The British Baronet who Vanished

Guest Post 10: The Klondike and the Lost Baronet (Part One). The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print).  The first part of this article can be found here.

His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info


2-packing-a-horse-or-mule

Packing a horse or mule from Frontiersman’s Pocket Book, 1909, reprinted 2014 (courtesy University of Alberta Press)

In 1974 the newspapers round the world were full of the story of the disappearance of Lord Lucan. The story created so much interest that it re-surfaced in newspapers regularly for many years.

In late Victorian time and for some years after the event the case of the baronet who vanished into the Canadian wilderness, never to be seen again caused at least as much interest around the world. Was he murdered, had he been kidnapped for ransom by some renegade First Nations¹, or was there some reason for him wishing to disappear? Here we will tell something of a story that gripped public interest for many years.

One dull foggy day in January 1898, two young gentlemen, George Sheppard and Charles Adamson were sat round the fire in the London rooms of one of them discussing the Klondike gold rush. Both young men were, to say the least, comfortably situated financially and both were rather bored. The advertisement in The Times by “Experienced Western Traveller” attracted their attention and they decided to make contact as they could well afford the money and a few months of their time. Every paper they read was telling them how the Klondike was the only place for fit young adventurous men to go. There were over two hundred replies to this advertisement and Sheppard and Adamson were two who were short-listed to meet the “experienced western traveller” at the rooms “western traveller” seemed to share with other like-minded adventurous types. The walls were adorned with trophies of journeys around western Canada and America designed to impress those who had not shared his passion for western adventure. “Western traveller” was to prove, in spite of his claims, to be very much a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. His name was Roger Pocock. His time as a constable in the North-West Mounted Police had been brought short when he acquired frostbite in his feet due to his own carelessness, and the toes on his right foot had been amputated. He had spent years travelling the West, often as little more than a tramp, acquiring stories so that he could eke out a living as a journalist and author. He was known as a bit of an eccentric and was inclined to walk around London dressed in western garb and wearing riding breeches. He boasted that there were few places in the north-west of Canada he had not visited, that he could ride like a cowboy, and had won prizes for his ability with a rope and packing horses. His words charmed his listeners and Adamson and Sheppard eagerly paid him the initial deposit of the twenty-five pounds he required from each man’s contribution to the expedition of £250. The plan, as outlined in Pocock’s Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper article described in part one of this tale, was to buy horses and then drive them north and sell at a substantial profit. Members of the expedition would then be free to carry out whatever additional adventure they wished, such as prospecting for gold. As Pocock was to write later, “It all looked very good on paper.” There were eight paying members of the expedition, plus Pocock and his friend Herbert P Hilton, described by Pocock as a “horse wrangler” with an intimate knowledge of the area. Hilton was to be the second-in-command.² Pocock was to be paid two hundred pounds for his services. Apart from Adamson and Sheppard, the other members of the expedition were Hubert Swinburne, recent graduate of Cambridge and son of Sir Charles Swinburne, Northumberland; E.T. Boddam Wetham, son of Col. Wetham; Francis J.C. Jeffcock and Norman Pern, both medical students; C.J. Newbery, listed as a student from London; and finally Sir Arthur Colin Curtis, baronet of Hampshire. Sir Arthur Curtis is the most intriguing member of the expedition and would become a central figure of the story. It was a mystery as to why he would wish to be involved in this adventure. He was a married man with an eleven-year-old son and a small estate in Hampshire. He was not particularly wealthy but his estate gave him an income. Other than Pocock, who was in his early thirties, the other members of the expedition were young fit men in their twenties. Curtis was 41 and known to only be really happy on water. He was a descendant of Admiral Colin Curtis.

1-curtis-party

The Sir Arthur Curtis Party

There were problems which should have been thought out. The Klondike was a magnet attracting fortune hunters from all over the world. It was true that high prices were being asked for freight at Telegraph Creek, but not many were prepared to pay and the horses that arrived were worn to skeletons after what proved to be a terrible trail. Many a man bankrupted himself.

It was agreed that Pocock and Hilton should go ahead to buy horses with the others following. Two weeks later Pocock and his companion were riding out of Ashcroft in British Columbia on to the Cariboo trail to the Cariboo mines – but 3,000 men with 7,000 horses had thought of the same idea and the thousand mile trail was churned into mud. Spring came unusually late that year, leaving them little time to buy wild horses and get them broken in. The rest of the party arrived to hear the bad news. Every night still brought frost and very expensive hay had to be bought for the horses, so it was not until late May that they were ready to take to the trail.

3-trail-from-quesnelle-north-1898

Trail from Quesnel north extracted from an 1898 map showing Klondike trails.

A map of British Columbia will help the reader who may be unfamiliar with the area to picture the route, which was to Quesnel. through Blackwater country to Stuart Lake, past Nation and Germansen Lakes and then eastwards to the Skeena River where the Suskoot joins it. From there they were to follow the telegraph trail to Telegraph Creek and the Stikine. This trail had been blazed in 1865-7 by the Collins Overland Telegraph, which was planning to get a line from New York to London via Siberia. The project was abandoned when the Atlantic cable was laid. By 1898 the trail was much overgrown, but was soon trampled by thousands of human and animal feet into a narrow mud track with a complete wilderness each side

After 16 days they found an area of lush grass by the Fraser River and turned the horses loose – but a wild stallion turned up and captured all their mares! Struggling over the Fraser River they reached Quesnel and met up with many outfits who all had exactly the same idea. First of all, an all-British outfit was looked on with disdain as “tenderfeet”, but a good sense of discipline soon won them the respect of the Canadians.

Norman Lee, who drove two hundred cattle on the same route a few days ahead of the Pocock party, reported crowds flocking north. “Every half-hour one or more pack trains would go up the trail.” ³ Each side of the blazed trail the undergrowth was so thick that no-one in their right mind would venture far. The track became like a busy but narrow highway running through a thick jungle. Relations between Pocock and Curtis had been poor from the start. Curtis did not like Pocock’s blunt manner. Bear in mind that in those class-conscious days Curtis was a gentleman, but Pocock was a footloose adventurer, although he was their party leader. Curtis was the quiet Englishman, quite taciturn.

Matters between Curtis and Pocock finally came to a head when they were camped by the Mud River on the 8th June. The bitter cold Spring had suddenly given way to summer heat and they were plagued by black flies and mosquitoes. Ten horses had gone astray and had to be found, so the party was forced to spend the day in camp. Pocock had been on the go since 3 a.m. and by 9 at nightfall there was still much to be done.

Curtis had been thinking all day and when he offered to help me wash up after supper, I told him roughly to ‘go away and rest’.

Pocock was up very early next morning cooking and serving breakfast. He got the men away as soon as possible to search for the horses. Curtis would not come over and eat. He finished his personal chores and lit his pipe. He then walked over past Pocock at the fire. Pocock wrote that he was feeling he had been too hasty and that his leadership had been at fault. He called to Curtis in a friendly way, begging him to have some breakfast.

Without noticing my presence, he went on and passed between two willow bushes out of sight. ⁴

Adamson told a different version of events:

Sir Arthur and Pocock did not work harmoniously. You may have had a glimpse of Pocock’s character from what I have told you. He was a most sarcastic man. He was very bright, although I firmly believe from his actions that he was half lunatic. One day he would tell us one thing about the trail and the next day he would change his opinion about like the wind. On the morning of June 9th, Pocock and Arthur were appointed cooks. They were to take turns in preparing all the meals of the camp. As I have before stated, there was considerable friction between the men. Sir Arthur seemed to have the idea that Pocock betrayed the party and he was naturally in a bad humour with the journalist. Pocock undertook to get supper that night. Sir Arthur was supposed to help him. Pocock refused all help and told Sir Arthur that he had better take a rest. Sir Arthur went to bed that night in a very gloomy mood. The next morning we had several visitors for breakfast. Pocock seemed in a vicious humour. Sir Arthur, apparently, forgetting his bad humour of the night before. He offered to do some work and Pocock said: ‘Sir Arthur, go and have a rest; you look very tired; you must be weary.’ This was not said in the best spirit in the world. Sir Arthur took umbrage at Pocock’s remarks. He told me that the newspaper man would have to apologise or be thrashed. A few minutes later Sir Arthur walked up to Pocock and said: ‘I’ll make you apologise before the whole party or I’ll give you a damned good thrashing.’ Pocock never said a word. Sir Arthur spoke his last words to me. He said: ‘Old man, I understand the horses are up the river. I will go and look for them.’ He lighted his pipe. His face was deathly pale. After walking a distance up the river he disappeared in the dense underbrush bordering the forest and was never seen again. ⁵

It is impossible to say which of the above two accounts was correct – probably a mixture of both. That was to be the last that was ever seen of Sir Arthur Colin Curtis and was the beginning of a mystery which was the subject of conversation in pubs and clubs in British Columbia for many years. For weeks afterward it was the only subject of trail gossip. The story of the mystery was to constantly turn up in newspapers around the world. It was to haunt Pocock until his dying day with the whispered suggestion following him through his life that he had murdered Curtis.

After half an hour the missing horses had all been rounded up and were on their way back to camp. The recall signal of three revolver shots was fired and everyone was busy breaking camp for the rest of the morning. The next intended camping spot was sixteen miles on, but Pocock was getting anxious. He was riding ahead of the main body and met a lone horseman. Had he seen Curtis? No, he had met no-one. Pocock rode back and, after a hasty conference with some of the rest, decided to ride back and leave food and a letter at the site of the last camp. Pocock changed his mind over the position of the night’s camp and set it up on the shores of Bobtail Lake only about ten miles away. Night fell and they settled down. Next morning Pocock sent men back to the Mud River camp. They fired a few hopeful shots in the air and reported back to Pocock by noon. He then decided not to go on any more and most of the party returned to organise a search.

There is another puzzle. Although the rest of the party were greenhorns, Pocock definitely – and probably his second in command also – had a working knowledge of survival in that country. Why, then, did they wait a day before organising a search? Probably it was partly because Pocock was irritated with Curtis and thought he was just stringing them along. Also the massive problems of getting the horses through had taken over their lives to such an extent that Pocock made the inexcusable mistake for a leader of not ensuring the safety of his men before anything else.

For some of the Canadian side of the story we are indebted to the late Cecil Clark of Victoria who made a study of the disappearance. He spent thirty-five years in the British Columbia Provincial Police and gained a lot of knowledge about life in the bush and off the beaten track. Although his service did not start until 1925, it was still dangerous in those years to wander off accepted trails. In his many writings he told stories of those who got lost; some being found after a day or two, but others not for up to twenty years – even a couple of miles from town. The search for Curtis began in earnest. A Colonel Wright and a party from Toronto were passing. The whole group started searching, but with no results. At Wright’s suggestion, Pocock sent a man to Stoney Creek to bring back five Indian trackers. Although several days had passed and rain had fallen, they found Curtis’ trail and followed it westward for several miles. They decided that Curtis had spent the first night resting against a tree. A grizzly bear had crossed the trail but Curtis had not been harmed. Pocock’s party had a conference. They had been searching now for ten days without success. They were on short rations by now and Pocock’s leadership was obviously in question and very much at fault. He renounced his share in the expedition. His duty was to return to London to report to Lady Curtis.

Some of the party did eventually arrive at Telegraph Creek after exceptional hardships, but with only sixteen of their original fifty-one horses. This was no mean feat for inexperienced men as many other parties on that trail failed to get through. They still experienced criticism when they sold off their remaining supplies.

By the time that Pocock had reached London, he was very near to a breakdown. He reported to Lady Curtis. She cabled the Hudsons Bay Post Manager at Quesnel, Alex McNabb, to hire more Indian trackers to renew the search. The result was the same. There could be no doubt that Sir Arthur Curtis was dead. Gerald Sheppard wrote a scathing letter to Pocock, copying it to some of the other members of the expedition. He did admit that there were serious quarrels among those members but his letter left no doubt about their opinion of Pocock:

You may imagine that after all our disasters none of us feel exactly friendly towards you. All our money gone, and nothing to show for it. We cannot blame you for taking us over the trail, as, after all, hundreds of others in their ignorance did the same. But we can and do blame you for putting forward pretensions to being a “tough frontiers man”, and knowing the country, etc., and by these pretensions, luring us into joining your party. And we think it was most foolhardy of a man, who knew nothing of horses, and had never packed one in his life, to start a large pack train with green hands. It was courting disaster. And it is only thanks to the energy and perseverance of each individual in the party, that worse hasn’t come of it. ⁶

Ten years afterward, in 1908, one of Pocock’s party, T.W. Cole, wrote in one of the Vancouver daily papers, “I knew before we left Vancouver that Curtis would disappear before reaching the Klondyke. Sir Arthur Curtis right now is living the life of a trapper hermit. This should clear Pocock of a ten year stigma.” Much of this has the ring of truth, except for the suggestion that he survived and lived the life of a trapper hermit. Here I will quote Cecil Clark in a letter to me.

This is ridiculous; he didn’t have the traps, or know how to use them and he would have to sell his furs somewhere on the outside. Besides, he would have to come out for fresh supplies. And in that country every trapper is known – a stranger would be instantly sized up – especially by Indians. To put it simply, where the population is sparse a stranger sticks out like a sore thumb.

No, if Curtis had lived, someone would have come across him, some trapper or prospector. They may not have known who he was but they would have talked about him. ⁷

Rumours abounded. Stories that Curtis had been seem in Malaya, in England, that the Indians were holding him for ransom – all were put about without any foundation. Skeletons were reported and even the usually accurate Times announced in its issue of December 27th,1899 that Curtis’ skeleton had been found in a cave where he had perished the previous winter. Curtis never reached the Klondike and his skeleton was never found.

Accusations flew about, many of them directed at Pocock. Had he murdered Curtis for his money? Was Curtis carrying a money belt? Deliberate murder would have been totally against Pocock’s character and he had little interest in money except for the essentials of life. A lady who knew him well in her youth wrote to me that if ever he had any money more than his immediate needs, he would give it away to the poor and he was generous to a fault. Also, it is unlikely that Curtis would carry a very great sum in a money belt. The mud that was hurled in Pocock’s direction stuck and the stigma remained throughout his life. It was often whispered behind his back by those who did not approve of him that he was an unconvicted murderer and that, had there been sufficient evidence he would have hanged.

Still the interest in the disappeared Baronet continued in Canada. The story was revived in 1934 by a man called George McKeracher who said he was in the Cariboo at the time. He remembered a half-breed packer who was employed by the Pocock outfit, but got into trouble with Curtis for ill-treating a horse. He was fired and swore revenge. According to McKeracher, Curtis carried about ten thousand dollars in gold in his money belt and at the time of Curtis’ disappearance the half-breed was seen with money to burn. Later on, McKeracher claims to have been witness to the hold-up of two men with a sack of gold on a horse and trap. McKeracher said he recognised the masked bandit by his eyes as the half-breed. Later on, the half-breed was caught and jailed.

Cecil Clark checked out this story some twenty-five years later but could find no record of an armed robbery charge at the Clinton assizes in that year. Also, ten thousand dollars in gold would have needed a very big money belt! Clark was able to go and see an old man, Fred W. Foster, who was born in Clinton in 1876 and who met Pocock and his party when they were in Ashcroft. Fred Foster told Cecil Clark:

I think that story about the money belt originated with a half-breed named Sage. One of the Pocock party, a very nice fellow called Sheppard, left his money belt behind in a Hat Creek stopping place. Sage found it and went down to Ashcroft and got on a drunk. Sheppard reported the loss to Provincial Constable Joe Bury who rounded up Sage and got back the belt and most of the money.

Another little crumb of information came from Alex McNabb, the Hudsons Bay Post manager. He said that an American outfit, driving horses on the same trail a few days after the disappearance of Curtis, but knowing nothing of it, were camped on almost the same spot near the Mud River. They heard an unearthly cry from a swamp across the river which they took to be hostile Indians and broke camp hastily. They told the story when they got to the next settlement and it got back to McNabb. The cry had come from the direction his Indians had tracked Curtis and McNabb thought it could well have come from Curtis.

Why didn’t the First Nations succeed in finding Curtis? According to Cecil Clark they would have been Chilcotin Indians, very smart in the bush and in his opinion knowledgeable men, the equal of the Australian aborigine in picking up a trail. They were often used by the British Columbia Police in early days for tracking down fugitives. I quote again from one of Cecil Clark’s letters to me:

I have no doubt that, when the Hudsons Bay Company, or the Provincial Police, put Indian trackers on Curtis’ trail, nothing escaped them. But why didn’t their powers of perception turn up something definite? One of the imponderables. A man, alone, can fall and break a limb, especially trying to walk across a windblown tree bridging some gully without caulked (spiked) boots. Then he would crawl under something to shelter from the elements, die of starvation, and thus escape the searcher’s notice.

The fundamental rule in this country is: when you are lost in the bush (‘turned around’ is the popular term), stay where you are, light a fire (if you can) and wait for the rescuers. If you have a gun, fire it occasionally.

We don’t know what Curtis took with him; if he carried nothing, he was a goner. For you cannot exist alone in the bush without an axe, matches, bacon, beans, tea and a rifle. These are essentials. In fact the experienced never go alone, they have a partner. So Curtis had everything against him – including the lack of experience which would have made him stay put and wait for rescue.

McNabb’s trackers did find something. They gave McNabb a map of their explorations. On a tree “where the trail takes to the mountains” they found a blaze to mark it out and this inscription left by another lost pair. “160 miles to Glenora. No food. No trail. Goodbye. Rogers, Baker.” Nothing was ever seen again of the unfortunate Rogers and Baker. In fact, Glenora on the Stikine was nearly three hundred miles away.

What did happen to Curtis? When Pocock was asked in following years he would reply that he had no opinion. I have discovered considerable evidence that does point to the probable reason that Curtis went on that expedition and then walked out to vanish without trace. As I have run out of space here, to read that and far more on the story, you will have to read the full account in chapters in the biography of Roger Pocock Outrider of Empire, published by The University of Alberta Press, available from all good booksellers and via Amazon.

Somewhere in that great Canadian wilderness, the bones of Sir Arthur Curtis have been scattered by wild animals, but one day, perhaps not for many centuries, will be found the ring he wore proudly on his finger bearing the Curtis family crest.


¹ Where possible, I have used the correct term “First Nations”. At that time they were always referred to as “Indians” so for accuracy I have retained this in quotations etc. I have also repeated the term “half-breed” as quoted No offence is intended by these uses.

² Herbert Philip Hilton (1873-1915) was killed in action as a Captain in the Middlesex Regiment.

³ Norman Lee, Klondike Cattle Drive, the Diary of Norman Lee (1960)

Roger Pocock, A Frontiersman (1904)

Glenbow Archives M-254, Roger Pocock Klondike Diary

Letter in Glenbow Archives M-254

Cecil Clark, letter to the author, 24 November 1979

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
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