Captain John, part 1

His word, garbled mixture of dialects though it may have been, was law. Thousands obeyed his every command.

"An Indian woman [sic] who has resided for nearly two years on William[s] Creek, and was commonly known by the sobriquet of ‘Captain John,’ died on Monday last from inflammation of the windpipe. This poor creature was the daughter of an Indian chief called Captain John, who was shot in Victoria Jail seven years ago…"

Such was the brief notice which appeared in the British Colonist, July 8, 1867. Few readers would have linked the unfortunate woman with one of the grimmest chapters in B.C. history.

This tragedy had begun nine years before but memory, like conscience, can be subject to convenience, and likely few of those who knew the true story paused to consider. One who did reflect upon the unpleasant past, another 40 years later, was pioneer journalist D.W Higgins. He’d known the leading characters and supporting cast of this drama, particularly the remarkable character, Captain John, upon whose death perhaps only Higgins had shed a tear on behalf of the white community.

Once John had been one of the most powerful chieftains on the North Pacific coast, believed to command 3,000 Haida warriors. About 40 years of age when Higgins met him, the chief with the unusual name cut an impressive figure. Although of average height, he stood out from his tribesmen: "His sallow face was surrounded by luxuriant black whiskers and his upper lip was adorned by a sweeping black moustache," the newspaperman wrote. "His stature and his light complexion and the hirsute appendages gave rise to the impression that he was the son of a Russian and an Indian woman."

Little was known of John’s background but those details which Higgins had been able to learn were fascinating. It was common knowledge, for example, that, as an Alaskan youth, he’d travelled to St. Petersburg in a Russian trading ship, remaining in the wintry city for two years before proceeding to London and home again by Hudson’s Bay Co. ship.

Marvelled Higgins: "He could read and write a little, and his language was a puzzling maze of Russian, English, Chinook and Indian. With the aid of pantomime gestures and broken language, he managed to make himself well understood."

His word, garbled mixture of dialects though it may have been, was law. Thousands obeyed his every command.

Perhaps a good clue to John’s secret as a leader was his sense of drama, through which he’d acquired his unusual title. In fair weather and foul, he wore a striking uniform of a long, blue military overcoat, his wiry black hair crowned by a blue officer’s cap banded with gold braid. Upon meeting strangers, he’d pull himself erect, point a forefinger to his fine cap and exclaim, "Me big chief!" Introduction done, he’d swagger off "with an air of gloomy grandeur intended to impress the visitor with his importance".

If the reaction of more sophisticated settlers was one of amusement, none let it show. "There was much that was absurd about Captain John’s appearance, but, taken for all in all, he was the finest specimen of the Indian I ever knew," Higgins recalled.

Certainly his subjects were impressed; to question John’s authority meant severe punishment, perhaps even death. The entire western shore of the Victoria waterfront, although settled by several northern tribes as well as the local Songhees, was virtually his domain. Even the encamped "Stickeens" (Stikines), traditional enemies of the Haida, avoided John’s wrath.

When 20,000 eager whites had descended upon Fort Victoria during the Fraser River rush of 1858, it was Captain John who’d kept his followers in line, time and again preventing bloodshed from erupting between his men and the abrasive whites. Higgins even suspected John of having been in the HBCo.’s pay, so diligently had he maintained the peace. "One thing was certain: to Captain John the whites…were indebted for their immunity from harm."

None could deny that, had John been so minded, he could have led his wild army against the settlement.

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