Death on the Range – Pt. 1: The Pre-Emptors

What do you really know about those men who showed up on the Frontier without a past? Barbara Roden looks at one mysterious Mr. Smith.

Thomas Burton Smith was in many ways typical of the men who flocked to the Interior of British Columbia from the 1850s onwards, attracted by gold fever, or the lure of the new and undiscovered, or dissatisfaction with their lives, or restlessness, or some combination of all these things.

Born in Crawford County, Pennsylvania in 1861, he was the son of a farmer, and took up farming himself, but at some point he felt compelled to pull up stakes and move north and west. There is no record of him in the 1911 Census of Canada, but in 1912 he turned up in Kamloops. From there he headed north and west again, to Clinton and then 45 miles beyond it, to an area known as Springhouse Prairie.

It was a good place for someone used to living on the land, and Smith almost certainly did some farming; but it was also wonderful rangeland, perfect for grazing, and he and his partner were soon running cattle, fattening them up for sale. When war broke out in late 1914 it must have seemed a boon to the men, who almost certainly anticipated that demand for beef, and therefore prices, would soon rise.

But Smith was canny enough to realize that – especially at the beginning of the venture – there was not a good deal of money to be made. He therefore bought himself some security on the financial front by establishing and running a freight hauling business in the Interior. It was still a viable venture, for trains had not yet killed off the stagecoaches, and highways were many years in the future. Lean and lanky, he was a man of few words, but liked and respected by all who knew him, and he seems to have fit right in to his new home.

Thus far, Thomas Burton Smith seems no different to tens of thousands of other men – footloose and fancy free – who flocked to the province, seeking a better life. But Smith was different to them in one important regard. He was a single man when he arrived in B.C., that much is true; but in 1883 he had married a woman named Ella Davison, and between 1886 and 1904 they had seven children, all of whom seem to have survived into adulthood (the last of them, Leona, died in 1989).

Ella died in 1907, aged 44. We cannot, at this distance, know why he eventually acted as he did; but at some point between 1907 and 1912, Thomas Burton Smith – an established Pennsylvania farmer with seven living children – left his farm and family behind and travelled several thousand miles to build a new life in a new country.

At some point in his travels Smith ran across Albert Lester Clinger. Born in Portland, Oregon, Clinger eventually moved to Idaho, where he was a well-respected member of society. But he, too, apparently hankered after a different life, and it’s not hard to picture these two restless men deciding to join forces.

By 1913 they were in Springhouse Prairie, where they took up what was known as a pre-emption; that is, a 160-acre plot of land that was given free of charge by the Government of Canada, under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, to any settler who undertook to build a permanent dwelling on it within three years and improve the property, usually by farming or ranching. When February 1915 rolled around the pair of pre-emptors were into their third year of cattle ranching, with prospects only set to get better.

Opposites attract, so they say, and Clinger was markedly different to his partner. His nickname was “Chubby”, which gives us an idea of his build, and he seems to have been as sociable and garrulous as Smith was solitary and silent. It’s easy to picture Smith (who visited Clinton infrequently, by all accounts) passing through town as quickly as possible, doing what needed to be done and then being off again, and Clinger, who made most of the excursions into town for supplies, taking it easy, passing the time of day with all and sundry and perhaps repairing to the Clinton Hotel to sit by the famous stove and shoot the breeze with the regulars, exchanging news and gossip.

The war in Europe would have been a topic that dominated conversation; in August 1914 it was supposed that it would be over by Christmas of that year, but by February 1915 it showed no signs of concluding. Around Clinton, however, that distant war was soon to be supplanted by another story, one that was much closer to home.

Here we encounter a problem I’ve discussed in the past: the difficulty of sorting fact from fiction, when dealing with stories from a century ago that have passed through many hands in the telling. One account has Clinger telephoning police to report his startling news; another has him crossing the street to the Clinton Hotel and running across Frank Aiken, a District Chief of the B.C. Provincial Police, and asking to have a word with him.

It’s hard to believe that Clinger would have waited until a chance meeting occurred before he told his story, but one account claims it to be true, so I record it here.

Whichever way the news was reported, however – and from here I shall largely depend on the contemporary accounts from the “Ashcroft Journal”, which have the advantage of having been written at the time the events unfolded, by someone who was on the scene – the story was the same.

Thomas Burton Smith, far from being the upright citizen he seemed, was in fact nothing short of a thief; and some time in the first week of February 1915 he robbed his partner, “Chubby” Clinger, of several hundred dollars and vanished into the night.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

Just Posted

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

A blood drive in support of 1-year-old Rielynn Gormley of Agassiz is scheduled for Monday, June 28 at Tzeachten First Nation Community Hall in Chilliwack. Rielynn lives with type 3 von Willebrand disease, which makes it difficult for her to stop bleeding. (Screenshot/Canadian Blood Services)
Upcoming blood drive in honour of Fraser Valley toddler with rare blood condition

The Gormley family has organized a blood drive in Chilliwack on June 28

Most Read