At dawn on an early-fall morning more than 250 years ago, raiders guided their massive war canoes into a small landing north of Hope, along British Columbia’s Fraser River. On the hilltop above, a large village slept. For weeks each summer, its prosperous inhabitants fished intensely from rocky outcrops along the lower Fraser Canyon, hauling nets full of wriggling salmon from the waters and expertly preserving the catch for the cold months ahead. But in the early fall, as the nights grew longer and the village caches brimmed with dried food, the river brought peril.
Armed with spears, arrows and war clubs, the raiders poured silently out of the canoes. As they set out up the slopes, however, they came under sudden, heavy attack. Men from the village, alerted to the danger by lookouts, had roused and arrayed themselves behind a massive stone wall on the slope, slingshots in hand. Bombarding the raiders with heavy fist-sized stones, they drove the main mass back. But some attackers stood their ground. With bows and stonetipped arrows, they determinedly returned fire, until they, too, were finally forced to retreat. The fighting was so intense that the village came to be known in later years as Xelhálh, or “injured people,” in the language of the Stó:lo Nation.
But Xelhálh was not the only target of aboriginal war parties. When the first European colonists arrived along the lower Fraser River in the early 1800s, they discovered an atmosphere laced with fear. Blood feuds, slave raids and outright warfare had all raised tensions among coastal First Nations. Indeed, during a three-year period beginning in 1827, European traders at Fort Langley chronicled some 30 aboriginal attacks on aboriginal villages. Among the most feared war parties were those of the Lekwiltok people, who resided along Johnstone Strait to the north and paddled more than 300 kilometres to raid on the Fraser. “It is impossible to describe [the] continual alarm at the very name of this formidable foe,” wrote Archibald McDonald, chief trader at Fort Langley, in 1829.
Archaeologists long assumed that such violence flared on the lower Fraser only after European explorers arrived in the region in the mid-1770s. Earlier villages, they theorized, lacked two important prerequisites for warfare: powerful chiefs capable of raising large war parties and a compelling reason to wage battle. In a land of plenty, went the theory, all Northwest Coast villages had roughly the same access to food and other resources, giving little reason to go to war. This ancient peace was thought to have shattered after the 1770s, when smallpox and other European diseases decimated villages, and coastal communities acquired flintlock muskets through the fur trade and began using them on lesser armed neighbours.
But new research in the Fraser Canyon is revealing a radically different picture of the past. Drawing heavily on the traditional knowledge of Stó:lo Nation elders, archaeologists are uncovering a landscape of ancient warfare and violence long concealed by moss and dense vegetation. Along eight kilometres of the rugged Fraser Canyon, aboriginal inhabitants built a massively fortified hilltop village, immense stone walls guarding the approaches to other ancient villages and a series of bluff-top sentry posts.
“It really looks as if raiding and warfare were significant elements among the Coast Salish and Stó:lo people for thousands of years,” says Dave Schaepe, an archaeologist who has worked closely with the Stó:loNation for more than a decade and is now director of the Stó:lo Research and Resource Management Centre in Chilliwack, B.C.
All this new evidence, moreover, fits closely with stories that elders in the Stó:lo Nation heard as children. “Our ancestors used to fight a lot, because the raiders would come up here and try to steal babies and women,” says Roger Andrews, an elder and a cultural adviser for archaeological and historical research projects in the Stó:lo Territory.
And, as the data confirming stories of ancient warfare mount, researchers are examining a host of new questions. Why did raiders cross hundreds of kilometres of ocean and river to attack villages in the lower Fraser Canyon? What kinds of wealth did the canyon villages possess that other villages did not? And what does this new picture of ancient warfare tell us about life in early Northwest Coast societies?
On a hot, overcast July afternoon, Schaepe gazes down at the silty waters of the Fraser River as it roars out of the Fraser Canyon. Framed by massive jutting mountains and a dappled valley forest, the Fraser churns and roils in angry eddies and currents. For a good hour and a half now, Schaepe and two of his students have been bushwhacking across a steep slope mantled in slippery moss, ferns, shrubs and rotting logs. Hacking away the undergrowth with a machete, Schaepe and his small team are mapping the outer stone walls of an ancient Stó:lo settlement with digital surveying gear. It’s hard, taxing work. Taking off his broadbrimmed hat and running a hand through a thick thatch of brown hair, Schaepe, a tall, lean soft-spoken man in his early forties, rests and reflects on the importance of the rolling water below. To the Stó:lo, he says, the Fraser “isn’t just any river. It’s the river of rivers.”
Certainly, the Stó:lo had ample reason to revere the Fraser. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when overfishing and other man-made calamities wiped out entire salmon runs, millions of these fish swam up the lower Fraser annually, one of the largest salmon migrations in the world. And many of the most productive fishing spots along the river lay in Stó:lo Territory in the lower Fraser Canyon. As the river squeezed through this shadowy cleft in the Coast Mountains, it funnelled the migrating salmon into a narrow channel. To find the slowest currents, the fish edged along the banks. There, Stó:lo fishermen waited. Perched on large boulders or on wooden platforms angled out over the water, the men could literally scoop fish from the water with a longhandled dip net. In one day, a man could land hundreds of hefty salmon.
The warm winds that gusted through the canyon in summer were nearly ideal for drying the catch. After just a week or so, fish on the drying racks had attained the texture of beef jerky and would keep for months without spoiling. As a result, canyon dwellers could fill vast caches with dried, lightweight fish — enough to feed their families over winter and to trade for shiny black obsidian for their weapons, shimmering seashells for ornaments and coastal canoes for ocean travel. But all this prosperity, says Schaepe, likely came at a price. As word spread of the great quantities of dried food to be had in Fraser Canyon villages at summer’s end, other communities grew envious. “These were attractions to raiders coming from hundreds of kilometres away,” says Schaepe.
Food was not the sole draw, however. The attackers also coveted human beings, who could be traded as slaves up and down the Pacific coast. The raiders preferred young women, for they were deemed to make the best chattels, and the lower Fraser Canyon, with its high population, was an obvious hunting ground. At least six major villages sprawled along the canyon’s bluffs in late pre-European times, some boasting an estimated 1,900 residents. Nowhere else in ancient British Columbia were so many women and children packed into such a small area. And the depredations of the raiders are still remembered today in ancient Stó:lo place names, such as Kwótsesleq, “lookout for enemies,” and T’tlê’natstan, “kidnapping all the women.”
Travelling under cover of night, most raiding and war parties preferred to attack just as the sun rose, illuminating their way through a sleeping village. In preparation, the attackers sometimes donned sleeveless armour made of multiple layers of elk hide or some other heavy animal skin. Worn like a tunic, such armour employed the same principle as a modern bulletproof vest, which is constructed of layers of strong fabric to absorb the force of a projectile and diffuse its energy. Charles Bishop, captain of a British merchant ship that traded along the Northwest Coast in the late 1790s, observed that elk-hide armour was “a compleat [sic] defence against a spear or an arrow and sufficient almost to resist a pistol ball.” Modern experiments confirm his observation. When researchers recently fired stone-tipped arrows into elk-hide armour, the arrowheads fell to pieces.
To cut down adversaries from afar, war parties unleashed darts or arrows that were sometimes dipped in poisons, such as rattlesnake venom. Or they hurled stones the size of small cannonballs with slings, an assault that could cut an enemy war canoe in half. But historical accounts suggest that most fighting occurred in melees, as combatants closed in quickly and fought hand-to-hand. For this, warriors carried weapons as diverse as axes, spears, knives and special war clubs ground from stone or carved from hardwood and enhanced with images of human or animal spirits.
To protect themselves from wellarmed foes, the Fraser Canyon’s ancient inhabitants created several layers of defence. The first was an early-warning system. To detect the approach of coastal raiders on the river — the primary transportation route — villages posted sentries behind rock walls or in structures dug into prominent bluffs in key spots in the canyon. From there, watchmen could see for kilometres downriver, spying the enemy well before the enemy spied them and raising the alarm. Each guard post also commanded a view to the next sentry position upriver. Watchmen in one could readily signal to those in the next by lighting fires, waving blankets or even giving hand signs. “That’s a line-of-sight communication and defensive network,” says Schaepe.
As the raiders landed, they encountered the second line of defence: massive rock-wall fortifications. At Xelhálh, residents toiled together, likely using ropes and levers, to haul huge angular boulders from talus slopes and canyon-wall quarries. Then they laid these slabs — which typically weighed around 100 kilograms — in rows and stacked them one on top of the other to create a network of walls. The most impressive walls stand two metres tall today and ingeniously fit together with natural outcrops to create a giant barrier that snaked along Xelhálh’s foreshore for nearly 150 metres. All this, moreover, was completed before the arrival of Europeans, for no trace of European trade goods has been found at Xelhálh, which dates between ad 1500 and 1800.
“I did a lot of work on a Maya defensive site in Mexico,” says Michael Blake, an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, “and I was looking at exactly the same thing [at Xelhálh]. It’s monumental architecture.”
Above the stone walls, crowning the hilltop, lay one last major line of defence: the plank houses themselves. Each of these huge multi-family residences rose nearly 8 to 10 metres in height, presenting a solid, palisade-like face to the world.
“They were fully wooden enclosures, very protective, with only a small entryway,” says archaeologist and independent scholar Bill Angelbeck, who has studied Coast Salish warfare.
At night, residents customarily barred the oval-shaped entrance with crosspieces to keep out attackers. And they positioned commoners and slaves closest to the door, where they could absorb and dampen the full force of an attack. In the very centre of the house, surrounded by onion-like layers of human, wooden and stone defences, lived the highest-ranking family, that of the leader.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Stó:lo elders paid homage to one of their most influential leaders. Liquitem was the headman of an important village near Yale, B.C., and wielded great influence over other Stó:lo leaders. He “was the boss of the whole river,” recalled elder Mary Charles in the 1940s. When prospectors discovered gold along the Fraser in 1857, eventually luring throngs of feverish miners north from the California goldfields, it was Liquitem who guided the Stó:lo through this perilous time, determining when best to fight for their land rights and when to keep the peace.
Many archaeologists had questioned when such powerful leaders and such a complex society emerged among the Stó:lo. The new evidence, says Schaepe, reveals that these developments happened many centuries ago. Xelhálh’s massive stone fortifications clearly reflect the paramount importance of the village and its leaders, much as the great moats and walls of Europe’s medieval castles attest to the power of their lords. Indeed, the extensive system of ancient defence and communication in the Fraser Canyon stands today as proof that Xelhálh’s formidable leaders coordinated defenses and united local villages into an organized political system — centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
Today, such a leader is known among the Stó:lo as a Siyá:m. “This is a person of wealth and unblemished ancestry, who has spiritual connections and extensive social and political networks,” says Schaepe. By tradition, the Siyá:m was a master of negotiation, a persuasive individual whose power came from a network of strategic alliances with important neighbours. To forge such bonds, the Siyá:m brought prominent allies and friends together for a great communal feast — a potlatch — and presented lavish gifts to those assembled. Such largesse was a public display of prestige, an anchor to the authority and power of the Siyá:m.
These alliances and the defence system they produced helped keep Stó:lo villages in the Fraser Canyon safe for hundreds of years, until a microscopic intruder — smallpox — stole into their communities unseen and decimated the inhabitants. For many Stó:lo today, this picture of the past confirms all the stories their grandparents told them of the powerful society that long flourished along the Fraser.
“I’d like Canadians to understand the complexity of our society,” says cultural advisor Albert “Sonny” McHalsie. “All too often, anthropologists have developed a model to minimize the scope of our society, and it often gets used against us. When I look at Xelhálh and what’s needed to maintain a site like this, it just shows how complex our society was in the past.”