Friday, 27 November 2020


In the Pacific Northwest, slavery and slave trading was common practice recorded for hundreds of years and likely practised for thousands.

The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. While it was illegal, its practice continued in various ways around the world.

In December 1946, the magazine The Beaver, now published as Canada's History Archive, interviewed Elizabeth Hunt Wilson, who grew up amongst slaves, slave traders, settlers and First Nations on the west coast of British Columbia, when slavery was still common practice. 

She recounted a tale of the murder of the last slave in her village — a man still held as a slave more than fifty years after its official abolishment — in the village of Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert on northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

The story holds special importance for me as she is the sister of my great-great-grandfather, William Hunt who married Annie Wilson (Kwagu’ł / Kwakiutl) — and my great-great-aunts and uncles — Sarah Edna Hunt Lyon, Emily Hunt, George Hunt (Ethnographer who worked with Franz Boas), Eli Fredrick Hunt, Mary (who died young), Robert James Jr. Hunt (died as a young man),  Jane Charity Hunt Cadwallader, Mary Hunt (named for the one who died), and Annie Hunt Spencer. 

Elizabeth was also the last surviving daughter of Robert Hunt and Mary Ebbetts — whom you may know as Anislaga or Anisalaga — the All-Mother. 

Robert Hunt had come to British Columbia in 1850 as an ambitious man. He worked first as a labourer, then postman and later worked his way up to run the Hudson's Bay Company's fort at Fort Rupert. 

Elizabeth's mother, Mary Ebbetts was born Asnaq of the Raven/Yéil phratry of the Gigalgam Kyinanuk Tlingit of Tongas and Larhtorh/Larhsail of Cape Fox. She was the daughter of Chief Keishíshk' Shakes IV and his wife, S’eitlin — a Deisheetaan (Gaanax.ádi) from Aan goon (Angoon), and granddaughter to the Head-Chief of Wrangell. She was a high-ranking daughter which made her the perfect bride. 

Anislaga married Robert Hunt of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Simpson at Lax-Kw'alaams on the Nass River while staying with the Tsimshian. 

They lived in the north then relocated to Fort Rupert where they had eleven children — seven daughters and four sons, including sweet Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was born into a time when Sir Anthony Musgrave was the governor of the united Colony of British Columbia and Sir. John A. Macdonald was Prime Minister of Canada.   

Macdonald, once been tepid on the question of the westward expansion of the Canadian provinces, became a zealot once in power. 

As Prime Minister, he became a strong supporter of a bi-coastal Canada and the commerce that would bring. Immediately upon Confederation, he sent commissioners to London who eventually negotiated the transfer of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada. 

It was expansion into the west that led to Elizabeth's parents meeting and marrying — a binding of two cultures.  

Macdonald wished to secure the colony of British Columbia and ensure his new nation had a Pacific outlet. Both Fort Victoria (est. 1843) and Fort Rupert (est. 1849-51) — were central to these plans. Once the fort was established, 600-700 First Nations from more than twenty lineages lived near the site. Once smallpox washed through the community, that number was closer to 300-350. 

Robert Hunt, now factor, and Anislaga left Fort Rupert in 1868 to run the Fort Simpson site for the HBC. They returned to Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert in 1872 in time to give birth to their daughter, Jane Charity in 1873.

Anislaga's Chilkat Naaxein woven for William Hunt
A few years earlier, in 1870, while Anislaga, Elizabeth's mother was giving birth to Elizabeth in Fort Simpson and during the first months of her young life, negotiations were being conducted to bring British Columbia into the Confederation. 

This was at a time when cannibalism, as part of slave or child sacrifices, was still common practice.

The politics of the rest of Canada were unknown to her as she worked and played as a young girl. Elizabeth grew up in the remote, windswept village of Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert, a community built above the clam filled tidal flats in Beaver Cove eleven kilometres south of Port Hardy. It was my home as a girl and I think back on my childhood there with great fondness and try to imagine it when Elizabeth was a girl. 

Growing up, the only thing that remained of the old Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) fort was the old chimney and the graveyard a wee bit further south of the main fort site. I grew up beside the graveyard and spent many happy days playing amongst their long lost souls.

The fort site is just up the hill past the main reserve as you head south. Most of the fort was destroyed in the early 1940s. When Elizabeth was a girl, she knew the fort during its heyday — a trading shop, offices,  kitchens, living quarters, blacksmith, hardens and livestock pens filled its high walls. 

The area was established as much for the fur trade as it was for the local coal mining deposits. The fort was built in a military fashion with an eighteen-foot wooden palisade, both inner and outer gates — naively built from green wood — and metal cannons. The fort was the centre of trade and many tales of local conflict — both settler and First Nation.

Local Kwakiutl warriors took shelter within its walls to guard against marauding braves. Robert and Anislaga had run a thriving business, but that slowly declined. A fire took four of the houses and one life in 1868 — foreshadowing its demise as an HBC fort. 

Her father, Robert Hunt, my great-great-great-grandfather, purchased it from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1873. 

Elizabeth also spent time in Alert Bay and twenty years up in Rivers Inlet with her husband Daniel Wilson, a hale Scot who loved the west coast and First Nation traditions. She witnessed and heard stories of Haida raids on the Tsimshian First Nation near Prince Rupert and Alaska's Annette Islands and Coast Salish along the coast of Vancouver Island and British Columbia — capturing slaves and seizing valuable goods to bring home to Haida Gwaii in the hold of their large and skillfully built red cedar war canoes imbued with spirits — each act fomenting retaliation by the First Nation clans targeted. 

Haida canoes were the perfect fishing and raiding crafts. They were hewn from a single carefully chosen red cedar, felled in the fall. The wood would be prepared by burning and carved over the winter into a dugout that paddled true and could hold as many as 40 warriors.

When Elizabeth was eight or nine, a year or two after the Indian Act of 1876 was enacted, some warriors of the Cowichan First Nations captured and killed the sister of a Kwagu’ł Chief at Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert. 

The Chief's wife had brothers who were incensed by the slaughter and planned their own. They paddled down to the Cowichan village, killed four Cowichan First Nation warriors. Vanquished, the brothers returned home, their canoe held the body of their murdered sister and four dismembered heads of the Cowichan First Nation mounted on spears — the only witnesses to their vengeance. A funeral was prepared to honour their lost sibling. A Cowichan woman who had been captured as a slave was dressed in finery and brought to the mortuary tree where the sister's remains were to be interned. Gifts were bestowed upon her for her journey to the burial site and once there, she was shot and killed.  

The banning of the potlatch by Canadian law came into effect in 1884. A few years after the ban, when she was twenty, one of her sisters told her of a potlatch held by a Chief of the Kwagu’ł that her sister had attended. Potlatches take time to prepare for as the lineage Chief would consult with the oldest members of the household group and everyone would be involved. Though the ban had come into effect, preparations would have been well underway and the date already set.

Part of those preparations was the amassing of food and gifts for those invited as guests. Ceremonial pieces would be carved, Coppers polished and plans for what to give — or what to destroy — as the outright destruction of property is the ultimate mark of rank. One of the most valuable items you could destroy as part of your property was slaves.   

The Kwakiutl had Hamastas, members chosen to embody the ancient cannibals of their ancestors and act out ritualized cannibalism, most often at potlatch celebrations. These ritualistic dances are passed down through the lineage and are still practised today.

Although it was long past the time when slavery had been formally outlawed, slavery was still practised along the coast and the last slave held by the Kwakiutl First Nations was serving at the celebrations. His master, the son of a Chief, stabbed him to death in a frenzy at the close of a potlatch. He would later serve jail time for the murder but come home fluent in English and well-thought-of by his peers for the adventures he had been on and for the great wealth he had dispatched, both in blankets and gifts and by the ultimate offering — the killing of a slave.

Elizabeth Hunt Wilson's husband was the accountant at one of the canneries in Rivers Inlet — possibly the Beaver Cannery. Alec Spencer would meet her when she came to Port Hardy on the Union Steamship. She would descend the vessel in her Hudson's Bay Company coat looking grand. Elizabeth Hunt Wilson fondly remembered as Aunt Lizzie died in 1954. The Vancouver Province ran a front line headline, "Fourth Coffin Ready, Aunt Lizzie Dies," to mark her departure. 

Elizabeth Hunt Wilson passed away as a widow with no children. She was an independent spirit. She kept a casket she was buried in was kept in her basement. Before she passed, Aunt Lizzie gave her casket to family members that had passed. This happened three times. Folk like Sally McMahon and Dusty would play funeral, taking turns being the departed while others sang hymns. When Aunt Lizzie passed Dusty inherited her house. 

References: The Beaver Magazine, Issue: December 1946. 

Note: The Beaver magazine was founded and published, during eras shaped by colonialism. Concepts such as racial, cultural, or gender equality were rarely, if ever, considered by the magazine or its contributors. In earlier issues, you find comments and terms now considered to be derogatory. It was originally published by the Hudson's Bay Company and is not partially funded by them and published by Canada’s History Society as Canadas History. /

Photo One: The Beaver, 1946. Elizabeth Hunt Wilson (1870-1854). Her First Nation name at Fort Rupert was Whale-swimming-by or Tlahlemdalaokwaw; at 'Ya̱lis, Alert Bay, Cormorant Island amongst the 'Na̱mg̱is First Nation her name was Thunderbird or Kunkwunkulegye.

Elizabeth is wearing a Chilkat blanket woven for her by her mother, a Master Tlingit Weaver. Anislaga made a blanket for each of her children. The spruce root hat she is holding is of Kwakiutl design. Elizabeth called her mother Anain — and that she was born with the name Ansnaq — though is often called Anislaga or Anisalaga.

Photo Two: Chimney at the Hudson's Bay Fort, Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert, British Columbia. City of Vancouver Archives.

Note: Robert Hunt (1828-1893) and Mary Ebbetts (1823-1919). They had eleven children, seven daughters and four sons: Elizabeth Hunt (1870-1954; married Wilson), Emily (1852-1922), George (1864-1932), William (1866-1952), Eli Fredrick (1867-1936), Sarah Edna (1871-1948), Mary (1854-; who died young), Robert James Jr. (1874-1896; died a young man), Jane Charity (1873-1940; married Cadwalader), Mary (named for the one who died), and Annie (1856-1924; married Spencer — and had several children: Ann, Roy, Calvin, Allan, Stevens, Norman).

Note: Those living in Tsax̱is, Fort Rupert, British Columbia refer to themselves as Kwagu’ł, Kwakiutl or Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala. The term Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw is relatively recent in the lexicon and useful as a catchword for all the various Kwakwala speaking groups who were amalgamated from roughly twenty-five-plus local clans, each aligned to a singular familial Chief. Edward Curtis often labelled his photos Qagyuhl for his interpretation of Kwagu’ł.


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