“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That line, from the classic 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, sums up one of the difficulties facing the historian. There’s no question that our region has attracted its share of larger than life personalities, and its history is full of events which prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Over the years, however, many of the facts about these people and events have been lost, or changed in the telling, or misremembered, with each subsequent teller of the tale introducing a change here or an addition there to make the story more dramatic, or colourful, or interesting. The result can make it difficult to get to the root of what really happened.
The story of what happened at Scottie Creek is a case in point. I found four versions of the tale, and there were more than a few discrepancies to be sorted out. For example, three accounts had the robbed stagecoach being driven by Steve Tingley, whereas the actual driver of the coach that day was William Parker. It was also reported that there were passengers on board the coach when it was robbed, when in fact the driver was alone. There were conflicting stories about the finding of the strongbox the thief had absconded with: three accounts had it being found by the posse sent in search of the bandit, while a fourth said that it was not found until many years later, by a group of railroad workers.
There was confusion about how, and where, the thief himself – Martin Van Buren Rowland – was found (one source identifies him as “Samuel” Rowland). Three of the versions have Chief Constable Fred Hussey coming to Ashcroft from Kamloops and conferring with Ashcroft policeman Joe Burr. Rowland has announced that his claim is played out and that he is leaving the area, and has come into Ashcroft to stay for the night before his departure. In one account he is planning on leaving on the midnight train, which makes one wonder why he would have rented a hotel room; and it seems strange that he would announce his departure plans, rather than just stealing away quietly. The policemen decide they need to act immediately, and that evening they arrest Rowland in his hotel room (in one version they find a .45 revolver under his pillow). Then they go to Foster’s store, where Rowland has very conveniently left his gold for safekeeping until his departure (although surely it would have made more sense to keep it with him).
In three of the versions it is Hussey – not Gold Commissioner John Bowron – who examines the gold and declares it could not have come from Scottie Creek. It is also widely reported that Rowland was “positively identified” by both stage driver Steve Tingley and by the passengers on board that day as the man who held up the BX stage in July 1890. Since Tingley wasn’t the driver, and there were no passengers, this can’t be true (the actual driver, William Parker, was unable to say whether Rowland was the bandit or not). Since it could not be proved that Rowland stole the gold, he was convicted of the lesser charge of possessing gold for which he could not adequately account, although that does not stop more than one version of the story implying that he was found guilty of having robbed the stagecoach.
It’s not difficult to see how or why each of these alterations crept into the story as it was told and re-told. Steve Tingley is one of the most famous and celebrated of the BX drivers (he later went on to own the company), so it isn’t surprising that he is credited with driving the stage that day. A coach full of frightened travellers adds tension to the story, and the posse finding the empty strongbox is better than them coming up empty-handed. Hussey and Burr arresting Rowland in Ashcroft, then marching across to Foster’s store and proving their theory then and there, makes for a dramatic climax to the tale, and Rowland being positively identified as the bandit, and convicted of the theft of the gold, brings things to a tidy conclusion.
In the end, I went with the details provided by Willis J. West in a 1948 article which appeared in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly. West was a one-time employee of the BX Express, who had the advantage of first-hand knowledge and access to historical records; and while his account might not be as dramatic as some of the others, it is almost certainly more accurate.
One other detail in several versions of the story is that the theft netted Rowland up to $15,000 in gold, of which only $4,000 was recovered. This would seem to indicate that up to $10,000-worth of gold (and this is its 1890 value, when gold fetched $21 an ounce) is still out there, possibly hidden by Rowland at Scottie Creek. Before any would-be treasure seekers go looking, however, it’s worth asking how likely it is that Rowland left that much gold behind. As he seemed to be planning on leaving the area forever, the answer has to be “Not very likely at all.” And Willis West – who had access to BX company records – states that the value of the stolen gold amounted to $4,500. We know how much was recovered; the missing $500 is probably what Rowland spent during his Ashcroft sprees. So if you decide to head up Scottie Creek way when the weather gets nicer, take a camera and a picnic lunch; but you can probably leave the shovels at home.