Palmer with Indians in His Pocket

Palmer's tree, just a few miles from the location of the story

You want me to tell you something of the early days of the adventure of my gallant husband, who as Lieutenant Palmer of the Royal Engineers, is still, I am happy to know, remembered by the people of British Columbia.

He had many adventures and narrow escapes in those colourful days on the early sixties when we and the country were young.

But I will tell you of an amusing and at the same time dangerous experience he had on the Palmer trail, where it runs through the valley of the Bella Coola.

It was in 1862, before our marriage.

He bade me goodbye, telling me he had been detailed to continue his work of finding a new route, via Bella Coola into the Cariboo country.

He left New Westminster for the north on the old Enterprise.

Camped in Bella Coula

On arriving at Bella Coola, he was warned that the Indian villages were infested with smallpox, and, with the one sapper, a fine man named Edwards, who was accompanying him, pushed on up the valley where they camped.

They caught a fine salmon, and next morning Edwards asked Lieutenant Palmer how he would have it cooked.

"I have not had a salmon steak for some time.  We will fry one now," responded the Lieutenant.

A fine salmon was cut and the steak was placed on the frying pan over the fire.

Lieutenant Palmer undertook to superintend the frying while Edwards busied himself with other preparations for the meal.

Suddenly, the officer's elbow was struck, and over went the frying pan, upsetting the salmon into the fire.

Indian boy caught in the bush

Another steak was cut and again he set about frying it, squatting down beside the fire.

It was browning nicely when once more his elbow was jostled and the frying pan upset.

This time he looked quickly about and saw a brown hand being withdrawn into the bush.

He sprang towards the place and caught a young Indian lad, who, he cuffed and allowed to go.

The youth ran away crying at the top of his voice and unmolested the frying was continued.

A little later Edwards looked up, and then exclaimed; "Indians, sir, and they are all armed."

Lieutenant Palmer looked up and sure enough the whole place seemed to be swarming with natives, all armed with muskets, spears and knives.

He knew that if you could excite an Indian's curiosity he would not act until he was satisfied.

Springing up, he seized his gold-braided cap, and placed it on this head, and then started to whirl about and jump up and down as if demented.

The Indians stayed their attack.

They gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the strange antics of this decorated King George tyee.

Stopping his mad capers as quickly as he had started them, Lieutenant Palmer shouted out in Chinook, asking the chiefs what they wanted.

"We've come to kill you," was the surly answer of the head chief.

Death for cutting Salmon's backbone

"Why" demanded Lieutenant Palmer.  "I don't mind being killed, but I would like to know the reason for it."

"You cut the backbone of a salmon," accused the chief.  "And that will make the Salmon God angry and he won't send any more fish."

"What?" demanded the Lieutenant, "Have you only one God who controls the salmon?"

The old chief nodded.

"I have two," asserted the Lieutenant.

"I have the Saghalie Tyee, up above. 

He knows everything.

Then there is another, but it takes six months to go to her (Queen Victoria).

I am sorry if I offended by cutting the backbone of the salmon, but I'll go and make it right with the god whom I am telling you about.

She will arrange it that you will have twice as many salmons as before.

I'll fix that for you."

The Indians were impressed and delighted.

They went away in gay good humour.

Presently Edwards called out.  "They are coming back sir, but this time they have their women with them and they are all decorated."

It was so.

The whole of the village appeared to be in the procession that was coming, led by the head chief, who had on his ceremonial robes, and was accompanied by two young women.

Chief offered officer highest honor

When he came up to Lieutenant Palmer, he delivered a long address in Chinook, the purport of which was that they wanted him to come and live with them and become one of their chiefs.

The chief concluded his talk by presenting his two daughters to Lieutenant Palmer to become his wives.

In telling of his experience later Lieutenant Palmer said he did not know whether he did not prefer that the Indian carried out the purpose of their first visit.

But his presence of mind, and quickness of thought, did not desert him.

He went forward to the native beauties, and touched one of them, on the forehead, and then, exclaimed at her beauty and evident charms.

Such a wife, he declared, was fitting of the highest rank.

Then he touched the forehead of her sister, and spoke most flatteringly of her also.

The old chief was pleased indeed.

The Indians were jubilant.

Then Lieutenant went on to explain that he would have first to obtain the permission of the goddess of whom he had spoken.

If she disapproved, it would mean that he would not have the blankets and idktas so necessary for a chief who was to acquire two beautiful wives.

Then again, if he married without permission, it might mean that in her anger the goddess would not send any salmon at all.

And his first duty was to see that the salmon runs were preserved.

He added his talk by advising the chief to keep the girls in comfort, and away from the prying eyes of any white men who might come, until his return.

This satisfied the chief and his followers, and after shaking hands all round they departed, while Lieutenant Palmer and Edwards lost no time in making their way up the valley as fast as they could from the village where lurked the dual dangers of death and matrimony.

-- Mrs. Henry Spencer Palmer, the Daily Colonist, 9 November 1930

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