The story’s been told before. But like all really good campfire yarns, it insists on being told again.
Next Sunday, the HISTORY Channel is set to debut Deadman’s Curse: Legend of the Lost Gold. The reality TV show delves into the tale of Slumach’s gold as three adventurers search for a fortune while attempting to unravel the truth behind a B.C. legend.
Panning for a legend
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In 1891, a man only known as Slumach was convicted of murder and hanged to death New Westminster.
There was no mention of any gold in newspaper articles published at the time, according to the book Slumach’s Gold: In Search of a Legend by Rick Antonson, Mary Trainer, and Brian Antonson.
But within a decade of Slumach’s death, a legend was born.
The yarn (best told around campfires)
There’s a mine packed with gold.
But you can’t find it. And if you can find it you won’t get the gold. And if you do somehow find the mine and you do get the gold, well, you won’t live to spend it.
There was a fella name of Slumach, you see. And around 1890 this Slumach would paddle down Pitt River with gold pieces the size of walnuts. More gold than that goose.
Slumach would turn up in New Westminster and, after getting good and acquainted with the earthly delights the town had on offer, he’d head on back the way he came. Up the river. Into the hills. Only he wouldn’t always go back alone.
You see, some folks would get those monstrous green eyes and they’d trail ol’ Slumach back the way he came. Up the river. Into the hills. Back to the gold. Those folks never seemed to find their way back to town. Dead-end trails, if you catch my meaning.
It was around that time Slumach was put to death for murder. Standing on the gallows, he spoke the last words he’d ever speak.
“Nika memloose, mine memloose,” he said. Roughly translated from Chinook, it means: “When I die, the mine dies.”
That mine’s been cursed ever since. At least, that’s according to the yarn.
Deadman’s Curse is roughly divided into three parts: B.C. history, B.C. geology, and gold. Kru Williams is most interested in the last one.
“I believe in God, gold and guns,” Williams says to the camera by way of introduction.
Williams, a Port Moody Muay Thai instructor/prospector, has both an infectious laugh and a fighter’s sense of certain victory. When he gets really excited, his voice rises to a timbre reminiscent of Yukon Cornelius.
“I know there’s a lot of gold, and I know I can get it,” he says, explaining that he’s been tantalized by the prospect Slumach’s gold since he was a teenager.
In the first episode we watch Williams and wilderness expert Adam Palmer trudge across Mamquam Icefield. Directed by Tim Hardy, Deadman’s Curse shows off the terrain with a mix of swooping helicopter shots and stationary camera work as Williams and Palmer hop a crevasse and attempt to ascend a fracturing ice sheet.
Williams seems to understand the danger but to press on anyway.
“It’s a weird mix of bravery, guts and a little bit of stupidity,” he says in the first episode. “You probably shouldn’t be there.”
Like so many prospectors before them, Williams and Palmer may end their expedition with nothing but empty pockets and a long story. However, there’s a possibility they have an insight that no other prospector has had, courtesy of Taylor Starr.
At first, Starr seems like an odd inclusion in a show about searching for gold.
“Historically, gold never meant anything to First Nations people, apart for everybody trampling on our land to go and find it,” she says.
However, in researching her family tree, Starr found out she was the great-great grand niece of Slumach.
While Palmer and Williams were well-versed in Slumach lore by the time they were in their teens, Starr says she grew up with no idea about the man or the myth.
“He was essentially banished,” she says.
We watch Starr as she pores over old newspaper clippings and talks to her father, master carver Don Froese, about why the headlines called Slumach “Indian Killer” instead of just “killer.”
For Starr, the gold is about completing her family tree. To further that quest, she drops in on historian Fred Braches in Maple Ridge.
Braches warns her against putting too much stock in newspaper account that relied on rumours rather than first-hand accounts.
But, after considering the possibility there might not be any gold in those hills, Starr makes what may turn out to be a breakthrough.
Rifling through the catalogue at Vancouver Public Library, she finds an old interview with a woman named Amanda Charnley.
Charnley says her father, Peter Pierre, once spent a week with Slumach. At the end of that week, Slumach was hanged.
But on the day before his death, according to Charnley, Slumach told Pierre about the gold.
Journeys and destinations
Along with the stunning photography of B.C., commercial breaks timed for maximum suspense, and the rumbling baritone of narrator Bill Courage, the HISTORY channel show mixes in a bit of real B.C. history.
The show wallpapers over gaps in the historical record with short but evocative animated sequences from Vancouver company SNAP Animation.
The campfire story is still there though, insisting to be told again. It remains to be seen if Williams, Palmer and Starr are just one more chapter or if, more than 100 years later, they can finally give the old yarn a new ending.