Journal of William Sturgis

edited by S.W. Jackman, 1978.

March 20th, 1799

In this decade, a healthy "ship based" fur trade flourished, and by many accounts the Indians had the upper hand. William Sturgis served on one of these ships and recorded his experience in his journal. I find this entry interesting because it records the life in a late 18th century NW Coast Kaiganee Haida Indian village.
We had several canoes alongside, among the rest Cunneaw, Altatsee and Chilsenjosh a brother of Cunneaw Dan who I understand will be Chief of the tribe on his brothers death. The old man however would not come on board as yesterday and persisted in not leaving his canoe. At noon Altatsee agreed to stay on board the ship as a hostage whilst Mr. Bumstead went to see his Village of Tatance, which consists of the large number of houses. After staying a couple of hours and examining them he returned safe to Ship.

Having a great curiosity to see the Village and the manner in which the natives of the Coast live, I agreed with Altatsee to sleep at his house at night, and he left his oldest son on board as a hostage for my safe appearance in the morning.

Off to the village, at sunset.

I set out about fifteen minutes before dark, and at dark was abreast of the Village of Tatance. As soon as the canoe struck the beach, Altatsee set up a loud halloo and five or six women slaves, a number of dogs and children came running down to the beach to welcome us. Their astonishment at the sight of a white person in the canoe was extreme and they did not know what to make of it till they found that their brother Skittlekitts was missing. They then concluded that Skittlekitts was going to Boston and I was to stay with them in his room.

Altatsee now took me by the hand and led me towards the house. On entering it you may well imagine my astonishment when, instead of six or eight people as I expected, I beheld about forty people , men women and children seated round an enormous fire which was made in the middle of the house. Some were employed in making fish-hooks for halibut, some wooden bowls. The women were busy broiling and boiling halibut. The children waiting upon the old folks ands several of the females who were not slaves making wooden pipes. At my entrance labor stood suspended, and they looked at me with about as much astonishment as Hamlet when he first saw his fathers Ghost.

Altatsee led me to the head of the room, and, having drawn a large chest before the fire, seated me on it by his side, and told me he was glad I was not afraid to trust myself in their power; and that I ;might be assured that even if I had come and Skittlekitts had not been left in my room on board the vessel they should not have hurt me or even talked bad to me any more than they had done to [omitted in text] and several others who had lived among them a long time. They always treated all white people as brothers who treated them well.

A common enemy, the Cumshewahs.

They were not like Cumshewahs, and so far from it they were his enemies as much as ourselves, and they would give us three skins a piece for every slave we would bring them from there; and that Cunneaw would give us twenty of the largest in [exchange] for Cumshewahs himself - " Your brother" said he; ..."who was in Captain Robbers lettle vessel he killed and Kendrick's brother too. You will certainly kill him to revenge these deaths if you see him when you go there". I could do no less to support my credit than to answer in the affirmative.

"You would do well in doing so,": said he, " and if you do, will save some of us that trouble. He killed my mother at the time he drove us from Keistat to Kaiganee, who was sick and could not fly, but was obliged to go be left behind and fell a sacrifice to Cumshewahs. He attempted to kill me when I went of a trading party to his village as his friend / but I made my escape and got over land to Skittlekitts country who gave me shelter."

Dinner time.

They made me a kind of drink, or rather a kind of broth which was considered as a rich composition by them I suppose appearing to be extremely fond of it. I however, did not relish it quite so well. It was made of Birch bark, or something that had that taste, and on my showing a piece and asking if it was made of than, they answered in the affirmative, and that it was much trouble to beat it up, and get it son that it could be eaten. Whether they told the truth or not, I cannot say, but must leave it for those who have lived among them to determine.

After of trade, and a box of riches.

. We spent the rest of the evening in talking about trade. - What was best to bring, what trinkets they liked best, etc.. Altatsee then showed me his riches which were contained in the trunk we sat upon. There were some several garments made of the wool of the Mountain Sheep and marked in spots with Sea Otter's fur which were very handsome. An ornament for the waist made of leather, with several hundred of the small hooves on it that belong to the Deers' feet; this is used in dancing and makes a loud rattleing when shook. He had likewise a number of beautiful Ermine Skins which it seems they consider as a kind of money on the Coast; and a large silver spoon which he told me was a present from Captain Roberts. There were besides a number more of things, which he would not let me see, in the bottom of the chest; and I was informed by Mr. Bunstead that he refused him a sight of them in the same manner as he did myself.

Venereal disease.

He finally carried me to see his brother who was sick at the next house. He had the Venereal and had been in the same situation I found him in for six months they told me; they being utterly ignorant of the nature of the disease, and what it arose from, and were very thankful when I told them we would send him something from the Ship that would cure him.

Trying to sleep, with dogs growling in my ear.

We then returned to the Altatsee's where they spread me some blue cloth on the floor (for the house was all floored with thick plank) and I laid myself down to sleep for the night, though they did not like my sleeping with my cutlass on, and my pistol by my side. The night, however, passed without any interruption, except from the dogs who when they happened to stroll near me would acknowledge their dislike by growling not very agreeably in my ear, which, you may well suppose, was not sweetener to my repose.

In the morning, two totem poles.

I rose at day light, and having taken a sketch of the two houses to save the length of description, and seen two images that were a short distances from them which Altatsee told me were intended to represent two Chiefs that were his relations (or rather they were his ancestors for they looked as if they were upwards of a hundred years of age) that he'd been killed in battle. I then got in to a canoe and was soon paddled along-side the Ship.

Please send me email! My email address is:

To Bruce Hallman's home page.