Monday, December 12, 2011

Native fishermen at Fort Colvile

When Alexander Caulfield Anderson first rode into Fort Colvile in 1849, he might have been privileged to watch one of the fort's most interesting entertainments -- the Native fisheries at Kettle Falls.
In his memoirs, Anderson's son, James Robert, also wrote of these Native fisheries -- sometimes it is hard to tell which description is Anderson's, and which are his son's.
We will begin this chapter with James' Memoirs, when he writes of his journey to Kamloops in 1848, where he would remain until his father returned from Fort Langley.

"In 1849 [1848] a horse trail having been constructed in the interval between the time of my father's exploration and the above date, the route was for the first time used for the transportation of supplies to the various interior posts.
"In the year previous, my father had been transferred to the charge of Fort Colvile and we all moved to Kamloops where we, mother and family, spent the summer whilst my father was absent on his journey to Fort Langley, and on his return, we went to Fort Colvile where my father relieved Mr. John Lee Lewis [Lewes]...
"In 1848 after the return of my father to Kamloops we left that place and proceeded to Fort Colvile where as mentioned before, Mr. Lewis was relieved, who with his wife and family consisting as far as I can remember of an elder son, Adolphus, two good-looking girls and some younger children...

"Fort Colvile was a pleasant post, the country in the vicinity was clear of timber up to the foot-hills one or two miles distant.
The fort was situated about a miles from the Columbia River on the left hand bank and about the same distance from the Roman Catholic Mission down the river, presided over by Pere de Vos, a Jesuit Priest.
"Quite near the mission which was situated on higher ground than the Fort, were the Kettle or Chaudiere Falls which stretch clean across the Columbia.
"Here the Indians used to congregate when the salmon were running.
"The manner of capturing the fish was accomplished in two ways -- one was by baskets, so called, made of withes some ten feet long, closed at the sides and lower end.
"This was suspended so that the upper end touched the water of the falls, the other end being lower.
"The salmon, in attempting to leap the falls, often missed and fell struggling into the basket when he was hooked out.
"The other way was by spearing the salmon whilst in mid air, from a frail looking staging sticking out over the seething torrents, a most exciting pursuit....."

Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote about the same manner of fishing in a manuscript which has now more or less disappeared, but which might have been written for the Royal Engineers in 1860 or thereabouts.
It exists today in scraps in one of his son's folders in the archives.

This is what Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote:
"Modes of fishing are very varied & as a matter of course the conditions under which fish are captured are so widely different that innumerable means were employed.
"On rivers & lakes salmon were captured by means of spearing, traps & scoop nets & baskets set under water falls into which the salmon falls if he misses his leap or in cases of short streams where some salmon, on going down the stream, numbers fall in to the baskets & are caught.
"These baskets are made of withes or split pieces of wood from ten to twelve and perhaps more feet in length fastened with cedar roots or boughs to transverse pieces with one & two sides raised sufficiently high to prevent the salmon from escaping.
"By means of long poles well secured to the shore in a horizontal position, the basket is suspended so that the open end goes well into the water of the fall, or in cases where the volume of water is small, the open end may reach the rocks, the closed end being slightly lower so that the fish in falling into the basket slides to that end where from a frail platform it is hooked by the gills & thrown ashore to the women who immediately prepare them for drying."

These fish traps sound as if they were well designed and quite ingenious.

Anderson wanders away from Fort Colvile in his discussion of the spears used for fishing, but he will return....
"Spears were made in different ways, the most kind I think were thrown.
"The shaft of the spear was generally made of a split piece of fir about twenty feet long, perhaps an inch in diameter at each end & slightly larger in the middle.
[The prongs or ends, sometimes, in the case of two prongs of unequal length, made of hardwood, are fixed] "to the shaft by means of cedar roots or cherry bark & consisted of one, two & sometimes four, the latter being used generally on the sea coast for spearing crabs, octopi, flat fish &c, the barbs were made of bone & were either rigidly attached to the prongs or fitting on the end, were when the prey was struck, detached from the prongs & held to the spear by means of ropes.
"The spear intended for throwing had a flat piece of wood with places cut in to fit the fingers, fastened to the upper end in order that it could be used with greater force.
"The ordinary salmon spear was however never or very seldom thrown, it was used in shallow water where the fish could be seen, sometimes at night by the aid of torches.
"The most exciting method of spearing I ever witnessed was at the Kettle Falls on the Columbia River where the Indians stood on the end of a very rickety looking platform overhanging the seething waters & struck his prey in mid air as the salmon attempted to leap the falls."

Many Native tribes gathered at Kettle Falls for the annual fisheries, and we would have more stories of them if only Fort Colvile had become a part of British Columbia.
The fort was south of the boundary line, however, and so it did not.
As most of Anderson's later essays were confined to British Columbia's history, we have lost many stories that Anderson may have told about Fort Colvile.

There is, however, another source of information on the salmon (and other fish) that entered the Columbia River, and that is Alexander Caulfield Anderson's fisheries reports for the Dominion of Canada, in the years 1876 to 1884.
In his "Notes and suggestions regarding the Salmon Fisheries on Fraser River," in Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1875, Anderson tells us that the salmon that swam up the Columbia River were as large as the Chinook which came up the Fraser River.
The weight of the Fraser River salmon sometimes exceeded fifty pounds and on one occasion a sixty-five pound Chinook was caught near Victoria, and Anderson compares the BC chinook with the Columbia River salmon:
"This fish -- the saw-quai of the lower coast tribes [the Chinook].. does not obviously differ externally from the large spring salmon of the Columbia River (s. quinnatt eqannett chinook.)
"But there are certain apparent differences in their habits, which lead me to infer that they are probably distinct varieties.
"One fact observable with the Fraser River kase [Chinook] is, that they do not, so far as I have observed or been able to ascertain, enter any of the lakes, such as Stuart's Lake, Fraser Lake, &c, along the course of the Fraser and its tributaries.
"Upon reaching the outlet of these lakes, they diverge up the adjacent streams to spawn -- the smaller variety, or ia-lo (suck-kai of the Lower Fraser) [sockeye] alone continuing their course through the dead-water of the lakes, to the tributaries beyond.
"The equannett of the Columbia (s. quinnatt) exhibits no such apparent reluctance; passing unhesitatingly through the lakes of the Upper Columbia on its course towards the head-waters, where its spawning grounds are situated.
"Again, the run of the large Columbia salmon from the sea is apparently more continuous and regular than that of the nearly corresponding fish of the Fraser; and commences, also, at a somewhat earlier date.
"This last fact, however, may reasonably be assigned to local causes only."

[The chinook carried a different name on the Upper Fraser than it did on the lower, hence the two names -- kase, and saw-quai -- in above paragraph. It sometimes confuses me that Anderson, in all the years after he left Fraser's Lake, continued to call the Chinook by its northern name, the kase.]

I understand that there is some argument about the size of the salmon that once swam up the Columbia River to be caught at Kettle Falls.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson's Fisheries reports confirm that the Columbia River salmon that reached Kettle Falls and beyond, in the 1850's, were sizable fish.
That makes the apparent flimsiness of the Natives' fishing utensils even more amazing, that they could withstand the weight of a fifty pound fish falling down the falls into the baskets!

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