Surrey History

Semiahmoo Subsistence Activities

Subsistence Activities

The subsistence activity dominant among the Semiahmoo people was the production of food. This took several forms because of differences in cooperation, ownership of equipment and resources, and methods of exploiting nature's food sources.


Gathering vegetal food and shellfish was primarily the work of women. Some foods could be gathered at any time, others only in season; some foods could be gathered at a variety of places, and others only in specific locations.

Vegetal foods which received the greatest attention were roots, bulbs, fruits, and berries. The Camas bulb, a variety of Lily, was dug from the natural prairies behind the winter villages. The bulb was steamed, then dried before storage. Camas bulbs are sweet-tasting, and as one of the few sweeteners used, they were no doubt greatly valued. Other bulbs gathered were from the tiger-lily and fritillaria. Roots of a native carrot, clover, and the brake-fern were also gathered. Crab apples grew in abundance in tidal fore shore areas. They were gathered in August or September and put away to ripen in winter. Rose hips were also eaten. A variety of berries were gathered to be eaten fresh, or dried for winter use, or sold by the basket to the Hudson's Bay Company. Blackberries, salmon berries, blackcaps, sallies, cranberries were picked by the women as they came into season Some of the berries would be dried, and the raisin-like product would be stored for winter. With the growth of the San Francisco market, as a result of the discovery of gold in California, the cranberry trade developed. The Hudson Bay Company at Fort Langley induced the indigenous community to gather the berries that grew in profusion on the marshy lands of the Fraser delta.

Drying berries

Gathering vegetal food and shellfish was primarily the work of women. Here, they are drying berries in the sun prior to winter storage.


Shellfish were an important food source as most varieties could be gathered at any time of the year when tides were sufficiently low. The greatest activity was in the summer, and while most shellfish were eaten fresh, clams were cured for winter use. The large expanse of tidal mud flat in Boundary Bay and Semiahmoo Bay provided an excellent gathering area for marine invertebrates. Cackles, edible mussels, native oysters, sea cucumbers, crabs and clams were gathered easily. Crabs and clams, however, were the most important. Crabs were steamed and eaten fresh, while clams of all varieties, were also steamed and eaten fresh, or roasted and dried for winter use. Favorite Semiahmoo gathering areas existed off Tongue Spit, Point Roberts, Crescent Beach, and Birch Bay.



Hunting was a year round subsistence activity carried on by men. Waterfowl, and animals, and sea animals were hunted with a great number of techniques and a variety of weapons.

The Semiahmoo territory with its extensive river mouth marshes and tidal flats was rich in waterfowl. A great number of techniques for taking waterfowl was used, including nets suspended from poles, net suspended under the water, nets on poles held in the hand, spears, arrows, slings, and perhaps snares. Tongue Spit was one of the best places on the coast for raised duck nets, and several pairs of poles were raised.

Hunters used the raised duck net at dawn or dusk, when waterfowl are likely to fly but visibility is poor. A man stood at each pole holding the line and when a flock of birds hit the net, the men released the lines, letting the net drop with the birds in it.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

Swimming and diving ducks were caught with nets suspended under the water, usually in feeding areas frequented by the ducks.

Hunting land animals was definitely less important than fishing or hunting waterfowl. However, deer and elk were hunted with bows and arrows or driven into nets in group drives, or caught in pitfalls and snares. Bears were also hunted with bow and arrow or trapped with dead falls. Smaller animals were taken frequently, but the trapping of beaver, raccoons, river otters, mink, fishers, martens, muskrats for their pelts became more frequent after Fort Langley was established in 1827, and the use of metal traps was encouraged by the Hudson's Bay Company.


Fishing was the dominant subsistence activity of the Semiahmoo People. A variety of fish were taken by a number of fishing techniques. However, salmon was the most important fish caught, and reef-netting was the most important technique for catching salmon. The Semiahmoo had two important reef-netting locations: a large flat-topped rock near Birch Point, believed to belong to the Birch Bay people; the Cannery Point, Point Roberts was a Semiahmoo location shared with the Saanich and Lummi groups. The Point Roberts reef-netting grounds was by far the largest and most productive in the whole area. It was from these grounds the bulk of the winters food supply came.

The reef extends towards the south-east from Cannery Point. Along it fishermen set their gears to form a great arc. There was room for at least 14 gears side by side, sometimes with the canoes of adjacent gears gunwale to gunwale. Beyond this arc in deeper water there was room for an indefinite number of more scattered gears. Each of these positions was a location, owned and inherited, and with its own name....
The stream of sockeyes that comes northward through Rosario Strait follows the mainland shore into Boundary Bay, then wheels to the left across the shallow flats and pours over the reef and around Point Roberts to the Fraser.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish
Reef netting

Communal net sites were located on the south eastern tip of Point Roberts. The fish would be taken a shore at the temporary summer camp site and dried in the wind and sun. Cannery Point, Point Roberts was a Semiahmoo location shared with the Saanich and Lummi groups. The Point Roberts reef-netting grounds was by far the largest and most productive in the whole area.

The strategically located reef-nets intercepted this seasonal salmon migration.

Reef nets were anchored to the reef and angled away from the direction of the salmon migration. The end of the net was attached to floats to keep it on the surface. Part way along the net a rope was attached. When a school of salmon swam up the net the middle of the net was drawn up by the occupants of the canoe trapping the salmon.

The fish were split, spread apart with splints, and placed on drying racks to dry in the wind and sun. Smudge fires would be built under the racks to discourage flies. When the fish were cured, they were taken down and packed for winter storage. Sun-dried fish would keep all winter.

smoked salmon

Salmon were split and spread apart with splints, and placed on drying racks to dry in the wind and sun. Smudge fires would be built under the racks to discourage flies and enhance the taste.


The distribution of reef-netting seems to have corresponded closely to the areas within the course of the sockeye run and also to have corresponded rather closely to the distribution of the Straits Salish language.

People used reef-nets where ever they could most profitably use them and those who used them spoke the same language. This suggests that the distribution of the reef net and the distribution of the language are historically related. Either the language spread with the spread of the technique or the language was able to hold its own against others only where the technique gave its speakers a sound economic base.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

Sturgeon seems to have ranked next to salmon in importance as far as the Semiahmoo were concerned. Sturgeon are scavengers feeding off the bottom in shallow bays. They were plentiful in Boundary Bay where they were harpooned from canoes.

fish racks dotted the shoreline

Fish racks dotted the shoreline in areas where fish could be easily taken. Fish split and dried in the wind and sun could then be stored for winter. This was the staple food supply for the Semiahmoo.


Herring were taken in winter and spring as they spawned in eel-grass beds. They were taken by impaling them on sharpened teeth set into a rake-like implement. Smelt were also taken in August and September as they spawned on the sandy beaches of Semiahmoo Bay and Boundary Bay. They were taken with herring rakes or with small hand-held nets.


The Semiahmoo also built fishing weirs in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The weir sites were at the mouths of the Campbell and Nicomekl Rivers, both in former Snokomish territory. When the Snokomish became extinct as a result of a smallpox epidemic, the Semiahmoo took over their territory and their weir sites. The weir consisted of a framework of upright posts, driven into the river bottom, in a line straight across the steam. An opening in the weir led into a large rectangular enclosure. A cylindrical trap was also attached to the weir.

a fish weir

Fish weirs similar to this one on the Cowichan River, were constructed by the Semiahmoo in the mouths of the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers.

The fish which were stopped by the weir could be gaffed by fishermen in moored canoes. The fish which found their way through the opening and into the enclosure could be taken with gaffs from there. Those that turned back went into the cylindrical trap and found themselves high and dry and unable to move.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

Fall salmon runs into Dakota and California Creeks as well as the Campbell and Nicomekl Rivers were taken with dip nets, gill nets, and trawl nets.

Next Page: The Blaine–Point Roberts Salmon Fisheries

Return to Semiahmoo People Index
Terms of Use

View My Stats