Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Mexican Tom and The Kid

By Rev. Reg. Purdy, 25 Newcastle Avenue Nanaimo, B. C.
1985 - Transcribed by Bernice Frizzle

Although much has been written about the early days of the Queen Charlotte Islands, it is doubtful if they dealt with two more colourful characters than "Mexican Tom" and "The Kid". Tom was christened William Thomas Hodges, though few people knew it. "The Kid" was Reginald H. Purdy, who entered the ministry after a full life as a cattle rider, Mounted Policeman and City of Victoria policeman.

It often happens that one man's bad luck is the foundation for another's success. Alexander MacKenzie, a Hudson's Bay Company factor, became, in 1878, the first white settler of the Charlottes. He had a dream: to build the first ranch on Graham Island, where there was mild weather, a superabundance of grass, and simply no cougars, wolves or rattlesnakes at all.
Surely these combined assets must have lulled MacKenzie into believing he had found a ranch Utopia. So great was his enthusiasm that the big drawback—no market except by shipment to the mainland—eluded him. When the moment of truth arrived and it was time for his first shipment of 20 steers, MacKenzie chartered a tug and doubtless thought he had it made. But a fierce storm met them, making a landing impossible. The poor animals were pushed overboard in the hope they would swim to shore. A few did, but the rest drowned. This broke MacKenzie's heart. He never went back to the island.
On the heels of this disaster came a very determined man up the Pacific Coast with one burning ambition: to build corrals and round up the wild cattle he had heard about — MacKenzie's 400 — running around the Island. He managed to wangle some financial backing with which he hired a tug to ship feed grain to Masset. He was known as "Mexican Tom" and if he were around today he'd be called "far out". Never seen without his big Stetson hat with its 32” black and white horsehair braided hat band and his twin Colt revolvers, he must have presented quite a sight to the natives.
His corrals arose, with wings from the north beach and the east coast, but by the time he was ready for his wild guests, they were not about to be captured. They entered the corrals according to plan, but roared right through. Mexican Tom tried several times before he abandoned the attempt, and the cattle won the first round.
But Tom was still enchanted with the Island and went down the East Coast to the Tlell River where he found large flats, plenty of water, shelter and grass up to his stirrups. Again his buildings » and fencing went up and this time the cattle stayed.
Three years later, in 1904, a wealthy Englishman came to Masset and was so taken with Tom's holdings that he offered him a large amount to sell out. Money was always tempting to Tom, who occasionally spent quite a bit of it on drinking bouts, so this William Good's offer was too tempting to refuse and a deal was consummated.
Off went Tom, south to Sandspit on Moresby Island. (It was a far cry from the Sandspit of today with its airport, hotels and motels; where loggers come to work in Yakoun and Justatla, when Tom settled there in 1904.) He found nothing but endless grass and sand, but as usual, he saw the possibilities and went to work.
That was a very bad winter — twice as bad for an amateur like William Good. The dreadful storms that lashed the Tlell River brought high water and destruction — and the end of the Englishman's ranching attempts. He went to visit Mexican Tom, who seemed to be a sort of magnet to him, when spring came, and offered him $1,000 to trade places. Again the money won out with Tom, and he returned to Tlell River.
About this time Mexican Tom decided he needed a wife. He couldn't read or write, but he found a friend at Skidegate to write to the Lonely Hearts column of an American newspaper.
Mrs. Flora Burns, a widow from Washington, became the first white woman of the Island and Tom's bride.
After the boat arrived with her, everyone wondered who would marry them. There was neither minister nor priest on the Island, and this was serious because in those days two people did not housekeep until they were married!
To the rescue came the boat captain, who took the couple and all settlers present three miles out to sea where he had the authority to perform the ceremony. On their return to shore a great celebration ensued before Tom and his mail-order bride left for Tlell River.
Early in 1909 many settlers came to Graham Island seeking land, in response to government bulletins that glowingly described "vast areas of open land ready for the plow". It was a cruel deception as the "open land" was nothing but muskeg that was often several feet deep.
Young Reginald Purdy, tall, husky and 15, arrived at Skidegate with his father and uncle — victims of the government's false advertising. They found recorded pre-emptions covering all waterfronts registered in the names of various lumber companies, and quickly realized a settler could only stake his claim a half or even a full mile back of the water.
Mexican Tom happened to be at Skidegate that day, and when he saw the six-foot teenager, he took an instant "shine" to the boy, dubbing him "The Kid" — the name that stuck to Reg Purdy as long as he was on the Island. Tom urged him to go with him to his ranch, and while the Kid longed to become a cowboy, his father refused his permission. However, he did allow the Kid to ride with Mexican Tom for one week — an unforgettable experience for the boy.
Meanwhile, his father and uncle bought out a family who wanted to leave the Island. The Kid's Uncle Harris was a master carpenter and axe man, and the three men built a log house, in which they were happy and comfortable until the Kid's father unfortunately died the following year. He was laid to rest in a coffin of whipsawn lumber, built by Uncle Harris, and with all settlers present, the first Masonic funeral with full rites took place on Graham Island.
Misfortune still dogged the Kid. Unhappily, a few days after the funeral the log house was burned to ashes. Not even the groceries or ammunition could be saved when Uncle Harris and the Kid came dashing to the scene from the land they were busily clearing.
This was the finish for Uncle Harris. He moved to Hawaii, where he ended his days.
Meanwhile, Mexican Tom was having a bad time at Tlell River. Flora left him. Whether it was hard work or Tom's drinking, or both, that drove her away, is not known. Tom now took the few head of cattle he had left, together with some saddle horses, his destination being Bull Swamp, south of Ocanda, for yet another new start.
But first he had to have a drinking bout. As he was sobering up he met the Kid again and tried desperately to persuade him to give up the riding job he had held for a number of years and go east with him.
The Kid refused. Then Mexican Tom played his trump card. He offered the boy a young saddle horse that the Kid couldn't resist and they were in business together.
Under Tom's instruction he broke some horses, did some fencing and erected a log barn. Tom now planned to go into the freighting business, but first he had to have a wagon. He made a trip to Vancouver for this purpose and returned in due course with not only the wagon and some harness, but a present for the Kid —a Victor gramophone with a few records.
By this time the wild cattle had worked their way south and now made their headquarters on the Bull Swamp. One huge bull lorded it over all the others. Every morning and evening he ascended his favorite hill and bawled, pawing the ground, in open challenge to anything afoot.
One night Tom came home to a strange duet — a rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz, by the gramophone, with the bawling accompaniment of the big bull. Glancing in the animal's direction, Tom remarked: "There's old Blue Danube!" That was how the old swamp got the name it bears today. When the Kid finally killed the bull, he found he had been twice shot before, once through the horn and once in the left leg.
The Kid was breaking horses in his spare time and he had a young team of matched colts partially broken to the wagon. Mexican Tom, no longer young, wanted to drive them to Masset alone. For good reasons, the Kid opposed the idea. Not only was Tom now badly crippled with rheumatism, but his young partner knew he would go on a drunk when he reached Masset.
But the wilful man went anyway, and an accident caused by his drinking and recklessness brought the closing chapter of his colourful career. On the way to the hospital at Prince Rupert, he scrawled on a piece of paper: "everything I have goes to the Kid."
When there was some question concerning the validity of the paper, the judge at Prince Rupert settled it by remarking it was one of the best wills he had seen!
That year the Kid unknowingly laid the foundation for his later service in the Anglican Church by helping to build the first one in New Masset in 1912. It was constructed of logs and a split shake roof. The altar and railings were fashioned by the talented Haida Indians, of Yellow Cedar —a beautiful wood that improves with age and polish. Little did the Kid realize, as he worked, that some day his ordained son, the Rev. Bob Purdy, would preach in this church he helped to build —or that he would some day return as an ordained priest to conduct a service in the old but still lovely church.
The Kid stayed another year on the Island. Life on the Charlottes was never the same after his father died, and old Mexican Tom's passing severed the last link. The old cattle man, who taught him so much of the outdoors had also put most of the meaning into his life there. Thus, in 1913, he took his leave of the Charlottes.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.