The most famous and controversial missionary of British Columbia-and that's saying a lot-was William Duncan.

Born in Bishops' Burton, Yorkshire on April 3, 1832, Duncan had an unwed mother named Maria Duncan and was raised by maternal grandparents. His mother married and had two daughters, but William Duncan was not part of that family circle. Educated in the market town of Beverley in Yorkshire until he was age 14, Duncan went to work in the tannery of George Cussons and Sons, where his grandfather was employed. Eager to improve himself and his circumstances, he became a travelling salesman at age 21 and felt greatly buoyed by his success, much of which he attributed to stern and devout religious instruction. "I used to feel my heart overflow with gratitude for God's wonderful love in thus elevating me from the dunghill," he wrote. Having always enjoyed church music and singing in the choir, Duncan was a proficient musician who became active as a Sunday-school teacher under the influence of an evangelical named Reverend Anthony Thomas Carr. When his mentor died unexpectedly, Duncan began to apprentice with the Church Missionary Society in London at age 22 and gained his schoolmaster training from 1854 to 1856. William Duncan was chosen by the Missionary Society to work among the Tsimshian Indians on the northern B.C. coast-to learn their language and to hear their "Heathen cry";-based on reports of their plight from Royal Navy commander Captain James Charles Prevost. The fact that Duncan was trained in a missionary college and not a proper theological college would become significant in later decades when he later sparred with Bishop George Hills about his legitimacy as an unordained cleric.

William Duncan arrived in Victoria in June of 1857 and lived at the home of Reverend Edward Cridge, the Hudson's Bay Company chaplain. In September he was directed by Governor James Douglas to sail to Fort Simpson on the Nass River and take up residence at the Hudson's Bay Company post overseen by chief factor William Henry McNeill. In the midst of more than two thousand Tsimshian, Duncan confessed to Cridge that he felt "almost crushed with a sense of my position. My loneliness; the greatness of the work...."; Despite his introverted character, he quickly learned enough Tsimshian to teach the singing of hymns and God Save the Queen. His innovative nature led him to design wooden soles for the moccasins worn by the Tsimshian in an attempt to lessen illness attributable to their continually having wet feet. All nine Tsimshian tribes had converged around the Hudson's Bay fort, vying with each other for business and making them convenient targets for the American liquor traders. Liquor purchases were often financed by prostitution. After four years on the job, having concluded the environment of the fort was detrimental to his converts, Duncan was intrigued to learn some of his followers wished to return to their former village of Metlakahtla (also spelled Metlakatla and other variants) located 25 kiilometres down the coast. Eager to be free of Hudson's Bay Company control, the Moses-like Duncan led a group of about 60 followers in 1862 to the site where ten Tsimshian were still living. There he worked with great diligence to establish a prosperous and autonomous Christian village called Metlakahtla (meaning 'water passage'). Within months the population increased to 500; within a year it rose to close to 1,000.

At Metlakahtla, according to Duncan, most of the Tsimshian renounced their "Demoniacal Rites called Ahlied or Medicine Work: Conjuring...."; Victorian values were rigidly superimposed. This exodus soon proved beneficial. Having forsaken liquor, face painting, gambling and the potlatch ceremony, the isolated Tsimshian at Metlakahtla escaped the brunt of a smallpox epidemic later that same year. Whereas some 500 deaths were reported at Fort Simpson, only five smallpox deaths were reported at Metlakahtla where Duncan had quickly vaccinated his followers. Each morning and evening, the bell in the white meeting house was rung to waken Duncan's converts and to send them to bed. Duncan established a sawmill, a newspaper, a salmon cannery and workshops to make rope and nets. There was a uniformed Tsimshian police force, a brass band and a church choir. Duncan's settlers built houses, observed the Sabbath and paid taxes. Punishments were meted out by Duncan. In his journal entry of March 17, 1866, he wrote, "I imprisoned Calvah the slave for a week and flogged him with sticks. After twenty lashes had been given I asked if he now felt his sin to smart. He said he did and thanked me for having had him punished." Duncan's word was law. Girls had his Boarding School were not spared the rod either. No white man was allowed to camp within four miles of the town.

Duncan's rigidly structured Utopian experiment was augmented by the purchase of a ship named Kahah (meaning slave) to sell soap and blankets along the coast, then by a schooner, Carolina, with which Duncan could conduct trade and manage his diplomatic relations with Victoria. With the advantage of Tsimshian local knowledge and contacts, the Carolina soon competed against Hudson's Bay Company traders. This commercial success was soon reported to Victoria and to England. Africa had David Livingston; the wilds of British Columbia had William Duncan. He himself made trips back to England to learn various trades and to publicize his increasingly famous mission. Eager for expansion, Duncan hired architect Edward Mallandaine Sr. to draw plans for a church in 1867, but Duncan returned the drawings and refused to pay him, claiming he was able to make his own architectural plans. Construction ensued and Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Trutch, who maintained his low opinion of Aboriginals as "savages";, laid the foundation stone. A year later, William Duncan presided over an 800-seat Gothic cathedral, the largest church north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.

To supply his converts with the materials of British culture, Duncan opened a trade shop at Metlakahtla, thereby duplicating the monopoly practices of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Simpson and other remote trading posts. As the economic success of the community drew more residents, William Duncan was appointed to serve as magistrate, enabling him to control not only his converts but also any would-be interlopers, including itinerant bootleggers. During the 1870s, most of Duncan's problems were external. After finding himself uncomfortably in the middle of a severe dispute between his friend Cridge and Bishop George Hills, Duncan was forced to endure a visit to Metlakahtla by Bishop William Carpenter Bompas of Athabasca in 1877-1878. Bompas, his superior, concluded Duncan was too dictatorial and too independent of the Church of England. To further complicate his relations with the Church of England, Duncan refused to become ordained. He also wouldn't allow his people to take Holy Communion on the grounds that it too closely resembled ritual cannibalism. These frictions preceded the division of the British Columbia diocese in 1879 that brought Bishop William Ridley to live at Metlakatla in order to administer the new diocese called Caledonia. A struggle for dominance naturally occurred between Ridley and the demagogue Duncan.

Animosities were such that Duncan was beckoned to London in 1882 to explain his deviance from Church of England procedures. Metlakahtla became an increasingly fractured community with most residents loyal to Duncan, who maintained that his Metlakahtlans ought to be able to live outside the Indian Act. This friction with the governmental authorities proved especially detrimental when the Church Missionary Society and Bishop Ridley tried to claim ownership of two acres within the community known as Mission Point, containing its major buildings. Ultimately religious divisions were less bitter than the tussle for property rights. The government disputed the principle that Metlakatla could be owned by the Metlakahtlans, or by Duncan on their behalf, and granted ownership of the site to Bishop Ridley of the Missionary Society, whereupon William Duncan travelled to Washington, D.C. in 1886 to enquire about moving his settlement to Alaska. In the U.S. Duncan met Henry Solomon Wellcome, who had made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business and was writing a book about Metlakahtla. Wellcome organized a public campaign on Duncan's behalf, stirring interest in the American press, resulting in Duncan's meeting with American president Grover Cleveland.

In 1887, the stubborn and mercurial Duncan took 823 members of his flock northward to establish New Metlakahtla on a site provided by the Unites States government on Annette Island in Alaska. There he could retain his authoritarian methods and protect the Tsimshian from harmful white influences. Once again Duncan oversaw construction of a school, church, sawmill and cannery. A tourist trade arose for the new community, bolstered by laudatory reports in print by Henry Solomon Wellcome and John William Arctander. [In 1901, Wellcome, at age 48, married the daughter of Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, a renowned benefactor of London's slum children who shipped 'Home Children' to the colonies, but this marriage to a much younger woman proved to be a disastrous embarrassment, ending in a difficult divorce.]

As the 20th century dawned, Duncan was beset by rheumatism and increasingly intransigent. When Duncan encountered some of the same problems with American authorities that he had with Canadian authorities, Wellcome used his fortune to try and rehabilitate Duncan's reputation. But Duncan became his own worst enemy. He limited education of his flock to age 14. There also arose allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct at New Metlakhatla. The encampment of New Metlakatla became divided in much the same way that Metlakatla had failed. Duncan's main adversary became Edward Marsden, the son of one of Duncan's first converts at Fort Simpson. Marsden's mother, Catherine Marsden, who had been Duncan's housekeeper. Having become a Presbyterian minister himself, Marsden believed the assets of their community ought to be transferred to the Tsimshian people prior to Duncan's demise. A similar problem had arisen at the first Metlakahtla site. Having transferred the property to Duncan with a formal ceremony to facilitate the growth of the community, the Tsimshian had wanted ownership to revert to them after Duncan departed. The new goverment in Victoria instead gave the property to the Church Missionary Society in Great Britain. The United States government eventually seized the New Metlakahtla property in 1915 but Duncan refused to give up the reins of power. Increasingly isolated without allies, he remained at New Metlakahtla until his death three years later on August 30, 1918.

William Duncan's final wish was not granted. His remains were buried at New Metlakahtla (a site now called simply Metlakatla) instead of near Edward Cridge in Victoria. Henry Wellcome persisted in his crusade to defend Duncan until he died in 1936, but in retrospect, Duncan's intransigence appears indefensible. After Duncan died, it was learned his estate was valued at $146,159 and the amount Duncan had deposited in his personal bank account in Seattle, Washington was $138,679. For a bastard son who had rescued himself from poverty by becoming a travelling salesman, this was a great fortune.


Duncan's feuds with his superiors in London were extensive and well documented. His book Metlahkatlah: Ten Years' Work Among the Tsimsheean Indians (London Church Missionary House, 1869) was based on Duncan's communications with the Missionary Society. A fourth edition appeared in 1871 under the title The British Columbia Mission: or, Metlahkatla.

Stock, Eugene. Metlakahtla and the North Pacific Mission of the Church Missionary Society (London: Church Missionary Society, 1881).

The 483-page book in favour of William Duncan called The Story of Metlakahtla by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome was published in London and New York in 1887. It, too, went through four printings.

Also supportive, John William Arctander wrote The Apostle of Alaska: The Story of William Duncan of Metlakahtla (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1909). Because Arctander referred to the Tsimshians as savages, William Duncan bought the copyright and had all unsold copies destroyed.

From Potlatch to Pulpit (Vancouver Bindery, 1933). By William Pierce.

William Duncan (William Duncan Trust, Palo Alto, California, 1957). By Edward D. Kohlstedt.

William Duncan of Metlahkatla, A Victorian Missionary in British Columbia (Publications in History No. 5, National Museums of Canada, 1972). By Jean Usher.

Now You Are My Brother: Missionaries in British Columbia (Provincial Archives, 1981)

Metlahkatla--The Holy City (Port Edward, B.C. 1983). By Phyllis Bowman.

The Devil and Mr. Duncan: A History of the Two Metlakatlas (Sono Nis, 1985). By Peter Murray.

[See also Robert Tomlinson]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Religion" "Early B.C." "Missionaries" "1850-1900" "First Nations"