1172 Gunanoot at large, 1906-1919

Pinkerton’s and the Hunt for Simon Gunanoot: Double Murder, Secret Agents and an Elusive Outlaw
by Geoff Mynett

Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2021
$24.95 / 9781773860503

Reviewed by Tyler McCreary

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There has been a recent resurgence of interest in the story of the Gitxsan outlaw Simon Gunanoot. Accused of killing two mixed-race men, Alex MacIntosh and Max Leclair, he escaped into the forests of northern British Columbia, eluding law enforcement and bounty hunters from 1906 until 1919. The short film Shadow Trap, starring Gitxsan actor Jerome Turner, recently provided a dramatic treatment of Gunanoot’s evasion of a bounty hunter. Geoff Mynett’s new book, Pinkerton’s and the Hunt for Simon Gunanoot: Double Murder, Secret Agents and an Elusive Outlaw, reverses the lens, detailing the efforts by two private detectives to hunt down the fugitive in 1909 to 1910.

The story highlights the contentious relationship between settler law and Indigenous people in Northern British Columbia—a conflict that remains all too pertinent today. While Mynett focuses on two private detectives, members of the US-based Pinkerton’s Agency that preceded the modern FBI, his account is most poignant in its depiction of early-twentieth-century Indigenous-settler relations in the British Columbia Northwest. Two elements particularly stand out. First, he demonstrates the limitations of government authorities’ ability to impose settler law upon Northern Indigenous people. Second, he demonstrates the extent to which Simon Gunanoot, a trapper and trader living on his traditional land, possessed forms of territorial knowledge and interpersonal relationships that enabled him to effectively evade the reach of the state and its hired agents.

Gitxsan territories. Map courtesy Kitimat Daily

The outline of Gunanoot’s story is relatively well-established, although some of the details are blurred by conflicting accounts by different participants and witnesses. In June 1906, Gunanoot got in a fight with Alex MacIntosh at the Two Mile Bar, after the latter reportedly bragged of sexually exploiting Gunanoot’s wife. Leaving the saloon, Gunanoot swore revenge. The next morning, MacIntosh and Max LeClair were found dead on the trails outside the village of Hazelton. Local police quickly assembled a search party and pursued Gunanoot, who narrowly escaped them at his farm. Various police search parties were mounted in succeeding years, and a substantial bounty was issued for his capture, but Gunanoot remained at large for thirteen years. Finally, in 1919, he turned himself in, stood trial for the murders, and was found innocent.

Although both victims were mixed-race men, the case became highly racialized, as authorities sought to assert white control over the northern frontier. In the period, Gitxsan communities remained resistant to the imposition of white justice on their lives. Thus, the case of Gunanoot presented a microcosm of larger tensions over the extension of settler regimes to Gitxsan territories. On the one hand, Gunanoot symbolized Indigenous struggle against enclosure within the frames of an emerging settler order; on the other hand, he represented the imagined violent savage that the colonial order aimed to subjugate to demonstrate its supremacy.

Mynett explores this story through the eyes of interlopers to the North, two Pinkerton’s operatives hired by the British Columbia Provincial Police to covertly locate Gunanoot. Building his account, Mynett primarily relies on the unsigned reports of Pinkerton’s operatives, listed as No. 28 and No. 6, which were distributed to the provincial police Superintendent Frederick Hussey. Triangulating information from the Hazelton police chief’s records and passengers on the local steamer, Mynett is able to identify one of these men to be W. T. Bennett. While the other is never identified, No. 6 quits with the arrival of winter, and is replaced by their mixed-race local guide, Hughey McKay. Mynett supplements the field operatives reports with local newspaper coverage, depositions, and court records, as well as the memoirs of telegraph operator Guy Lawrence, missionary William Henry Pierce, and Gitxsan political activist Neil Sterritt.

Gunanoot on the dark horse, wearing a white shirt. The other rider is unidentified. Courtesy BC Archives
David Williams, Trapline Outlaw (Sono Nis Press, 1982)

Beyond Sterritt, Mynett makes very little use of primary or secondary sources that would convey a Gitxsan interpretation of events. Mynett references only two historical studies, both by David Ricardo Williams—Trapline Outlaw: Simon Peter Gunanoot (1982) and Call in Pinkerton’s: American Detectives at Work in Canada (1998)—and largely echoes Williams’ focus on the perspectives of law enforcement and the frames of settler law. Mynett is more sensitive to the context of colonial conflict than Williams—who demonstrated his hostility to Gitxsan perspectives on history, serving the government as an expert testifying against Gitxsan claims to Aboriginal title and self-government in the 1980s. Mynett is less committed to a narrative of colonial triumphalism than Williams, writing in the wake of legal recognition of the continued existence of Aboriginal rights. However, Mynett is still guilty of ignoring important scholarship on Gitxsan history, such as the work of Richard Daly or Robert Galois.

Reading along the archival grain of operatives acting in the name of the settler state, Mynett focuses on the struggle to extend Canadian law to Gitxsan territories. Although he neglects to provide a Gitxsan counterpoint to settler law, Mynett cogently demonstrates the considerable anxieties that agents of settler law negotiated in a land that remained largely unmapped and unknown to colonial authorities. Mynett extensively documents the uncertainties and knowledge gaps that limited the ability of the police and private detectives to enforce Canadian laws across Gitxsan territories. As he describes, the provincial police assembled multiple failed search parties over a series of years prior to contracting the Pinkerton’s. The willingness of the provincial government to hire Pinkerton’s men to pursue Gunanoot, extending their employment over the course of a year, reflected a desperate need to demonstrate the paramountcy of settler law: “Gunanoot had become a symbol of resistance to the colonial power and therefore had to be arrested to demonstrate its superiority” (p. 84).

BC Provincial Police broadside printed for Gunannoot, August 1907. Courtesy BC Archives

Mynett initially presents his narrative in the mode of a detective novel, even invoking Sherlock Holmes to emphasize the dedication of the Pinkerton’s men to the pursuit of justice. The story unfolds as a chronological account of the pursuit of Gunanoot by two detectives posing as mineral prospectors. Following the narrative arc of the detectives’ reports as they move deeper into Gitxsan space, the story documents both the hubris of their search and its ultimate failure. Despite all the boastful guarantees of the infallibility of Pinkerton’s men, they are unable to apprehend Gunanoot.

As the detectives progress, their reports ultimately chart the dissolution of settler authority in the depths of Gitxsan territories. Much of the book seemingly details the accretive process of detective work, meeting with various figures and slowly sleuthing out fact from rumour to discern the location of the wanted man. However, as the detectives travel, they become increasingly aware that their case is embedded within a broader political struggle over the imposition of the settler order. While early detective reports focus on narrow details of Gunanoot’s whereabouts and the initial events around the Two Mile Bar, increasingly they address rumours about the possibility of a Gitxsan insurrection and forceful eviction of settlers from their territories. As the detectives move further and further from the centres of colonial authority, their searches carry them deeper into Gitxsan politics. Only as they learn to navigate the political geography of Gitxsan territories, where even the conflicts with colonialism seem distant, do they get close to apprehending Gunanoot. However, rather than realizing their quest, they discover that they have been deceived. Despite their confidence in their ability to extract information by guile, locals had consistently misled them.

Rather than demonstrating the power of settler law on the northern frontier, Pinkerton’s and the Hunt for Simon Gunanoot demonstrates the extent to which frontiersmen relied on relationships to Indigenous peoples. Although the detectives arrive in Hazelton by steamer, their subsequent travels relied on long established networks of Indigenous trails. Navigating these trails, they relied on Gitxsan guides and packers to direct their course and carry their supplies.

Omineca Street in Hazelton, 1911, with the Rocher Déboulé Range behind. Photo by F. Button courtesy Prince Rupert and City Regional Archives

The society of frontiersmen that the detectives describe is overwhelmingly male, but deeply entangled with interracial relations. While Mynett does not critically unpack the operations of settler law, his description of relations in the frontier town of Hazelton is punctuated by racial tensions over liquor laws. In the early twentieth century, regulations specifically forbade the sale of liquor to Indigenous peoples. Ostensibly, the government sought to paternalistically control the exposure of Indigenous peoples to degenerate elements within settler society. However, in practice, the liquor laws created opportunities for frontiersmen to exploit.

Through their time in Hazelton, the detectives document the extensive conflicts caused by frontiersmen using liquor to take advantage of Indigenous people, particularly using alcohol to ply Indigenous women. The sexual exploitation of Indigenous women is a centrepoint of interracial conflict. Both white and mixed-race frontiersmen appear to treat Indigenous women as sexual objects to be conquered. Gunanoot kills MacIntosh for his braggadocio over his sexual exploitation of Gunanoot’s wife.

Despite the intriguing and informative nature of the Pinkerton’s operatives’ journals, Mynett does not reflect critically upon the fascinating politics of race and gender. He simply relays the detectives’ notes as part of the narrative. Indeed, despite the centrality of women to the conflict at the heart of the narrative, they are constantly backgrounded in the story. No women appear as named characters in the book. Instead, when they appear, they are always defined by their relationship to men, as Gunanoot’s wife or daughter, for instance.

Author Geoff Mynett. Photo by Stephen Mynett

As the detectives spend more time in the region, their attention shifts from conflict over the colonial dynamics of sexual conquest to tensions over the settlement of Indigenous lands. Newcomers to the north assumed an entitlement to both Indigenous women and territories. This spurred intense resentment. Discussing the situation at the bar of the Hazelton Hotel, the detectives learned that Indigenous communities on the Kispiox and Nass rivers “were acting in a surly manner, and … it was not safe for any white man to take up land near their reservation” (p. 90). There were widespread rumours of a potential Indigenous uprising. While traders in the frontier town dismissed the threat, those settlers attempting to claim properties in Gitxsan territories expressed far greater concern. The local trader, R. S. Sargent, suggested “that it is the white men not the Indians who advocate trouble” (p. 95). However, the detectives found that ranchers and prospectors “state candidly … that the Indians threatened to kill any who did not leave by the last boat” (p. 95). They also noted that Sargent had sold a large quantity of rifles and ammunition to the Gitxsan. The purported mass uprising never happened, although the widespread concern reflected the intensifying conflict, and very real Gitxsan threats and attacks on settlers, surveyors, and road building crews.

Nevertheless, as the detectives travelled deeper into Gitxsan territories, their concern shifted from interracial conflicts to understanding Gitxsan family and territorial relations. After months of being misdirected to different Gitxsan, Babine, and Dakelh communities across the region, the detectives learned that “Simon [Gunanoot] is with his family on the headwaters of the Skeena or possibly Nass rivers, where he hunts moose during the fall and traps for beaver, lynx, marten and other fur-bearing animals during the winters” (p. 149). On the trails, they learned from Gitxsan packers, Robert Wilson and Louis Angus, that “a good many Indians know where Simon [Gunanoot] stayed during the winter, but none would give Simon away” (pp. 149-150). However, neither disclosed his definitive location. Indeed, as they would discover, the Gitxsan not only knew his location, but knew it had been his family hunting grounds for generations.

However, not even Gitxsan families with longstanding conflicts with Gunanoot would provide the detectives with reliable information. Moreover, many newcomers to the area, unwilling to broker open conflict with the Gitxsan, had also deceived the detectives. As Mynett describes, the operatives appeared to be “misled by a trail of lies, truth, half-truths, and rumours. If so, there had never been the slightest chance that Gunanoot could be been apprehended” (p. 178). After the failed venture, the police effectively abandoned the pursuit of Gunanoot, instead simply hoping he would eventually turn himself in. When he eventually did, in 1919, he returned as a popular hero and was acquitted after a high-profile trial. Mynett, a retired lawyer, notes numerous errors in the way the government prosecuted the case in court, and important information that the detectives had gathered that was not used in the trial.

However, the greatest value of Mynett’s book lies not in understanding failed legal arguments but the geographic limits to the extension of settler law on to Gitxsan territories. Although the detectives looked upon the North from the perspectives of outsiders, their reports document the tension, uncertainty, and instability of efforts to extend colonial power over Indigenous peoples in the region. Without meaningful connections to local social networks, the detectives struggled to navigate the social geography of the Gitxsan territories. Although the detectives came with a narrow focus on Gunanoot as an individual outlaw, their mission was always already entangled in a larger skein of relations in the Gitxsan homeland that they could little understand. These issues continue to resonate a century later, as colonial agents continue to struggle to negotiate legal relations in the north, with efforts to build oil and gas pipelines continue to be ceaselessly entangled with Indigenous territorial politics.

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Tyler McCreary

Born and raised in Northwestern British Columbia, Tyler McCreary is an assistant professor of Geography at Florida State University, and an adjunct professor of First Nations Studies at University of Northern British Columbia. His research examines how Indigenous-settler relations configure the politics of land, labour, and community life. He has analyzed how environmental governance processes address Indigenous relationships to the land, how Indigenous peoples interact with resource sector labour markets, and how processes of urban and regional governance impact Indigenous families living in towns and cities. He has published over two dozen scholarly articles and book chapters. He also recently coedited (with Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, and Julie Tomiak) the book, Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019). His book, Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973 (Smithers: Creekstone Press, 2018), was reviewed here by Keith Smith. Shared Histories won the BC Historical Federation’s Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing for best book published in 2018. Editor’s note: Tyler McCreary has also reviewed a previous book by Geoff Mynett, as well as books by Robert Budd & Roy Henry Vickers and Keith Thor Carlson et al. for The Ormsby Review.

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