Possessing Meares Island

Barry Gough

How did Meares Island, British Columbia, come to be possessed by the historical record? And what were the circumstances that led it to be transferred, in historical memory, from Native occupancy and fur-trading realm to Indian Reserves and Timber License 44? How did the land claim bring all of these issues together, and leave as legacy a different perception of Meares Island, as a place saved from forest exploitation by the alliance of Native voices and environmental groups? These themes are explored in this essay, which concludes that it is crisis that gives uniqueness to the history of otherwise unknown locales.

Comment est-ce que Meares Island, en Colombie britannique, a reussi a etre devor*e par le registre historique? Quelles fur-ent les circonstances qui l’ont amenee a etre transferree, de memoire historique, d’occupation autochtone et du domaine du commerce de la fourrure, en Reserves indiennes et permis de coupe 44? Comment est-ce que la revendication territoriale a reuni toutes ces questions, et a legue une perception diffgrente de Meares Island, en tant que region sauv6e de l’exploitation forestiere par l’alliance des voix autochtones et des groupes environnementaux? Cet article explore ces themes, et conclut que ce sont les crises qui apportent one certaine originalite I l’histoire d’endroits autrement inconnus.

I have in my study an old steamer trunk, which in an earlier age sheltered goods in transit from London to Vancouver, and nowadays is my treasure trove of Meares Island history. I doubt if there is such a cache of materials on this subject elsewhere, for the various items included are fragments of memory and politics brought together, conveniently, and at considerable cost, under legal instructions to leave no stone unturned in my research.

In that trunk are legal files, statements of claim, legal responses, lists of documents, injunctions and notes of all sorts gathered from near and far. These materials contain some Spanish references, traces of the first Europeans to voyage to Vancouver Island’s shores. Some American trading voyage papers are also to be found in the trunk. Most of the documentation, as could be expected, is British and colonial. Given the English fetish for keeping records for legal purposes, the short colonial period of Vancouver Island history suffers from no shortage of documentation. The successor governments – British Columbia (BC) and Canada – continued the tradition, and the modern practice of photocopying means that literary fragments of Meares Island history are now scattered globally.

It was not always so. Only two decades ago, Meares Island was terra incognita to the outside world. Like many another place on this earth, it was possessed and comprehended solely by local inhabitants. In the centuries before that, first occupants had come from the Asian periphery, crossed Beringia (or coasted the shore), and taken preliminary possession in and around the place we now call Meares Island.’

Nowadays, and in the relatively recent past, we have come to possess Meares Island in another way, or ways: as Native homeland, forest preserve lying dormant, Native ecological park, and even battleground in a great court fight. Plucked from virtual oblivion within the larger political affairs of British Columbia, Meares Island attained importance and notoriety far out of proportion to its geographical size. It was “put on the map,” so to speak.

Where is this island of history and politics? Today, if going by the customary route, you would drive by car to the village of Tofino on Pacific saltwater shores, just north of magnificent Long Beach and what Parks Canada calls Pacific Rim National Park. You are just about on the 49th parallel and about 130 miles west of Vancouver. You are there on the rim of the world. Tofino, they say, is life on the western edge. Named for a Spanish hydrographer, Don Vincent Tofino, the place acquired military distinction as an air station during the Second World War, and now boasts a fine small landing strip. Before the age of air travel – indeed, before a road was punched through by logging companies and the BC Highways Department about 50 years ago – the place was accessible only by sea, and then only seasonally. The life of the missionary in those days was one of lonely seclusion; the Native peoples called the site home.

Meares Island lies just north and east of Tofino, and from Tofino you can on most days see it clearly, for its horizon is dominated by a large cone-shaped mountain, now shown on maps as Lone Cone (2,470 feet). The Ahousat Native people know Meares Island as “We go by the Mountain” (Hilhoogis is the closest rendering in English phonetics; Hithuugis, ipa is the transliterated spelling), and Lone Cone is wanachs. The meaning of Meares Island, explained to me by Peter Webster, an Ahousat elder (conversation 18 April 1989), is “People who go, or steer, by the Mountain” – that is, are guided by it.2 It is easy to see why this is so, for the cone is an aid to navigation, distinct from the other hills or mountains of the neighbourhood, including the more easterly Mount Colnett, which is not so dramatic in shape. Given the blue-grey hues of the landscape, such variations as these in the terrain can tell all to a mariner approaching from a distance. It is one of the ironies of history that Meares Island is named for a person known generally as a scallywag. Seldom is a place-name associated with a person of questionable veracity – honour usually triumphs in such things – but Meares Island carries the name of a person who claimed all sorts of geographical discoveries that were subsequently shown to be false. Commander John Meares, RN, was born about the time the French and British were concluding their desperate struggle for Louisbourg and Quebec. Promoted lieutenant in the navy the same year James Cook made his remarkable voyage to Nootka Sound and Alaska (1778) and put Friendly Cove, or Yuquot (“Where the winds blow”), on charts for all time, Meares took to merchant voyaging after the American Revolutionary War. We subsequently find him in Calcutta forming a company to exploit the Northwest America trade in sea otter, then the ermine of Asia.

Meares (and his backers) had read James Cook’s Voyages and comprehended the vast profits that could be realized if sea otter skins, said to be the most beautiful of all animal skins, could be sold either through Russian access to Peking or through the difficult arrangements near Canton. It is worth remembering that the modern as well as prehistoric history of Canada’s West Coast began in Asia, not in Europe.3 Indeed, a 1794 chart of the Northwest Coast by Lieutenant Henry Robert, RN, shows the area immediately north of present-day Whistler as “Foosang of the Chinese Navigators about the Year 453.” So the “Land of Shining Mountains,” later renamed “Gold Mountain” when the Chinese came to the Fraser and Cariboo goldfields, took on a poetic, even stylized appelation.

The reigning queen, Victoria, chose to call the terrain British Columbia. Subcomponents Vancouver Island and Meares Island, which is really tributary to Vancouver Island, naturally followed the imperial ordering.

If the British imperial order has long since passed, the hydrographic record is perhaps its greatest living legacy. Meares, who had the characteristically superb techniques of the mariner, was a fine draughtsman and surveyor. His noted Voyages to the North-West Coast of America, published in London in 1790, told of his travels in the ship Nootka in 1786 from Bengal, one of the first commercial voyages to that part of the world. Meares’s book contains coastal views – elevations, more correctly – of the coastline in and about Nootka Sound. “Views of the Land in 49.3N” show the sugar cone, lone sentinel like that at Rio de Janeiro, differentiating Meares Island from all the rest. Meares also left a fine plan of the harbour entitled “A Sketch of Port Cox in the District of Wicananish” (facing p. 133); on it you will see Lone Cone lying horizontally this time on the page, and the various inlets of this maze of rock and water and forest.

June of 1788 found Meares exploring the coast south of Nootka Sound, and on the 12th he “saw an high mountain over the entrance of Wicananish.” The weather changed, becoming squally and violent, and they even had to close-reef their topsails; they stood off from the shore in the evening gale. At daybreak on the 13th, “the remarkable hill above Wicananish appeared very plain in the form of a sugar loaf…. As we stood in for the shore, several canoes came off to us from a cluster of islands … in most of which there were upwards of 20 men, of a pleasing appearance and brawny form, chiefly clothed in otter skins of great beauty.” Meares marvelled at the great speed of the canoes and the fact that the Native peoples had no fear of coming aboard the trading vessel. There were two chiefs in the cluster of canoes, Hanna and Detootche, both extremely handsome, the former about 40 “and carrying in his looks all the exterior marks of pleasantry and good humour,” the latter young, beautiful, graceful and posessed of fine qualities of the mind. Then, as now, the local Native peoples were hospitable, friendly: “They appeared to be perfectly at ease in our society, shook every person on board by the hand, and gave us very friendly invitations to receive the hospitality of their territory. They were extremely pressing that the ship should go in among the islands.”

Meares, driven by commerce, wanted to find the great chief, the fabled Wicananish and his residence. Accordingly, he shaped a course for the islands, which appeared to be a maze of rock and water with, from several miles off-shore, no discernible channel. The two chiefs, given trinkets, paddled away while Meares pursued his course. About noon, Wicananish arrived in another small fleet of canoes and undertook to pilot the ship into his harbour. It was now an easy sail; the vessel entered and came to anchor in a roadstead Meares thought wild in appearance. Nearby was a village (shown on Meares’s plan) where, upon invitation, the English mariners feasted. Meares was dumbfounded by what he saw: heaps of fish, seal skins filled with oil and a great vat for the making of whale-flesh stew or broth, “that delicious beverage.” The house was magnificent, the roof propped up by trees that would make dwarf the mast of a first-rate line of battle ship – such a lovely imperial comparison.4 They entered through a decorated door of a huge image. Inside were raised platforms and uniformly arranged human skulls festooning this royal apartment. Wicananish made every attempt to make Meares happy, and he was successful, for these two headmen made a compact that the one would collect skins and the other would return in the next trading season to take in the prize cargo, in one of the first-noted trading contracts of the Northwest Coast.

Then, as now, particular chiefs were anxious to defend their pre-eminence in the face of rivals. James Cook faced this situation at Nootka Sound; similarly, Wicananish insisted that neither Hanna nor Detootch trade directly (nor even visit) with Meares – all must come through Wicananish. Meares gave Wicananish many presents: six brass-hilted swords, a pair of pistols, and a musket and powder. In return, he procured 150 fine otter skins. And so the trading proceeded. Soon it was time to sail – to continue trading, to reach Canton in time. Thus Meares concludes his record for that year. As James Cook and others observed, the Northwest Coast Indians were people of property. Everything, even a blade of grass, was accounted for; Cook, exasperated, complained that everything had value to the Native peoples.5 Meares even says that he was probably duped by the trading practices of Wicananish – he does not say cheated only duped by their cunning, that is, outsmarted. As to the people of Wicananish, Meares thought them superior in industry and activity to those of Nootka Sound.

Thus this little-known place became written into the record as something different from Yuquot and Nootka Sound – a place apart, less well travelled and dominated by cunning traders. Meares had no trouble with them. Others had different experiences.

If the British came to trade, it was the Americans who first set up a permanent, or semi-permanent, base of operations. Most dramatic in the record of Meares Island history is the visit, in September 1791, by the famous Boston ship Columbia, celebrated for first carrying the Stars and Stripes around the world and for exploring the great river of the west that bears its name. The Columbia was commanded by Robert Gray, one of those hard breed of men in that toughest of trades around Cape Horn. The Bostonians sought a winter haven, and even brought bricks for the purpose of making a hearth. At a snug place they called Adventure Cove, on Lemmens Inlet, Meares Island, they moored the ships to the trees and erected a post they dubbed Fort Defiance. At Adventure Cove they completed the sloop Adventure, brought out in frame from Boston. Long before Meares Island became a place of legal dispute, archaeologists and students of American maritime history, including the great admiral and professor Samuel Eliot Morison, arrived at Lemmens Inlet to find the fort, recover the bricks and take soundings. Eventually Ken Gibson of Tofino located the precise spot.

In the written record, however, we have one of those explosions of data that we are not sure how to evaluate. A young officer says that the Americans put the torch to a nearby village, Opitsat, for the Native peoples had become too heavily armed, too dangerous for the visitors. Thus was consumed “the work of ages.”6 The Native peoples rebuilt, and on subsequent visits mariners found the villagers at Opitsat in residence, as they are today, although on territory called Indian Reserve Number One. Before we leave this phase of history, it is important to note that Meares acknowledged the warlike nature of these people – warfare was indeed for them a way of life.

I entered the story of Meares Island when I received a telephone call from lawyers representing the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, a federation of some dozen band councils of which the Clayoquot, Ahousat and Kelsemat (all claimants to Meares Island) are constituent members. “We understand you know something about the colonial history of Vancouver Island,” ran the line of reasoning. “You have been recommended by an anthropologist to do the legal history of Meares Island. You would leave no stone unturned in reporting on the details of the encounter between outsiders and the Native peoples. You would have about three years to complete your work. Would you be interested?” Law and constitutional rights drive history unlike no other force: besides being paid for services rendered, my disciplinary obligation is to get the facts right, which R.L. Stevenson said was the most important part of narrative anyway. Without prejudice to the claim, or the counterclaim, I was given free reign to prepare a report, with ancillary documents, concerning everything that related to 8,500 hectares of land. Anthropologists, genealogists, tree-use experts and others were part of the team; my job was to deal with the written record. In the end, as we went to court to support the case of Moses Martin et al. v. H.M. the Queen et al. (British Columbia Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, Action No. C8459340, 1984), we found ourselves in opposition to the world’s biggest logging company, MacMillan Bloedel, the Crown in the right of the Province of British Columbia, and the Crown in the right of the Government of Canada – a formidable opposition. Our lawyers, Jack Woodward, David Rosenberg and Paul Rosenberg, were artful and resourceful, new kids on the block, so to speak, but highly reputed in British Columbia. Tom Berger, the distinguished jurist and historian, came in to state eloquently the claim.

At stake was Tree License 44, held by MacMillan Bloedel, which gave the corporation rights of logging. To initiate the challenge, the Native band councils, assisted by the Friends of Clayoquot Sound and, backed by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Sierra Club, had brought a successful court injunction – extended to this day – to halt the cutting of the trees of Meares Island. Meanwhile, archaeologist and tree experts had discovered numerous Native heritage sites. Huge trees were discovered standing that had seen human use hundreds of years ago, for stripping bark and even for cutting out a canoe. All the enthusiasm of ecoheritage was brought forward in that fight. Somehow, saving the forests got added on to the agenda of historical record and Native rights, and alliances of convenience were forged.

As the trial progressed and the evidence came forward, the Province of British Columbia made final admission that aboriginal title, so long denied, would be acknowledged. Thus the province and the Dominion both recognized the principle for which the Aboriginal peoples had so long argued. The case never concluded. Backroom talk became the order of the day, and then in 1995 the court extended the injunction, mentioned above, that in effect ended modern-day forestry in that area. A battle was, eventually, won over Meares Island. But soon the conflict was transferred to the Clayoquot Sound river valley, to the Stein Valley east of Vancouver and elsewhere. And so it continues.

Meares Island’s history would be relatively unknown to outsiders had it not been for the forest crisis. You can find snippets of the island’s history in the records of John Meares, Robert Gray, the Oblate missionary Brabant (who built an industrial school for Native peoples on the island), BC Hydro, and various Indian commissions looking into the welfare or, more accurately, the patrimony of the Native bands. If not for the timber-cutting crisis, all of this would have remained uncovered, gathering dust. Now the history of Meares Island is also the history of the land claim. And it has taken on gigantic, even mythical proportions.

The Native peoples of the area have come to repossess Meares Island. What do we do with these scraps of documentation? In my steamer trunk is the making of another book, and perhaps a book within the book – not only the dry record for court but the crisis over control of Meares Island.

How many other “possessions” of places thereabouts will be revealed in the course of time?7 History is essentially about politics and politics about systems of control and management. Temagami is one variant of what I am trying to conceptualize here; the Lubicon people would be another- and examples need not involve a place. The specifics of the story in themselves count for little, for there is a grander scale to the events: who cares, who fights, who wins, who loses. For most Canadians, or others who interest themselves in such things, Meares Island is scantily known – a mirage on the horizon, with Lone Cone rising up through the clouds over the salal and the conifers damp and mossy. I suspect it will revert to a more benign place in our annals of historical matters. It may return to the land of legend, the haven of the kayakers, even, though not unimportantly, the focus of eighteenth-century coastal history.

The struggle for the forest is a struggle unlike any other. It brings forth all manner of emotions that are far more powerful than the scientific reasoning of graduates from forestry schools. A scenic diversion sets the mood here. On the way west from Port Alberni to Tofino and Meares Island, you cross the spine of Vancouver Island, and near Cameron Lake you come to a spot that used to be called Cathedral Grove. It is now called MacMillan, named for the chief forester of British Columbia, who magically put in place the tree license system and then, even more magically, left the civil service to head up the great company that bears his name. I always stop there enroute to Tofino and Meares Island, which I visit every other year or so. The giant hemlock, Douglas fir and cedars still stand there some 300 feet high. It is better to go that way and to tread the path among those giants than to fly over Vancouver Island enroute to some First Nation band council meeting or vacation hideaway, for the flight will only break your heart: there is very little forest to fight for and no inhabitants to resist, only outside support from non-residents. Having been born on Vancouver Island and camped through most of its available locations, I naturally feel an enormous sadness over this ecological tragedy.

Writing history, Lord Acton said with insight, is really the art of comparison. And so it is with Meares Island. Meares Island could be “saved,” so to speak, because it was an island, with a known perimeter and definable beaches. It became symbolic in a special way that a watershed cannot. Sooner or later watersheds, as in the case of Clayoquot Sound, can be subdivided – some for tree huggers, other parts for backpackers, and tenters and tree harvesters. But an island has definition; I wish we had more islands.


1. The island was named Meares by Captain George Henry Richards of the Royal Navy in 1862. Richards, a noted hydrographic surveyor, was then in command of H.M.S. Hecate. In 1864 he was appointed hydrographer of the admiralty (John T. Walbran, British Columbia Coast Names, 15921906 [Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1909, and numerous reprints] 334, 422). On John Meares, see J. Richard Nokes, Almost a Hero: The Voyages of John Meares, RN., to China, Hawaii and the Northwest Coast (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1998). 2. For added details of Webster’s record of time and memory, see his As Far As I Know: Reminiscences of an Ahousat Elder, illustrated by Kwayatsapalth (Campbell River: Campbell River Museum and Archives, 1983).

3. Barry Gough, The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade and Discoveries to 1812 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1992) chaps. 4-6.

4. On the export of timber and forest products initiated with John Meares, see Barry Gough, “Forest and Sea Power: A Vancouver Island Economy, 1778-1875,” Journal of Forest History 32.3 (July 1988): 117-24. Meares, who shipped the first cargo, marketed it in China. 5. John C. Beaglehole, ed., The Journals of Captain James Cook … 1776-1789, 2 pts. (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1967) 306. Cook’s view were shared by James King (Beaglehole, 1407).

6. The story of Opitsat, and of Fort Defiance, may be traced in the following: F.W. Howay ed., Voyages of the “Columbia” to the Northwest Coast 1787-1790 and 1790-1793 (1941; Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1990) 24748, 304, 381-82, 390-91; and Donald H. Mitchell, “The Investigation of Fort Defiance: Verifications of the Site,” BC Studies 4 (Spring 1970): 3-20. 7. For another case in point, see Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti,” Archaeology Oceania 21 (1986): 103-18.

Barry Gough is Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Author of several prize-winning books, his most recent title is First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997).

Copyright Trent University Summer 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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