As the namesake of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island, Captain William Henry McNeill [at right] is most widely known as a captain of the Beaver, the first steamboat on the North Pacific.

Born in Boston in 1801, McNeill went to sea at age eleven and reached the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in June of 1819. He arrived back in Boston in 1824 aboard the Paragon, left that same year on the Convoy, and returned to Boston once more in 1828 on the Golden Farmer, having undertaken four voyages to China. A controversial character throughout most of his life, McNeill entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1832 at the behest of Duncan Finlayson because the ship on which he was sailing, the Lama, was purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company after the HBC's new brig Isabella was wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1831.

Ever-practical, Chief Factor John McLoughlin had advised Finlayson: "You ought to endeavour to get McNeill for the Coast as he is well acquainted with that business... the man's superior knowledge of the business in comparison to any of our Sea Officers renders his services more valuable, & his knowledge is worth something." Hiring McNeill, an American, along with his two mates, was a startling turn of events when viewed from London. The HBC was, after all, commissioning Americans to help protect their waters from Americans. Equally problematic, at least on paper, was the fact that Americans were legally ineligible to command British ships, particularly those with any military capabilities.

McLoughlin wisely defended McNeill's hiring by quoting from George Simpson's own correspondence of three years earlier: "If when we had began the business we had in command of the Company's Vessels person equally well acquainted with the coast and with the manner of dealing with the natives it would have saved the Company a good deal of money and me an immensity of trouble..."

Quickly proving himself capable, McNeill became the logical choice to command the Beaver, known as a "Skokum ship" in Chinook, for its inaugural sailing from Fort Vancouver in 1835. As early as 1832, Simpson had articulate the proposed advantages of a steam-powered ship. "The saving of time in ascending and descending the Columbia and Fraser's River," he wrote, "of itself, would be a very important object... A steam Vessel would afford us incalculable advantages over the Americans, we could look into every Creek and cove."

One year after the Beaver's inaugural voyage to the Queen Charlotte Islands, with John Dunn and John Work on board as observers, Finlayson was able to report a considerable increase in fur trading profits along the coast. As sail-powered American competition soon decreased, the HBC gained a stranglehold on coastal trade in keeping with their monopoly control inland in New Caledonia, and was thereby able to more effectively control prices in both realms.

McNeill also proved himself valuable in 1837 by locating the harbour near the southern tip of Vancouver Island that led to the founding of Victoria. In the summer 1940 he took James Douglas to the 58th parallel to establish Fort Taku.

George Simpson was able to observe McNeill's trading acumen first-hand during a voyage on the Beaver in 1841. McNeill was subsequently appointed master at Fort Rupert when it was built in 1849, later rising to the position of Chief Factor in 1857. McNeill also led one of the first expeditions sent by Governor James Douglas to the Queen Charlotte Islands to search for gold in 1853. This small expedition of eight men was quickly disrupted by the Haida. McNeill subsequently took temporary charge of Fort Simpson and later swore an oath of allegiance to the British Crown in order to acquire 200 acres of land at Gonzales Point near Victoria.

McNeill ultimately retired to Gonzales Point in 1863. Never fully trusted as an American, McNeill signed an unsuccessful 1867 petition sent to President Ulysses Grant asking for the United States to annex British Columbia. He died in Victoria in 1875.

Although McNeill left precious little in terms of a literary trail, his life served as the basis for Robin Percival Smith's mostly non-fictional Captain McNeill and His Wife the Nishga Chief (Hancock, 2001), an uneven record of his topsy-turvy career, partially written in the style of a novel. This amalgam of fact and fiction presents the McNeill's biography as well as the imagined early life of his first wife Matilda of the Kaigani or Kygarnie Haida, from Dall Island. John Sebastian Helmcken described her in her memoirs as a "chieftainess." Matilda died giving birth to twins in 1850. Their eldest daughter married trader George Blenkinsop.

Around 1852, McNeill married his second country wife, the daughter of a Nishga chief named Neshaki. As the wife of the factor at Port Simpson, her English name was Martha McNeill, but she doubled as a fur trader herself, using the name Neshaki. While she maintained the official HBC factor's residence, Neshaki frequently set off with her own crew in a large canoe to acquire furs from her people. Her stepdaughter Lucy Moffatt accompanied her on one of her coastal forays in 1863. Both of McNeill's wives adopted European dress.

McNeill later maintained an extensive corresondence with James Douglas about the troubled life of his mixed-blood son Harry McNeill and his terse journal entries from Fort Simpson reveal incidents of domestic violence and the adverse affects of alcohol on couples within the fort. He once concluded, "The Women of this place have some 'way' to turn men's brains, more so than I ever heard in any other part of the world."

Smith's interest in Captain William McNeill was sparked by Stephen Hillson's Exploring Puget Sound and British Columbia and Ralph Maud's A Guide to B.C. Indian Myth and Legend. His account of McNeill's life is very poorly edited, or not edited at all, but the jumbled portrait that emerges is nonetheless fascinating and valuable.


Robin Percival Smith was born in London and educated at St John's School, Leatherhead, Surrey. After school he was drafted into the army for national service. He was selected for officer training in the Royal Artillery and was posted to Hong Kong in the 34th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment. After finishing service he was accepted by Gonville and Caius College (1950), Cambridge to study medicine. He continued his clinical studies at The Westminster Hospital Medical School in London and in 1956 graduated MB Bchir.
In 1958 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and immigrated to Canada. He was posted to 442 Search and Rescue Squadron in Vancouver. In 1961 he went into private practice in Richmond, BC. In 1971 he was appointed Staff Physician at the Student Health Service of the University of British Columbia. Because of his interest in Women's Health, he was invited to be an investigator on The Canadian Committee for Fertility Research and later a member of that committee. He developed a research interest in the development of Post Coital Contraception and other women's health issues. In 1976 he was a founder member of the Canadian Andrology Society and was appointed a member of the WHO Task Force on Male Fertility Control, Clinical Trials Division. In 1981 he was appointed Director of Student Health and in 1989 retired from the university .
After retirement he pursued his passion for single handed sailing in his vessel Tremethick II on the west coast of Canada and Alaska.

As well as his biography of McNeill, he has written two novels, A Tale of Whales (under the pen name Robin Kingsley) and Strange Possession at Viner Sound, both set on the West Coast. [See below] The latter is described by Smith as a story of spiritual possession and reincarnation that uses the traditional culture of Kwakiutl aboriginals. The spirit of Jojo, a young Kwakiutl boy, possesses Matti, a single-handing sailor on board his sailing vessel, Windsong, to tell of his captivity at a secret Japanese radio base on the West Coast during WWII.


Smith, Robin Percival. Captain McNeill and His Wife the Nishga Chief (Hancock, 2001).

A Tale of Whales (under the pen name Robin Kingsley)

Strange Possession at Viner Sound (Amazon 2013) 9781478320746

[BCBW 2013]