Battle at Fort McLoughlin

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns

We ended the last post in this series with the realization that instantly, and without warning, the HBC’s northwest coast post of Fort McLoughlin, on Milbank Sound, was under attack by the Heiltsuk people who lived near modern day Bella Bella, B.C. This is the story of Fort McLoughlin’s battle with the Heiltsuk.

The HBC men at the newly built Fort McLoughlin had run out of water inside the fort, and “part of the men were allowed to go to fetch water (Mr. [Donald] Manson having previously taken the precaution of getting on the gallery himself.)

The watering place being at the left-hand upper corner of the Fort, and the people having filled their kettles there, a shout was given from the Point, and Mr. Manson (suspecting something) had scarcely time to call to the people to run to the Gate, ere Indians made their appearance on all sides, from behind the trees and stumps, armed with guns, axes, knives &c.

HBC Clerk John Dunn also tells us what happened on this occasion. This is taken from his book, History of the Oregon Territory:

Having so many men in the fort, our water became scarce; and to get more we were obliged to go 120 yards from the barrier.

On a particular day, seeing no Indians about, we proposed to allow some of the men to go out with buckets to get water. Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson and myself went outside to see after them, while Mr. Manson kept a look out within the enclosure, from a high temporary watch tower. We had not been out many minutes, when, looking around the bay, and on a point of land about a quarter of a mile to the southward, we perceived a fire. At that instant several Indians rose up — gave the war whoop, and the fort was then surrounded with hundreds of these savages — some armed with knives, others with guns and axes. Mr. Manson cried out to arms. Mr. Anderson and myself rushed as fast as possible to the fort, and then to the bastions; from when we commenced firing, along with the men that remained in the fort. This threw the Indians into confusion and made them retreat, with some loss of life, into the woods.

Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft tells us that “just as the men reached the water, and were stooping down to fill their vessels, suddenly from behind every bush sprang a black-painted warrior, and all with simultaneous yells rushed for the open gate. Close behind and mingling with them were Anderson and his men. Tyeet, seeing it all, was wild with excitement.” But Anderson’s story differs from Bancroft’s a little, although Bancroft got most of his information from Anderson:

I advanced to the edge of the bank and was looking around when suddenly, within a few paces of me, I saw darting through the bushes a host of armed Indians. I turned at once, gave the alarm, and retreating to the fort was speedily prepared to defend the entrance. After having seized my arms, and on my way back to the gate, I perceived our hostage highly excited, and evidently bent on endeavouring to make his escape. As I ran I called to the guards to tie him, which they did.

The Indians were checked. One by one our men made their way toward the gate and through the narrow wiket, and as they came in repaired to the bastion and commenced to fire, Mr. Manson meanwhile having appeared on the gallery, and directed their action.

Thus repelled our assailants retreated speedily, and the gates were closed. On mustering our men we found that only one had been wounded by a severe axe blow on the shoulder, but one was missing, and we supposed him to be dead.

Manson’s story differs slightly from the other stories, including Anderson’s. “They came rushing on our men and sized two, whom they endeavoured to stab several time, and attempted to drag away. Their intentions being evidently to kill and take prisoners all they could, Mr. Anderson, of the establishment, seized his arms and placing himself at the Fort Gate, continued to fire upon the Indians until all the men had entered, with the exception of one, who was unfortunately not forthcoming.”

John Dunn wrote:

The whole of our outside men escaped unhurt into the fort, with the exception of two. One of these was a half-breed, who was surrounded by eight Indians, he was cut in the should severely by an axe aimed at his head; after this blow he managed to wrest the axe from the Indian and keep his assailants at bay; but another Indian coming up with a gun was in the act of shooting him, when Mr. Anderson rushed to the fort gate, and, with his rifle, shot the Indian. The others decamped, and the half-breed made his way into the fort. The other, a Canadian, had, before the disturbance, fallen down, with an axe in his hand which had injured him. This man they took prisoner; dragging him, face downwards, to the water-side, and placed him, tied hands and feet, in a canoe; it being that night their full intention, had we not had their chief in custody to have burnt him.

Pascale Caille was the Canadien man who was missing and presumed dead. The attackers had cornered him and Fabian Malois, also a Canadien (although I think he is the “half-breed” mentioned above.) Malois grabbed an ax from his opponent and defended himself with it. The report says that “the Indians did not abandon Malois until several of them were laid low.” As Malois ran for the safety of the wicket gate, still carrying the axe with him, Anderson shot and killed the Heiltsuk man who threatened Malois’s life.

Manson’s report continued the story. “The affair was nearly at end before the people were able to reach the Bastions, from whence they fired several shots at the retiring Indians. Being all out of sight we discontinued firing at the natives, but cleared away the cannon and stood in readiness for whatever might happen. Let fly a bag of grape into the woods, & continued to fire signal muskets every quarter of an hour.” John Dunn recorded that, “during the night they kept up a continual whoop and firing of guns; but kept a long distance from the fort, fearing we should get our big guns to bear upon them.’

Anderson’s story continues:

Of course watch was kept during the whole night, all hands remaining on watch, and about nine o’clock from amid the dense darkness, we heard a voice, the voice of our last missing man. He called out to Mr. Manson: in return we asked, “Who are you?” He responded with his name, and said he was a prisoner with the Indians, tied in a canoe, and that unless they were assured that their Chief, our hostage, was safe, his own life would be sacrificed.

Manson’s report says that: “About 9 o’clock p.m. the voice of Caille was heard from the water. He mentioned his being in a canoe; that the Indians wished to exchange him for Boston, otherwise that they would kill him. Brought Boston into the Block House and desired him to tell his people that we would liberate him when both our deserter and Caille should be brought back. Desired the Indians to come in the morning if they wished to parley. Boston had been put in irons at the commencement of the affray, but was, after speaking to his people, put under guard of a man in the kitchen and not ironed. All hands under arms during the night.”

John Dunn tells us that “Having this poor fellow in their possession all night, they brought him in the mroning under the fort, and announced a desire to speak to us; and finding their chief was safe, said if we would give their chief freedom they would return our man.” His story continues:

The deserter they persisted they knew nothing of. Finding we could not get back the deserter, we proposed to give them their chief, provided our man, whom they had taken prisoner was returned; and likewise we proposed that they should give us two inferior chiefs as hostage. this was done for a guarantee, to prevent any of our men from being attacked by them, in case they were compelled to go out of the fort. This was agreed to.

Anderson tells a similar story:

We summoned the Chief to the bastion and made him speak to his children, deferring the interview to the following morning. The result of the whole was, that at the time our man was restored to us, we surrendering the Chief in exchange, but exacting two hostage of interior value: slaves, probably.

Our man was produced, clad by the Indians in an entirely new suit of broadcloth, and we clothed our hostage with a blanket and some other articles of clothing. Some years after we discovered that our man, Mr. Richards [Joseph Richard], had been stoned to death by some boys, who had promised to take him to a village, but they insisted on taking one piece after another of his clothing until he at last refused to comply with their demands, then the boys stoned him to death. He was a deserter from the fort.

Manson’s report continues: “About 7 am one half the people were allowed to sleep in the Bastions, the other half remaining on guard.” Then sometime during the morning that followed:

a canoe came opposite the Fort, and Caille, our missing man, spoke from it. He merely repeated what had been said the night before, and begged hard to be released by our returning Boston. We repeated our words of yesternight, and he returned in answer that Richard was not in their possession (or rather that they positively denied any knowledge of him.) Boston was brought forward, and he spoke to the Indians; and shortly afterward proposed to us his being ransomed by a present of two Sea Otter and twenty Beaver skins, and Caille to be returned. We, however, gave him to understand that we could not think of accepting skins as a recompense for any harm done to our people. After some consideration it was proposed to him that he should be liberated on condition of the return of Caille, and that two of his people should stop in the Fort as security for the restoration of Richard. This was at length agreed to, and after some time the exchange was effected. Poor Caille entered much disfigured about the face and very weak, as in addition to the ill-treatment received from the Indians, he was not yet recovered of a wound he received some time back, by which he had lost a finger. He had received two slight stabs on the head from the Indians.

On going out a green blanket was thrown over Boston [Kyeet], besides a red flannel shirt and some tobacco, and he was told to return tomorrow and we would make him a present if he were thought deserving of it; that our intentions to his people were good, but that we would [not] suffer them to impose upon us, that we kept his two people as hostages for the safety of our man who had deserted, and that with whatever people he might be stopping, it was hoped they would bring him back.

Boston appeared very penitent, and spoke much to convince us of his wish to have peace and at length departed with his people (the Indians having previous carried off a slain man). Before his departure he requested permission to bring some wounded men to have their wounds dressed, on the following day; which was granted.

The reasons that Manson gave for “the line of conduct pursued as above,” were, among other things, “the weak state of Caille previous to the affair, and the supposition that the rough treatment he might have received from the Indians would prove fatal to him without proper attendance.” Then there was the possibility that Richard “might be already dead or really not in their possession, from the circumstances of the number of skins offered” for the ransom of Boston. Manson also thought that the lives of the two First Nations people held inside Fort McLoughlin might serve as a balance for Richard’s life, should he fall into the hands of the Heiltsuk. “All of these considerations combined induced us to adopt the line of conduct we have done,” Manson said and continued:

The watch at night consisted of two divisions of eight men each; two being placed on each of the two corner galleries, one man below, and above above stairs in each bastion. A gentleman in each watch.

In case you are curious, it was always the gentleman’s job to ensure that the Canadiens stayed awake and did their duty.

We will continue this series with the occurrences of the following day, when the Heiltsuk brought in their injured men to be treated by the fort doctor. When written, this segment of the Fort McLoughlin story will be found here:

To see the beginning of this series, go here:

Here is a link to my current book, which does not contain this story, but is a good read anyway:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.