Rancher John Maxwell

Cattle Pirates on the High Seas

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John Maxwell

Organized rustling was not common along British Columbia’s coast, but pioneer John Maxwell did engage in a gunfight with a gang of cattle pirates in 1866. It happened once Maxwell’s herd of Longhorns was large enough to continually supply Victoria’s beef markets, and that’s when serious trouble began to arrive in small boats.

Maxwell and partner James Lunney were successful in the Fraser River Gold Rush. They purchased a sailing schooner together, dropped anchor in Salt Spring Island’s Burgoyne Bay, and by 1862, the partners were importing Longhorn cattle from Washington State. They worked hard, cleared 350 deeded acres, built a cabin, made split-rail fences and planted both an orchard and an oat crop. There was no wharf, so they landed their cattle Paniolo style by letting the stock swim to shore. By 1865, Maxwell’s Native wife, Mary, had given birth to the first of seven children, while Lunney remained a bachelor. Life was going well for the two partners until the winter of 1866, when their situation took a downturn.

The weather that winter was particularly wet, foggy, and mild?—?perfect conditions for pirates to operate. They began raiding local ranchers with increasing regularity. Crime was not new to the area as some settlers had been murdered, and some travellers in small boats just simply disappeared. This time, however, the crimes seemed planned rather than random incidents.
There was little evidence to investigate. Cattle were killed silently with bows and metal-tipped arrows. Only the best animals were butchered and carried off as dressed quarters in the pirates’ cedar canoes. Butchered remains were always washed away with the tide.

The ranchers were desperate and asked for a magistrate to intercede, but to no avail, so they formed a vigilante group led by Maxwell. Particularly puzzling, though, was how the pirates knew exactly when livestock were close enough to shore to catch easily. Tipped off, probably by a local prospector named Kelly, a party of searchers climbed Baynes Peak and found where the pirates
had been watching the whole valley below. From this location they knew exactly when livestock
were ready for shipping.

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H. G. Ruckles is standing on the wagon
holding the driving lines; John Maxwell is
standing near the gate of the Maxwell
Ranch. Baynes Peak is in the background.
Photos courtesy Drew Collection

Maxwell suspected a renegade Hudson Bay Company fur trader named George McCawley as the pirates’ leader because he was involved in many illegal activities and violent acts. Arriving on Salt Spring Island in 1860, McCawley’s reputation preceded him and there was an attempted ambush by Cowichan Natives near Ganges Harbour, but he escaped with only a wounding. By 1866, McCawley was skimming pelts from the Company trade and, with a gang of about 80 men, was bootlegging stolen beef to willing buyers.

The depredations continued, so Maxwell hatched a plan. He and his dozen vigilantes hid out at night around Burgoyne Bay when their cattle were close to shore. Late one evening with cloud cover and favourable tides, the raiders’ canoes slipped silently into the bay.

The pirates waded ashore and pulled their canoes up on the beach, unaware that the ranchers had formed an ambush. On Maxwell’s signal, the vigilantes opened fire. Black powder, smoke, and sparks filled the air as lead balls rained down on the rustlers from rifles and cap -and-ball revolvers. The pirates’ return fire was sporadic at best. A bullet pierced McCawley but he managed to stumble into a canoe only to be stabbed by one of his own men who rolled his dead body into the water to hasten an escape. Chased by a few last shots, the surviving pirates paddled into the darkness and headed to open water. The ambush and death of McCawley seemed to settle the stock thieves down for awhile.

Meanwhile, economic times were changing and Island ranchers adapted to new market conditions by gradually shifting from cattle to sheep. Before too long, the pirates again moved in on Burgoyne Valley, butchering stock at an alarming rate. This time the B.C. Provincial Police, formed in 1871, kept the stock thieves in check. Out of this turn of events, Maxwell fared well and continued to ranch until he passed away on September 4, 1887.

The rustlers might have been subdued but it seems they hadn’t forgotten old scores to settle. One morning in 1896, Kelly the prospector and vigilantes’ informant was murdered and his body was dumped into the ocean. He left some bread dough to rise in his cabin and his tools scattered along the trail to his mine. Kelly never returned to finish the baking or work his mine. Nobody knows who killed him, but suspicion suggests that Kelly was likely a casualty of some remnants of the cattle pirate gang, which had for a time been the nemesis of Salt Spring Island ranchers.

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