The Legend of Dan Williams and the other Dan Williams – Black History Month 2022

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How did de-bunking a myth about a Black settler in the Peace River District named Daniel Williams lead to discovering, or rather, re-discovering, Fort Saskatchewan’s first Black resident? 

 

On February 18, 2022, during a Black History Month event hosted by the Fort Saskatchewan Multicultural Association, a story was told about a Black prospector and fur trader named Daniel Williams. Much of what is known about Williams is wrapped up in myths too difficult to untangle to know what’s true and what isn’t. Some stories describe his legendary accuracy with a rifle, his gardening skills, and his generosity towards government surveyors. Others portray Williams as an erratic and dangerous Black man, a killer, and an inciter of rebellion amongst the Dane-zaa, but also deeply devoted to Jesus and Queen Victoria. He would later become a bogeyman for white mothers in the Peace River District, who used racist tropes of Black men as criminals to keep their children in line. Unruly children faced the terrifying prospect that “Nigger Dan” (a racialized epithet to which he was commonly referred) would come to get them if they didn’t behave. 

 

Williams reportedly came to Canada from Georgia sometime in the late 1860s. He had been enslaved before the U.S. Civil War and apparently thought that the further north he ventured, the freer he would be, so his travels led him to Fort St. John in British Columbia. William Francis Butler, a traveler through the Peace River District, heard all sorts of talk about Dan Williams. He described Williams as a “pioneer, cook, trapper, vagrant, idler, or squatter, as chance suited him.” Butler also detailed a few of the many “dark rumours afloat about” Williams including that he “had killed his man … nay he had repeated the pastime and killed two men. He had robbed several mining shanties, and had to shift his residence more than once beyond the mountains on account of his mode of life.”

 

Like many of the settlers and adventurers in the Peace River District, Williams eked out a meager living prospecting for gold on the Peace River and its tributaries. He traded furs independently of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), to supplement his income, providing unwelcome competition. Williams had a cabin on the Parsnip River, land claimed by the HBC at Fort St. John. The HBC wanted Williams to move his cabin off of their land, but he refused to leave and posted a sign which read “DAN WILLIAMS / A Loyal British subject / Who objects to be trodden upon / By any man except / Her Gracious Magesty Queen Victoria.” 

 

Antagonism between the two parties came to a head in 1879 when the HBC accused Williams of shooting and wounding three company horses that wandered into his barley field. Other allegations from the time included setting fire to the buildings at Fort St. John, and issuing death threats against Baptiste Lafleur and Chief Factor James McKinley. Lafleur and McKinley “caught” Williams and tied him up, but Williams managed to escape and fled back to his cabin where he fired several shots at his captors, only missing McKinley by inches. 

 

McKinley requested a formal arrest warrant for Williams from Dunvegan’s Chief Trader, James McDougall, a Justice of the Peace, and HBC company men managed to capture Williams in his sleep. Despite Williams’s alleged crimes and arrest taking place in British Columbia, he was sent to Fort Saskatchewan to await trial by jury under Colonel Hugh Richardson of the North-West Mounted Police. 

 

Constable Fred Bagley noted Wiliams’ arrival in Fort Saskatchewan in his diary entry for August 6, 1879,“… Dan Williams (“Nigger Dan”), who was charged by the H.B.Co. with setting fire to their buildings at Peace River, was remanded for further defence evidence.” The trial of Dan Williams and its result is perhaps one of the biggest myths surrounding him, but it’s also probably the most easily debunked. A few sources claim that Williams, who did not receive defense council, was found guilty of the charge of attempting to murder McKinley and then hanged for his crimes on March 29, 1880, here in Fort Saskatchewan. 

 

However, there is no record of Williams’s execution, and since it would have been carried out after a trial and performed by the Crown’s representatives, the North-West Mounted Police, there would be an official record of his hanging. Williams as it turns out, was actually acquitted of all charges. Testimony from his friend “Banjo” Mike McDavidson likely helped gain Williams his acquittal. McDavidson testified that Williams was well known for his accuracy with a gun, and that “… I know, as many other miners know, that Dan Williams at a distance of one hundred yards can take the eye out of a jack-rabbit at every pop.” McDavidson argued that if Dan Williams had intended to kill James McKinley then McKinley would, sure enough, be dead.

 

Dan Williams moved back to Fort St. John after his acquittal and resumed prospecting and fur trading. He worked with a group of eight other miners for a while before splitting off with one other man in 1887, choosing to winter at the mouth of the Finlay River. Dan became sick over the winter and wasted away until he died in February 1888.  

 

So, what does the story of Dan Williams have to do with Fort Saskatchewan’s first black resident, you may be asking?

 

Research to verify whether Dan Williams had been hanged at Fort Saskatchewan led us to a discovery that was right under our noses (actually on pages 131 and 134 in Peter T. Ream’s Fort on the Saskatchewan) about another Daniel Williams. This Daniel Williams once owned River Lot 7 on the northern end of Fort Saskatchewan and outside what would be the early settlement period’s town limits. He was quite likely the first Black settler in Fort Saskatchewan. 

 

Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about Dan Williams. His name comes to us through a claim-jumping court case between Phillip Heiminck and a supposed “squatter” named Octave Derome in 1881. Both men claimed Williams sold them River Lot 7. According to Heiminck, Williams was apparently uninterested in the land as it was “ too bushy.” 

 

Derome described Dan Williams as “… a mulatto who has been in the country many years…” Williams also appears in the 1881 federal census living in the home of Frank and Marie Lamoureux across the river in Lamoureux and listed as a laborer (the Edmonton Bulletin for April 4, 1881, printed that Williams would be spending the summer with Peter Coutts, a former NWMP officer, washing gold in the river). He was 58 years old and apparently born in Ontario, thus negating any possibility of being the same Dan Williams of the Peace River District. 

 

Dan Williams seems to disappear from the records after 1881, but hopefully, future research will turn up more information about him.   

 

"The tour of the Precinct was really interesting and very engaging for the children. There were so many hands on activities for them to participate in that they were always engaged. I love that they are allowed to touch and explore many of the items around the precinct. That makes such a difference to keep them engaged, on task and motivated. The learning connections between what we talked about in school and what we saw were evident in the conversations between the kids and the interpreters."