Three First Nations tribes were collectively known as the Nahwitti: Tlatlasikwala, Nakomgilisala, and Yutlinuk. There was also a Chief known as Nahwitti, and a place the First Nations referred to as Nahwitti (first a location at Cape Sutil, later a village on Hope Island). The river which we now know at the Nahwitti was originally known to the First Nations as “wuda staade” (having cold water).
In 1786 James Strange and Alexander Walker visited the area on the ship Captain Cook. They saw signs of local villages but did not encounter any of the local First Nations. In 1792 Don Galiano traded with the Nahwitti and left a large number of trade beads with the local people as a gift and gesture of goodwill. These brown beads are unique and can still be found in the possession of local families. Also in 1792, John Boit, onboard the Columbia, visited the area and attempted to trade with the First Nations. He found them aggressive though, and ended up shooting one with his musket.
By 1800 the Spanish had left Nootka, and the British had taken control of the area. Trading posts on the West Coast of Vancouver Island were closed and the main trading area on the Island became ‘Newitty’ (which was actually at Shushartie Bay). It continued to play a prominent role in trade on the island for thirty years.
In 1811 the Nahwitti First Nations captured an American trading vessel, the Tonquin. One day there was a great fight over the ship, by that evening only a couple survivors remained. Scared, they slipped away from the boat in a dingy under the cover of darkness. The next day the First Nations returned. In the course of raiding the vessel they detonated the ship’s magazine, killing a number of band members and destroying the ship. The First Nations hunted down the crew and killed all but one translator, who was kept as a slave for a number of years before he managed to escape.
These First Nations faced many threats, owing to their preferred trading relationship with the British. In order to keep this position they had to regularly face challenges from their Northern neighbours, including First Nations from Bella Bella (Heiltsuk) and Kitkatla (Tsimshian). In the 1820s traders noted that the population of the area significantly declined.
In 1850 the “Nahwitti Incident” resulted in the Royal Navy destroying two of the First Nations’ villages, in retaliation for the suspected murder of three Hudsons’ Bay Company deserters (see more at: undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-tragedy-of-nahwitti-incident.html).
Many of the Cape Scott First Nations had amalgamated with the Nahwitti by the mid-1850s. Around this time, when Fort Rupert was established, a census of the area noted that the Nahwitti had six villages, more than 3,000 members, and more than 700 men of fighting age.
In the early 1900s Roderick Haig-Brown fished the Nahwitti River for steelhead, and it became a part of his folklore tales of fishing on Vancouver Island.
Today we have local place references which keep this heritage alive in the names of the Nahwitti Lake, Nahwitti River, Nahwitti Bar, and the Nahwitti Cone.
Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.