Tsaxis (Fort Rupert)

The Big House at Tsaxis, designed by Tony Hunt. Photo by Dr. G.F. MacDonald, 2008

Fort Rupert was and still is an historic Kwagu'ł (Kwakiutl) village by the name of Tsaxis with evidence of occupation reaching back as far as 6000 years before the present. Coal was discovered in the adjacent area in 1849 and the Hudson’s Bay Company made the decision to open a coal mine and build a fort the same year. The supply of coal in the area was short-lived and overtaken by new fields developed at Nanaimo. Although the fort was initially built to protect the coal mining operation, it immediately became the hub of colonial activity along the central coast of British Columbia and northern Vancouver Island. It remained an important post for trade and resupply for the remainder of the 19th Century.

Four Kwakwaka’wakw families (septs) settled at Fort Rupert to exploit the trading opportunities the post presented. These groups came to be known collectively as the Kwagu'ł (pronounced Kwa-gyu-thl) or Fort Rupert Kwakiutl Band. These groups are identified by Galois (1994) as Walas Kwakiutl (Lakwilala), Komkiutis, Kwakiutl (Kwágu7lh), and Kweeha (Komoyoi) (First Nations Land Rights Website).

A catastrophic episode occurred at the village in 1865. Captain Nicholas Edward Brooke Turnour, commanding the British Navy's steam corvette Clio, arrived at the Fort to demand the surrender of three Fort Rupert Kwagu'ł charged with murdering an a man from Nawitti. After issuing a number of ultimatums, the Navy ship shelled the adjacent village, often referred to as Ku-Kultz, destroying a large section of it, in addition to about 60 canoes. According to anthropologst Johan Adrian Jacobsen, there in 1881, the Navy attack severely impacted the village and its inhabitants. Many moved across the strait to the inlets of the mainland, while another 250 to 300 returned and rebuilt the devastated village. (Gough, 1984: 82-84).

Tsaxis after Franz Boas. From Robert Galois' Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements (1994)
Fort Rupert and Kwakiutl village. Photographed by Frederick Dally 1866. The image shows the fort stockade and the adjacent village.
Tsaxis and Fort Rupert, 8 May 1866. Painting by E. A. Porcher, BC Archives. The relatively small size of the village in this painting is likely due to it's destruction only months earlier.

Through the work of one of its residents, George Hunt, Fort Rupert has impacted on the discipline of anthropology and the ethnographic representation of Northwest Coast indigenous peoples. George Hunt was born at Fort Rupert in 1854. His father was an English fur trader, and his mother was the daughter of Chief Tongass from the southern Alaskan coast. Hunt was raised Kwagu'ł, and was twice married to Kwagu'ł wives. For 45 years the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, employed Hunt as an informant and translator. The majority of Boas’s work on Kwak’wla language was derived directly from Hunt’s writings, although Hunt is rarely credited.

George Hunt portrait. BC Archives f_00466.

During his fieldwork at Fort Rupert, Boas also hired professional photographers from Victoria to record the people, ceremonies and customs of the Fort Rupert Kwagu'ł. The resulting images are some of the earliest ethnographic photographs ever taken. Boas’s body of work encouraged others like Harlan I. Smith of The American Museum of Natural History, and Samuel Barrett, of the Milwaukee Museum to the add rich visuals to that record.

The community continues to be a centre for Kwakwaka’wakw cultural development. Members of the Hunt family including Tony Hunt, Richard Hunt, Calvin Hunt, George Hunt Jr. and subsequent generations, continue to produce outstanding art works in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition for both commercial and ceremonial use.

Enlargement: Fort Rupert potlatch. Photo by Sam Barrett, 1915-16, Milwaukee Museum.
Fort Rupert shell midden indicating thousands of years of occupation. Photograph by H.I.Smith ca. 1900, AMNH 42,973
Fort Rupert in 1885. Photo by G.M.Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. Public Archives of Canada.

Work Cited:

Galois, Robert. 1994. Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements

Gough, Barry. 1984. Gunboat Frontier

George Hunt biography from ABC Book World <http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=7356>