Ancient names resurface for archaeological sites in Prince Rupert

Posted on Nov 21, 2014 in Prince Rupert Update, What's New

The Prince Rupert Harbour Project has been a series of exciting archaeological discoveries from its inception in 2006/2007. Only a couple of these though, matched the thrill (complete with goose bumps!) of  finding that there was not only a Tsimshian name for the site we had been excavating and analysing for so long,but there was a detailed story that incorporated the name multiple times. And not only was the name and the story of great interest in their own right, but there were obvious direct links between the stories told by the  archaeology and geological methods of learning about the past, and the story from the oral history.

The source of the story is in a couple of large binders of maps, typewritten pages, and handwritten pages of an unpublished work by William Beynon called “Ethnical and Geographical Study of the Tsimsiyaen Nation”. Dates on the maps indicated he worked on this in 1954 but his introduction states that its a compendium of work he began in 1915. Beynon was the Tsimshian chief of the Gitlaan Tribe who carefully wrote down and cross-checked stories and ethnographic details from all over the greater Tsimshian-speaking world. There is an excellent biography on his life in Wikepedia  This work appears to be not well-known by modern ethnographers or archaeologists working with the adawx traditions – (oral histories that are owned by tribes, clans, or houses).  I couldn’t find it in the bibliographies of any of the publications or theses over the last few decades, although the original field notes on which to its based were referenced. I’m not even sure how Millennia Research came to have a copy – ours has stamps indicating it was obtained from the American Museum of Natural History Department of Anthropology. I suspect we got it from Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy when they undertook ethnohistoric research for us during a study of the proposed Khutzeymateen grizzly bear  reserve back in 1989.

At any rate this work is a gold mine for ethnoarchaeology since it identifies place names linked to each tribe, transcriptions of the name, and traditional stories that are associated with, and often justify ownership claims over, those places. It also summarizes the complex history of migrations of some of the Tsimshian people.

Systematic searching such works as “Trade and Warfare, Tsimshian Narratives” (by Barbeau and Beynon, edited by George MacDonald  and John Cove) and Boas’ 1916 “Mythology of the Tsimshian” had failed to identify our specific worksites; although there was a well-known story relating to the defeat of the Tlingit after their invasion of Prince Rupert Harbour by the Gispaxloats chief Axtxs. This location is just north of the existing Fairview terminal at the archaeological site known as Lachane, or GbTo-33.  No  information of the area to the south was given by the Tsimshian people who worked with us in 2012/2013. The two thick binders of Beynon’s work had been put aside since they are rather daunting to work with. However opening it up and looking at the maps immediately it showed that the area from Casey Creek down to our area of GbTo-54 had a square around it with a number 7; and there was a second version of the same map that had also had a name.

Part of Beynon's Plate II map, showing Kaien Island

Part of Beynon’s Plate II map, showing Kaien Island

It now came down to tracking that number down in the text-not as simple a task as it would seem. Stephanie Sketchly from our office began going through the text and soon had found it. It’s tied to the story of Aksk and Lachane; but it begins immediately after the Tlingit defeat.  And the meaning of the name was even more thrilling. I’ll transcribe a little part of the story here. The words in brackets are where I’ve changed spelling to match one of the modern ways of  writing S’malgax (Coast Tsimshian) words or added words to make the meaning clearer.

The next [Tsimshian] that seems to have followed in the steps of the [Gitwilgoats] and made the coast their permanent winter or head village, was the [Gispaxloats] “People of the Elderberry” so called as at their village on the Skeena there was a great abundance of Elderberry and derived their name from this fact. At the time when this tribe established at their first village (7) Plan II, it was called Ya asqalu’i “Place of Alder Slide.” So called because of a slide that happened there upon which was now grown a growth of alder trees. It was before the coming of the Eagle Clan into this tribe as their tribal chief was Spilaxe … “Part of the Heavens”, and was of the Gispwudwada [grizzly bear/killer whale] Clan the same as the chief of the Gitwilgoats and for that fact they became neighbours in order to better aide each other in the event of an invasion [by the Tlingit].

Beynon was usually careful to write down the names and dates of interviews, but for the most part those don’t appear in this 1954 work; they are almost certainly available in his original notes. The outstanding geological feature of GbTo-54 is of course the fact that it is built upon slide deposits. The evidence was that occupation began almost immediately after the slide with shell midden accumulating around the jagged boulders that, along with gravels and silts, made up the slide. This matches exactly with the story as written by Beynon.

Areal view of GbTo-54 showing landslide boulders, some the size of cars and trucks, on the beach in front of GbTo-54. Many of these have been cleared in order to make canoe runs.

Areal view of GbTo-54 showing landslide boulders, some the size of cars and trucks, on the beach in front of GbTo-54. Many of these have been cleared in order to make canoe runs.

We had also concluded that the location was strategic and a principal reason for the village being where it was. This location, despite difficulties that must have been experienced from building and living on the slide and its exposure to storm winds and waves from the southeast, is nevertheless virtually the only location in the harbour with simultaneous views of both entrances. This would have been very valuable in times of warfare.

Visibility of analysis using GIS to compare the views from Parizeau Point (near the Boardwalk Site) in purple, with the view from GbTo-54 in grey. Note that the grey colour shows that both entrances to the harbour can be seen simultaneously

Visibility of analysis using GIS to compare the views from Parizeau Point (near the Boardwalk Site) in purple, with the view from GbTo-54 in grey (and underneath much of the purple). Note that the grey colour shows that both entrances to the harbour can be seen simultaneously.  


Also in Beynon’s paper are alternative/additional names for  Lachane, and names for other archaeological sites including the Baldwin site, GbTo-36, and McNichol Creek, GcTo-1 which I think archaeologists were ignorant of, as they don’t seem to be given in any publication, and they don’t seem to be written down elsewhere but this obscure Beynon manuscript.

There are a lot of other links between the story and the archaeology of GbTo-54, but those can be told in later posts. The stories have transformed the experience of doing archaeological research – they are breathing life and context into the stories we have been constructing ourselves from the archaeological record.  And we have a name for the site which we will begin to use henceforth: Ya asqalu’i.  I am profoundly grateful to William Beynon for putting so much effort into recording the history of his people; a legacy that will continue to be learned from as new generations read his work and go through the thousands of pages of his original notes now stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. And equally we must thank the dozens of generations of tribal historians who kept this story alive for nearly two millennia until Beynon wrote it down.


  1. Hi Morley,
    I am pleased that you are finding value in the Tsimshian oral record as you go about your work. You should know that archaeologists have been exploring this conjunction since the 1940’s, starting with Philip Drucker, followed by George MacDonald (who started the Prince Rupert Harbour Project in 1967), Richard Inglis, James Haggarty, David Archer, Jerry Cybulski, as well as my own more recent work with Ken Ames. These are all worth reviewing. The place names of the Tsimshian (specifically Nine Tribes – i.e. the ancestors of the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla Indian Bands) are well known (see the entry in the Historical Atlas of Canada, 1984, for example). Much scholarship on this subject has also been conducted by scholars working with the adawx and finding parallel conjunction in the archaeological results (see the work of John Cove, Margery Halpin, Chris Roth, Marius Barbeau, and Susan Marsden, for example). As most of this work notes, the adawx are a complex suite of texts that exist as a system of interrelated narratives. Beynon’s 1954 document is well known, but less referenced than his inventory of annotated adawx, because it is the weakest of such sources. It was written at the request of Philip Drucker, who commissioned Beynon to create an accessible overview of the adawx for western audiences. Beynon was largely unsuccessful in this ambition, in part because a simple and accessible translation of this knowledge is not really possible, and in part perhaps because he was in failing health (he died without finishing the book). Beynon (who understood both the system and the rich tapestry of narratives) attempted to provide a regional and systematic review, but was unable to do more than summarize a series of abbreviated adawx narratives that he had already recorded and annotated. Thus, most scholars of the adawx work with the original texts and recognize that (as I noted in a 2006 CJA article) mining these for seemingly straightforward data that compares to archaeology does a disservice to the indigenous record of history. There is a long list of non-native scholars misunderstanding these texts (Boas, for example, did not see that each house group had its own versions of history and sought to combine all the versions into a single ideal form, something that contradicts the very nature of the adawx). I suggest that you consider this book as a useful introduction to the Tsimshian historiographic system, which as you’ll see has considerable integration with the Tsimshian legal, economic, political, social, and even artistic traditions:

    Sterritt, Neil J., Susan Marsden, Robert Galois, Peter R. Grant, Richard Overstall
    1998 Tribal Boundaries in the Nass Watershed. UBC Press, Vancouver.

    By the way, the Casey Point sites are identified in the adawx, but not, I think, in the way you have done so. I would elaborate, but such information is usually proprietary to the Tsimshian house group that owns them, and generally not publically disseminated without permission, though I’d be happy to direct you to sources. Work with the adawx is complex and though that should not dissuade us, it should make us even more cautious, thorough, and respectful of the people whose history we attempt to narrate. I look forward to future work in this important direction.

    Thanks, Andrew Martindale, UBC.

  2. Andrew
    Thanks for your lengthy comment (sorry we hadn’t seen it and so didn’t post it immediately). The blog is written for a general audience, and I apologize if it comes across as an example of archaeologists’ “enthusiastic over-simplification” that you decried in your ‘Methodological Issues” 2006 article; or unaware of the numerous scholarly contributions made over the years on the subject. Our project report, which I hope will be publically available soon, has references to virtually all the sources you mention. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that, if your efforts in working with adawx and “applying their historical data to an archaeological understanding of the past are inevitably superficial” (Martindale 2006:165), ours must be even more so, as we have not been able to spend nearly the time required to be well-versed, nor had access to the Beynon original notes.

    We certainly tried to use the stories correctly, using some of your guidelines. You described in 2006 (p.163) the connections between the archaeological stories and adawk as “points of commonality”. I consider that the parts of the Gispaxloats story as recounted by Beynon of the founding of the Ya asqalu’i village and the landslide are a good example of the “Observable” level of meaning as you present in your Table 1 of “Methodological Issues”. These are the least arbitrary and the least susceptible to modification and the easiest to link to archaeology, as you have written. While many stories require a lot of interpretation, the parts that deal with named, identifiable places where specific events happened, and where archaeological and geological evidence can provide calendric time scale for oral history, are the simplest to find those commonalities. Is this simple ‘data mining’? I hope not! The other parts of the story that seem to provide relative chronology are clearly stated, but certainly should be checked against other versions and other adawx because there are inconsistencies with other versions; for instance the statements that this village founding occurred just after defeat of the Tlingit but before the Eagle Clan joined the Tsimshian is contrary to the oral tradition relative chronology your “Table 2” in Martindale 2006, which has the Eagles migrating before the war with the Tlingit. Compiling this information and seeing if there is a preponderance of evidence for one sequence over the other, or if there are simply irreconcilable differences between the story versions, is the type of work that I can’t follow up on, but hope to inspire someone else to do.

    In terms of the long history of archaeologists attempting to incorporate Coast Tsimshian oral history in their work you didn’t cite Gay Calvert’s 1968 thesis from the Co-op site. Her BA thesis has extracts from several adawx that specifically relate to that site. These are very similar to those in an early permit report for the contiguous Lachane site by Inglis some years later. I expect that the source of both these were the Beynon notes at the National Museum likely provided by George MacDonald as part of his overall North Coast Prehistory Project. Only the story of Aksk’s tricking of the Tlingit warriors appears in any later works directly connected with that site; and much of that is unpublished or very brief, major exceptions being various work by you and Susan Marsden of course.

    After reading your comment about the place names on Kaien Island being well known, I looked through the maps we had in-house and again couldn’t find any former reference to more than a couple of these sites. I spent much of Sunday afternoon going to three public library branches before finding a copy of the “Historical Atlas of Canada” with MacDonald et al’s map of the Northern Tsimshian ca 1750 (which I hadn’t looked at for years). This is the most detailed map of Tsimshian village names in Prince Rupert Harbour I have seen. This work names “Laxane” and provides a Gitwilgyots tribal affiliation; another Gitwilgyots village is shown as being a short distance to the north. The Casey Point/Ya asqalu’i area is shown as having archaeological village sites, but no known place names.

    I would be grateful if you could email me with further information about contacts regarding differing information about these sites. I know that, for instance, Ya asqalu’i as a place name is not limited to the GbTo-54 site; according to Beynon (1956; Vol 4:22) there was a camp of the same name occupied for a time by the Tlingit; this one was up on Steamboat Passage near Sommerville Island. So, as the name refers to an alder slide, I can see how it could be ambiguous; but the accompanying map and notation from Beynon and the geological evidence seems to be in very good agreement.

    I don’t understand why Beynon’s unpublished 1954 work should be seemingly totally ignored by modern anthropologists and archaeologists. When I couldn’t find references to this work, I assumed people must not be aware of it. I’ve since heard from Dorothy Kennedy and now your comment that this is not the case, but it is regarded as “weak”. This seems to minimize Beynon’s contribution as an ethnographer and a Tsimshian historian in his own right. Admittedly, it is generally not as strong as the original notes written in Smalgyax; yet for instance in the story of Legaix’ painting at 10 Mile Point, in the 1954 work he provides the name, tribe and clan of the speaker recounting the story, the context in which it was presented (a 1916 meeting at Port Simpson between Lax Kw’alaams and Nisga’a to resolve a territorial dispute); and his position in obtaining the story, (as recording secretary of the meeting, which is in itself a fascinating insight into the merging of traditional and Euro dispute resolution mechanisms, including Adawx, during the early 20th century). Why should this not be used as referenced source? There is no hesitation in referencing another academic who in turn is presenting a story recorded by Beynon (including stories merged from two ‘informants’ separately recorded by Beynon, such as Marsden (2001:79-82) did with the Aksk story). I think Beynon 1954 should serve as fertile ground from which to look for the notes that undoubtedly have even more detail and less chance of transmission error; but that it should be regarded as a source in itself, the details scrutinized and rejected perhaps, but not ignored.

    Arcas Consulting Archeologists Ltd.
    1991 Archaeological Investigations at Tsawwassen, B.C., Vol. 1. Report on file at the Archaeology and Registry Services Branch.

    1994 Archaeological Investigations at Tsawwassen, B.C., Vol. 2. Report on file with the Ministry of Sustainable Resources.

    1999 Archaeological Investigations at Tsawwassen, B.C., Vol. 4. Report on file with the Ministry of Sustainable Resources.

    Calvert, Gay
    1968 The Co-Op Site: a prehistoric midden site on the northern northwest coast of British Columbia. On file Archaeological Records, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull.

    MacDonald, George F., Gary Coupland and David Archer
    1990 The Coast Tsimshian ca 1750. In Historical Atlas of Canada, edited by R. C. Harris. vol. 1: from the Beginning to 1800. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

    Marsden, Susan
    2001 Defending the mouth of the Skeena: perspectives on the Tsimshian Tlingit Relations. In Perspectives on Northern Norwest Coast Prehistory, edited by J. Cybulski, pp. 62-106. UBC Press, Hull, UBC.

    Martindale, Andrew
    2006 Methodological issues in the use of Tsimshan oral traditions (Adawx) in archaeology. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 30:158-192.

    Martindale, Andrew
    2009 Entanglement and tinkering: structural history in the archaeology of the Northern Tsimshian. Journal of Social Archaeology 9:59-91.

    Martindale, Andrew R.C. and Susan Marsden
    2003 Defining the Middle Period (3500 BP to 1500 BP) in Tsimshian History through a Comparison of Archaeological and Oral Records. BC Studies 138:13-50.

  3. The Ts’syen Sm’algya̱x Authority is a partner in a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to add to the accessible documentation of the sm’algya̱x language. The project has been engaged in rewriting man of the archival texts from the several collections of William Beynon’s work. Researchers wishing to work on the language can contact the TSA to discuss issues re the protocol of research dissemination, including placenames.

  4. Mr Beynon was my Grandfather on my Father’s side
    l remember while trying to find more about my Father David Arthur Beynons side of my Family l ran across William Beynon the Ethnographer. Through much studying in the Prince Rupert library l found there was some micro fiche film of his notes.
    l ordered them and started studying them.
    I wrote some of the stories out and showed them to a few Elders and even talked about them at meetings out Gitxaala but was told William Beynon work was not relevant to treaty making issues.
    more studying of all his notes need to be done

  5. My name is Christine Smith, my grandfather is the only child of William Beynon (Bill), his name was William Beynon (Sonny), he had children, my mother Ethel(Beynon), Sunni Beynon, William Beynon, Elizabeth (Betty) Beynon and Cheryl Beynon.
    We are the only decendence of William Beynon, as he had only one biological child.
    I would like to get access to his writings, I have spoken to our family and we want to start actively seeking out his work.
    Thank you.
    Christine Smith
    604 340 6197

  6. Christine and Jack: I’m delighted if this blog will help facilitate these connections. Have a look at Margaret Anderson from UNBC’s comment; it sounds like they have a lot of ‘new’ material there. We worked recently with Robert Beynon on Lelu Island and I was very excited to see his name!

  7. Jack and Lizzy Beynon and there daughter Betty, were friends of my family, and lived in Vancouver. I believe Jack worked for the Indian Agency in Vancouver. He had to use crutches to get around but he was active all the time I knew him

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