Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on May 9, 2010 - 5 comments

Part 7 : More on Fort Simpson

Coastal society in the nineteenth century was also multilingual. Any number of languages might be heard within the walls of a coastal trading post, whether English, French, one of the Aboriginal dialects, or that amalgam of them all, BC’s own lingua franca, Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon was a pidgin language, meaning that it emerged as a means of communication between groups of people who did not share a common tongue. It is not surprising that something like Chinook appeared in the Pacific Northwest. There were more distinct Aboriginal languages spoken in the area than in any other part of North America. In British Columbia alone there were at least thirty languages, and many different dialects within each language. The tribes needed some way of talking with each other across this babble of tongues; Chinook Jargon was the result. When Europeans arrived, they added their own languages to the mix and soon you couldn’t do business on the coast without a least a smattering of the local lingo.


Chinook Jargon survived the demise of the fur trade. It was spoken at the early salmon canneries, and missionaries translated their biblical literature and hymn books into it. There was even a Chinook newspaper, the Kamloops Wawa, published by an Oblate priest from 1891 to 1904. At one time in the nineteenth century more than a quarter of a million people spoke Chinook, from Alaska all the way down the coast to California. By the end of the twentieth, however, the language was considered nearly extinct, kept alive by a few enthusiasts and a residue of words that survive in the BC vocabulary; for example, siwash (Indian), saltchuck (ocean), tyee (chief), klahanie (outdoors), skookum (strong), and klahowya (hello).


The complement of company servants at Fort Simpson included a blacksmith and a carpenter, sometimes a cooper and a boatbuilder, usually a gunsmith. Otherwise the servants were general labourers who were expected to turn their hands to whatever needed doing. They cut and hauled firewood, logs to repair the buildings and stockade, and fuel for the visiting steamers. They collected seaweed to fertilize the garden. They tanned deer hides, loaded and unloaded the supply vessels, and kept watch on the palisade. They measured out trade goods, baled furs and shifted bundles in the warehouse. They hauled water, dug ditches, crushed clam shells to make whitewash, tended the livestock, made candles and cleaned out the privies. Is it any wonder that the Tsimishian mistook them for slaves?


It is hard to imagine that servants accepted an assignment to Fort Simpson with much enthusiasm. Aside from the depressing isolation--the post was located 800 km from Victoria and visited by only a few vessels each year--living conditions were spartan, the work was hard, and the climate was wet and gloomy. “It rained incessantly the whole time I was there,” complained a ship’s captain who paid a visit in 1850, “and that they tell me is mostly the case all the year save that it will occasionally vary the scene by sending a little snow.” Charles Ross, who was at Fort McLoughlin in the 1840s, wrote to his sister: “Than our way of life in this dreary wilderness, nothing can be more dark and insipid. The posts we occupy, though many, are far between, and seldom have any intercourse with each other, oftener than once a year and then for the most part is for the purposes of exchanging cargoes for furs. There is no society...” Chief Factor John Tod, a veteran of forty years in the company service, remarked once that the remote New Caledonia trading posts, including those on the coast, were “looked on in the light of another Botany Bay Australia; the men were in dread of being sent there.”


Those who drew short straw were sometimes rough customers who chafed at the strict discipline imposed by the company. Just how far they were willing to go was illustrated by the unhappy story of John McLoughlin Jr., the mixed-blood son of the chief factor. The younger McLoughlin was put in charge of Fort Stikine, a short-lived trading post near the mouth of the Stikine River 300 kilometres north of Fort Simpson. In the spring of 1842 he was murdered at the post. By coincidence Governor George Simpson happened to pay a visit to Stikine a few days after the killing on his way to Alaska. After a speedy inquiry, at which McLoughlin was portrayed as a drunken tyrant who had abused his men, Simpson accepted that the murderer, one of the servants, had acted in self-defense.


There the matter might have ended, except that John McLoughlin Sr., then superintendent of the Columbia District, refused to accept Simpson’s version of events. He knew his son was not an abusive alcoholic and before long he turned up a witness who told a completely different story. Pierre Kanaquassé was a servant at Fort Stikine. He revealed that young McLoughlin had been unpopular because he refused to allow the men to have Aboriginal women in their rooms or to leave the fort at night to visit them. The men also were pilfering from the company, which is why McLoughlin came down hard on them. Angry with the post master, they shot and killed him. But it did McLoughlin Sr little good to know the truth of his son’s death. He presented his case to the company’s directors in London, but they didn’t want to know about it. They had no intention of embarrassing George Simpson by admitting that he had been taken in by a conspiracy of servants, some of whom were convicted felons and known alcoholics who never should have been employed by the company to begin with. The whole matter was swept under the carpet. The men got away with murder. Simpson never recanted, and McLoughlin never forgave him. It was one more grievance between them, and one more cause for McLoughlin to quit the company in disgust.


A mutiny like the one at Fort Stikine was an exception. For the most part, servants who were unhappy in the job either deserted (which was difficult at posts as isolated as those on the north coast) or simply waited for their contracts to expire. Still, it illustrates the kind of ethnic and social tensions that characterized life at British Columbia’s earliest coastal settlements.

Next time: Ships of the coast