Lax Kw'alaams

Lax Kw'alaams from the air. Photo by Richard Inglis, ca. 1978.

For 10,000 years the Coast Tsimshian have occupied the North Coast of British Columbia from the lower Skeena River to the Alaska boarder on Portland Inlet. For the majority of last 1,500 year period, the Nine Tribes of the Coast Tsimshian had their winter villages in the Venn Pass near Metlakatla, B.C.

The Nine Tribes of the Coast Tsimshian are: Giluts’aaw, Ginandoiks, Ginaxangiik, Gispaxlo’ots, Gitando, Gitlaan, Gits’iis, Gitwilgyoots, and Gitzaxlaal.

Originally an ancient camping spot of the Gispaxlo'ots tribe, in 1834 the Hudson’s Bay Company chose Lax Kw’alaams, which translates to “place of the wild roses” as the site for their major trading post in the marine fur trade. The company named the location Fort Simpson after Capt. Aemilius Simpson, superintendent of the HBC's Marine Department.

When the fort was established, the Nine Tribes built seasonal camps at Lax Kw’alaams to exploit new economic activities. Through a series of overland trails and bridges linked to canoe routes, they consolidated and protected their trading monopoly for furs deep into the interior valleys, as far west as Haida Gwaii, and north to Alaska.

Lax Kw'alams (Port Simpson) painted from the memory of Frederick Alexcee, ca 1890. The Hudson's Bay Company Fort can be seen in the far left. Welcom Library, London, UK.

Many observers date the relocation of the Nine Tribes to Lax Kw’alaams, and the associated abandonment of winter villages in the Prince Rupert Harbour to ca. 1840. A more realistic date for this move is ca. 1849/1850. This is evidenced by the absence of large community houses at Lax Kw’alaams prior to the 1850s, which indicates that ritual life and art associated with the Winter Ceremonials and Secret Societies was still taking place at the winter villages in the Prince Rupert Harbour.

Houses at Fort Simpson, ca. 1854 drawn by W. E. Gordon, Master's Mate aboard the HMS Virago, Mitchell Library, Sydney, Aus

From 1862 through the rest of that decade the population of Coast Tsimshian declined due to deaths from smallpox and to a migration of about a third of the population back to old village sites around Metlakatla and the Prince Rupert Harbour. 

More drastic change took place in the mid-seventies as a result of the Methodist missionary activity of the Reverend Thomas Crosby. Within two years, the majority of the old houses were torn down and smaller frame dwellings in the Victorian style quickly replaced them. As in the old days, the houses of the chiefs are easy to spot in photos because of the large size needed to accommodate retainers and hold ceremonies.

Also in the mid-1870s, many museum agents and collectors came to buy the family heirlooms often rejected by the new religion and economy. Many thousands of art objects and specimens went to museums in Europe and America. Rev. Crosby had assembled a personal museum of the finest items and these were sold to museums in New York, Washington, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa.

Lax Kw'alaams House Front

This painted house screen depicting the Nagunak story of the Gisbutwaada clan was created around 1850 at Lax Kw'alaamss. The screen is 11.6 meters wide and 3.6 meters tall and was collected in 1875 by James Swan for the Philadelphia Worlds Fair (Centennial Exhibition) in 1876. This amazing piece of Tsimshain history lay forgotten for decades in a pile of boards in a Smithsonian store room and was re-discovered nearly a century after it was collected. It is now on dispay at the Smithsonian Institutions's National Museum of Natural History.