1859: Capture and destruction of the brig Swiss Boy

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David K. Welden or Walden, “master” of the American brig Swiss Boy, took to newsprint to publicize the loss of his ship in the Ditidaht area of Vancouver Island.

Because his vessel loaded with lumber and bound from Port Orchard, Washington Territory, for San Francisco, was seized by Indigenous people on the Canadian side of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, there was relatively little he could do to get justice.

So he took to print in a campaign of public sympathy. The clipping I’m looking at today is a reprint from a San Francisco paper in the Olympia (Washington Territory) Pioneer and Democrat of March 18, 1859, page 1, column 2 and 3.

In an article that sounds like a fairly plausible account, having only a few typographical errors such as his name and this telltale phony date —

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— Walden tells of negotiating with those “Netinetts” (Nitinats) who understood some Chinuk Wawa. An interesting twist here is that he lies his head off to these people:

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…I promised them if they would let us go to Victoria to get a ship…I would make them a great many presents when I came back, and we were King George men, which got the majority in my favor…they…told me through one of them that could speak a little jargon, that I could go in the morning…

On reaching Victoria, Capt. Walden meets with Governor James Douglas (1803-1877) of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Douglas was another Chinuk Wawa speaker, but the two men clearly didn’t bond over that fact, as Douglas stiffly adheres to official protocol, rendering no practical help to the American.

Something I find useful to glean from today’s article is that it corroborates a building picture that Chinook Jargon wasn’t very widely known on Vancouver Island (beyond Victoria) in the 1850s and 1860s. Walden wasn’t able to address a general Native audience in it, but instead had to find out who could speak CJ.

That impression makes sense. The Jargon was practically universal down south around the lower Columbia River at the same time period, having been the first language of some communities for a couple of generations already.

But it hadn’t yet gotten imported and “popularized” via the 1858 gold rushes to BC. The idea that the local tribe (said to be the Huu-ay-aht (Ohiaht) people of Pachena Bay), were not very acculturated to Newcomer ways is backed up by area traders William E. Banfield’s and Peter Francis‘s reports to Gov. Douglas and the Victoria newspapers. These regular visitors characterized the Huu-ay-ahts, with whom incidentally they found it most expedient to speak some approximation of Nuuchahnulth, as not kindly disposed to Whites. 

An important cultural point can be made: the Huu-ay-ahts regarded the wrecked Swiss Boy as “honi, or drift goods” under their Indigenous legal system. The word < honi > seems to reflect Nuučaan̓uł huun̓ii ‘drift whale’ (in John Stonham’s dictionary) or a generic word for ‘whale’ (several dialects in the T’aat’aaqsapa Cultural Dictionary); it’s tantalizingly similar in form to Salish words for ‘drifters, White people’, making me wonder if Whites themselves amounted to salvageable fair game. This angle is presented in the fine book “Voices of the Elders: Huu-ay-aht Histories and Legends“.

Another good reference, the book “Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History“, has further information to the effect that the Huu-ay-aht leaders knew Swiss Boy was foreign and that they expected to be praised by British authorities for taking possession of it. The same book reveals that the Swiss Boy turned out on examination to be made of rotten wood, so that it should never have been at sea in the first place.

Further details of the incident, including the participation of T’seshaht First Nation people are found in a third book, “Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-1890“.

All of this contrasts with Capt. Walden’s claim (all too convenient?) that the Indians had invasively swarmed the brig, and enslaved his crew, in a violent replay of the famous 1811 Tonquin incident. Nonetheless his version of the story became immmortalized in the influential Hubert Howe Bancroft’s “History of British Columbia“, for better or for worse.

You might wonder what the area’s tribal people think of the commemoration of the ship in the Barkley Sound place name, Swiss Boy Island! It goes back at least to 1864. Another development after the fact was an April 1859 lawsuit against the brig’s owners by its seamen, for lost wages.

Anyhow, by careful research into individual episodes like today’s, we can acquire a finer-grained understanding of how Chinuk Wawa spread across the Northwest. It didn’t evenly reach every place all at once…there’s a story to it that hasn’t been told before.

PS: the Swiss Boy must have been named, ironically as it turns out, for a long-popular song of the 1800s, “The Merry Swiss Boy“. Switzerland had a hold on the public imagination as a scenic and happy place back then; just consider the countless early comparisons of Pacific Northwest scenery to that country’s Alps.

What do you think?

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