Who was John Whalika?
He was one of my great-great-grandfather’s First Nations slaves — a Haida man who James Birnie rescued from the Indian slave trade that flourished up and down the Pacific coast, from Alaska to California. All the Hudson’s Bay Company ran into this slave trade at one point in their lives: At Fort Taku, on the Northwest coast, Roderick Finlayson wrote about Tlingit treatment of their slaves in 1841-2:
In those days the Slave trade was carried on among the Natives to a large extent along the Coast; so that each chief had from 50 to 100 slaves bound to his bidding on pain of death, which made them very dangerous customers… A large number [of Tako Indians] encamped close to our Stockades, and after they had traded all their furs with us they had a grand feast and there being several Tribes each vying with the other who would make the greatest display — Our principal chief stood up, made a speech to the others about his greatness, the number of his slaves, and the quantity he had of other property, and by way of bravado took a pistol and shot one of the slaves on the spot. Another chief followed and shot one on his side and this awful spectacle was carried on for some time until about ten of the poor creatures were shot and their bodies left on the surface of the ground, as it was considered a degradation on the party of a free born Indian to touch a slave after he was killed. [Roderick Finlayson, Autobiography, Transcript, A/B/30/F49.1, BCA]
From this you can presume that being a slave among the First Nations tribes was not something to look forward to. But this slave trade had always existed. In 1847, Birnie’s son-in law, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, ran into slavery among the Tait First Nations at their village which stood on the Fraser River, near where Fort Yale was later built. Again, at late as 1876, when he was Indian Reserve Commissioner, he met a First Nations man who told him he was a slave among the First Nations at Sechelt. Anderson reported the case to the government, but, as far as I am aware, they did nothing.
I was reminded that James Birnie had slaves quite recently, when the curator of the Wahkiakum Country Historical Society asked me whether I was aware that: “James Birnie did own at least 1 male slave that we know of. The stories told in the country is only Charlot had the slaves. His name is John Whallaka/Wha-la-kee/Wallika/Whallika/Whallishe, and he was born May 1840, on Queen Charlotte’s Island and died 11 Jan. 1903. He was set free upon James Birnie’s death.”
Well, I had forgotten, though I knew that when James Birnie retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company and moved to set up his home in Cathlamet, he came with fifteen Indian slaves. That does mean that Birnie was trading for slaves when he was in the employ of the HBC, however much they may disapprove. David Hansen (of Vancouver, WA) also told me that James Birnie moved to Cathlamet with sixteen slaves, young First Nations boys that he had rescued from the slave trade.
An article “James Birnie Refused Lots in Portland to begin Cathlamet Settlement in 1864,” from The Longview Daily News (Centennial edition), August 19, 1953, was written by Julie Butler Hansen, and said, “With Birnie to the Retreat at Cathlamet had come Indian servants, his paddlers, and according to his son Alec, a band of Spanish cattle he had formerly pastured on Clatsop Plains…” (Some of those cattle ended up in Victoria, B.C., but that’s another story).
It is not likely that John Whalika was part of that group, however. But from that article I also learned that the Strongs settled at Cathlamet on June 3, 1850; the first wharf was built in 1852; and Birnie ordered goods from England (dresses, etc.) And:
Strong persuaded Birnie, who had become an American citizen some years back, to take a postmastership, with [H.M.] Bracket, a friend of James Strong’s, and Strong, to help with the duties.
The Cathlamet post office was established August 8, 1851, in James Birnie’s store, and from that day on until the era of river steamboats it was the duty of Bracket, Strong, or someone else to row out night or day to the ocean steamers and exchange mail bags.”
John Whalika is, I believe, not supposed to have been in Cathlamet until after the post office was established. It has been suggested that Birnie brought them down with him from Fort Simpson, but I don’t believe the HBC would have approved of having to support and transport First Nations men who were slaves to their employees. But I can’t be entirely sure of that, and so I looked through my records, and found a few mentions of John Whalika in them.
From the book, Cathlamet on the Columbia, by Thomas Nelson Strong, published in 1930, I have, firstly: “At the beginning of a chase an Indian hunter like Wholiky or Indian Dick would often venture a prediction as to where the chase would end..” On another occasion, he writes:
Indian Wholiky in the wood and heavy underbrush of the Nehalem Mountains crept up so close to a black bear that only the thickness of a tree separated them. Poor bruin was astonished and dead in the same moment.
That amused me, and it also indicated to me that John Whalika enjoyed some freedom of movement that someone who was considered a slave would not have. Also from Cathlamet on the Columbia is the story of Judge Strong’s adoption of a First Nations slave, and this, I suspect, tells us much of how John Whalika was treated by James and Charlot Birnie. (The boy in this story died young of tuberculosis, I believe):
One of the saddest of these burials was that of Indian George, a young Indian of sixteen. He had been a slave of the Tsimpseans [Tsimshian], Northern Indians from Fort Simpson, and on one of their insolent war excursions into Puget Sound, Judge Strong saw him and moved with pity at his deplorable condition, bought him for two dollars and fifty cents worth of goods and brought him to Cathlamet. Here he grew up in the household into a strong, happy boy, but every now and then the wild instinct would come upon him and he would run away. Nothing would be done to reclaim him, and in a few weeks he would return, ragged and thin, but very happy to be back.
It appears that John Whalika lived with the Birnie family until James Birnie’s death, “when he was freed.” He became a naturalized citizen in 1850. On May 8, 1854, the election was held at the post office and had eight votes, all from men, of course. James Birnie died in 1864, Charlotte was buried in 1878, and the first mention of John Whalika (in my records at least), occurs here:
John Wolicky, an Indian, still fished and hunted his wild geese and ducks in his dugout, but Charlotte’s long jaunts to the Willapa in the canoe were ended forever. (This from Julia Butler’s Hansen’s article, “James Birnie Refused Lots in Portland…”)
From the book, Indian Slavery in the Pacific Northwest, by Robert Ruby and John Brown, I found this paragraph:
Shortly after mid-19th century a white man rescued two Chinook slave boys slated to be killed on the death of their chieftain master. When trailed by four Chinooks seeking to retrieve them, the white man stated his wish to buy them for ten blankets each. When the Chinooks threatened him with knives he retreated to his cabin to fetch his revolver with which he threatened them. The Chinooks then accepted his order at a nearby store for the blankets, some of which they later cut into strips to cover the dead man.
The story first appeared in a book titled Wahkeenah and her People, by William Strong. William was brother to Judge Strong and James Birnie’s next door neighbour, and it was not James Birnie who rescued the boys, but William Strong himself (although the blankets likely came from Birnie’s store).
In the newspaper, The Morning Oregonian, on Monday December 20, 1904, Alexander Duncan Birnie wrote of life at Cathlamet, and corrected many of the statements that William Strong had made (while making some errors of his own. For example, James Birnie was never a Chief Factor, but I have found this claim in several versions of my family’s history). Here’s what Birnie says, in an article titled “Cathlamet’s Early Days,” published December 30, 1904, in The Morning Oregonian:
I use the term “Native Indian” advisedly, for the reason that slavery existed, and Indian children captured elsewhere were so held and subject to barter and sale as chattels. The Indian Wha-la-kee, mentioned in Mr. Strong’s first paper, was such, having been a slave of my father and coming from Queen Charlotte Island. Indian Dick, the noted elk hunter, was another, he belonging to the Snake tribe, as well as one from the Yaquinas, who worried through life with the euphonious patronymic, or cognomen, I know not which, of “Muck-a-Muck John.”
In the 1880 Census for the Elochoman Valley, Wahkiakum County, John Whalika is listed as a fisherman, with a wife named Sally and sister (of the wife’s, I presume) named Stardett. John is forty, the wife is 35 and the sister about 50.
In 1900, “John Whallaka” was one of the men who became a Republican delegate to the state convention, his friend Alexander D. Birnie being another. He also was listed on the Schedule of Indian Population of the Twelfth Census, his wife at that time was Julia, from Oregon, and he had a daughter named Adella, born in 1885. John was still working as a fisherman, listed as being 60 years old, and coming from Canada.
According to an exaggerated story written by Ben/Henry Lampson, at the time of his death John lived in a “hut with webby, black rafters.” He lay dying in bed but laughed heartily when the minister came to see him, and told him he was going on a long, long journey. He told the minister and others that he wanted to be buried in a suit. “I want a blue suit, red necktie,” he said, and Maude Kimball Butler, who collected the story, said that “John wanted that outfit to show the dead he still was in good standing.” There are other stories about Haida men requesting a suit and tie, and it seems that John made the same request that a man still living on Haida Gwaii [the Queen Charlotte Islands] would have done.
By seven o’clock that same evening, he was dead — according to the exaggerated report written by Ben/Henry Lampman in The Oregonian newspaper, June 16, 1920. Records show that “John Wallica” died on January 11, 1903, at Cathlamet, Washington, of a stomach cancer, when he was about 80 years old. His obituary in The Morning Astorian of January 21, read:
In the death last week of John Whalika, there passed from life the last of Cathlamet’s Indians… Almost since Cathlamet has had a post office John has been one of its residents. Quiet, good natured and industrious, the old man won the friendship of many with whom he came in contact, and his familiar figure will be long missed. He was between 75 and 80 years of age, of strong physique and so well preserved that he might easily have passed for 50. He originally came from British Columbia and belonged to the Queen Charlotte Island Indians. He was sold as a slave to James Birnie, father of A. D. Birnie, and by him brought to Cathlamet some time between 1842 and 1845. After Mr. Birnie’s death he lived at Oak Point for some time, and later took up a claim on the tidelands just below town, where he resided for the past 20 years, making daily visits to town, and on holiday occasions appearing in the long black frock coat and fancy handkerchief which every resident in Cathlamet knew so well.
There is a memorial stone for John (his name spelled John Wallique) at the Cathlamet Pioneer Cemetery. There is a also a Walakat or Wallicut River mentioned in — this river is not named for John Whalika, however. If there is anything else to be known about John Whalika, I would like to know. If someone has the original of the photograph at the top of the page, I would like to know who it is and how to get a copy. His story is intriguing, and it seems he fitted well into the little community at Cathlamet: the photographs we have of him show him as happy and well dressed — almost jaunty.
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.
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