An American mob crosses the Canadian border and lynches 14-year-old Louie Sam, a member of the Sto:lo tribe, on February 24, 1884.

  • By HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 12/30/2005
  • Essay 7592
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On February 24, 1884, an American mob crosses the Canadian border and lynches 14-year-old Louie Sam, a member of the Sto:lo tribe. Louie Sam was a suspect in the murder of Nooksack (future Whatcom County) shopkeeper James Bell. Sto:lo leaders had turned the boy over to the police, believing he would be treated justly. He was in the custody of a B.C. deputy when the American mob captured him and hanged him from a tree just north of the border. A Canadian investigation at the time provides evidence that the boy was almost certainly innocent and that two of the leaders of the lynch mob were the likely murderers of James Bell.

Louie Sam

Louie Sam lived just north of the border in the small Sto:lo community of Kilgard, near present-day Sumas, Washington. He went to Nooksack after being offered a job there, but discovered that there was no work. He returned home that night, the same night on which a Nooksack shopkeeper, James Bell, was murdered and his store set on fire.

After two local men accused the boy of the murder, Sto:lo leaders turned him over to the authorities. He was in custody when a hundred American vigilantes crossed the border on horseback, captured him, hanged him, and rode back into Washington Territory.

Keith Carlson, professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, and Sonny McHalsie, Sto:lo historian, originally reconstructed the archival record of the lynching from documents in the B.C. Archives. Carlson recounts that upon discovering the lynching, leaders of the 21 Sto:lo tribes in the Fraser Valley were incensed. A delegation of some 200 Sto:lo from more than 20 communities between Fort Langley and Yale in the Fraser Canyon gathered to consider "the best means of obtaining justice" (Carlson).

They met for a week, and summoned Canadian Indian agent Patrick McTiernan. McTiernan's notes record that some believed that the community had "a perfect right to ... hang and kill sixty-five Americans." On the second day, he recorded that the belief was unanimous in feeling "fully justified in going immediately in very large numbers across the boundary line and tak[ing] the first white man and bring[ing] him to the spot where they hung the Indian and treat[ing] him in the same manner" (Carlson). McTiernan assured them that Her Majesty's government would bring Louie's murderers to justice and tribal leaders decided to try this option instead of conducting the traditional raid.

To appease the Sto:lo, British Columbia authorities sent two B.C. police officers south to investigate, disguised as laborers. They returned with statements from witnesses that implicated two Washington men. William Osterman, the Nooksack telegraph operator, had invited Louie to travel south for a job, and just as they reached the store, turned and told Louie to "go away." Osterman later took over Bell's business, and the Sto:lo (along with a few of his Nooksack neighbors) believed him to be Bell's murderer. Another ringleader of the mob was David Harkness, who was living with James Bell's estranged wife Annette. Harkness's sister was married to William Osterman.

The British Columbia government asked the Washington Territorial government to turn over the two men to stand trial for the boy's murder, but the territorial government declined to cooperate and British Columbia dropped the case.

The Apology

In September 2005, British Columbia Lt. Governor Iona Campagnolo asked Washington Lt. Governor Brad Owen to join her in urging both the B.C. and Washington state governments to apologize to the Sto:lo Nation. On March 1, 2006, Washington legislators approved a resolution offering the government's "deepest sympathy" to the descendants of Louie Sam, and acknowledged that he had been wrongly accused.

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who sponsored the resolution, hosted a series of "healing circle" drum ceremonies with Sto:lo tribal leaders, members of Washington's Makah and Quileute tribes, and a B.C. government representative. One of these was held in the rotunda of the Washington state capitol building.

Sonny McHalsie, treaty director for the Sto:lo Nation, said, "It's our belief that someone who ends his life in a tragic way, as Louie Sam did, is not at rest." The Sto:lo believe that when someone dies, it's important to let them go so they can move on to the spirit world. "Every time we mention Louie Sam's name, it's like we keep calling him back," said McHalsie ("State Offers Apology"). He said the gesture will help provide spiritual closure for the tribe.

Sources: "Ralph Thomas, "Injustice of 1884 on State Agenda for 2006," The Seattle Times, December 29, 2005 (; Associated Press, "British Columbia Seeks Apology for 1884 Lynching by US Vigilantes," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 2005 (; Terry Glavin, "Only Lynching in Canada's History," Winnipeg Free Press, November 27, 2005 (; Keith Thor Carlson, "The Lynching of Louie Sam," BC Studies, No. 109 (Spring 1996), p. 63-79; Ralph Thomas, "State Offers Apology for Lynching," The Seattle Times, March 1, 2006 (; Rachel La Corte, "Teen Lynched by Mob Honored in Wash. State, The Bellingham Herald, March 2, 2006.
Note: This essay was updated on March 2, 2006.

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