One of the most important Indigenous leaders on the Pacific Northwest Coast during the late-1700s was without a doubt, Maquinna.
It is not known when Maquinna was born, but it is believed to have been in the 1760s. He would become a powerful chief whose summer coastal village at what is now Nootka Sound on the B.C. coast, would become an important spot for European powers who were trying to gain power in the maritime fur trade.
It is believed Maquinna took over the leadership of the Nootka Indigenous after the death of his father, Anapa, in 1778. He was skilled in forging alliances, choosing to marry the daughter of his rival Wickannish and was able to form good relationships with the Indigenous groups around him. He was also known to be a great whaler and spiritual guide.
In the book, Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound, Maquinna is described as such, quote:
“It has been seen that Maquinna was loved and obeyed by his people. He was undoubtedly the greatest chief on the coast.”
The first record of Maquinna comes from Captain James Cook, who met with an Indigenous chief in the area but does not state his name. Many assume that the man he met with was Maquinna, whose name means possessor of pebbles. Cook spent a month in the area, refitting his ship. While there, friendly trading relations were established and several goods changed hands, including sea otter pelts.
Cook had expected easy trading with the Indigenous, but he soon found that Maquinna and his people demanded fair payment and were not to be taken advantage of. Cook would write about when his men went to cut some grass, quote:
“I had not the least imagination that the natives could make any objections to our furnishing ourselves with what seemed to be of no use to them but was necessary for us. However, I was soon mistaken, for the moment our men began to cut, some of the inhabitants interposed and would not permit them to proceed, saying they must makook, that is, must first buy it.”
Cook had such a friendly visit during the month is crew were in the area that he would name the area Friendly Cove.
Cook’s men would trade those pelts in China, at a great profit. While Cook was killed in Hawaii before he got to China, his crew sold the goods for what is believed an 1,800 per cent profit. It was because of the journals of Cook’s voyage, his third, that people saw the huge profits that could be made in the maritime fur trade with China.
After this point, Nootka Sound became an important centre for the maritime sea trade and various European powers all began competing for this lucrative market. From this scenario, Maquinna would control that fur trade and served as the dominant Indigenous leader in the area, and as the middleman between his people and the Europeans. At the time Europeans arrived, Maquinna had the power of 300 to 400 men behind him, giving him strength even as Europeans had superior weapons.
James Hanna was the next to arrive in the area and meet with Maquinna. He came in 1785 but in August of that year, Maquinna led an unsuccessful attack on Hanna’s ship after, according to Spanish accounts, Hanna played a practical joke on Maquinna that offended him in front of his people.
At first, only the British traded with Maquinna but as the profits grew from trading, Spanish and American ships would arrive in Nootka Sound.
John Meares would arrive in the area in 1788 on his voyages, exploring Nootka Sound and the coast. Meares described Maquinna as a man, of quote:
“Appeared to be about thirty years of a middle size, but extremely well made and possessing a countenance that was formed to interest all who saw him.”
Upon meeting Maquinna, Meares presented him with a present of copper, iron, and other items. In return, Maquinna took off his sea-otter garments, and, in the words of Meares, quote:
“Threw them in the most graceful manner, at our feet, and remained in the unattired garb of nature on the deck.”
He claimed to have bought land from Maquinna in exchange for pistols and trade goods, and it was on that land that he built a trading post.
In his telling of the story, Meares says quote:
“The chief not only most readily consented to grant us a spot of ground but promised us also his assistance in forwarding our works. Great advances were made in building the house, which on the 28th was completely finished.”
There is doubt if this claim were true and would lead to issues in a very short time.
One year later, the Spanish arrived, and Esteban Jose Martinez of the Spanish Navy claimed Nootka Sound for Spain and built Fort San Miguel and established the settlement of Santa Cruz de Nuca.
Maquinna understood the power that he now had, as the middleman between the different powers. He quickly began to learn the European languages so he could have an advantage over the other Indigenous in the area in negotiations. He was able to manipulate competition between traders, driving prices up. At the same time, his power allowed him to regulate the activities of other Indigenous in the area. Through Maquinna, all furs traded at Nootka would pass through the hands of his people. By 1792, he controlled a trading network that stretched from the east coast of Vancouver Island to the coast of British Columbia. His people would travel across the islands off the coast to purchase furs, which were then sold to the crews that visited Nootka. John Hoskins, a trader who came to the area, said that Maquinna understood about price differentials and that his profits were considerable.
The Spanish then seized several British ships and James Colnett, causing the Nootka Crisis. At the centre of the crisis was the fact that Maquinna had sold land to a British subject, but Spain disputed these claims.
Maquinna would meet with Quadra, the leader of the Spanish in the area. In one account, a dinner was described as such, quote:
“Of all the large company, however, the person whom the boys thought to be the most interesting was the Nootkan chief, Maquinna. This native, who was attired in European clothes, conducted himself at the table as if he had been accustomed to the use of a knife and fork from infancy, and he behaved in a manner that was highly creditable to his instructors in etiquette.”
Maquinna saw the danger of the two powers fighting over the area and its impact on the trade of the Indigenous. It would also impact Maquinna personally. On July 13, 1789, Callicum, the brother of Maquinna, paddled out to berate the Spanish, only to be shot dead. Maquinna then moved to Opitsat, the village of his father-in-law Wickannish. He kept a close eye on the British and Spanish and when a rival visited the Spanish on Aug. 1, Maquinna went back to Nootka Island to regain his presence in the area.
In 1790, the Spanish built a small settlement at Nootka Sound, and the Indigenous were suspicious of the Spanish there and avoided the cove. Not long after their arrival, the Spanish plundered an Indigenous village. In June of 1790, Maquinna encountered an exploring mission under the command of Manuel Quimper, and he found them friendly enough that he assisted in looking for survivors of a shipwreck. James Colnett then arrived in January 1791 and attempted to win Maquinna over to the British side of things.
The entire issue over the Nootka Sound area between the Spanish and English faded with the Nootka Convention. Maquinna was a key person in the relations between the Spanish and the British, and Captain George Vancouver, who negotiated the Nootka affair, described Maquinna’s hospitality. In one story from the writing of Vancouver, he stated that Maquinna and his people performed a masquerade for Vancouver and the Spanish envoy, in which Maquinna and brothers acted out a pantomime of European dress and manners, improvising mock English and Spanish dialogue.
Through his knowledge of English and Spanish, Maquinna was able to help negotiate an agreement between the powers that prevented war. He was often invited onto the ships of the Spanish and English to dine and even sleep, and he would drink tea, which was something he enjoyed enough that he introduced it to his people.
In 1791, John Kendrick, an American captain, traded for some land from Maquinna. This trade was seen by President Thomas Jefferson as a basis for American sovereignty over the land. The treaty, called The Kendrick Treaty, would state, quote:
“To all persons to whom these presents shall come, I Maquinna the chief and with my other chiefs do send greeting. Know ye that I, Maquinna, of Nootka Sound, on the northwest coast of America, for and in consideration of ten muskets, do grant and sell unto John Kendrick of Boston in North America a certain harbour in said Nootka Sound called Chastacktoos, in which the brigantine Lady Washington lay at anchor on the 20th day of July 1791 with all the lands, rivers, creeks, harbours, islands within nine miles north, east, west and south of said harbour, with all the produce of both sea and land appertaining thereto, only the said John Kendrick does grant and allow the said Maquinna to live and fish on the said territory as usual.”
In 1792, Maquinna would state that he had never sold any lands whatever to Meares or any other person except Captain Kendrick, whom he said was the proprietor of the lands in the area. Maquinna is reported to have called Meares “Aita-aita Meares” which means “the lying Meares.”
Archibald Menzies kept a journal of his time with Captain Vancouver from April to October 1792. He describes one of their meetings with Maquinna as such, quote:
“Maquinna, who sat alongside of us, during the first part of this entertainment now stole away as if going to give some orders at the further end of the house. He instantly masked himself behind the group and entered the area capering and dancing with great agility, which he performed much to the satisfaction of the whole group, who testified their approbation by repeated and universal plaudits.”
After the Europeans and Americans left Nootka Sound in 1795, Maquinna and his people destroyed the buildings and reasserted their dominance over the area.
In September of 1795, Charles Bishop reported an Indigenous village at Yuquot and Maquinna was said do be very ill. A few weeks later, Bishop was told by Wickannish that Maquinna had died. He was succeeded by his brother, Quatlazape, who took the name Maquinna. This makes it a bit confusing to know if the Maquinna who met Captain Cook and Vancouver was the same that would attack the American ship, the Boston, as we will see.
As it is not known when Maquinna for sure died, he could have been the one to keep Jewitt, rather than his brother.
I will detail the story of Jewitt on the assumption that the Maquinna who met Cook and Vancouver was the same who had Jewitt in his company.
One interesting aspect of Maquinna was that he kept European slaves on several occasions. The most detailed example comes from John R. Jewitt, who was kept for several years after the crew of the Boston were killed by Maquinna and his men. The attack had happened after the crew of the ship tried to take furs by force. Maquinna and his men killed the entire crew, except for the blacksmith Jewitt.
In Tales of Conflict, the story of what happened is related as such, quote:
Maquinna was greatly insulted by this and that night a war council was held, of which Maquinna took no part, as it was the decision of his warriors to make. The next day, every man on the ship was killed. Jewitt had been observed by Maquinna, working as a blacksmith, and he was offered his life if he would work for him as a slave.
In his book, and yes this is the title, A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound with an account of the manners, mode of living and religious opinions of the natives.
In his writing, Jewitt refers to Maquinna as king, and those beneath him as chiefs. Jewitt described Maquinna as, quote:
“a man of dignified aspect, about six feet tall in height and extremely straight and well proportioned. His features were in general good and his face was rendered remarkable by a large Roman nose, a very uncommon form of feature among these people. His complexion was of a dark copper hue, through his face, legs and arms were on this occasion, covered with red paint, that their natural colour could scarcely be perceived. His eyebrows were painted black in two broad stripes like a new moon, and his long black hair, which shone with oil, was fastened, over with white down, which gave him a curious and extraordinary appearance.”
Maquinna had a son that he was very fond of, and Jewitt would become the companion of the boy through his stay in the company of Maquinna.
Another man, named John Thompson, had been found on the Boston hiding. Jewitt saved the man’s life by saying it was his father, and Jewitt said he would not make knives if his father was killed. While Jewitt adjusted well to his new life, Thompson did not and was eventually given to Wickannish.
Jewitt would go on to state, quote:
“He was dressed in a large mantle or cloak of the black sea-otter skin, which reached to his knees and was fastened around his middle by a broad belt of the cloth of the country, wrought or painted with figures of several colours. This dress was by no means unbecoming, but, on the contrary, had an air of savage magnificence.”
Jewitt would often go out on fishing parties with Maquinna and would receive a large present of salmon for himself. He was also permitted to go out with a gun and would kill wild ducks and teal, which were cooked by boiling, without any dressing other than skinning them.
Jewitt stated that Maquinna had taken six sailors from a ship called the Manchester as slaves after they deserted and came to Nootka Sound.
In his recounting of his time with Maquinna, Jewitt also relates when Maquinna saw him writing in his journal. He said, quote:
“One day observing me writing in it, enquired of me what I was doing. When I endeavored to explain it, by telling him that I was keeping an account of the weather, he said it was not so and that I was speaking bad about him and telling how he had taken our shop and killed the crew, to inform my countrymen and that if he ever saw me writing in it again, he would throw it in the fire. I was much rejoiced that he did not more than threaten and became very cautious afterwards not to let him see me write.”
Jewitt would write, quote:
“On the whole, Maquinna was kind to his slaves. When he had plenty to eat, they were well fed and when he had little food, they went hungry.”
Jewitt would remain with Maquinna until 1805 when he was picked up by the Lydia.
It is known that Maquinna worshiped at the Yuquot Whalers Shrine, performing ritual purification to gain strength to hunt whales and attract drift whales to his beaches. This shrine was moved from its traditional area in 1904, and transported to the American Museum of Natural History, where it has never been on display. Currently, work continues to bring the structure back to Canada and to its traditional area.
In the journal of Jewitt, the importance of whales in the life of Maquinna is related. His people relied on him when it came to whales and if no whales were found, it was his fault. Jewitt writes, quote:
“The whale is considered as the King’s fish and no other person when he is present is permitted to touch him until the royal harpoon has first drawn his blood however near he may approach and it would be considered almost sacrilege for any of the common people to strike a whale before he is killed, particularly if any of the chiefs should be present.”
Today, Maquinna is honoured with the Maquinna Marine Provincial Park, Maquinna Elementary School, Chief Maquinna Elementary School and the Maquinna active submarine mud volcano located west of Vancouver Island.
In 1987, Maquinna was designated as a National Historic Person. In 2018, a commemorative coin depicting Captain Cook and Maquinna was released.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, CBC, The Orca, Parks Canada, Ha-Shilth-Sa, Virtualmuseum.ca, Tales of Conflict, Menzies journal of Vancouver’s voyage April to October 1792, The Far West Coast, Pelts and Powder, Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound, Sunset Canada, the Dixon-Meares Controversy,