Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jun 12, 2010 - 3 comments

Chapter Three
Part Three

While William Duncan was the most notorious missionary at work on the coast, he was far from being the only one. Other Anglicans from the CMS joined him, usually working at Metlakatla to orient themselves before moving off to establish missions of their own. The first outreach was north into the valley of the Nass River, called Lisims, “the river of milk”, by the Nisga’a people who lived there. The Nisga’a made regular trading visits to Fort Simpson, and in 1860 they invited Duncan to bring his message to their river villages. Four years later the CMS dispatched Robert Doolan, a young church deacon newly-arrived from England, to open a mission on the Nass. He chose to centre his activities near the present site of Laxqalts’ap, or Greenville. When his proselytizing led to rifts in the community, Doolan, with the help of his successor Robert Tomlinson, relocated the mission downstream at the mouth of the river where, in the summer of 1867, they created a new Christian settlement called Kincolith.


Tomlinson sang from the same hymn book as William Duncan. He wrote that the objective of mission work was “to overthrow dark superstition and plant instead Christian truth to change the natives from ignorant, bloodthirsty, cruel savages into quiet useful subjects of our Gracious Queen.” Kincolith was planned on the Metlakatla model: neat houses, codified rules of conduct; a ban on the traditional ceremonies such as the potlatch. But Kincolith was an island of a few dozen Christian converts surrounded by the majority of Nisga’a who wanted no part of the new religion. Like Duncan, Tomlinson refused to be ordained a priest and rejected the ceremonialism of the Church. Eventually he broke with the CMS and founded his own, non-denominational mission at Cedarvale on the Skeena River, later following Duncan into his Alaskan exile.


At the same time as the CMS was meeting with middling success on the Nass, it was reaching out to the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands. At this time trading schooners paid regular visits to the archipelago and the Haida crossed to Fort Simpson or went to Victoria to trade and socialize, but there were almost no white settlers on the Islands. In the aftermath of the smallpox epidemic, the Haida had gathered at two main settlements, Masset, where the HBC opened a post, and Skidegate. Depleted as they were by disease, they were still feared as warriors and admired as seafarers. The missionary William Henry Collison heard many stories of these “Vikings of the coast” upon his arrival at Metlakatla in 1873. The following spring he got his first look at them.


“In June 1874, I witnessed for the first time a Haida fleet approaching the shores of the mainland from the ocean. It left an impression on my mind not yet effaced. The fleet consisted of some forty large canoes, each with two snow-white sails spread, one on either side of each canoe, which caused them to appear like immense birds or butterflies, with white wings outspread, flying shorewards. Before a fresh westerly breeze they glided swiftly onward over the rolling waves, which appeared to chase each other in sport as they reflected the gleams of the summer’s sun. These were the Masset Haida, who were famed for their fine war canoes. They have always been the canoe builders of the northern coast. As they neared the shore the sails were furled, and as soon as the canoes touched the beach the young men sprang out, and amid a babel of voices hastened to carry up their freight and effects above the high tide mark. These then were the fierce Haida whose name had been the terror of all the surrounding tribes.”


Collison befriended a chief named Sigai and his wife who invited him to come to Masset. The missionary crossed to the northern island by canoe in the summer of 1876 to visit Sigai, who was ill with tuberculosis, and to ask permission of the chiefs to establish a mission. With permission granted, he returned that fall aboard the Otter with his wife and young son. Collison was warned that it was too dangerous for him and his family to live with the Haida, who had a reputation among the whites for great ferocity. But he faced down the antagonism of the local shamans and succeeded in building a mission that lasted for many years. Collison himself returned to Metlakatla in 1879, then took over at Kincolith where he remained until his death in 1922.


While the Haida mission at Masset took its first faltering steps, the CMS was expanding to a third coastal First Nation, the Kwakwaka’wakw of northern Vancouver Island. Reverend Alfred J. Hall arrived at Fort Rupert in 1878 but two years later he was encouraged to move his mission to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island where the prospector-turned-trader Wes Huson and his partner Stephen Spencer had opened a store, built a wharf and were operating a fish saltery, later a cannery. Huson and Spencer hoped that the presence of a missionary would encourage their workforce, the local Nimpkish (or ‘Namgis) people, to settle permanently on the island, and it worked. The Nimpkish moved across to Alert Bay from their main winter village site, Whulk, at the mouth of the Nimpkish River. Hall built a school, a church and a sawmill and, with the relocation of the Indian Agency from Fort Rupert in 1890, Alert Bay became the business and administrative centre of the north Island.


Next time: More missionaries