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Evidence, including Captain Vancouver’s log of his west coast explorations, shows brutal impact of earlier epidemics on coastal First Nations

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Stephen Hume

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AFTER ARCHAEOLOGISTS WORKING NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE PITT RIVER in the Fraser Valley uncovered hundreds of fire-charred body ornaments that weren’t supposed to be there, another team excavating a construction site at Port Angeles about 15 years ago made a horrifying discovery.

The remains of children, dozens of them, all of them 12 years or under, were buried in mass graves amid burned house planks. Valuable tools were scattered where they had been dropped and there was evidence of unusual rituals not before seen in the material culture of the region.

Radiocarbon samples—it’s an archaeological dating method based upon the measurable rate at which the radioactive isotope carbon 14 decays—pegged the burials to between 1780 and 1800.

That coincided with evidence 150 kilometres to the northeast.

The finds provided corroboration in the physical record of accounts recorded in the oral traditions of First Nations occupying the Georgia Basin, as well as naval records from Captain George Vancouver’s expedition in the summer of 1792.

 

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John David Kelly's 1900-ish painting commemorating Captain George Vancouver's 1792 exploration of BC's coast 

 

Vancouver’s log records his arrival off Neah Bay on April 29. He coasted along the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, dazzled by the snowy Olympic Mountains and noting the stunning beauty of the pastoral landscape.

He’d observed signs or human habitation at what we now know were Clallam village sites at Pysht, Elwha, Yinnis and Tsewhitzen. Then, towed by his jollyboats in an absence of wind, he turned into what’s now Discovery Bay near Port Townsend, and, on May 2, dropped anchor in 34 fathoms and send ashore a landing party.

As the world grapples with the social and economic upheaval from the current pandemic there’s much discussion of how the events of our time have the potential to reconfigure conceptions of governance, economies, how we practice business and the relative merits of values we not so long ago considered unassailable.

Pandemics have a way of bringing down our collective certainties like so many houses of cards. They shake faith in our institutions from the spiritual to the secular, remind us that for all our technological prowess, our hold on life is tenuous and far from guaranteed by wealth, status or power—although these things provide indisputable advantage.

The events of 240 years ago are worth contemplating in the context of current events because they offer a poignant and compelling reminder that we are nothing special in our collective angst and suffering.

It’s all happened before, right here, and to an extent that makes our current upheaval look like a passing irritation, and it’s happened more than once.

Vancouver’s landing parties brought back chilling reports of very large abandoned villages. Skulls and human bones were scattered among the weed-infested ruins, skeletal remains were strewn down the beaches behind which the villages were built.

There were so many bones that Vancouver assumed he had come upon a burial ground and ordered his crews to offer no indignities to the remains. But as the exploration progressed, subordinates reported baskets with bones in them, canoes full of bones, mass cremations where houses full of bodies had been burned, holes into which bodies had been tumbled and barely covered and evidence that many, many bodies had simply been left where they fell.

As in New York and Milan, the accelerating speed of mortalities had overwhelmed the societies' most basic ability—to care for the sick and dispose of the dead.

Vancouver was convinced that he was witness to the aftermath of some cataclysmic disaster that had befallen a once populous nation, leaving it suddenly impoverished and in an economically ruinous state.

James Colnett reached a similar conclusion landing even farther north at Kildidt Sound, midway between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii in 1788. Spanish explorers reported blind survivors in 1792. Peter Puget, one of Vancouver’s lieutenants, reported a large fortified but abandoned village in Desolation Sound where an intolerable stench and a vast infestation of insect vermin literally drove his party off.

The ever observant Vancouver suspected smallpox based on his knowledge of the disease and the fact that among the few survivors he met, many were blind in one eye, something the Spanish had noted, at Nanaimo.

Science would later prove him right. The Clallam and their relatives the Lekwungen in what’s now Victoria, Nitinat and Ditidaht, the Straits Salish peoples of Saanich and the Gulf Islands, the Cowichans, the Lummi, the Sto;lo tribes of the Lower Fraser and on up the coast all had their world shattered and brutally reconfigured in an instant.

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

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