Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on May 23, 2010

Part Nine: The Liquor Traffic

George Dawson was a stranger to the coast when he made his visit in 1878. Among its more familiar denizens were the liquor traders who regularly visited its out-of-the-way settlements. The sale or trade of alcohol to Aboriginal people was illegal, and so widespread that the authorities could not control it. A trader would load up his schooner with homemade bootleg hooch in Victoria, New Westminster, Nanaimo or one of the ports in Washington State, then work his way up the coast stopping at villages and isolated coves to trade his illicit cargo. Authorities complained that the liquor traffic was the ruination of the Aboriginal people. “Among the greatest obstacles in the way of elevating the Indian there is none more potent than the present illicit whiskey traffic,” declared Israel Wood Powell, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, in his first report in 1873. When caught, the navy impounded the vessels, dumped the cargo overboard and fined the masters. But enough of the smugglers got away with it that they were willing to take the risk.

(A more benign view of drinking prevailed in white settlements, where alcohol abuse was rampant; in the mid-1860s Victoria had 149 licensed drinking establishments for a population of less than 3,000 people. British naval lieutenant Edmund Verney described in a letter home to his father a visit paid by the Anglican bishop and five of his clergy to the Cariboo goldfields. When asked by one of the miners to baptize his child, neither the bishop nor any of his clergy could produce a prayer book between them. After they muddled their way through the ceremony from memory, the miner brought out a bottle of wine and proposed a toast. Each of the clerics reached into his pocket and produced a corkscrew!)


Legitimate traders, mainly Americans, were also active on the coast. The sea otter were gone, but the First Nations had other products to offer in trade, including land furs, dogfish and seal oil, deer skins and fish. From time to time one of these sea-going traders fell afoul of the local people and trouble ensued. One famous example was the Susan Sturgis, a 150-ton schooner from San Francisco, commanded by Matthew Rooney. In September, 1852, the Sturgis was visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands trading for fish. At Skidegate, Captain Rooney welcomed aboard the Haida chief Albert Edward Edenshaw who agreed to guide the vessel around the top end of Graham Island. Edenshaw, chief of the village of Kiusta, was a widely respected leader renowned for his knowledge of coastal navigation. He was also thought to be friendly to the whites, having led the HBC to the gold deposits in Mitchell Harbour two years earlier. When the Sturgis reached the waters off Massett, a party of about 150 Haida, pretending to be interested in trade, boarded the vessel, took the crew captive and plundered it. Details of what occurred are confused, but apparently the Massett chief intended to kill Rooney and his men until Edenshaw talked him into holding them hostage instead. (They were later ransomed to freedom.) At the same time, Edenshaw participated in the looting and seemed to have played some role in the planning of the attack.


The navy came close to flattening Massett in response to the Sturgis incident. In the end the commander did not feel confident enough about the facts to take revenge and no one was ever punished. On this one occasion, the Haida had thumbed their noses at the interlopers. For the most part, though, company officers and colonial officials did not hesitate to use force against the First Nations in an attempt to impose the new colonial regime.


This is not the whole story, however. First Nations had their own geopolitical concerns that predated contact. They too employed diplomacy, intimidation and military force in varying degrees to achieve their objectives. Long before Europeans arrived, and long after, tribes were raiding each other’s territories to obtain slaves, to get access to resources or to exact revenge for previous raids. The Lekwiltok were one example, but only one.


At Fort Simpson, Ligeex maintained a complicated system of alliances with neighbouring tribes that allowed the Gispaxlo’ots to control the flow of trade goods from the interior and to participate in the valuable eulachon fishery on the Nass River. The fur trade upset this balance of power by providing other tribes with direct access to trade goods, and Ligeex’s status was temporarily weakened. But he managed, by adroit diplomatic maneuvring and by force, to re-establish his hegemony.


The point is that during the fur-trade era the First Nations managed to retain their freedom of action, even though they were under intense pressure from outside forces. Of course the newcomers caused significant changes in the life of the Aboriginal people. But to a large degree Aboriginal people adapted by incorporating these changes into their pre-existing set of social relations. It was only with the arrival of the next wave of colonial expansion, personified by the missionary and the Indian agent, and the emergence of the industrial economy in the form of fish canneries and logging camps, that life for the majority of coastal inhabitants became what came to be called “modern”.

Next Time: The arrival of missionaries