Accident or murder? A Dog Creek mystery

Esther Darlington recounts the tale of two brothers and murder.

By Esther Darlington

Dog Creek. Sounds a desolate isolated place, doesn’t it? Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Dog Creek is such a beautiful pastoral heaven of a place that renown Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson spent summers there in the l950s. The amiable bachelor painter whose landscapes grace the walls of some of our most distinguished national  galleries, was hosted  by Vivian Cowan of Onward Ranch, an artist and chatelaine of the Cariboo whose generous hospitality was enjoyed by many notables like Jackson.

Equally as gracious a hostess to numberless scores of persons at Dog Creek, was Ada Place, the mother of Hilary Place. Hilary Place, a man of many talents was a Cariboo businessman, musician, civic administrator and author. His mother’s long and fascinating life at Dog Creek was recorded in a biography by A. J. Drinkall, who served the area as post master, school board chairman, store keeper and justice of the peace. The writer met them all, when she lived in Williams Lake in the early 1960s. By then, A.J. was over 90, and Mrs. Place was in a wheelchair.

In his book, Dog Creek, A Place in the Cariboo, Hilary Place writes of an episode at Dog Creek  that poignantly describes the  attitudes of persons in authority toward the native peoples at that time. It is good reading. It may also be an education for many non native Canadians that would, hopefully, break down the stereotype of Indians that continues to endure in this country.

In the ‘old days’ natives would often select a husband for their daughters. The selection often happened when the children were little older than infants. I’ve known personally at least one native woman whose husband was chosen for her by parents, a choice that proved very unhappy and ended in divorce. Anyway, a Shuswap young woman named Susan Seymour of Dog Creek was married to a man chosen by her parents when Susan was fresh out of residential school.  His name was Gilbert, an unenterprising fellow, short of stature, indifferent about his hygiene, pimple faced and pock marked. Susan on  the other hand was bright, pretty, an excellent horse woman admired by many in the community, white and Indian.

Gilbert’s half brother was Simon, known as Si. Now Si’s paternity was unknown. He was raised on the Canoe Creek reserve, some distance from Dog Creek. Si was the exact opposite of Gilbert, both in appearance and in lifestyle. He was of medium height, muscular, clean in appearance and a good worker who went to work at the age of 12, worked himself up to be a cowboy at the Gang Ranch. And he was white in appearance. Though he had somehow avoided the residential school, (probably by working miles away from one at an early age), he taught himself to read and to write adequately. He had a fine horse, dressed like a classic cowboy, complete with chaps, and got along well with his white counterparts at the Gang ranch. However, Si’s white appearance had made him the butt of jokes among the Indian community when he was young. It wasn’t easy for him.

When he became an adult, Si disenfranchised himself as an Indian, and though he had integrated well with his peers on the ranch, he never felt entirely comfortable with them socially.  As a boy he had been quiet, very shy, and tried to make himself ‘inconspicuous’. It’s a sad story really. Today, Si would have been considered Metis.

Si’s non-Indian status allowed him to purchase liquor which was available at the Dog Creek store. We are referring to a time when Indians were not allowed to purchase liquor. Si wasn’t a drinker himself, but he was often prevailed upon to buy liquor for others. This proved to be difficult for him, because Si obviously needed to continue contact with his relatives in the native community. As events unfolded, it might have been wiser if he hadn’t felt that need, especially with his half brother Gilbert.

One fine day at dawn, Gilbert and Si rode into Dog Creek leading a horse without without a rider. On the horse being led, was a bundle. Open inspection, the bundle turned out to be grim. It was the dead body of Susan, Gilbert’s wife.

The body was covered with mud from head to foot. The police were called at Williams Lake. Three hours later, an officer arrived with the doctor. The doctor would certify the death, and thus an autopsy would be avoided. Inspection of the body was cursory. Covered as it was from head to foot with  mud, and deceased for several days, the authorities wanted to leave Dog Creek as soon as they could.

But not without first insulting comments to the father of the deceased girl to the effect that he was suspected of drunkeness. The grief stricken father, a stoic who never showed emotion, was stunned.  His heart was broken.  Hilary Place knew the family well and respected everyone in it. Susan’s mother keened over the body.  The women of the community took the body away and washed it thoroughly. Given its condition, a very difficult task. Upon washing the hair and the forehead, they discovered a bullet hole.

Now Gilbert told the community that Susan had been bucked off her horse and had been dragged some distance, her boot in the stirrup. The boot was found to be so marked. Both men asserted they had found the body in the condition they had brought it in to Dog Creek. When the bullet hole was discovered, the police were called again, and advised. But the burial of the body had taken place two days before. The authorities had no wish to exhume the body to verify the claim of the bullet hole. They had already declared the death an accident.

Si fled to the hills. He wasn’t seen for days. When he emerged from hiding, disheveled and in the utmost distress, he confessed that he had killed Susan to Hilary Place.  The police were once again called. Hilary told Si that he could have continued his life as he had lived it, as the authorities had written the incident off as accidental, and anyway, the body was buried.  But Si’s conscience would not allow him to do that.

The police took Si away to Williams Lake and put him in a cell. Not long after Si was taken, the police called Dog Creek to advise that Si had committed suicide in the cell. He had hung himself by his belt..

Was justice served? Hilary Place didn’t think so. He believes the women who found the bullet hole in the skull of Susan’s body knew the truth of the story.