The Chilkats on the Northwest coast

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area.

The Tlingit Chilkats were a tribe of First Nations people who resided on Chilkat Inlet, on the Northwest Coast, and who traveled over Chilkat Pass to trade with the First Nations who lived on the Yukon River. As we know from the Robert Campbell thread on this site, that the Chilkat are the people who, in 1852, destroyed Fort Selkirk! But James Douglas also saw these men as he visited various places along the coast, and he took them more seriously than Robert Campbell did. So this blogpost belongs both to the “Journeys” thread, which includes the attack on Fort Selkirk, and the “Headquarters” thread, which involves the building of Fort Durham.

So let’s see what James Douglas has to say about the Chilkat people he met at Fort Durham and elsewhere along the northwest coast in 1840. He was at Taku Harbour supervising the building of Fort Durham in summer 1840, and when the stockades were completed and the gates secure, he explored the coast around the new fort. He went first to Cross Sound, and then Chilkat Inlet. In his journal, this is how he described his visit to Lynn Canal.

“Sunday, 16 August [1840]. There being no prospect of advantage, either in the way of trade or otherwise, by pursuing our voyage further in the direction of Cape Spencer [from Cross Sound], without making a more protracted stay in Cross Sound than is consistent with my instructions, we proceeded this morning towards Chilcat [Chilkat], on a visit to the natives of that place. Chilkat is the name of a River which runs into the North end of Lynn Channel, discovered and surveyed by [Captain George] Vancouver in 1794. It is on both sides bounded by lofty mountains, in some places washed by the sea, in others divided from it by a border of less elevated land which slopes abruptly to the strait. This border and the lower part of the mountains are covered with trees, mostly of the Pine tribe, but the mountains rise above and far beyond the range of vegetable existence into pinnacles of naked rock washed smooth by a thousand showers and swept by every wind of heaven; they appear at the distance from which we see them, as if wrought with the chisel. There is abundance of snow in all the ravines and in fact in every declivity of the mountains where it can lie. We anchored n the afternoon near the head of the channel, a mile beyond a large accumulation of ice, in a break of mountains; between this ice and the sea is a border of poplar trees, the first we have seen in this quarter, growing as it were out of the very ice itself, a situation wherein we could not expect to find this tree. I suppose that the winds blowing constantly at some season of the year, through this gap, bring with it particles of the rock which on both sides confine it, and their being deposited on the shore, have by their decomposition formed a rich soil whereon the poplar has taken root. There is an Indian village at the distance of four miles beyond our anchorage; we fired to guns of invitation but night set in without our receiving any visits. 

“Monday, 17th August. Early this morning a number of Indians arrived from the village we saw last night, who evinced by their cheerful friendly conduct that our visit was not ill taken. 

“The people of this place attempted, some years ago, to capture an American trading vessel, commanded by a Captain Hill, and succeeded through force and fraud in gaining possession of the deck. The crew took refuge in the forecastle, where they recovered in a few minutes from the surprise of this unexpected attack, and returned to the deck and charged the body of Indians with so much determination that they drove them from the ship after 45 of their number had fallen victim to the consequences of their own perfidious conduct.

“The remembrance of this event is still rankling in their minds, and information reached me from different sources, that they had thoughts of making reprisals on our people, as it seems that similarity of language had identified us in their minds with the Americans.

“This unfortunate impression I was at great pains to remove, and took such measures as led me to think they no longer consider us as implicated in the destruction of their countrymen.

“Two considerable rivers fall into Lynn’s Channel. The Chilkat is the largest, it takes two days to ascend it as far as it is navigable, and in that distance there are 7 villages of Natives who reside on its banks. Individuals of this tribe are in the regular practice of making long journeys into the interior, for the purpose of trading furs from the inland Tribes, who have probably no other market within reach. These traders return to their homes in August and early in September, the season at which the greatest quantity of furs may be had at Chilkat. Finding very little to be done here, and having settled with the Indians I was most anxious to see, we started on our return to the fort at Midday, and anchored there at eleven o’clock, having thus run a distance of 95 miles in 11 hours.”  

In another report, found in the Fort Vancouver Correspondence, 1840, in B.C. Archives, James Douglas added considerably more detail to his visit to the Chilkat villages on Lynn Canal. 

On leaving Cross Sound we ran to the Chilcat [Chilkat] village at the north most end of Lynn Channel. The people of Chilkat are numerous, bold, and enterprising. At the period of Vancouver’s discovery they attacked his boats while engaged in the survey of Lynn Channel, since that time various acts of aggressions committed upon trading vessels visiting their shores have served to maintain their notoriety and eventually attached to them the character of being the most perfidious and mischievous of the Coast tribes.

You will remember, of course, that these are the same First Nations men who attacked and took down Robert Campbell’s Fort Selkirk in 1852 — only four years after Douglas’s visit to Chilkat Sound. 

In one daring attempt to capture an American Vessel they were most severely punished and left 45 of their number slain on the Ship’s deck. The recollection of the memorable defeat, which, as a body they are longing to revenge is still fresh in their minds, and I was told that they had thoughts of exacting the penalty from us, because we have the misfortune to speak a language in common with the Americans. Knowing these circumstances and sensible of the pernicious influence which a rupture with them in the outset of our career [at Fort Durham] would have on our affairs, the vessel was effectually arrayed in all the trappings of defensive war, to damp the ardours that the prospect of an easy conquest might inspire, and when we anchored among them, every precaution was taken to prevent surprise in a way that neither evinced nor excited alarm. Whatever may have been their intentions they behaved to us in a friendly and civil manner by the aid of our interpreter I chatted freely with the principal Chiefs who were received on board, and feasted with Bread and Molasses, seasoned with Tobacco. Without appearing acquainted with their previous history, I made them clearly to understand that we were a perfectly distinct people from the Americans and that our vessel had never before been in that part of the world.

And that was Douglas’s goal in this visit: to make them friendly with Fort Durham and to keep his HBC post safe from their attacks. He succeeded brilliantly: if there was ever any trouble at Fort Durham (and there was), it did not come from the Chilkats, who always traded quietly and peacefully.

They became evidently satisfied of this and one of the number, in a very decent speech, observed that their people had been thinned by the sword and pestilence (meaning the Small-pox) but, continued the speaker, the English are now come to replace the friends we have lost and we shall esteem them as such. These flowers of Rhetoric were of value only when considered as indications of a growing good feeling, and I add with pleasure that their conduct to us both on the occasion of which I now speak and subsequently when a number of them visited the Fort, was strictly in keeping with their professions. These preliminaries over, we proceeded to trade and eventually parted with them on the most amicable terms, after leaving in their hands a present of tobacco as a token of friendship for several of the Chief men whom we were prevented from seeing by their absence from home at the time of our visit.  

And now James Douglas describes how the Chilkats crossed Chilkat Pass into the headwaters of the Yukon River, where they traded with the Northern Tutchone [Selkirk First Nations] and the Han First Nations that lived around Fort Selkirk. I had not realized that so many of the visitors to the Yukon River were slaves who had accompanied their masters over the pass for the express purpose of packing in the trade goods, and packing out the furs traded.

This tribe inhabits seven villages extending at irregular distances from the mouth to 30 miles up the River Chilkat, which together with another navigable stream of lesser note flows from the north and eastward into the head of Lynn Channel. The latter takes its rise in a considerable lake 60 miles from the coast that has no other practical outlet; while the course of the Chilkat, though deep and of considerable breadth at the entrance, is scarcely so protracted [that] its navigable limit, where the river is lost in countless number[s] of mountain torrents being reached in three moderate days travelling.

Distant excursions into the interior are made every summer by the Chilkat people for the purpose of trade. In the pursuit of this object, they follow the course of the Chilkat River for a time, leave their canoes when it ceases to become navigable, and perform the remainder of the journey on foot, attended by a crowd of slaves who carry their provisions and packs of goods. 

In six days they traverse the mountainous region which bounds the coast, and enter a level, thickly wooded country, inhabited by the people with whom they traffic. From the direction of their route, and the distance travelled, this section of the country must lie between the maritime chain of Mountains on this coast, and the range which borders the western bank of McKenzie’s River beyond the 60th parallel of North Latitude.

Douglas is correct: they are trading on the Yukon and the Pelly River. Remember that Robert Campbell isn’t yet on the Pelly River: he’s still on the Liard, at Fort Halkett, and on this journey James Douglas did hear rumours from the First Nations people, of Campbell being forced to abandon the fort on Dease Lake. So, to continue Douglas’s report to John McLoughlin:

I could not discover if the people who live here have any intercourse with our Forts on the Mackenzie [River], but as the existence of these seem unknown to the Chilkat traders it is probable they are not within the circle of our acquaintance. From Lynn Channel we returned direct to the Fort [Durham] without stopping at any other place, there being but one intermediate town named “Auks” on the way, whose inhabitants had visited us several times before my departure upon this circuit.

Before Douglas departed from Fort Durham he visited one more landmark, which was called Point Snettisham. It stands at the mouth of another river called the Sitko, which the local First Nations did ascend for trading purposes. It doesn’t appear on any of my maps, and of course it won’t be in my old British Columbia Gazeteer because it’s in Alaska. I did locate it on page 77 of my copy of Evergreen Pacific’s Exploring Alaska & British Columbia: Skagway to Barkley Sound [Evergreen Pacific Publishing Company, 1997].  Port Snettisham is south of Taku Inlet, and just south of Taku Harbour (outside the mouth of Taku Inlet), where Fort Durham was being built in 1840. 

This book is full of little history notes, and this is what it says of Taku Harbour, where Juneau, Alaska, now stands:

Over the years, Taku Harbour has seen a lot of colorful activity, beginning possibly with a Taku Indian settlement which eventually moved to the north side of the entrance of Taku Inlet. Russian traders used the harbour as an anchorage to their steamers and sailing vessels. In 1840, the Hudson’s Bay Co. raised the English flag here and built Ft. Durham. It was described as “very complete, with good houses, lofty pickets and strong bastions.” The fort was manned by two officers and twenty-two company employees. It was also reported that “one of the hills near the fort, terminated in the form of a canoe, which serves as a barometer. A shroud of fog indicates rain, but the clear vision of the canoe itself is a sign of fair weather. 

Three years after establishing the fort, the British took their trading post and went elsewhere. Later the John L. Carlson Co., established a cannery in the harbour and a post office was operating as late as 1923. In 1974 the harbour was being looked after by old-timer Tiger Olson. Tiger spends the winters trapping and reading. An incredible conversationalist, he keeps the listener on his toes trying to keep up with the discussion at hand. Tiger has been known in recent years to contribute his “tithe and/or offering” from his winter trapping to a church in Juneau — in the form of mink skins as well as using the same form of currency to pay medical bills when necessary.

And so I started with the Chilkats but did not remain there. I hope you enjoy the stories here.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 





2 thoughts on “The Chilkats on the Northwest coast

  1. Mikel mcintosh

    I have spent the better part of two days reading your offerings and want to thank you so much, what a joy it has been, heightens the anticipation for my up coming trip to the yukon and bc even more than before

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, Yukon sounds fabulous! I can see why Robert Campbell loved the place so much!!! Obviously I am also planning a trip up there sometime. I hope you enjoy your journey north: watch out for the grizzlies on the Dempster Highway, if you get that far north.