We had cattle rustling, too

Would you believe that, in this day and age, B.C. ranchers are still plagued with cattle rustlers?

Would you believe that, in this day and age, B.C. ranchers are still plagued with cattle rustlers?

“We have losses every year, to what I call two-legged predators,” Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association recently told The Province. “…They used to hang rustlers… Unfortunately, we can’t do that any more.”

Cattle rustling here in the Cowichan Valley is in the past tense; at least, I’ve not heard anything to the contrary in the news. But it wasn’t always so, and most certainly not so when Cowichan Bay’s notorious and trigger-happy Pat Brennan was on the prowl.

Brennan first made news in October 1861 when the British Colonist reported that he’d been charged with having shot at James Morley with his revolver, the culmination, it was said, of a months-long feud between the two.

An Irishman from Ontario via California whose wife has been termed the Valley’s “first white woman settler,” he hadn’t been here that long before making himself objectionable to other settlers and his Cowichan neighbours; the latter for having squatted on eight acres of Reserve land and refusing to budge.

By 1864 it was widely believed that he was helping himself to his neighbours’ livestock — among other things — and Bishop Modeste Demers was moved to write, “Mr. Brennan has been at Cowichan about four years. Since he has been there the Indians have continually complained of the harsh and unjust way in which he treated them and of the depredations committed upon their crops by his cattle and hogs… Last May he shot a valuable dog in the supposition that it had killed some of his pigs. It was afterwards discovered that the pigs were all safe — when he shot the dog it was lying in a house and two women were sitting close by at the time.”

The solution to Brennan’s depredations, in Demers’s mind?

That he vacate the land he’d usurped? No, the Cowichans should fence their thousands of acres of lands! To, I suppose, contain their cattle, sheep and dogs. He didn’t mention Brennan controlling his own livestock.

Brennan also had a scam that annoyed his fellow white settlers, according to Vancouver Island explorer Robert Brown (who’d also crossed swords with him): “The best landing place is at his house and he refuses to [canoe] anyone across [the bay] except at high figures beyond reach of the settlers’ means.”

Brennan’s shooting of the dog had almost been his undoing, according to Brown: “The [Cowichans] were much excited and begged of the priest [Father Rondeault] to be allowed to kill him. This man ought certainly to be punished. The whole of the whites speak of him as the Black Sheep in their midst and the Indians hate and despise the man.”

When Brennan complained to Police Magistrate A.F. Pemberton in Victoria that his cattle were being killed and maimed, Pemberton, aware of Brennan’s sordid reputation, was less than sympathetic: “I think it desirable that he should be removed.”

Easier said than done, of course; at least by legal means. And for all of his differences with his neighbours, he prospered.

In just a few years he was one of the Valley’s wealthiest farmers with two oxen, two horses, 30 cows and eight pigs. Which likely explains his having had to pay a $25 fine for altering brands on a calf belonging to Fred Crate. He got off on another rustling charge with only a tongue lashing from Chief Justice Needham.

Sadly, after five years as a squatter, Brennan’s land claim was upheld by the Crown and his Cowichan neighbours’ fervent hopes that he’d be evicted were dashed. As it happened, however, they didn’t have to wait long for him to, in fact, vacate the premises. Not by choice, mind you, but in handcuffs.

He’d been shooting again, this time at former friend Tom (or Henry) Shaw who, it seems, was as cantankerous as he. At his trial before none other than “Hanging Judge” Matthew Begbie, despite the testimony of witnesses (among them Father Rondeault) that Shaw had threatened him, Begbie was having none of it and instructed the jury to render a verdict of guilty of shooting with intent to murder or do grievous bodily harm. They obliged, but recommended mercy.

When his lawyer pleaded for a light sentence because of his wife and children and poor state of health, Begbie snapped that he should have thought of all that earlier and sentenced him to two years with hard labour. Patrick Brennan served his time in the Victoria gaol and, infirm or no, he likely contributed to repairing the city’s streets while serving on the chain gang.

There’s no record of his having returned to the Cowichan Valley.