Cartouche by Bill Reid

The village of Masset lies just inside the mouth of the Masset Inlet on the eastern shore. Its Haida name was Uttewas, which means “White Slope” in the Masset dialect. At the southern end of the village is a tall hill that has considerable quantities of clam shells, remains of ancient meals, eroding from its banks, hence the term “White Slope”. The hill itself is called Idjao, a name also used for a collection of houses south of the hill. Uttewas and Idjao became a single amalgamated village after the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1869, the first Hudson’s Bay Company post was opened at Masset, and it continued in trade until 1898. While the company provided all manner of European-style goods to the Haida, it made little attempt to change their culture. But, with the arrival of the first missionary, Reverend William H. Collison, in 1873 began a process which saw all of the old style houses and poles disappear within a quarter of a century.

The maximum population figures that can be justified for Masset on the basis of the site plan and early photographs, which document thirty-two houses, would be 1,280 people. This figure includes both Uttewas and Idjao villages at Masset at about 1860-1870. John Work of the Hudson's Bay Company did a survey in 1840 and estimated that between 1836-40 there were more than twice this number. If accurate, these estimates give a telling indication of the scale of population decline which took place in the intervening years.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a drastic decline in the population of Masset despite the influx of Haida from more remote villages on the north coast of Graham Island, which were totally abandoned in this period. The first recorded epidemic that hit the Haida was in 1832, which reduced the population significantly by the time Work did his survey. There were constant outbreaks of infectious diseases even before the arrival of the Russians after 1820, and other outbreaks attributable to the Spanish before they began to explore the North Coast themselves in 1774. Today, Masset village is a small fishing community with about a thousand residents.

Panoramic Photograph by G.M. Dawson, ca. 1878.

Textual Information for this Page: G.F. MacDonald, 1983.
Cartouche Artwork: Bill Reid.