Ahousaht, Clayoquot Sound



Ahousaht on Clayoquot Sound in August, 1866 (Frederick Dally, BC Archives) and about 2010 (Google Earth Panoramio image). A more accurately relocated repeat photograph is required.

Clayoquot Sound, the largest inlet south of Nootka on Vancouver Island, is home to several groups of Nuu-chah-nulth peoples including the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht, and Kelsemat. On June 13, 1788 Captain John Meares of the Felice, was guided into the sound by Chief Wicananish, and anchored off a large village on the shores of what is now Meares Island where “from every part of which we now saw the people launching their canoes and coming off in shoals to the ship, laden with fish, wild onions and berries, which they disposed of to the sailors for small bits of iron, and other articles.” The next day, Meares was invited to a feast at Wicananish’s large house with over 800 people present. The chief presented him with a present of 30 fine sea otter pelts. 1

During his coastal explorations of 1791, moving southwards from his base at Nootka, José María Narváez’s ships first stopped at Clayoquot, spending two weeks exploring the inner channels and preparing charts for what they called Puerto Clayucuat. The Spanish reported that that there were five large indigenous settlements in Clayoquot Sound, each with over 1,500 inhabitants. The largest, which Eliza called Guicananich after its chief Wickaninnish, had over 2,500 people.2

Frederick Dally took the 1866 photograph of Ahousaht when he joined Governor A. E. Kennedy on his trip of August 8th to 20th on the British gunboat HMS Scout up the northwest coast.3  Interestingly, the large housing frames near the forest are not sided, and people are living in smaller shelters near the water.

The 1790s in Clayaquot Sound

After John Meares visit, trade continued to intensify all up and down the northwest coast as more American and British ships arrived.  In the winter of 1788, the Americans Robert Gray and John Kendrick, captains of the Lady Washington and Columbia Rediva from Boston, wintered in Nootka. While coming up the coast, Gray tried to enter the mouth of the Columbia River, but had difficulty crossing the bar. The following summer they began to trade up and down the coast with many native villages. Gray then took the sea otter furs in the Columbia to China in 1790, traded them for tea and other profitable items, and then proceeded across the Indian and Atlantic oceans, making the Columbia the first American ship to circle the globe. 4

When Gray returned to the northwest in 1791, he established an outpost at Clayoquot.  John Boit, one of his crew recorded their encounters with the local people. 5

This Harbour is made remarkable by three remarkable round Hills, abreast its entrance. Hannah, [a] Chief of the Ahhousett [a group of Nuu-chah-nulth Indians] came on board and appeared friendly. Above 300 of the Natives was alongside in the course of the day. Their canoes was made from the body of a tree, with stem and stern pieces neatly fixed on. Their models was not unlike our Nantucket whale boats. The dress of these Indians was either the Skin of some Animal, or else a Blankett of their own manufactory, made of some kind of Hair. This garment was slung over the right shoulder. They all appear’d very friendly, brought us plenty of fish and greens. We tarry’d in this harbour till the 16th [of] June; [we] landed our sick immediately on our arrival and pitch’d a tent for their reception, and although there was ten of them in the last stage of Scurvy, still they soon recover’d, upon smelling the turf and eating greens of various kinds. We buried severall of our sick up to the Hips in the earth, and let them remain for hours in that situation. We found this method of great service.

The principall village in this harbour is called Opitsatah, and is governed by Wickananish, a warlike Chief. He and his family visited us often. The Indians brought severall Deer, and plenty of Rock Cod, Salmon, and other fish. Wild parsley, and a root call’d Isau or Isop by the natives and much resembling a small onion, was brought us in abundance. We purchas’d many of the Sea Otter skins in exchange for Copper, and blue Cloth. These Indians are of a large size, and somewhat corpulent. The Men wear no other covering but the garment before mentioned, and seem to have no sense of shame, as they appear in a state of Nature. The Women stand in great fear of the Males, but appear to be naturally very modest. Their garment is manufactured from the bark of a tree and is well executed, being so constructed as to cover them complete from the Neck to the Ancle. Both Male and Female wear Hats of a conicle form made out of strong reeds.

Gray and his ships returned the following winter, and Boit describes an unfortunate course of action when the American left the sound:

January 25, 1792. Pleasant weather, wind at SE. In the morning got the Remainder of our affairs from the shore, and unmoor’d. . . . Anchor’d abreast the Village of Opitsatah, but found it entirely deserted….Obsv’d very few Canoes moving. . . .

January 27. I am sorry to be under the necessity of remarking that this day I was sent, with three boats all well man’d and arm’d, to destroy the village of Opitsatah. It was a Command I was no ways tenacious of, and am grieved to think Capt. Gray shou’d let his passions go so far. (In an earlier entry, Boit claimed that Captain Gray mistakenly believed that the inhabitants of this village were planning to attack the ship.) This village was about half a mile in diameter, and contained upwards of 200 Houses, generally well built for Indians; every door that you enter’d was in resemblance to a human and Beast’s head, the passage being through the mouth. Besides which there was much more carved work about the dwellings some of which was by no means inelegant. This fine village, the work of Ages, was in a short time totally destroy’d.

The destruction of the village, and ongoing skirmishes between traders and the First Nations that killed many on both sides, was a pattern that continued along the coast until well into the 1820s. In 1811, some of the Clayoquot area’s local peoples, possibly led by the Tla-o-qui-aht, captured Jacob Astor’s ship the Tonquin, an event that culminated with the explosion of the ship with numerous deaths on both sides. After 1820, with the decline in sea otter numbers and American trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s more peaceful trading policies were implemented. However, in the 1860s, Clayoquot was the scene of more violence between native peoples and the government of British Columbia and the British Navy. 6

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Map and Footnotes

Center map




  1. Nokes, Richard J. Almost A Hero: The Voyages of John Meares, R.N., to China, Hawaii, and the Northwest Coast. Pullman, WA: WSU Press. 1998: 63-65
  2.  McDowell, J., José Narváez: The Forgotten Explorer. Spokane: Arthur H. Clark, 1998
  3. Mattison, David and Daniel Savard, “The North-west Pacific Coast Photographic Voyages 1866-1881.” History of Photography 16.3 (1992):274
  4. Gibson, J. R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Tread of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1992
  5. John Boit, A New Log of the Columbia, 1790-1792, edited by Edmund S. Meany (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1921), p. 6-10. http://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/Website/Classroom%20Materials/Curriculum%20Packets/Indians%20&%20Europeans/Documents/17.html 
  6. Arima, E., and A. Hoover. The Whaling People of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery. Victoria: Royal BC Museum. 2011; Gough, B. M. Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-1890. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1984