Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Feb 14, 2010


Part 13

Several times during his captivity Maquinna saved Jewitt from other Mowachaht who wished to kill him and Jewitt was conscious that despite the slaughter aboard the Boston he owed the chief his life. He was able to repay the favour in the summer of 1805 when the trading vessel Lydia arrived at Yuquot. Maquinna decided to go out to the ship when Jewitt said he would write a letter to its captain explaining that he and Thompson had been well treated. Instead the letter asked the captain to hold the chief hostage against the release of the two “white slaves”.


The ploy worked and after the exchange was made Jewitt managed to convince Captain Hill not to execute Maquinna in revenge for the murders of the crew of the Boston. In the end, captor and slave parted with a great show of friendship. “I could not avoid experiencing a painful sensation,” wrote Jewitt, “on parting with this savage chief, who had preserved my life, and in general treated me with kindness, and considering their ideas and manners, much better than could have been expected.”


Nonetheless, it was “with feelings of joy impossible to be described” that Jewitt celebrated his freedom by sailing away from Nootka Sound.


Thompson and Jewitt returned with the Lydia to Boston. Thompson died soon after, but Jewitt became something of a celebrity in New England. There was a great public appetite for accounts of captivity among distant tribes and he hurried into print with a rough, 48-page version of the journal he had kept at Yuquot. It was the first eye-witness record from the Northwest Coast of First Nations life and customs told by someone who had spent any time living among the people. Jewitt followed it with a more embellished account, written with the help of a professional author and published in 1815 as A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt. He spent the rest of his life--he died in 1821--travelling from town to town peddling his book and giving public lectures.


In the years since it first appeared, the Narrative has been a consistent seller, reprinted several times in different editions. It was not the first description of the Northwest Coast--different explorers and traders had gone into print with their accounts--but it was probably the first to reach a broad, North American audience and as such, played a major role in creating an image of the coast as an untamed wilderness world inhabited by exotic “savages”. In the end, Jewitt painted a fairly sympathetic portrait of the Nuu-chah-nulth. But his lurid descriptions of their winter rituals and the murder of his crewmates (whose heads were hacked off and lined up on the deck for Jewitt to identify), embroidered by the ghost writer, more accurately described what most fur traders expected to find on the Northwest Coast.

Next time: In the Land of the "Cannibals"