Slavery among the Native population in the Pacific Northwest

Slavery among the Native population in the Pacific Northwest was not uncommon and lasted well into the gold rush years.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was meant to abolish slavery in the British colonies. In 1835, the Hudson’s Bay Company instructed all officers to suppress slavery, in keeping with the new law. James Douglas, then in charge of the Columbia District (a vast area west of the Rockies) was reluctant to free any slaves by force because he believed that “the exertion of moral influence alone” would be the most expedient way of achieving the goal.

Regardless of who held the slaves, critics such as Reverend Herbert Beaver accused the HBC of tolerating slavery. When Beaver returned to England from his stay at Fort Vancouver he reported his findings to the Aborigines’ Protection Society in London. He stated that HBC employees and their native wives at Fort Vancouver, Cowlitz Farm and the Willamette Valley held as many as 90 slaves in total.

In response, James Douglas denounced slavery and even rescued a runaway native slave boy and gave him a position within the HBC as a free labourer, but his example didn’t have the intended effect. In 1838, Douglas admitted that his efforts to reduce slavery among native people had failed.

In 1860, stories of black slaves fleeing their masters was not unheard of.  “A Fugitive Slave Case”  printed in the British Colonist March 31, 1860, told the story of a different kind of slavery.

On a visit to Victoria, a man found a young girl belonging to the Chemakum tribe in Washington Territory had been stolen some time before and held as a slave by the Songhees. The man took the girl by boat back to her relations in Port Townsend.

A few days later, a Native arrived at Port Townsend with a letter allegedly from Philip Nind which stated that he (Nind) was directed by his Excellency, the Governor of Vancouver Island, to state that the bearer of the note was a native of Vancouver, and that he was in search of a wife or daughter who had either fled or had been forcibly abducted, and recommended the case to the consideration of the authorities of Washington Territory.

After ascertaining the true facts of the story, Justice Swan wrote a reply to Mr. Nind to the effect that the girl claimed had been held as a slave, and as there was “no law between the United States and Great Britain relative to the rendition of fugitive slaves,” he had no jurisdiction in the case.

Slavery amongst tribes revealed itself during the Chilcotin War of 1864.

A Homathko Native known as ‘Squinteye’ testified against Chief Klatassin of the Chilcotin, saying after Klatassin shot and killed former HBC trader Donald McLean he took McLean’s servant “Tom” as a slave.

Another Homathko Native known as “George” testified on the morning of the attack, he was at the camp when he was approached by six Natives, four of which held muskets. He was warned about an expected attack by one of the six who was a slave of the Chilcotins.