For thousands of years, Clayoquot Sound was the home to many Indigenous nations.
It is a beautiful part of British Columbia located on the western shores of Vancouver Island and features magnificent beaches, framed by rocky headlands.
There are several fjords, which have some of the highest tides in the world.
Due to the huge amount of rainfall, about 3,295 millimetres per year, the trees there including western red cedar and western hemlock grow to record sizes.
Humans have lived in the area for 4,200 years but historians believe it could be at least 9,000 years.
The Nuu-chah-nulth people, also known as the Nootka, have inhabited Clayoquot Sound for 2,000 years.
One group of the Nuu-chah-nulth are the Tla-o-qui-aht.
Their name has been Anglicized to Clayoquot and the area is named after them.
The Tla-o-qui-aht people traditionally had a highly structured society that featured nobles, commoners, and slaves.
They had traditions and legends, and ceremonies that were an important part of their cultural identity.
While the history of this region and its people date back thousands of years, our story is about an Indigenous chief who left his mark during a transformative time for his people in the late-17th and early-18th centuries.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
In the 1720s, the Tla-o-qui-aht embarked on a war of conquest over the Esowista people.
The war went terribly for the Esowista. Their territory was seized, and they lost access to bountiful Pacific Ocean resources in the process, as they became part of the Tla-o-qui-aht nation.
Little did the Tla-o-qui-aht leaders know at the time, but their conquest would have far reaching consequences decades later, as the age of European colonization and exploration would soon be upon them.
European powers had begun to move up the Pacific Coast from Mexico by the 1770s, looking for riches and new lands. While they did not find gold… yet they did find something very valuable, maritime furs.
The Spanish Navy ship Santiago reached nearby Nootka Sound on Aug. 8, 1774.
In 1778 Captain James Cook recorded the Nootka, which was a misunderstanding of the pronunciation of Nuu-chah-nulth, the people who occupied the area.
Before long, the Russians, Spanish and English were all vying to control the area and its profitable maritime fur trade.
In 1791, the Spanish ships the San Carlos commanded by Francisco Eliza and the Santa Saturnina commanded by Jose Narvaez and Juan Carrasco arrived in Clayoquot Sound.
They were greeted by Wickaninnish.
Born in the late-1700s, Wickaninnish had inherited the lands his forefathers had conquered in the 1720s, giving him immense power in the region.
The chief of the Tla-o-qui-aht people, his name means Nobody sits or stands before him in the canoe, which exemplified his importance to his people.
A tribute system developed under Wickaninnish, and his family members controlled vast territories in the region.
The Spanish may not have realized it at the time, but all fur trading in the area was about to go through him.
As Narvaez and Carrasco explored the channels of the area, Eliza made friends with Wickaninnish, who showed him five different settlements in Clayoquot Sound, each with more than 1,500 people living in them.
The largest settlement was called Guicananich, and Wickaninnish’s home.
Wickaninnish was quick to understand the area’s importance to the Europeans, and the furs that his people could trade to the new arrivals.
To prove his friendship to Eliza, Wickaninnish had 600 young men perform an elaborate dance for him.
In nearby Nootka Sound was another chief named Maquinna, who was more than willing to trade with Europeans and Wickaninnish wanted the upper hand.
Nootka Sound was further south and the first stop for Europeans. Wickaninnish could lose out on a very profitable venture if he didn’t do something to entice Europeans to venture further.
Today, Wickaninnish’s rival Maquinna is better known, despite their similar stature at the time, in fact when CBC released the TV docuseries Canada: A People’s History two decades ago, they featured a segment on Maquinna, but nothing about Wickaninnish.
However, in the late 1700s both men were equal in stature and wealth and had a rivalry and respect for one another.
They were also closely related, which helped them form a strong alliance between their peoples.
Maquinna’s daughter Apenas was supposed to marry Wickaninnish’s son, but it is not known if that came to be.t.
Regardless, with Europeans arriving at his shores, Wickaninnish focused on building a trade empire.
First, he ensured his authority by insisting all negotiations were done on the ships themselves, rather than allowing the Europeans to trade furs in the villages. By having the negotiations on ships, of which he was always part of, he controlled the trade negotiations of the Indigenous in the area.
In 1787, Charles William Barkley, a British explorer and trader, arrived with his wife Francis and crew and made extremely profitable trades. He named various inlets for Wickaninnish, in his honour, such as Wickaninnish Sound. Eventually became Clayoquot Sound.
A year later in 1788, John Meares, a British sea trader arrived, flying a Portuguese flag, hoping to set up a British trading settlement using Chinese workers.
Meares flew the Portuguese flag because of strained relations between Britain and Spain at the time and felt it safer to go with a neutral nation and establish a new settlement.
Knowing of Wickaninnish’s power and influence, Meares sought to trade with him specifically.
When they met, Wickaninnish arrived with a fleet of canoes and boarded the ship, welcoming Meares to his territory.
Meares wrote that Wickaninnish wore luxurious outfits, as did his envoy. He described him as robust and good-looking, who was just a little beyond the prime of his life, which likely puts his age around his early-to-mid 30s.
During this initial trade, Wickaninnish made every attempt to ensure that Meares was happy.
In return, Meares gave Wickaninnish six brass-hilted swords, a pair of pistols and a musket with powder.
This was just the gift giving ceremony, which preceded any trading transaction.
Once the gift giving ceremony was complete, the two men got down to business.
In return for various items, Meares received 150 sea otter pelts.
Aboard the ship, Wickaninnish was fascinated by the large vessel, and he quickly grasped how the ship worked. He was able to guide the ship 10 kilometres into the sound, which impressed Meares, who wrote, quote,
“Wickaninnish proved an excellent pilot and not only indefatigable in his own exertions but equally attentive to the conduct of his canoes, in their attendance of us.” end quote.
Six days later, Wickaninnish again piloted the ship through rough weather, while avoiding sand bar, to a protected harbour near one of his villages. s
Meares was charmed but commented that Wickaninnish was a tough bargainer and at times got the better deal although he never said he was cheated. Meares stated he was defeated by Wickaninnish cunning ability to trade.
To ensure European trade stayed within his control Wickaninnish forbade anyone to be aboard the ships without him being present. When strangers boarded the ship without the permission, they were seized although most got away.
Meares’ crew begged for clemency for the sole man Wickaninnish captured but he refused although no one knows for certain it is believed the man was killed.
Knowing he couldn’t control trade forever Wickaninnish sought to work with other Indigenous chiefs, even those under him, to keep himself in power.
As a result, Wickaninnish brokered a treaty with Chiefs Hanna and Detootche, keeping himself as the middleman.
All furs were to be sold to him, and he would then sell them to the Europeans until a later undetermined date when unrestricted trade would be allowed.
This gave chiefs access to trade goods from Wickaninnish, and it ensured he remained in power as the central authority for all trade in the area.
Meares wrote Wickaninnish was quote,
“both loved and dreaded by other chiefs.”
He estimated that Wickaninnish led over 13,000 people, more than some minor British nobles at the time.
It is likely that the numbers may have been exaggerated and historians believe the figure to be closer to 4,000 to 5,000.
Meares traded with both Maquinna and Wickaninnish but as time went on, he became apprehensive of trading with the latter because of Wickaninnish’s hard bargains, and the seizure of Indigenous people who went aboard trade ships without permission.
Meares began arming his crews during trading and on one occasion when Wickaninnish saw this as he arrived onboard; he felt threatened and disrespected.
He left the ship in anger, refused to trade and forbade anyone else from bringing supplies of fish and vegetables to Meares’ crew.
Meares attended a ceremony on land the next day and he gave Wickaninnish a brass-handled sword and copper plate as a token asking for forgiveness.
In return, Wickaninnish gave him five otter skins and a supply of fish.
With that, the conflict was water under the bridge and trading resumed.
Seeing the power European weapons had, Wickaninnish asked for them as part of any trade going forward.
Meares had little choice but to agree to Wickaninnish’s demands and the weapons greatly increased Wickaninnish’s power and territory.
To try and get some leverage Meares attempted to trade for land, and while that was successful in Nootka Sound, under Maquinna, Wickaninnish refused.
Unbeknownst to either Indigenous ruler, a much larger issue began to develop around the trading across the pond.
Meares’ trades in Nootka and Clayoquot Sound were being done under the Portuguese flag and not sanctioned by either London or Spain.
This caused an international dispute in 1789 between Britain and Spain over who exactly had rights to navigation and trade in the region.
It eventually escalated into what is known as the Nootka Crisis which inched slowly towards open war.
The Dutch joined the British and France joined Spain.
Then, the French backed off and without their help, Spain couldn’t ensure defeat over the British and Dutch, so the crisis was resolved peacefully with agreements allowing British and Spanish subjects to trade up to ten leagues from the coast.
Spain also renounced exclusive trade rights and land claims in the area.
However, during the crisis, the Spanish built a fort in Nootka Sound, Maquinna’s territory and impounded British ships, including the Argonaut and Princess. The captains of both ships were sent on the Argonaut to Mexico to be prisoners.
A chief under Wickaninnish, Callicum, approached the fort in a canoe with his family to protest the incursion on the land and was shot dead by a Spanish soldier.
In response, Maquinna and his people moved farther away and began to visit Wickaninnish more often to solidify their alliance in the face of growing European aggression.
When the crisis ended a few months later the British captains and ships were freed and returned in the Argonaut to Nootka Sound.
On Oct 18, 1790, the ship reached Wickaninnish territory and sent out long boats to navigate deeper his domain Each of those boats disappeared. It is not known what happened to them.
In response, The Argonaut’s Captain John Colnett detained two of Wickaninnish’s brothers, and two of his chiefs for two weeks in an effort to get Wickaninnish and his people to search for the missing crew.
Eventually, Wickaninnish’s sister agreed to go on the search and returned four days later with two men. Colnett released his captives.
The rest of the lost crew was never found.
Colnett thought nothing more of the incident, believing it resolved.
Wickaninnish, however, planned his revenge for the grievous insult.
He bided his time for months, until December when Colnett’s ship was repaired due to earlier damage and ready to sail.
On New Year’s Eve, four canoes approached the Argonaut as the crew ate. From the canoe men scaled the side of the ship silently until a deckhand noticed them and alerted the rest crew who quickly emerged from the galley firing their muskets.
It is not known how many were killed in the altercation, but the ship quickly sailed from Wickaninnish’s territory and never returned.
Despite this incident, Wickaninnish continued to trade with Europeans, and built up his weapons arsenal in the process.
According to Spanish naturalist Jose Mariano Mozino, by 1791 Wickaninnish had 200 guns, two barrels of powder and a considerable amount of shot.
On Aug. 11, 1791, John Kendrick, arrived on the American ship Columbia Rediviva, and Wickaninnish signed a contract giving him a small patch of territory.
Wickaninnish knew that by giving him land, Kendrick would set up a permanent fort or settlement and make trade easier, and more profitable.
Overall, the relationship between Kendrick and Wickaninnish was described as cordial.
Late in 1791, Captain Robert Gray built Fort Defiance in Wickaninnish’s territory, with his permission and throughout the winter there were diplomatic relations between them.
However, those living in the fort were afraid of a Wickaninnish attack. Despite there being no indication of animosity, the fort had four cannons, 40 muskets, as well as pistols and ammunition to guard against Wickaninnish who by all accounts, was in awe of the structure.
He even attended a Christmas dinner at the fort.
Oddly, that’s when Captain Gray began to believe there was a looming threat against the fort and began to cut off diplomatic relations by refusing Wickaninnish and his people entry to the fort.
Gray falsely believed the attack was meant for him and his fort and not the intertribal attack Wickaninnish was actually planning.
As the days and weeks went on, Gray became more paranoid.
Eventually, Gray quickly got his ship ready to leave through the evening before their departure, his crew fired cannons into the forest to frighten away any would-be attackers.
He also had his crew take three boats to destroy an unoccupied village with 200 houses in Wickaninnish’s territory, before leaving for good.
It is not known what Wickaninnish thought of the entire event, but it didn’t stop him trading with Europeans, Although he took a less flexible approach from then on and t.
One man who traded with Wickaninnish, named Captain Bishop, said his position essentially became to take it or leave it.
“He prides himself in having but one word in a barter. He throws the skins before you. These are the furs. I want such an article. If you object, they are taken back into the canoe and not offered again.”
During the 1792 trading season, 26 ships arrived in Wickaninnish’s territory.
Captain George Vancouver, and a clerk on his ship, Edward Bell, commented that nearly every man in Wickaninnish’s settlements had a musket. He said they threw their spears, bows and arrows on the ground and used pistols and muskets almost exclusively. This also made them bolder negotiators.
Bell wrote quote,
“Wickaninnish who resides at Clyonquot [sic] seems to me to be the Emperor of the Sea Coast between Defuca’s Streights [sic] and Woody Point… Wickaninnish’s property is very great.”
For the most part, seasoned crews that arrived in Wickaninnish’s territory knew that good relations benefited everyone when it came to trading.
Captain William Brown, however, wasn’t one of them. He focused on getting fur and good relations were an afterthought as he allowed his crew to commit thefts and violence against the Indigenous people in the area. He complained about the gift giving protocol that Wickaninnish required and how little he got in return.
What happened next has since been proven untrue.
On Aug. 5, 1792, claiming that he had been attacked by the Tla-o-qui-aht, Captain William Brown landed on Wickaninnish’s shores and robbed the Tla-o-qui-aht, taking pelts and smashing houses. The Tla-o-qui-aht counter attacked but lost two men in the process.
On Aug. 8, 1792, Brown enticed four chiefs, one of whom was Wickaninnish’s brother, to go to his ship.
He had them whipped and threw the chiefs overboard where they were shot in the water.
Wickaninnish appealed to Maquinna for help, and despite their efforts, no justice was ever served for Brown’s attacks.
Due to growing hostilities, Wickaninnish and his brothers refused to board ships by themselves. They also insisted that individuals from the ship be sent ashore as hostages until the trading parties were back safely from the ships. Despite the growing apprehension towards Europeans, Wickaninnish knew he could use them and their weapons to expand his territory.
He unsuccessfully attempted to use Europeans to attack his enemies and at one point, he suggested the crew kill two Indigenous men of a rival nation in retaliation for them killing a crew member of a ship he was visiting.
He was also unsuccessful in trading for whole ships, even though he tried it… and for the next few years, trading continued as usual.
Then in June 1811, while Wickaninnish was away, Captain Jonathan Thorn attempted to trade with Chief Nookamis, a minor chief and his representative…
Nookamis was not responding well to Thorn’s offers, so he grabbed a fur, shoved it in the chief’s face and threw him overboard. Wickaninnish was not going to let this slide, and from that slight came the Battle of Woody Point.
On June 15, 1811, an Indigenous woman warned Thorn of an attack, but he didn’t believe her Soon after, a canoe with 20 men arrived aboard the ship to trade furs and offered to sell them cheaply.
Another canoe with another 20 men followed close behind.
The first 20 men were hiding weapons under their clothing, and Thorn, hoping to make a big profit, violated orders by allowing 40 Indigenous men onto the ship.
Among the men were a few minor chiefs.
The history is murky, and it is believed either Wickaninnish or Nookamis were also aboard the ship at this point.
Blinded by his own greed, he didn’t realize until it was too late that the entire ship and crew were outnumbered and in danger.
As he ordered his crew to hoist the anchor and sails, a chief gave the signal to attack.
Thorn and two of his officers were killed immediately, but the rest of the crew were unharmed.
As night fell, the surviving crew went below deck to the rifle storage as the Indigenous went back to shore. Knowing they could not sail the ship with so few hands, they decided to take a small boat in the darkness and make their way to Fort Astoria to the south.
One man, the armorer named Weeks, was gravely injured, and remained aboard the ship.
The Indigenous forces returned the next day to plunder the ship, and Weeks lit the black powder magazine.
The massive explosion destroyed the ship and killed between 100 and 200 Indigenous men on board.
The crew who fled in the night were later captured by either Wickaninnish’s or Maquinna’s men and tortured to death.
As for Wickaninnish, this is where he begins to fade from history, and it’s not known if he survived the explosion…. until a story arose years later that may shed light on Wickaninnish’s fate.
On Oct. 3, 1837, 26 years after the destruction of the ship by the injured armorer, the British ships Sulphur and Starling arrived in the area of Nootka and Clayoquot Sound.
They were on a mission to see if Russians were setting up a base in the region.
Captain Edward Belcher wrote that there was no sign of Russia, but Indigenous people gathered around the ships r and among them was an older man, who was calm and dignified.
This is believed to be either Maquinna, or one of his descendants.
In talking with the man, Belcher was told that Wickaninnish still lived and was now the most powerful chief in the area, even more so than Maquinna or Nookamis.
Maybe this was Wickaninnish’s son, or perhaps, the great chief survived the explosion and lived on to become the most powerful chief his people had ever known.
We will never know for sure….
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wickaninnish Inn, Asserting Territorial Jurisdiction, Wikipedia, Possessing Meares Island,