Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Wreck of the Susan Sturgis

Before the gold-fever had entirely died out, Rose Spit, always a serious hazard to ships passing around it on their way either to or from Massett Inlet, claimed another victim. An American vessel from San Francisco, the "Susan Sturgis," visited Haida Gwaii for the purposes of trade in the fall of 1852. On her way from Skidegate to Massett she grounded on the spit, and her crew were captured by some people from a Massett village who plundered the vessel and finally burnt her. She was report to have on board $1,500 in gold and silver as well as a complete trading outfit, all of which fell into the hand of the Haida people. When the news was brought to Fort Simpson, the Hudson's Bay officers there dispatched a canoe to bring the crew to safety. As the men were all prisoners in the hands of the people of Massett, the Company was forced to ransom them. They were later sent on to Fort Victoria by the steamer "Beaver."

Haida Village of Yan, abandon after 1881
W.H. McNeill, then Chief Trader at Fort Simpson, explained the circumstances of the wreck in a letter to the Company's headquarters at Victoria:--

"For the Captain and his men we have been obliged to pay Indian Goods etc. as per Account now forwarded. They were all completely naked when they came here, we of course had to clothe them from head to foot and rationed them the same as our own men . . . the number of distressed Crews and Interlopers who have come upon us this year for Supplies of every kind will be a considerable item in our expedition. I hope no fault will be found with our doings on these occasions."

This incident reveals how the Company in those days acted as a bulwark against outbreaks of violence before the regular machinery of government was in actual operation in the north. Their policy at all times was to "save face" for the white man and to rescue any and all Europeans who fell into the hands of the Haida people. The Massett people at that time had a bad reputation, for they made slaves of all captives. Thirty years later some of the Haida people still had in their possession iron cables and an American Spread Eagle made of oak. This was presented to a Harvard student then visiting Massett on the understanding that it would be placed in the Harvard Museum. []