A mystery of the Fraser Canyon that dates back almost 150 years may be about to be solved, thanks to the use of 21st century technology.
A memorial to celebrated Indigenous leader and peace-maker Chief Cexpe’nthlEm (1812–1887), one of the co-founders of modern British Columbia, is located in the grounds of the Anglican church complex of St. Barnabas in Lytton, overlooking the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. However, no one knows if Cexpe’nthlEm (known to non-Indigenous people as David Spintlum) is buried there, or if he was laid to rest somewhere above Lytton.
This month, as part of the Chief Cexpe’nthlEm Memorial Precinct Revitalization Project, an archaeological/geophysical investigation of the area around the memorial might finally answer this question, and possibly several others.
Is Chief Cexpe’nthlEm buried near the memorial? Are there other people interred at the site? Are there any artifacts? All these questions have to be answered before the project to build a substantial memorial complex celebrating Cexpe’nthlEm’s legacy can commence.
“This is an important first step in building a fitting memorial to a great leader,” says Lytton First Nation Chief Janet Webster. “We’re very eager to see the results of the survey and whether or not we find any human remains — be they Chief Cexpe’nthlEm’s or any of our people.”
Cexpe’nthlEm was a tireless advocate for peace in 1858, when word spread of gold along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers in what was then a British colony. A conservative estimate is that between 30,000 and 35,000 gold-seeking miners flooded into the traditional territory of Cexpe’nthlEm and his people. Governor James Douglas warned that there would be bloodshed, and sure enough, conflict arose between the miners and First Nations peoples. It threatened to spread across the border into U.S. territory, which would likely have resulted in American military intervention and potentially the annexation of the B.C. mainland.
After local First Nations shut down the Thompson River, miners retaliated by killing three dozen people — including three chiefs — and torching villages. In August 1858 Henry Snyder, an American militia captain, sought to defuse the situation by making treaties of peace with 27 chiefs. Cexpe’nthlEm heard of this and met with Snyder in Lytton. Knowing how precarious the situation was south of the border, he used his skills as an orator to advocate for peace, and convinced his people to choose that path.
“Cexpe’nthlEm was as much a father of B.C. as James Douglas,” historian Danial Marshall told the Journal at a ceremony honouring the chief and Henry Snyder in Lytton in 2018. “If he and Snyder hadn’t made peace, it’s very possible that the US would have moved in. Cexpe’nthlEm needs to be recognized for the courageous stance he took in ending the Fraser Canyon War.”
When he died in 1887, a memorial to Cexpe’nthlEm was built and placed on the grounds of St. Barnabas, above the site where he and Snyder made peace in 1858.
Since 1887 the memorial — a modest stone cross atop a concrete base — has kept its secrets. Now the Chief Cexpe’nthlEm Memorial Precinct Revitalization Project task force has hired GeoScan Subsurface Surveys of Vancouver to conduct an archaeological/geophysical investigation of the precinct grounds. It will use ground penetrating radar and magnetic survey technology to determine if there are any human remains, artifacts, or structures at the site.
“We are really excited about this project from both a historical and technological perspective,” says Geoscan’s Peter Takacs. “We’re using the best available techniques from the non-destructive survey field to create images of the subsurface to potentially reveal information about archaeologically and culturally significant features.”
The Chief Cexpe’nthlEm Memorial Precinct Revitalization Project has been in development since 2008. Funds provided by BC Hydro paid for a design of the precinct, which was officially unveiled in 2018 by Cecil Salmon (a direct descendent of Chief Cexpe’nthlEm) and Dale Snyder (a descendant of Henry Snyder) on the 160th anniversary of the end of the Canyon War.
Task force member Mayor Jan Polderman of Lytton says celebrating and articulating the story of Cexpe’nthlEm and Snyder is important as B.C. enters a new phase of First Nations reconciliation.
“It’s a great example of how people can, even in times of great stress and turmoil, find common ground and work together to build something that can benefit everyone,” he says. “We’re excited to see the results and look forward to creating a new heritage tourism asset for Lytton and the Fraser Canyon.”
The Chief Cexpe’nthlEm Memorial Precinct Restoration Project is a partnership between Lytton First Nation, the Village of Lytton, the Anglican Parish, and the New Pathways to Gold Society (NPTGS). Project management support is being provided by NPTGS, a non-profit organization committed to developing local economies in the Hope to Barkerville corridor through heritage tourism development, First Nations reconciliation, and multiculturalism.
“Chief Cexpe’nthlEm was a great leader,” says NPTGS Indigenous Co-Chair Cheryl Chapman. “This is a significant step in recognizing the Indigenous peoples’ leadership in creating the society we now know as B.C. This project also aligns with the Province’s strategic plan to build our local economies by providing tourists with more Indigenous experiences.”
NPTGS Co-Chair Terry Raymond says that once the project is completed, it will provide Lytton and the Fraser Canyon with a significant new heritage tourism asset that will generate economic benefits for the community.
“People will get off the highway and stop in Lytton to learn more about Chief Cexpe’nthlEm and visit this beautiful site where the two rivers meet,” he says. “They’ll also explore the museums, restaurants, businesses, and other attractions of Lytton.
“Cexpe’nthlEm called this place his centrepost. We hope the Chief Cexpe’nthlEm Memorial Precinct Revitalization Project creates a new centrepost that attracts people from around the globe who want to experience a more complete narrative of our shared history.”
For more information, visit the NPTGS website at http://newpathwaystogold.ca/.