The murder of Louie Sam
Located in downtown Montgomery, not far from the Alabama State Capitol, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April 2018, to honour thousands of victims of racially motivated lynchings. At the centre of the large hilltop site, 800 weathered steel columns fill the air, representing every individual county in the United States where a “racial terror lynching took place” between 1877 and 1950. The names of victims are engraved on these columns, each the size of a man. Elsewhere, hundreds of Mason jars are filled with dirt from where assassinations are known to have occurred. “It is not a conventional museum,” the New York Times reported several years ago. “It is perhaps better described as the presentation of an argument.”
With both the memorial and powerful research reports, the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative argues that Americans must have frank conversations “to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created.” This toll includes 4,084 confirmed deaths in the twelve “most active lynching states”: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. At least 400 other lynchings occurred in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. These numbers do not include hangings and related mob violence that “followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror.”
No such memorial exists in Canada, though several lynchings are known to have occurred and frank conversations are needed here as well. On Valentine’s Day 1873, for example, a man “killed a comrade during a quarrel” in Abinger Township, in eastern Ontario. According to the Toronto Globe, he was “tried by his companions the next morning, and suffered death, under lynch law, by hanging.” Reports reached Kingston that same month that “a number of shantymen lynched” a suspected murderer in Kennebec. Seven years later, in February 1880, five members of the Donnelly family, outcast immigrants from Ireland, were effectively lynched in Lucan, just north of London, Ontario. The Globe wrote of a “vigilant committee” whose victims, including a young girl, “were probably more sinning than sinned against, but even if this were so, and their conduct had been much worse than it is alleged to have been, their murder by self-constituted judges would still be absolutely indefensible.” Numerous other Canadians narrowly escaped self-appointed keepers of the law throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Chad Reimer’s earnest but deeply flawed Deadly Neighbours: A Tale of Colonialism, Cattle Feuds, Murder and Vigilantes in the Far West takes up this country’s best-known lynching, that of a fifteen-year-old Semá:th boy from British Columbia’s Sumas Prairie, on February 27, 1884.
Reimer is an independent scholar based in Williams Lake, British Columbia, and the author of several previous books, including Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley. He begins his latest in spring 1858, with “three men clad in fresh woollen clothes and armed with picks, shovels and pans.” Having left Bellingham Bay, Washington Territory, intent on exploiting newly opened gold fields, they soon came upon “the expanse of lush grassland that covered Sumas Prairie,” where they immediately recognized “limitless forage for the cattle that would be needed to feed and transport the exploding population of miners.” Between them — Thomas York, Jonathan Reece, and Volkert Vedder — they would lay the foundations for settlement of the central Fraser Valley. And that, of course, would involve the displacement of Stó:lō and Semá:th communities. (The latter were known as the “fierce wolf people” of the larger Stó:lō Nation, though Reimer never explains this relationship.)
Farmers, ranchers, shopkeepers, and ferry operators also began to pour into the nearby Nooksack Valley, in Washington Territory. Settlers and Indigenous people alike maintained close relationships that spanned both sides of the forty-ninth parallel, as they easily moved back and forth to trade, to work, and to visit friends and family. The boundary itself was marked by a chest-high iron obelisk; Canada would establish a formal border station at Huntingdon years later, in 1896. (To better demonstrate the integration of the Nooksack Valley and Sumas Prairie, and the roads that ran between them, Deadly Neighbours should have included a map or two.)
By 1883, the Northern Pacific Railway linked Seattle to the East, and construction had begun on the section of the Canadian Pacific Railway that cut through the lower Fraser. The border region experienced both a population boom and an economic one. Among those looking to cash in was James Bell, a down-on-his-luck Scottish homesteader and shopkeeper who, according to a local elder, sold “cheap jewelry, something like the dime store jewelry. Pretty near all the Indians bought earrings, pins, beads.” As Bell struggled with a “single dairy cow” and a “rough-hewn cabin” not far from the border, his much younger wife, Annette, left him for David Harkness, a well-placed good old boy of the Nooksack Valley.
A year later, Bell was poised to challenge Harkness in front of a judge — either by charging him with bigamy in criminal court or by suing him for “alienation of affections” in civil court. But on a Sunday afternoon in late February, a family heading home from church passed Bell’s cabin “as flames consumed the front half of the building.” They rushed inside and found “Bell’s lifeless body stretched out on the floor in a pool of blood, face up and arms raised.”
Despite the love triangle, Harkness was not immediately a suspect in Bell’s death, nor were those close to him, including a brother-in-law some witnesses placed at the scene. Instead, most locals accused the Semá:th teenager Louie Sam, whose father had recently been imprisoned for cattle rustling (though his conviction had been dubious). One neighbour “swore he saw Sam at around 1:00 p.m. that Sunday, walking along Telegraph Road toward Bell’s house with an HBC musket slung over his shoulder.”
Two days later, the local sheriff and a small posse headed north to the Sumas Reserve, where they apprehended the boy. Perhaps an easy scapegoat, he was to be temporarily jailed in the house of Thomas York, one of those original ranchers, until he could be delivered to the province’s acting superintendent of police in New Westminster. But on the night of February 27, a mob of roughly seventy men from the Nooksack Valley — some dressed in women’s clothing, others with war paint across their faces — crossed the border and removed Sam from York’s custody. They headed back toward Washington Territory, stopping 169 paces north of the iron obelisk, and lynched their captive from a tree.
Several reports and investigations followed, most of which Reimer dismisses as ineffective and racially biased. Despite Sam’s hanging being an international incident and a burning match tossed into the tinderbox that was settler-Indigenous relations at the time, nobody in Washington Territory or in British Columbia was ever charged. Only in 2006 did the Washington State Senate officially acknowledge the “historical injustice” of Louie Sam’s death, something elected officials in Victoria have yet to do.
With Deadly Neighbours, Reimer seeks to carry out the type of comprehensive investigation that provincial, territorial, and federal officers failed to undertake nearly 140 years ago. He draws upon archival material from Victoria, New Westminster, and Ottawa, as well as contemporary newspapers and genealogical records, many of which have not been previously consulted. His research builds upon that of Keith Thor Carlson, a historian with the Stó:lō Nation and the University of the Fraser Valley. Carlson, for his part, says in the book’s foreword that Reimer has provided “much needed context for pressing contemporary issues.”
Indeed, the death of Louie Sam, along with the long-standing obfuscation of the facts, however intentional or unintentional, is a micro-history worth telling. Through one painful case, Reimer invites necessary conversations that transcend local, provincial, and national boundaries. As does the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, books like this serve an important purpose.
Unfortunately, Reimer also cuts corners in his analysis, relying on unrelenting sanctimony more than on rigorous command of the material. As a result, the reader is left wondering what is true, what is conflated, and what is nothing more than anachronistic speculation.
Certain infelicities could be chalked up to carelessness and almost forgiven. Early on, Reimer summarizes the well-known frontier myth: “Into these wild lands came English-speaking White immigrants who pushed ever-westward, moving across the continent in an unstoppable line of settlement.” The suggestion that all or even most newcomers spoke English betrays a lack of engagement with more than a century of literature and scholarship about the frontier myth, but okay. Then Reimer refers to Thomas York’s missing steer, the one that sent Louie Sam’s father to prison, as an “ox.” While any castrated bovine is technically an ox, that’s not how ranchers describe their cattle. (If one ever did, I’d welcome the primary source.) At another point, he recounts the attempted lynching of Jimmy Poole, also a Semá:th man, writing that “the evening of October 24, 1884, started out with good cheer.” Yet Poole was violently apprehended and nearly killed in October 1885 (Reimer eventually corrects himself several pages later). When he mentions the 1873 Abinger Township murder, he does so in a single endnote and misspells the name of the community. Perhaps these are nothing more than irritating distractions. But Reimer also maintains that Abinger is the only other recorded lynching in Canadian history, besides that of Louie Sam. By claiming there have been just two, he inflates the historical importance of his subject — implying that it stands out — and dismisses those who met a similar fate elsewhere.
What really doesn’t work in Deadly Neighbours, however, is Reimer’s insistent attempt to ascribe motivation and interiority — to get inside the heads of nineteenth-century figures who, at least according to the author’s own bibliography, did not leave behind diaries or letters. In doing so, he casts individuals into prescribed roles, in what amounts to a good guys versus bad guys morality play. “When York could not find out who might have harmed his property,” Reimer writes, “he would shrug off the loss as a cost of doing business. What was one or two head among several hundred?” On one hand, then, and with no evidence for the reader to weigh, the so‑called Squire of Sumas Prairie is unlike any other rancher in the annals of cattle husbandry. But on the other, York ruthlessly persecutes Sam’s father for killing a stray steer that he’d previously “shown no concern for.”
Reimer describes a Crown attorney taking an “undeserved rest,” a few locals who were “puzzled but not surprised” when summoned by a justice of the peace, a courtroom full of “personal racial prejudices,” a judge who “no doubt felt relieved,” a group of newspaper editors “thinking themselves clever,” a “terrified” minister who “cravenly rushed past” a mob while “pretending to see no evil,” and a disingenuous lieutenant-governor “speaking for her political masters” (a loaded phrase that appears three times in the book). Perhaps Reimer is correct in all such descriptions, but “may have” is not the same thing as “did.” Novels, including Elizabeth Stewart’s The Lynching of Louie Sam, from 2012, lend authors such imaginative latitude. But typecasting without supporting documentation does not make for rigorous, nuanced history, which is exactly the sort of history we need if we are to honestly confront the highs and lows of Canada’s past and come to grips with it in the future.
Models exist for how scholars can openly and even inventively engage with marginalized or silenced figures who have been forced to bear the brunt of colonialism, racial prejudice, and systemic injustice, while acknowledging and respecting archival limitations. Consider, for instance, Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History, from 2018, which is a profound and boldly revisionist account of early contact, one that meticulously delineates what is known to have happened between the Aztec emperor and the Spanish conquistador, what is likely to have happened, and what might reasonably be believed to have happened given all that we know and all that we can deduce. Restall can’t say with certainty that Montezuma II actively lured Hernán Cortés to Tenochtitlán in 1519, of course, but he persuasively shows that such a thing could have taken place. He never says Montezuma thought this or that, but he shifts paradigms by asking, What if such and such was going through Montezuma’s mind?
The murder of Louie Sam was a tragedy and, especially to modern eyes, a flagrant perversion of justice. The rarity of lynchings in Canada and the mob’s origin in Washington Territory “have led historians and writers to represent it as an isolated and foreign incident — disconnected from people and events north of the border and an aberration from the norm of British Columbian and Canadian history.” Chad Reimer can be commended for connecting many new dots. And despite its contextual limitations and moralizing tone, Deadly Neighbours is a step in the right direction.