BOIT, John




Author Tags: 1700-1800

“The females was not very chaste, but their lip pieces was enough to disgust any civilized being. However some of the Crew was quite partial.” —JOHN BOIT, AGE SIXTEEN

Born in Boston on October 15, 1774, John Boit served on the Columbia Rediviva’s second voyage to the West Coast of America in 1790–93. In 1791, his captain Robert Gray built Fort Defiance on the west side of Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound. Here Gray and his men refit their ship and built a second vessel, Adventure, at a place known as both Adventure Cove and Clicksclecutsee. In the spring of 1792, Gray’s men attacked and burned the nearby Nuu-chah-nulth village of Opitsat, and it was John Boit, the fifth mate, who reluctantly accepted the task. On March 27th, he wrote: “I am sorry to be under the nessecity of remarking that this day I was sent with three boats, all well mann’d and arm’d, to destroy the Village of Opitsatah it is a Command I was no ways tenacious off, and am grieved to think Capt. Gray shou’d let his passions go so far. This Village was about half a mile in Diameter, and Contained upwards off 200 Houses, generally well built for Indians ev’ry door that you enter’d was in resemblance to an human and Beasts head, the passage being through the mouth, besides which there was much more rude carved work about the dwelling some of which was by no means inelegant. This fine Village, the Work of Ages, was in a short time totally destroy’d.” Gray reputedly turned his cannon on a canoe and killed all twenty men it carried. Fort Defiance was destroyed by the Nuu-chah-nulth after Gray and Boit departed in the Columbia and the Adventure. An eighteenth century painting by George Davidson, a sailor aboard the Columbia, enabled Tofino resident Kenneth Gibson to discover the site of Fort Defiance in 1966. Samples of brick found at Adventure Cove were set to Boston for confirmation. It was the first of two American-built forts within the confines of present-day British Columbia.

As a sixteen-year-old in Nootka Sound, John Boit also described trading activities on the West Coast, making him one of the youngest of the 18th-century chroniclers of British Columbia. When the Columbia Rediviva initially reached Vancouver Island, Boit observed:

“Hannah, Chief of the Ahhousett came on board and appeared friendly. Above 300 of the Natives was alongside in the course of the day. Their canoes was made from the body of a tree, with stem and stern pieces neatly fixed on. Their models was not unlike our Nantucket whale boats. The dress of these Indians was either the Skin of some Animal, or else a Blankett of their own manufactory, made of some kind of Hair. This garment was slung over the right shoulder. They all appear’d very friendly, brought us plenty of fish and greens. We tarry’d in this harbour till the 16th [of] June; [we] landed our sick immediately on our arrival and pitch’d a tent for their reception, and although there was ten of them in the last stage of Scurvy, still they soon recover’d, upon smelling the turf and eating greens of various kinds. We buried severall of our sick up to the Hips in the earth, and let them remain for hours in that situation. We found this method of great service. The principall village in this harbour is called Opitsatah, and is governed by Wickananish, a warlike Chief. He and his family visited us often. The Indians brought severall Deer, and plenty of Rock Cod, Salmon, and other fish. Wild parsley, and a root call’d Isau or Isop by the natives and much resembling a small onion, was brought us in abundance. We purchas’d many of the Sea Otter skins in exchange for Copper, and blue Cloth. These Indians are of a large size, and somewhat corpulent. The Men wear no other covering but the garment before mentioned, and seem to have no sense of shame, as they appear in a state of Nature. The Women stand in great fear of the Males, but appear to be naturally very modest. Their garment is manufactured from the bark of a tree and is well executed, being so constructed as to cover them complete from the Neck to the Ancle. Both Male and Female wear Hats of a conicle form made out of strong reeds. On them is painted (in a rude manner) their mode of Whale fishery. Attoo, the Captain’s servant (and a native of the Sandwich Isle [Hawaii]) ran away among the Indians. A chief coming on board, [we] plac’d a guard over him, and sent his Canoe back to the village with the news. They [the Indians] soon return’d with Mr. Attoo, and ransom’d their Chief.”

The Columbia under Captain Robert Gray left Coxe’s Harbour with the crew rejuvenated by spruce tea. They sailed northwest to a cove they named Columbias where “vast many natives” came alongside. They laid up in the harbour until June 26, acquiring furs in exchange for copper, iron and cloth. They also traded small items for fish, greens and few deer. Like the Indians at Clayoquot, according to Boit, the Indians at Nootka Sound would “pilfer whenever an opportunity offer’d. Their Women were more Chaste than those we had lately left. But still they were not all Dianas.” [Diana was a Roman god identified with the Greek Artemis and honoured for her virginity.]

Boit visited one of the villages where he watched Indians making canoes and drying fish. On June 28 the Columbia entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca “abreast the Village of Nittenatt” where “[it] was evident that these Natives had been visited by that scourge of mankind—the Smallpox. The Spaniards, as the natives say, brought it among them. These Indians appear’d friendly.”

The expedition reached “a small Isle call’d Tatooch” [Tatoosh Island] where the local chief offered to sell some young children captured in warfare.

Boit reached Houston Steward Channel on the southeast portion of the Queen Charlotte Islands on July 8. The expedition was met by a chief called Coyac.

Of the Haida, Boit observed, “The Women are entirely cover’d with Garments of their own manufactory from the bark of trees. They appear to carry full sway over the men and have an incision cut through the under lip, which they spread out with a piece of wood, about the size and shape of a goose egg (some much larger). It’s considered as an ornament, but in my opinion looks very gastly. Some of them booms out two inches from the chin. The women appear very fond of their offspring, and the Men of both.

“We remain’d in this sound till the 17th. During which time we purchas’d a good lot of Sea Otter and other furs chiefly for Iron and Cloth. Copper was not in demand. The boats were sent frequently after wood and water, but were always well arm’d. The Natives supplied us with plenty of Halibut and Rock Cod, for which we paid them in Nails. Wild fowl was plenty in this Sound, of which we caught and kill’d many. I landed at one of their villages, found the Indians comfortably lodg’d, and [they] kept large fires although the weather was temperate. When I went into one of their houses they was eating coast muscles and singing a warlike Song. They appear’d fond of our visit and never molested any thing in the boat. Their canoes are not made near so neat as those we had seen before, but I think they was more commodious. The females was not very chaste, but their lip pieces was enough to disgust any civilized being. However some of the Crew was quite partial.”

At age nineteen, John Boit was appointed to serve as a merchant sea captain on the Union that embarked from Newport, Rhode Island in August of 1794. In an era when most sailors could not expect to live beyond age thirty, and British subjects could become midshipmen in Her Majesty’s Navy at age ten, Boit’s teenage captaincy was not remarkable.

For his return trip to North America he sailed via the Cape Verde and Falkland Islands, reaching Vancouver Island on May 16, 1795. He gathered sea otter pelts from the Columbia River to Dixon Entrance. He intended to winter in Hawaii until an Englishman who was serving as an advisor to King Kamehameha warned Boit that his ship might be seized by the Hawaiians. The Union sailed the next day and reached China by the end of November where Boit sold his cargo of 150 sea otter pelts, 300 beaver pelts, and other land furs.

By mid-March, Boit reached Mauritius (Isle de France). He arrived in Boston on July 8, 1796. In doing so, he earned his notoriety in maritime history by being the first American to circumnavigate the globe in a sloop and not lose a man in the process.

Half-owned by Boit’s brother-in-law, the Union was a 65-ft., 94-ton topsail sloop with a crew of 22, heavily armed with cannon. Boit declared the Union was “an excellent sea boat…a very safe vessel, still I think it too great a risque for to trust to one mast on such a long voyage.” Boit’s republished log is illustrated with detailed drawings of the Union by Hewitt Jackson. Boit remained a sea captain until his death at age 55 in 1829.

BOOKS:

John Boit. A New Log of the Columbia, 1790-1792 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1921). Edited by Edmund S. Meany.

John Boit. The Log of the Union: John Boit’s Remarkable Voyage to the Northwest Coast and Around the World, 1794-1796. (Portland: Western Imprints, The Press of the Oregon Historical Society, 1981). Edited by Edmund Hayes.

ALSO:

Johansen, Dorothy O. editor. Voyage of the Columbia Around the World with John Boit, 1790-1793 (Portland, Oregon: Beaver Books, 1960).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] “American” “1700-1800” “QCI”