Merritt’s own Henry Castilou, affectionately known as “the cowboy judge,” has been posthumously inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame. An inductee in the Builder of Western Culture category, Castilou was chosen for his contributions to the culture through legal and charity work.
Castilou was born on May 15, 1896 near Coldwater, and spent most of his life in the Nicola Valley. He grew up working as a packer and a cowboy, as well as hunting and fishing with local First Nations. Castilou was fluent in the Chinook dialect. In 1923, after serving in World War I as a Captain of the Royal Flying Corps and obtaining a law degree in the UK, he opened a practice in Vancouver. His career took off quickly, and Castilou quickly built a track record for successfully defending murder cases. He practiced for years, eventually being appointed District Judge for the Cariboo, a position he held until his retirement in 1960.
“It’s a pretty big honour, especially for a community that’s so deeply rooted in western culture,” said Cameron Bridge, manager of the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives.
“Being inducted into the hall of fame honours his work and all the things he contributed to the culture. He was also a big historian, starting small museums and historical associations in a lot of communities. Castilou is quite important to the history and preservation of a lot of things.”
Castilou had a number of artefacts in his personal collection, many of which are now displayed at the museum. This includes a traditional Mandarin gown containing threads supposedly dipped in gold, obtained by Catilou during a fact-finding trip to Hong Kong. The gown was illegal at the time, and the cowboy judge was told not to open the package it was in until he was well off the country’s shores. Castilou’s signature buckskin jacket is also on display at the museum, along with a number of smaller items from his time in the Nicola Valley.
“If something was unable to pay for his services, he was known to ask for an artefact instead. He would defend people in exchange for an item instead of regular payment,” added Bridge.
Castilou is one of the few people to hold a golden key to the City of Merritt, an honour that was bestowed upon him in 1938 by then Mayor Allan Collett. Hundreds watched as Collett handed Castilou the key, a tradition used to show trust and honour, on the deck lining downtown Merritt’s Coldwater Hotel. Said to be remembered for his booming voice, he utilized it as Merritt’s first rodeo announcer in 1934 without the aid of a loudspeaker or microphone.The cowboy judge was also a family man, with him and wife Mintie having three children and nine grandchildren. Castilou died in 1967, at the age of 71.
Castilou’s work defending underrepresented First Nations clients, his pro bono work, and his avid love of community and culture led the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame to select him as one of their 2022 inductees. For more information on Henry Castilou and his contributions to the Nicola Valley’s history, visit the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives at 1675 Tutill Court, or call (250) 378-4145.