Town's Tides of History

We walk the beach searching for blue glass trade beads that wash up on occasion in front of Lax Kw'alaams. All we find are shards of glass and crockery. Still, these are enough to whisk my imagination back a century and a half, to a time when this community was known as Fort Simpson. In those days, the shore would have been lined with cedar lodges and canoes, loomed over by the pickets of a Hudson's Bay Co. stockade. Outside the walls, a restless, ever-changing population convened to trade furs and other goods and services for guns, tobacco, textiles, and alcohol. The beads, known as "somentaskins", or "little gifts", were thrown in as a bonus after a good bartering session.

Today, Lax Kw'alaams, 775 kilometres north of Vancouver, is a placid Tsimshian village of 1,200 souls. No signs remain of the fort, and few would guess that north of Oregon this was once the most important outpost of the British Empire on the Pacific coast of North America. Wooden boats, tipped on their sides at the water's edge, quietly decay. Mothers push baby strollers. Pickups trundle by. Most families here make a livelihood from fishing, and numerous gill-netters and trollers are docked in the harbour. The red-roofed steeple of Grace United Church dominates the scene.

Lax Kw'alaams from Rose Island, Grace United Church dominating

Eddie Knott has alerted us to the possibility of trade beads on the beach. He and his wife, Karen, operate Knott's Landing, the cozy bed-and-breakfast where we're staying. Most visitors to the village come for recreation or because they are working there. Our fellow guests include a mechanic, a health-care worker, and a couple from Kelowna who travel around B.C. offering photographic services. For a fee, they'll make portraits of the kids or put your mug on a coffee cup. Visitors from as far away as England and Florida have signed the guest book, and many praise the kayaking, sportfishing, and friendliness of the villagers.

Though Lax Kw'alaams has a spectacular history, few tourists come to take in the past. It's there, though, right on the main street, where well-worn gravestones can be found. One memorial celebrates Legaic, "first head chief," a legendary Tsimshian leader who controlled the region's fur trade during the early days of the fort.

Lax Kw'alaams means "place of wild roses" and, indeed, the huge, sweet-scented blossoms of the Nootka rose are everywhere when we visited in June, along with cow parsnip and angelica. They flourish especially on Rose Island, the oldest part of the community. Eddie recommends we cross the bridge connecting the island to the mainland and check out a new boardwalk villagers have constructed around an old burial site facing the ocean. "Building that boardwalk really brought back a lot of memories for people," Eddie tells us. "Hardly any of the coastal villages have them any more."

Elsewhere in Lax Kw'alaams, the walking is not so pleasant. The streets are being torn up in preparation for paving, a project expected to take four years. The dust is ferocious. One of the reasons, ironically, for the roadwork is to control the dust. Another project has recently improved the route to Tuck Inlet, where the 15-vehicle Spirit of Lax Kw'alaams ferry leaves for Prince Rupert, a one-hour run. This service has been a boon for the community. Before it started, in 1997, you had to fly in--an expensive way to go grocery shopping--or else take a water taxi that only braved the winter waves of Chatham Sound several times a week. "Sometimes you were almost risking your life taking that route," Karen says.

Such problems pale beside the risks experienced by Fort Simpson's early inhabitants. From behind their stockade, the 20 fort employees looked out on a wild scene. Skirmishes between hostile First Nations groups were frequent, often resulting in gun battles and loss of life. Disease and hunger were endemic, as was drunkenness on both sides of the stockade. Sometimes the fort itself was attacked, pickets torn down or set on fire. The traders mounted small cannons on two corner bastions, mostly for show but fired in earnest from time to time. Ammunition was scarce; the factor would pay a shilling for each ball brought back to be fired again.

Despite all the dangers, Fort Simpson was a success. It did a valuable trade, not only in furs but also in whale, dogfish and seal oils, bear gall bladders, and beaver musk glands. Thomas Crosby, a Methodist missionary, arrived in 1874 and built a huge monument, Grace Church, which was destroyed by fire in 1931. (The current church was built in the mid-1930s.) Gradually, however, business declined in favour of Prince Rupert, founded in 1906 as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway terminus.

The fort's palisade and bastions came down in the 1880s. The trading post itself burned to the ground in 1914. Today the most prominent structure in town is a fish cannery built in 1975. New buildings are rising, though, including a seniors housing project and a fine recreation centre. Karen hopes the centre will have a strong cultural element, with a café, perhaps, and a small museum to attract more tourists to her town and capture at least a fraction of Lax Kw'alaams's extraordinary past.