In his latest book, Chilcotin Chronicles: Stories of Adventure and Intrigue from British Columbia’s Central Interior, Williams Lake author Sage Birchwater offers a unique perspective of the region.
“It’s a history told with Indigenous people sitting at the table,” Birchwater says.
Birchwater lived in the Chilcotin for 24 years and that’s where the inspiration for his stories was born.
“Many people still lived the old time way without modern conveniences like running water, electricity or telephones and cut their hay with horses,” Birchwater says.
Two of his closest neighbours, Bern Mullin and Annie Nicholson, eked out a living from the land with their small herd of cattle.
They told him of a wild and eccentric fellow, Theodor Harvey Valleau, who has a creek named after him near their ranch in the West Branch Valley. That’s how it started.
Harry Haynes was another storyteller in the adjacent Tatlayoko Valley.
Birchwater spent many hours at his kitchen table listening to Harry’s descriptions of characters like Eagle Lake Henry, Tommy Lulua, Eileen Lulua and gunslinger James Lee Holt and he became more intrigued.
In the early 1980s Birchwater worked as a rural correspondent for the Williams Lake Tribune and began writing some of these stories down.
In the late 1980s he got a Canada Council grant to research the life of Tsilhqot’in recluse Chiwid.
For three years he crisscrossed the Chilcotin interviewing people and recording their stories.
The book Chiwid was published by New Star Books in 1995, but many stories remained untold.
Over the past few years he has written some of those stories and a year ago Birchwater had enough material for a book which Caitlin Press publisher Vici Johnstone was eager to publish it.
“The stories interconnect like the unseen mycelium of a mushroom colony,” Birchwater says.
One of the first stories in the book about the Twan family of Fort Alexandria, demonstrates the proud melding of Indigenous and settler bloodlines stemming from the fur trade.
He writes about the Chilcotin War and the legacy of Eagle Lake Henry, once reputed to be the wealthiest man in the Chilcotin bar none.
“Through my research and interviews I try and dig up something brand new in each of my stories,” he says.
“Old George Turner was thought to be an outlaw member of the Dalton Gang. Then someone suggested he might have been a deputy sheriff working for Bat Masterson.”
Birchwater will launch his book with a slideshow and talk at the Cariboo Art Centre (the old firehall) in Williams Lake on Thursday April 20 starting at 7 p.m.