Haphazard History: The fascinating story of Gunanoot

Just up the Dog Creek Road beyond Mountview School lies a quiet little subdivision.

The main street running through it is Gun-a-noot Trail. I had heard that this street was named after a trapper and packer from northern B.C., but I really didn’t find out the whole story until I read the book Trapline Outlaw by David Ricardo Williams. Here is what I discovered.

Simon Peter Johnson, a member of the Gitksan First Nation, was born at Kispiox, a small village about 10 miles north of Hazelton, B.C. around 1874. Simon’s father, Johnson Nah-Gun, like his forefathers, was a trapper and a hunter.

young Simon grew up living int he woods and learning the ways of the bush.

At some point in his childhood, Simon was sent away to school at Port Simpson, a coastal settlement about 20 miles north of Prince Rupert.

Missionaries from the Methodist Church operated a residential school there, and Simon received what was considered at the time a fairly good education. he could read and write, though not well, and he had a good understanding of arithmetic and bookkeeping.

Thus, he grew up with a connection to both native and white cultures, an attribute which led to his ability to get along with and gain respect from both.

by 1900, Simon was 25 years old and in the prime of his life. He was a big, handsome fellow, with dark hair, clean cut features, a large dark mustache, and an open face with penetrating eyes. He had developed the reputation for being an extremely skilled trapper and hunter, and was “the best traveller on snowshoes as any man in the north country.”

He trapped during the winters, but instead of selling his furs to local buyers, he took them himself to Victoria or Seattle to sell them directly at a much better price.

There he would buy goods to sell in his store/trading post which he had established in Kispiox.

By 1900, he had also taken the name Gunanoot, which, roughly translated, means “the little bear that climbs the tree,” and he preferred to be called Simon Gunanoot.

In that year as well, he married Sarah. They had two children prior to 1906, a daughter Catherine and a son David.

Simon was well on his way to becoming a prosperous businessman, owning a house and the store in Kispiox and a large riverfront ranch of over 100 acres near Hazelton, on which he kept pack horses.

Since 1891, Hazelton had been the main launching point for gold seekers trying to make it rich in the Omineca region of B.C.

That was the year that the first sternwheeler made its way up the Skeena River from the Pacific.

Hazelton was as far as the boats could go upriver, and they would pull up onto the bank and unload just a few yards away from the town’s main street. Many of the would-be prospectors then needed to purchase supplies and equipment, and packers were needed to take the goods on to the distant gold fields.

Simon Gunanoot was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of this influx of people, and he did so, becoming quite well to do as time went on.

Then, on June 18, 1906, everything changed.

Gunanoot’s wife asked him to go to another village to buy some fish.

He started off, but decided to stop in at the Two Mile Hotel. Two Mile (the distance from Hazelton) was notorious for its drinking, gambling and prostitution.

Simon stayed late into the night drinking and playing cards with a pretty rough crowd.

Then things really went sideways. A packer with a rival outfit named Alex MacIntosh began insulting Gunanoot’s wife, saying that she had had regular liasons with a friend of his, Max Le Clair.

A knife fight ensued, and MacIntosh slashed Simon’s cheek open and broke his nose.

MacIntosh’s boss stopped the brawl and made the men shake hands, but witnesses heard Gunanoot threaten revenge as he left the place.

The next day, MacIntosh’s body was found beside a trail leading north from Two Mile, and a few hours later, LeClair’s body was also discovered.

Both had been shot in the back while on horseback. Of course, Simon was the obvious suspect, but by the time the provincial police showed up at his trading post in Kispiox, he was gone, along with his wife, Sarah, their two children, a step daughter, his parents and his brother and sister in law.

And so the manhunt began, at first small, but then more and more special constables were hired through the summer and fall.

Police, bounty hunters, and even the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency from the U.S. – all tried to find Gunanoot and his little band, with no success.

The provincial government posted a $1,000 reward, quite a substantial sum in 1906, but it brought no results.

The newspapers of the day pointed out that Gunanoot’s successful evasion made the government look weak.

The Kamloops Standard warned: “Because of the non capture of the murderers Simon Gunanoot and [his brother-in-law] Peter Himadam, the Indians in this district are becoming very cheeky and defying the law.”

Victoria’s British Colonist stated: “this Indian murderer, who is skulking in the wilds of northern British Columbia, is undermining the principles of British justice.”

Nor only was the incredible vastness of the area with its mountainous terrain a factor, but searchers also faced another problem.

They ran into a wall of silence, not just from the natives, but also from white settlers as well.

Simon was well respected by both groups, and they felt that MacIntosh deserved what he got.

The Toronto Star reported: “Everyone in the north sympathizes with Gunanoot. People of Hazelton declare that a white man would have killed the two ruffians who disparaged his wife long before Simon did the job.”

Even the Methodist minister in Kispiox decided not to report a visit from Gunanoot to settle some business affairs and to baptize a child.

It was an incredible self-imposed exile.

By 1910, the police and the government had given up the active search, but Gunanoot and his little group continued their nomadic life for another nine years.

During that time, almost everything in the outside world changed.

The First World War came and went, automobiles arrived in Hazelton, a railway line was established to Prince Rupert, and the population of the area doubled.

Gunanoot and his family group not only survived, they prospered. He continued to trap and trade, and during this years on the run, he amassed a fortune estimated to be around $75,000.

However, it was a hard life. By 1919, Simon was 44 years old. Two more children had been born and baptized, and he wanted all his children to be educated. His father had died in 1908, and the cold winters were becoming much harder on them all, especially his mother. His son, Alec, later told a reporter: “He just got sick of living in the bush and wanted to give himself up.”

So Gunannot decided to surrender.

Through intermediaries he contacted Stuart Henderson, a former MLA and a skilled lawyer trusted by several native communities.

Henderson’s fee of $20,000 was enormous, but worth every penny to Simon.

On June 15, 1919, the lawyer arrived in Hazelton.

George Biernes, a rancher, packer, and good friend of Simon’s went into the woods and returned with the fugitive.

Together, the three men strolled into the Hazelton police station, and Gunanoot surrendered to a surprised police constable.

Upon his “capture,” Gunanoot became a folk hero. The British Colonist, which had previously labelled him an “Indian murderer,” now touted him as “a man of magnificent physique, one of the finest specimens of the real Indian.”

Simon became a celebrity of sorts. He posed for a picture with three members of the Hazelton police before being transfered to New Westminster for trial.

He received a virtual red carpet treatment — special meals, ample reading and writing materials, and even a feather bed.

He gave his word that he would not attempt to escape, so he wasn’t even locked up during the day.

It was not like that after he was escorted to Oakalla prison.

Simon felt the close confinement and the dampness of the coast. He had continual colds, and after his trial, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

His trial took place on Oct. 7, 191. Stuart Henderson really earned his money.

He poked holes in the evidence, raised many doubts, and was helped by the passage of time and by the fact that many of the witnesses were drunk when the original events took place.

On Oct. 8, the jury took less than 15 minutes to decide that Gunannot was not guilty.

He returned to Hazelton where he recovered his health in a month or so.

He also testified at a hearing for his brother in law, who had all charges against him dismissed.

Simon returned to Kispiox and reopened his trading post. He continued to trap, to work as a packer, and to take parties out after big game.

He began prospecting for gold in 1925 or so, but he never made any money at that endeavor.

He also had a couple more run ins with the law, both alcohol related but, in general, he was a regular, law abiding citizen.

In October, 1933, Simon, who was then 59 years old, went with a number of his family members on a trapping expedition.

They headed into the wilderness about 90 miles north of Stewart.

Simon came down with a severe head cold, which progressed into pneumonia.

He lay ill for five days, then passed away quietly.

He was buried at the family’s Nah Gun grave site at Brown Lake, north of Meziadin.

Thus ended the story of a remarkable man who fought the system and won.

 

Barry Sale