Dealing with "pirates" in the Pacific Northwest

An incident in British Columbia shows how authorities once dealt with Haida raiders.
An incident in British Columbia shows how authorities once dealt with Haida raiders.

This week we've heard much about Somali pirates and how to handle them, first with talk, then with force if necessary. Such problems were once closer to home. By coincidence, I happened to be reading Barry Gough's Gunboat Frontier, a look at the use of British naval power against Northwest Indians in the 19th century. I came across an incident that had the ring of familiarity: the challenge of a navy dealing with hostage-taking pirates, in this case a group of Haida raiding south from the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1861.

Many North Coast tribes sent raiding parties south to trade, settle scores, capture slaves, and seize goods from other tribes and, later, settlers of all kinds, from European farmers to Chinese laborers to blacks who had settled on Saltspring Island. Pioneers in Puget Sound referred to all northern Indian raiders as "Haida," even if they were from other tribes. That history is left on the place names on our landscape, notably Haida Point and Massacre Bay on Orcas Island, site of a deadly raid against the Lummi.

Because Northwest Indians often lived close to the shore and traveled the waterways in canoes, the Royal Navy was brought in to protect British colonists, monitor Indians on the move, in some cases disrupt the slave trade (which had been banned in British territory) and to otherwise be a visible, mobile force that could carry out and back-up diplomatic efforts or, if needed, impose imperial will by force.

A particularly tricky area was Cape Mudge, south of Vancouver Island's Campbell River, a narrow passage that proved to be a popular ambush point. In 1861, a Haida raiding party had boarded and robbed a schooner called the Laurel at Victoria, and had conducted raids on Saltspring Island.

In May, the schooner Forward was dispatched and the officer in charge, Lt. Charles Robson, found the raiders camped on the shore near Cape Mudge. To parley, he sent two unarmed civilians ashore to negotiate with the Indians, a local constable and a Hudson Bay Company trader, both known to them. They asked the Haida chief to come aboard the ship for an inquiry and threatened to use force if he did not. According to Gough, the Haida "treated the threat with the 'utmost derision,' boasting they had their own guns" and that they were not afraid of shooting it out with the British schooner. They then took one of the negotiators hostage.

Robson fired a couple of warning shots with his vessel's canon over their heads. The Haida returned fire back at the ship with their muskets. The Forward then opened up and blew up the Indians' canoes on the beach and drove the raiders into the woods. Four were killed. After a foiled escape attempt, the Haida surrendered, the stolen property was recovered, and suspected ringleaders in the crimes were arrested, and the Forward returned to Victoria to continue its investigations and settle the matter.


Gough reports that not everyone in the colony would be automatically sympathetic to the use of force against the Indians. Some no doubt worried about retaliation. Gough doesn't mention it, but this has been seen before in a deadly raid on Whidbey Island by the Tlingits in revenge for a U.S. Navy action against raiders at Port Gamble a few years before. While Oregon and Washington newspapers were full of stories of violence between whites and Indians, the British colonists prided themselves are being more respectful and able negotiators, and more discrete in their targets. At Port Gamble, the Americans had killed more than a score of Tlingits including women. So, Lt. Robson had to justify his actions to his superiors. Gough quotes his report:

I am fully aware that I have incurred a grave responsibility in having taken so decisive a part, but after mature deliberation I came to the conclusion that acts of this sort, partaking more of the nature of a piratical foray than anything hitherto attempted must for the safety of the settlers and small craft navigating these inland waters, be met by prompt and decisive action.

His actions and assessment were met with approval from his military and colonial superiors, who thought the episode had sent the proper message.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.