Whulk/Cheslakees and the Lower Nimpkish River
Kwa kwa wala-speaking First Nations referred to their terraced village on the banks of the Nimpkish River as Whulk. Whulk was a significant winter village for the Nimpkish or ‘Namgis peoples, whose territory included the large Nimpkish watershed, throughout which the Nimpkish traveled both on foot and by canoe. The ethnographer Franz Boas reported that Whulk, or Xulku as he spelled it phonetically, meant “interlocking foundation” after the construction method used to secure the houses to the steep slope.
Captain George Vancouver noted visiting this village on July 8, 1792. The Chief, Cheslakees, presented him with presents of copper.
The British noted that Cheslakees was familiar with the Nuu chul nulth chiefs Maquinna and Wicananish on the West side of Vancouver Island, and they attributed this in part to the trade route that ran by land over Vancouver Island through the Nimpkish Valley. The Nimpkish peoples told the explorers that there was a way to visit Nootka overland which involved four days of travel.
Vancouver was impressed with this chief and referred to the village on his maps as Cheslakees.
The village at the time of first contact with Europeans was recorded as having been very large. There were 34 big houses, each with many families. Estimates of the population around the time of first contact vary between 400 and 900.
By 1860 most of the houses at Whulk had disappeared, and the population had moved to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, where a cannery had opened to take advantage of the plentiful Nimpkish salmon stocks.
The lower Nimpkish was also a favourite of Vancouver Island naturalist Roderick Haig-Brown, who wrote in his 1959 book, Fisherman’s Summer:
“The Nimpkish was the one first North American river that I felt I had in some measure made my own. I fished it a lot in the late twenties and early thirties, trapped and hunted and camped along its banks, traveled it by canoe and skiff and once even in a homemade scow. I had been upset in it, half-drowned in it and considerably scared by it more than once. I had watched its great salmon runs with ever-increasing wonder. In it I had caught cutthroats and steelheads and, by fair means and foul, all five species of Pacific salmon. Above all, I had first learned there to catch the big king salmon, sachems as the Indians called them, tyees to the sportsman.”
Today Cheslakees Elementary School in Port McNeill is named after the ‘Namgis chief.
There are reportedly some petroglyphs on the beach at the old Whulk village site.
Brenda McCorquodale lives in Port Hardy and is a North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or North Island information that you would like to share, or if you want to correct anything in these articles, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 250-949-7650.