Few recollections of the fur trade are more disturbing than Joseph McGillivray’s observations from Fort Alexandria in New Caledonia (central British Columbia).
As a veteran trader, McGillivray brazenly described First Nations’ customs and habits with such disdain (“They are supremely dirty and lazy, and full of vermin, which they take great pleasure in eating.”) that it’s difficult to accept his observations at face value. Possibly Joseph McGillivray blamed his isolation in New Caledonia on his mixed-blood status as the son of a Cree woman recorded as “Susan,” and William McGillivray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in the North West Company upon the sudden death of Simon McTavish.
William McGillivray’s first wife, Susan, was born about 1769 near Flin Flon, Manitoba and she died on August 26, 1819, in the Kaministikean River area, near Thunder Bay. Her three children grew to adulthood. William McGillivray married his second wife, Magdalen McDonald, on December 22, 1800 in St. Mary’s Church, St. Marylebone Road, London. Only two of her six children survived beyond infancy. She died on October 16, 1825 in London.
As a product of McGillivray’s first marital union, Joseph McGillivray was born with his twin brother Simon at Ile à La Crosse (Saskatchewan) on March 1, 1791. Their godfathers were Alexander Mackenzie and Joseph Frobisher, after whom Joseph McGillivray was named. Upon being made a partner in the North West Company in 1813, Joseph McGillivray took charge of Fort Okanogan, where he met Ross Cox and rose to the position of chief trader in 1821, until he was transferred back to Norway House with his country wife, Française Boucher, and at least one of theirs sons, Murdoch, where he served from August 1822 to June 1823. Later posted to the wilds of New Caledonia, he became severely critical of the Aboriginals and their allegedly barbarous activities. He died in 1832.
Rendered with a condescending air of feigned objectivity, McGillivray’s chilling and little-known recollections of New Caledonia are contained near the end of the memoirs of fellow fur trader, Ross Cox. Possibly Joseph McGillivray’s failure to emulate the reputations of his high-ranking father, his namesake Frobisher and his godfather Mackenzie rankled him; possibly a thwarted egotism stimulated his racist disdain and misogyny (“Prostitution is notoriously practised among unmarried females.”). Here is an excerpt:
“The Indians on the upper part of Fraser’s River are divided into various tribes, under the following names: viz.: Slowercuss, Dinais, Nascud, Dinnee, and Talkotin. They are evidently sprung from one common origin. Their manners and customs are the same; and there is no variation in their language, which bears a close affinity to that spoken by the Cbepewyans and Beaver Indians.
“Several families generally club together and build a house, the size of which is proportioned to the number of inhabitants, and is partitioned off into several divisions. The building has one long ridge pole, which in several places is uncovered, for the Cree egress of the smoke. They are supremely dirty and lazy, and full of vermin, which they take great pleasure in eating. They never bathe or, wash their bodies, which, with the interior of their dwellings, and the surrounding neighbourhood, present a shockingly repulsive appearance of filthy nastiness, which we never observed among any other tribe. When reproached with their want of cleanliness they replied, that the dirt preserved them from the intense cold of winter, and protected them equally from the scorching sun of summer!
“The women are, if possible, worse than the men; and when they wish to appear very fine they saturate their hair with salmon oil, after which it is powdered over with the down of birds, and painted with red ochre mixed with oil Such another preparation for the head is certainly not used by any other portion of his majesty’s copper-coloured subjects. While in this oleaginous state they are quite unapproachable near a fire; and even the voyageur, whose sense of smelling is not over-refined cannot bring his nasal organ into a warm apartment with one of those bedizened beauties.
“It is quite common to see six or eight of the men during the summer while their wives and children are digging roots for their subsistence, stretch their filthy covering on branches, and expose their naked bodies to the sun, changing their position as it revolves in its course.
“Independently of the starvation to which their incurable indolence subjects them, it also entails on them diseases which often prove fatal to numbers; and asthma, with rheumatic and pulmonary complaints, are quite common among them.
“They are generally about the middle size, and few of them reach to the height of five feet nine inches. Their colour is a light copper, with the same long lank hair and black eyes which distinguish the other aborigines of America. Their features are good, and were it not for the barbarous incrustation which surrounds them, might be called prepossessing. The women are stouter than the men, but inferior to them in beauty. The dress of both consists of a robe made of marmot, or rabbit skin, tied round the neck and reaching to the knees, with a small slip of leather or cloth covering underneath. In the summer months the men dispense even with this slight covering, and wander about in a complete state of nudity. They are fond of European clothing; and such of them as were enabled to purchase a coat, trousers, and shirt, took great pride in appearing in them at the fort.
“They are much addicted to gambling, and umpires are chosen to see that each party plays fairly; still their games seldom terminate without a quarrel. They will gamble their guns, robes, and even their shoes. One of them, who had been out three months on a hunting excursion, returned with a large lot of prime beaver, with which he intended to purchase a gun for himself, and other articles for his wife and children. His evil genius induced him to play; and in a short time he lost half his stock. He then desisted, and was about retiring to the fort; but in the mean time several of the gamblers collected about him, and upbraided him with want of spirit. His resolution was overcome, and he recommenced: fortune was still unpropitious, and in less than an hour he lost the remainder of his furs. The following day he came to us with tears in his eyes, and having related his misfortune, and promised never to run so great a risk again, we gave him goods on credit to the amount of twenty beavers.
They are fond of feasting, and on particular occasions invite their friends from villages thirty or forty miles distant. When the entertainment is over, the guest has nothing more to expect; and no matter how long he may remain, there is no renewal of hospitality. Gambling is carried on to a dreadful extreme at these assemblages.
“Polygamy is practiced, but it is not very general, few of them being able to support more than one wife. There are no marriage ceremonies. The choice of each party is left unfettered; and it frequently happens that if their tempers do not agree, the union is dissolved by mutual consent. The women are unfruitful, which may be attributed to the many laborious avocations to which they are condemned, particularly that of digging for roots; and abortions are also frequent among them.
“Prostitution is notoriously practised among unmarried females, and is productive of disease to a deplorable extent. Few escape the consequences resulting from this general depravity, and many fall victims to it. Leprosy is also common among the young people of both sexes, and proceeds from the same demoralizing cause. Sickness or excessive labour produces a depression of spirits among the females, many of whom while in that state commit suicide. We saw the bodies of several of these wretched beings who had hanged themselves from trees in sequestered parts of the wood.
“Their doctor, or man of medicine, differs little from the same personage on the Columbia, except that the profession here is rather dangerous.
“The same mode of throwing the patient on his back, beating the parts affected, singing in a loud voice to drown his cries, & c. is practised here; but in the event of his death, his relatives generally sacrifice the quack or some one of his connexions. This summary mode of punishment is admirably calculated to keep the profession free from intruders; and their medical practitioners, I am happy to state, are becoming every day less numerous.
“The affectionate regard for friends and relatives which, more or less, characterizes other tribes, appears to be unknown among these savages. A few instances, which came under our personal knowledge, may be sufficient to prove their total want of all the finer feelings of humanity.
“In December, 1826, an elderly man, nearly related to the Talkotin chief, fell short of provisions, and although he was surrounded by numbers who had an abundance of dried salmon, he was actually allowed to die of starvation in the midst of plenty. The day after his death the corpse was burned, and no one seemed to mourn his loss.
“One night during the same winter a young woman, nearly naked, her body covered with bruises, and dreadfully frostbitten, came to the fort, and begged for admission. This was readily granted. She alleged she had been in a starving condition, and had asked her husband for a little dried salmon, which he refused to give, although he had plenty in his lodge; that she watched an opportunity during his absence to take a small piece, which he discovered her in the act of eating; and that without any other cause he gave her a dreadful beating, and then turned her out, declaring she should no longer live with him. She added, that all her friends refused her assistance, and that she would have inevitably perished from the inclemency of the weather but for the protection and relief we afforded her. During her narrative her uncle entered, and, on learning the particulars, he declared he would. make up the quarrel; and went away, promising to return shortly with some rabbits. With much difficulty we succeeded in restoring her to health; but neither husband, uncle, nor any other relation ever after troubled us with inquiries concerning her, and she still remains at the fort living on our bounty.
“Another instance, and I shall have done: In January, 1827, two stout young men, brothers, with their wives and children, and a gray-headed, infirm old man, their father, encamped for a few days close to the fort.
“Late in the evening of the second day after their departure we were surprised at seeing the unfortunate old man crawling towards the house, and crying out piteously for “fire and salmon.” His hands and feet were frost-bitten, and he was scarcely able to move. A piece of salmon and a glass of rum quickly revived him, when he told us that on that morning his sons abandoned him at the place they had slept at the night before, and, on going away, told him he might take care of himself as well as he could, as they would not any longer be encumbered with him!
“These cases establish a degree of barbarism I believe unparalleled in any country; and I know of no redeeming feature to counterbalance them. We have repeatedly afforded relief to numbers who were dying from starvation or disease, and who, but for our assistance, would have perished; yet ingratitude is so strongly implanted in their savage nature, that these very individuals, in periods of plenty, have been the first to prevent us from taking a salmon; and whenever a dispute or misunderstanding arose between our people and the natives, these scoundrels have been seen brandishing their weapons and urging their countrymen to exterminate us.
“They are also incorrigible thieves and liars. No chevalier d’industrie could excel them in skilful operations; and it required our utmost vigilance to guard against their felonious propensities: while their disregard of truth is so glaring, that we have actually heard them contradict facts of which we ourselves had been eyewitnesses.
“During the severity of winter they make excavations in the ground sufficiently capacious to contain a number of persons; and in these holes they burrow until the warm weather once more permits them to venture above ground. They preserve their dry salmon rolled up in baskets of birch bark in holes of a similar description, but somewhat smaller. The smell from these subterranean dwellings while thus occupied is horribly offensive, and no white man could stand within its influence. Men, women, and children, dogs, fleas, &c. all live together in this filthy state.
“It has been already mentioned that in the battle of September, 1827, they killed some Chilcotins and took others prisoners. Their treatment of both dead and living was in perfect accordance with their general character. After having taken off the scalps, they raised the bodies of the deceased on stumps of trees, and exhibited them to the Atnahs, a band of whom had been specially invited to witness these trophies of their valour. One would then plunge his knife into the corpse, a second hack the skull with his axe, and a third perforate the body with arrows. Women and children equally participated in this savage amusement, and all washed their hands and faces in the blood of their victims, which they did not remove until it dried and fell off.
“Among the prisoners was one woman with a child at her breast. A Talkotin ruffian instantly cut its throat, and, holding the infant on the point of his knife, asked the mother, with a degree of horrible exultation, if it “smelt good.” She replied, “No.” He repeated the question, but still received the same answer. Irritated at her obstinacy, he seized her violently by the neck, and asked her the third time if it “smelt good.” The wretched woman, knowing that death awaited her, in the event of another refusal, at length faltered out an affirmative. “Is it very good?” repeated the savage. “Yes,” she replied, “very good;” upon which, flinging her from him, and dashing the lifeless remains of her infant on the ground, he walked away.
“The war-dance next commenced; and the unfortunate prisoners were introduced into the middle of the circle, and compelled to join in the dancing and singing, while at intervals their inhuman conquerors displayed the scalps of their fathers, brothers, or husbands, and rubbing them across their faces, asked with ferocious joy if they “smelled good?”
“We endeavoured to purchase some young children which were among the captives, with a view of returning them to their friends; but they refused all our offers. They however promised that none of them should be injured; but their habitual perfidy was manifested in this as in all their other transactions; for we learned that on the same night a child was killed and the body burned; a few days afterward another was thrown alive into a large fire, and consumed; and in the course of the winter our people discovered the remains of three others, with scarcely any flesh on their bones; and we had good reason to believe they had been starved to death.
“Inhumanity to prisoners, however, is a vice which these Indians practise in common with all the savage tribes of America; but in their domestic quarrels the Talkotins evince the same brutal and sanguinary disposition; a remarkable instance of which occurred in the year 1826. A young man, who had killed a rein-deer, determined to give a treat to his friends, and having concealed it, as he thought, in a place of security, proceeded to the various dweIlings for the purpose of inviting them to the feast. In the interim, however, some of the tribe discovered the hidden treasure, the greater part of which they made away with. He became highly exasperated at his disappointment, and in his passion slew one man whom he found sitting at a fire broiling part or the animal. The friends of the deceased instantly armed themselves, and having surrounded the lodge in which the owner of the deer resided, butchered all his relations, amounting to seven individuals. He however escaped, and being a person of some influence, quickly collected a number of his friends, determined on revenge; but the murderers in the mean time fled to the mountains, where they have lurked about ever since, occasionally obtaining relief by stealth either from our people or from some of their own countrymen.
“Since the battle of September, 1827, the Talkotins have, as a measure of security, established their village within pistol-shot of our fort. They are by no means pleasant neighbours. They are in a constant state of apprehension from the Chilcotins, and pass the nights up to two or three o’clock each morning singing, screaming, and howling in a most disagreeable manner. It is almost impossible to sleep. The slightest rustling in the branches, or the barking of a dog, turns out the whole population; and if a strange Indian appears, he is immediately magnified into a host of warriors, coming to destroy both them and the white men.
“The ceremonies attending the dead are very singular, and quite peculiar to this tribe. The body of the deceased is kept nine days laid out in his lodge, and on the tenth it is burned. For this purpose a rising ground is selected, on which are laid a number of sticks, about seven feet long, of cypress neatly split, and in the interstices is placed a quantity of gummy wood. During these operations invitations are despatched to the natives of the neighbouring villages, requesting their attendance at the ceremony; when the preparations are perfected, the corpse is placed on the pile, which is immediately ignited and during the process of burning the by-standers appear to be in a high state of merriment. If a stranger happens to be present they invariably plunder him; but if that pleasure be denied them, they never separate without quarrelling among themselves. Whatever property the deceased possessed is placed about the corpse; and if he happened to be a person of consequence, his friends generally purchase a capot, a shirt, a pair of trousers, &c., which articles are also laid round the pile. If the doctor who attended him has escaped uninjured, he is obliged to be present at the ceremony, and for the last time tries his skill in restoring the defunct to animation. Failing in this, he throws on the body a piece of leather, or some other article, as a present, which in some measure appeases the resentment of his relations, and preserves the unfortunate quack from being maltreated. During the nine days the corpse is laid out, the widow of the deceased is obliged to sleep alongside it from sunset to sunrise; and from this custom there is no relaxation, even during the hottest day of summer! While the doctor is performing his last operation she must lie on the pile; and after the fire is applied to it, she cannot stir until the doctor orders her to he removed; which, however, is never done until her body is completely covered with blisters. After being placed on her legs, she is obliged to pass her hands gently through the flames, and collect some of the liquid fat which issues from the corpse, with which she is permitted to rub her face and body! When the friends of the deceased observe the sinews of the legs and arms beginning to contract, they compel the unfortunate widow to go again on the pile, and by dint of hard pressing to straighten those members.
“If during her husband’s lifetime she had been known to have committed any act of infidelity, or omitted administering to him savoury food, or neglected his clothing, &c., she is now made to suffer severely for such lapse of duty by his relations, who frequently fling her on the funeral pile, from which she is dragged by her friends; and thus, between alternate scorching and cooling, she is dragged backwards and forwards until she falls into a state of insensibility.
“After the process of burning the corpse has terminated the widow collects the larger bones, which she rolls up in an envelope of birch bark, and which she is obliged for some years afterward to carry on her back! She is now considered and treated as a slave; all the laborious duties of cooking, collecting fuel &c. devolve on her. She must obey the orders of all the women, and even of the children belonging to the village, and the slightest mistake or disobedience subjects her to the infliction of a heavy punishment. The ashes of her husband are carefully collected and deposited in a grave which it is her duty to keep free from weeds; and should any such appear, she is obliged to root them out with her fingers! During this operation her husband’s relatives stand by and beat her in a cruel manner until the task is completed, or she falls a victim to their brutality. The wretched widows, to avoid this complicated cruelty, frequently commit suicide. Should she, however, linger on for three or four years, the friends of her husband agree to relieve her from her painful mourning. This is a ceremony of much consequence, and the preparations for it occupy a considerable time, generally from six to eight months. The hunters proceed to the various districts in which deer and beaver abound, and after collecting large quantities of meat and fur, return to the village. The skins are immediately bartered for guns, ammunition, clothing, trinkets, &c. Invitations are then sent to the inhabitants of the various friendly villages, and when they have all assembled the feast commences, and presents are distributed to each visitor. The object of their meeting is then explained, and the woman is brought forward, still carrying on her back the bones of her late husband, which are now removed, and placed in a carved box, which is nailed or otherwise fastened to a post twelve feet high. Her conduct as a faithful widow is next highly eulogized, and the ceremony of her manumission is completed by one man powdering on her head the down of birds, and another pouring on it the contents of a bladder of oil! She is then at liberty to marry again, or lead a life of single blessedness; but few of them, I believe, wish to encounter the risk attending a second widowhood.
“The men are condemned to a similar ordeal; but they do not bear it with equal fortitude; and numbers fly to distant quarters to avoid the brutal treatment which custom has established as a kind of religious rite.
Excerpted from: Cox, Ross. Adventures on the Columbia River, Including the Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains, Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown: Together with a Journey Across the American Continent (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831; 1832; 1832; New York: J& J Harper, 1832; San Francisco: California State Library, 1942; Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1957).
by Alan Twigg [BCBW 2006]