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Semiahmoo of the Straits Salish

The Semiahmoo People

The People who occupied Surrey came from two distinct language groups. Along the Fraser the Kwantlen tribe were part of the Halkomelem linguistic group. The Kwantlen settlements where largely on the north bank of the Fraser as the south shore was subject to flooding in the freshet season. The Kwantlen used North Surrey as hunting grounds and as a burial ground above high water. A small village Kikait existed on the south shore. The village site was transformed when Ebenezer Brown built the first hotel in 1861 as well as the wharf that became known as Brown's Landing. As transportation links grew this site became Brownsville.

Map of Straits Salish territory

The people who occupied South Surrey were the Semiahmoo. The Semiahmoo belonged to a group of tribes called the Straits Salish, a division of the Coast Salish. The Straits Salish have been set off from their neighbours on the basis of language and their most important subsistence activity – the trapping of the early runs of salmon, the most important of which was the sockeye run to the Fraser. To the Straits Salish division belongs the tribes Sooke, Songish, and Saanish of south-eastern Vancouver Island, and the Semiahmoo, Lummi, and Samish of the Washington mainland to the east. These tribes spoke slightly differing dialects of the same Coast Salish language.

Map of Semiahmoo Territory

The territory of the Semiahmoo included the eastern shore of Point Roberts, the shores of Boundary Bay, South Surrey, the drainage basins of Dakota, California, and Terrell Creeks, and the shores of Semiahmoo Bay and Drayton Harbor, and the shores of Birch Bay. To the north of the Semiahmoo was a small Halkomelem–speaking group called the Snokomish. Their territory included the shores of Boundary Bay from Point Roberts to the Serpentine, Nicomekl and Campbell Rivers. Shortly before 1850 the Snokomish were almost entirely wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. The few survivors joined the Semiahmoo and the Semiahmoo became the heirs to the Snokomish territory.

Strictly speaking the Semiahmoo should not be called a tribe. Rather they were clusters of autonomous households often within shouting distance of one another. Sites occupied by clusters of households were of three kinds: permanent villages, temporary summer encampments, and forts. The accompanying map shows Semiahmoo encampments known to have existed between 1791, when the first white contacts were made and the 1850s at the beginnings of white settlement. Permanent villages were centered around Semiahmoo Bay and Birch Bay. The clusters of rectangular plank dwellings found there were the winter homes of these semi–sedentary people. Their habit of seasonal convergence established and preserved their tribal distinctiveness. With the coming of spring, the inhabitants of each center radiated over the acknowledged Semiahmoo territory, setting up shelters at favoured spots for clam–digging, egg–gathering, bulb–digging and fishing. Temporary summer camps were established on Cannery Point, Point Roberts, where extensive reef–netting grounds existed, and where clam–digging was undertaken. Crescent Beach was another site for digging clams, harpooning sturgeon and gaffing salmon taken from the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers. A small seasonal camp existed at the mouth of the Little Campbell River on the former Snokomish territory.

The Semiahmoo Forts were constructed in the early part of the nineteenth century. They became a necessary means of defense due to the increase in raids from northern Indians, especially the southern most Kwakiutl group, known locally as the Yukulta. The Yukulta evidently received firearms a few years earlier than the Salish; they already had muskets in 1792. This advantage, perhaps added to a culture that already valued aggression, enabled the Yukulta to expand from their original home. They raided the Coast Salish, going as far south as Puget Sound, and even ascending the Fraser River a short way. They killed, looted, and carried off women and children as slaves. To defend themselves the Semiahmoo built forts.

One fort was located at the present site of Blaine, north of the mouths of Dakota and California Creeks. It was built between 1820 and 1830. The fort consisted of a stockade around two plank houses, with tunnels leading from inside to loopholes in the bank in front of the stockade. Inside were two poles upon which baskets of flaming pitch were hoisted to light the surrounding area at night. The fort was located on the bluff overlooking Drayton Harbour and Semiahmoo Bay. This allowed fair warning against any impending raid. The second Semiahmoo fort was constructed on the bluff over–looking Semiahmoo and Boundary Bays. The following description of the fort is part of an article written by the late Mr. Henry T. Thrift of White Rock.

The entrenched Indian fort was located on the crest of the bluff about one quarter mile north of the line of the North Bluff Road. It commanded an extensive view of the waters of Boundary Bay, Mud Bay, a part of Semiahmoo Bay, and also Point Roberts. It was excellently situated for observation and defense, facing the open water on the west, with a sheer bluff practically to the water's edge. North and South it was defended with a deep ravine on each side, running inland for a considerable distance. From the termination of the ravines a deep ditch connecting them was excavated. The earth so moved formed a high bank or breastwork, the entrance being towards the south side of the structure, and enclosing possibly about a half acre of ground. The surface of the enclosure appeared to be quite level.
See Indian Fort Drive

With the establishment of British law and order, following the granting of colonial status to British Columbia in 1858, Indian wars decreased and the forts fell into disrepair. The location today is known as Indian Fort Drive a subdivision near the west end of 20th avenue.

The population of the Semiahmoo people has declined markedly since the earliest contacts with the white man. 1780 estimates of population placed the Semiahmoo at 300. By 1854 smallpox epidemics together with raids by Northern Indians had reduced their numbers to 250. In 1909 there were 38 in British Columbia; none were found on the American side of the line. By 1963, the number had dropped to 28, and the 1971 population was only 24, comprising four families.

Next Page: Kwantlen of the Coast Salish

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