River Stories: The McLeod Brothers Three

A journey along the Nahanni River is rife with tales of the people who have been here before. The story of Willie and Frank McLeod inspired the names of iconic places such as Deadmen Valley and Headless Creek. Here their lives (and deaths) come to life in poem by one of our river guides.

The story of two brothers, Willie and Frank McLeod, who were found without their heads is one of the Nahanni’s most infamous tales. Their bodies were found beside what is now known as Headless Creek located in Deadmen Valley in the Funeral Range mountains. The names of these landmarks alone demonstrate that the death of these brothers has left its mark. The media coverage surrounding their deaths is attributed to much of the attention that contributed to the Nahanni being a household name, even to this day.

Guide, Nils Aslfeldt, has encapsulated the legend and the lore of the headless men in a poem he wrote while guiding on the Nahanni, and we are pleased to share Nils’ poem The McLeod Brothers Three.
Read on for a glimpse into one of the mysteries the Nahanni is steeped in…

Nahanni Dead Man's Valley from Cabins of 1000 Paddles
Nahanni Deadmen Valley from Cabins of 1000 Paddles

The McLeod Brothers Three
by Nils Asfeldt

It was 1904 and the McLeod brothers three
Set out to find gold on the Ol’ Nahanni.
Willie and Frankie and Charlie all came
Didn’t they know they would earn deathly fame?

If you’re going on a trip, you ought to go in style
So they took the scenic route to make it worth their while.
They took the train to Vancouver, a boat to Alaska
And mushed up Stikine River, by dogsled, to go faster.

From Telegraph Creek, they crossed Dease Lake
And the Continental Divide, not an easy path to take
Down the Dease River, then along the Liard
Finally up the Hyland, they’d been mushing quite hard.

At last they had made it, those three brothers bold
To the grand Flat River, where there was rumoured to be gold.
They fixed up old sluice boxes that were lying all around
And sluiced and panned all day and night ’til shiny nuggets they found.

Once they found their riches, they built themselves a boat
Didn’t matter what it looked like, as long as it could float.
They pushed off down Flat River which, despite its soothing title
Was known for dangerous rapids where a good canoe was vital.

The Cascade of the Thirteen Steps was more than just some waves
By the 13th step there was nothing left of the McLeod’s boat to be saved.
Their scow was destroyed, and to their great displeasure,
They were left with but a rifle and not a hint of their treasure.

Rifle in hand, they hiked back upriver
To pan some more gold though they only got a sliver.
They built a new boat, and this time knowing better
Portaged ’round the Cascades, not getting any wetter.

They returned to the city and started to plan
A second trip to the North, and more gold to pan.
Charlie, of course, being the older, wiser brother
Decided not to come, and was replaced by another.

His mysterious replacement was a Scottish engineer
They never even knew his name, maybe Wilkinson or Weir?
Off they went Nahanni-bound, for better or for worse
Not long thereafter, they caught Deadmen Valley’s awful curse.

But Charlie didn’t worry, until waiting two more years
When he mounted a search party to help allay his fears.
He searched high and low with help from RCMP
And found their remains, which weren’t pleasant to see.

The bodies were headless, and what was left was rotten
But strangest of all, there was no sign of the Scotsman.
The only clue left was carved into the wood
It read: “We’ve found a fine prospect”, not that it did them any good.

As you can see, the McLeod’s deaths are a mystery
Perhaps, if we try, we can fill this gap in history:
Was the police report right? Did they die of starvation?
If that were true, does it explain decapitation?

Or maybe it was bloodthirsty headhunting Naha folks
But quite frankly, my friends, that sounds like a hoax.
Perhaps the Scotsman shot them down and fled to Vancouver
Is that what he was, a murderer and looter?

Could it have been wild beast, a bear or wolverine
That killed Charlie’s brothers and picked the bones clean?
Whatever the truth, there’s no doubt in my mind
Gold on the Nahanni is better left behind.

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John R. Southworth
John R. Southworth
7 months ago

A strange and disturbing story. The valley already had a sinister reputation when the McLeod brothers set out to explore it. The local Indian tribes had apparently been avoiding the place for centuries.

Joel Hibbard
7 months ago

Hi John, the Nahanni is brimful of wild tales. Every expedition seems to turn another legendary stone over and leave us wondering what we might learn next! Stay well.

John R. Southworth
John R. Southworth
7 months ago
Reply to  Joel Hibbard

Thanks. The Nahanni valley sounds like an amazing place, it probably tops my list of places I’d like to visit. I’m a photographer and some of the pictures I’ve seen of the valley are quite spectacular.

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