan

The Native people quickly realized the value of gold and began to mine it using iron spoons obtained from the Hudson’s Bay Company. They did not have miner’s tools such as pans or rockers and only small amounts of gold were traded. Gold was then worth $17 an ounce, which was more than a Hudson’s Bay employee earned in a month. Nevertheless fewer than 4 ounces of gold were sold at Fort Kamloops in 1856. In 1857, many more miners rushed to the Thompson River area.

The arrival of white miners quickly led to conflict because the native people felt the gold was theirs since it originated from their lands. They also believed the mining activities would prevent the salmon from completing their migration up the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. Salmon was the main source of food for many of the tribes and they blamed the miners for the small salmon runs that year. Rumors of gold deposits quickly spread south and in the spring of 1858, over 30,000 miners, mostly American, rushed up from California to the Fraser and Thompson Rivers searching for gold. A few miners returned to Fort Victoria with over $150,000 worth of gold, a huge fortune in those days. Gold fever struck and the mad gold rush was on.

Fraser River Gold Rush

Fraser River Gold Rush


The gold rush never affected life in the Okanagan directly until gold was discovered in Rock Creek around 1859. By 1860, about 500 miners, mainly Americans who had abandoned their claims in Washington and Oregon had settled in the area. The Okanagan gold rush ended as quickly as it started. The gold rush had a significant impact on life in the Okanagan. The large influx of miners and their families resulted in a demand for goods and services that previously didn’t exist. The new market for goods and services drew merchants, farmers and ranchers interested in meeting that demand and who required land and more permanent settlements in order to do so. The demand for land required for agricultural development and permanent settlements meant that the aboriginal population had to be removed from the land that was needed.

Overlanders Crossing A Swamp

Overlanders Crossing A Swamp

Most of miners didn’t say long, the next major influx came in 1862 when a group of about 150 settlers ‘travelled from Ontario to the BC interior, led by brothers Thomas and Robert McMicking of Stamford Township, Welland County, Ontario’. ‘They went in groups by ship and American railway to Fort Garry [Winnipeg]. Leaving there in early June 1862, equipped with Red River carts and a few horses, they reached Fort Edmonton on July 21 and traded their carts for pack horses. With the help of Indian guides they crossed the Rockies. All but 6 survived the perilous descent of the Fraser River by raft to Fort George [Prince George]. Most went on to the Cariboo goldfields, and many, including the McMickings, had successful careers in BC. The only woman Overlander, Catherine O’Hare Schubert, took her 3 children with her and gave birth to her fourth only hours after arriving at Kamloops in October.’

Overlanders' Cart at Red River

Overlanders’ Cart at Red River

There are several fascinating first-hand accounts of this long and perilous trip of the ‘Overlanders of 1862’; I commend them to you.

So did James Grisdale, who was ‘one of the first white settlers in the Okanagan district,’ arrive there as a miner or later as a ‘settler’ with the Overlanders? The fact that when Mrs Grisdale was clubbed to death in1878 she was referred to as an ‘aged white woman’ and as ‘the old woman’ might argue for an earlier mining arrival, as does the fact that ‘she was reputed to be wealthy’. You didn’t get wealthy as an early farm settler in British Columbia! Maybe James had been one of the lucky few miners who had ‘returned to Fort Victoria with over $150,000 worth of gold’? While this is possible, I tend to think that James was more likely one of the 1862 Overlanders, which I think would probably still qualify him as ‘one of the first white settlers’. The main reasons for this belief are as follows:

First, there were only two large Grisdale families established in North America before 1862 (there is one small caveat). These were the Grisdale family which arrived in Quebec in about 1824 (see here) and the family of Wilfred Grisdale that arrived in Peterborough County, Ontario in 1816/17 (see here). Regarding the first group, I know what became of them and their descendants and there was no ‘James’ who could fit the bill. Regarding the second family, there is indeed one James Grisdale who just might be our man: James Grisdale (born 1830) was the son of Wilfred Grisdale and Mary Maloney, and the grandson of the immigrant Wilfred Grisdale (born 1782). It might be that this James died young (possibly in Peterborough in 1857), or, before he appeared in any records, he might have set out to the West. Being born in 1830 he would have been both old and young enough to have participated in the arduous trek of 1862, which we are told consisted mostly of young farmers. He would also have been old enough to be a gold rush miner in 1858 or somewhat earlier. A problem with this putative identification is that he died before his wife was slain in 1878 and thus he would have been either in his thirties or forties. Does this square with his wife being an ‘old woman’ in 1878?

The second fact that might argue for James having been one of the 1862 Overlanders is that they were mostly, we are told, young farmers from Ontario. The Grisdales were farmers and Welland County was precisely where some of the family had ended up. For example Gideon Grisdale (the uncle of our putative James) had moved to Welland County in the 1820s to help build the first Welland Canal (see here); another uncle called James was also in Welland by 1861 with his family. So maybe ‘our’ James had joined the Overlanders in 1862 while visiting them?

Okanagan Indians

Okanagan Indians

Yet the fact remains that I can’t positively identify which James Grisdale was the early settler in British Columbia and whose wife was clubbed to death by Chief Red Berry.

I mentioned one caveat. There were a few other people named Grisdale in North American before 1862 who don’t seem to have belonged to the two families I have highlighted. Their appearance in the records is so fleeting that nothing much can be established about them or their origins. In Illinois there was an ‘English-born’ miner William R. Grisdale who fought in the Civil War and was later on involved in the murder of several black miners in Indiana. I’ll return to him at a later date. Then also in Illinois there is a family in 1855 headed by a G. Grisdale; who he was I can only guess. There are a few other mentions of early Grisdales in the United States.

So James Grisdale and his wife remain a bit of a mystery.

Okanagan Valley Today

Okanagan Valley Today

I’m not an expert on native American/Canadian Indians, but in Okanagan B. C. they were, as elsewhere, subjected to violence and disappropriation. Regarding the Okanagan gold miners:

A company of about 300 miners travelling north along the west side of Okanagan Lake destroyed the winter provisions of an unattended Okanagan Indian village. The following day they ambushed and massacred a group of unarmed Indians. These acts demonstrated the miner’s hostile attitude towards the Indians. The conflict increased as the population of miners mushroomed and by July of 1858 there were over 8,000 miners on a 60 kilometre stretch of the Fraser River.

James Douglas, the governor of the colony, feared a war between the feuding parties, especially after the Cayuse Indians defeated the US troops in Oregon. Throughout the summer, trouble brewed at Hill’s Bar and Boston Bar on the Fraser River. At Boston Bar there was fighting involving over 140 miners, where reportedly 7 Indians were killed. The miners viewed the Indians as obstacles while the Indians viewed the gold as theirs since it came from their lands. Also, the traditional Indian food supplies of game, salmon and berries were being taken by the miners.

A vigilante force of 167 armed miners who were led by Captain Snyder went up the Fraser river ready to fight Indians to quell the unrest, but the tension had eased by the time they reached the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. Governor Douglas heard about the skirmishes and travelled to the area with some troops. His fact-finding mission blamed the miners for the problems since the armed miners had driven the Indians from the river, which prevented them from gathering food and mining gold. The Indians stated that the miners interfered with their village sites, took their salmon and were disrespectful of their families. Chiefs from many areas expressed their concern to Governor Douglas who gave stern warnings to the American miners; he also claimed all the gold within the Fraser and Thompson Rivers for the British Crown.

In order to prevent the Americans from expanding their borders and to enforce British law, Douglas declared the mainland a British colony. This action ended the Hudson’s Bay Company Charter and any control it had over the region. In November of 1858 British Columbia was officially declared a colony and Douglas was named Governor. He could now regulate law and order to protect British interests on the mainland and on Vancouver Island.

The gold miners were the forerunners of white settlement in British Columbia. The settlers, unlike the miners they followed, came to stay. But like the miners, the settlers had little respect or tolerance for the Indian peoples. The conflict was clear. The First Nations had the land and the settlers wanted it for farming, ranching and business. The Shuswap traditionally migrated to different areas of their territory as the seasons changed, thus the settlers believed that they were not making use of their land. More changes were forced on the Shuswap as overwhelming numbers of settlers arrived and took over the land.

The ownership of the land remains an unresolved dispute between the Shuswap and the present levels of government to this day.

  1. […] This didn’t stop the unsavory Americans from causing things to blow up […]

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