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Semiahmoo Encampments

Sites occupied by the clusters of households of the Semiahmoo were of three kinds: permanent villages, temporary summer encampments and forts.

Semiahmoo encampments

Semiahmoo encampments known to exist between 1791, the first European contact; and the 1850's, when settlers began to arrive.


Permanent Villages

The permanent villages were centered around Semiahmoo and Birch Bays. These clusters of rectangular plank dwellings were winter retreats of these semi-sedentary people. This habit of seasonal convergence was very important as it established and preserved their tribal distinctiveness. The original sites of permanent villages were Tongue Spit, Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay and Campbell River. The principle Semiahmoo village was on Tongue Spit - a narrow natural tidal formation which separates Drayton Harbor from Semiahmoo Bay.

Two rows of houses belonging to upper-class people stood on the west side of the butt of the spit facing Semiahmoo Bay and extending to the little point to the south-west.... On the inside of the spit, facing Drayton Harbor, was a row of houses belonging to lower-class people.... The two settlements met, forming an inverted V with the apex at the point where the spit narrows. At this point was a burial ground. The narrow part of the spit, between the burial ground and the trees which grew on the broad outer end, was divided into a number of family owned locations for raised duck nets. A few people lived out on the end of the spit. Among the crabapple trees there was a well which gave brackish water. Beyond the end of the spit were clam beds, possibly also family owned. People trolled for salmon directly in front of the village.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

This permanent camp on tongue Spit must have existed before initial white contacts, as it is not shown on a 1791 map made by the Spanish explorer Jose Maria Narvaez, nor on Admiralty Charts from surveys by G.H. Richards of H.M.S. Plumber between 1858-62, nor is it shown on Wilkes map in 1841.


The houses clustered on the eastern shore of Drayton Harbour across from tongue Spit, between the mouths of Dakota and California Creeks, were shown on the Narvaez map in 1791 and on Wilkes map in 1841. These houses were associated with a fort (located on the present site of Blaine) which was constructed about 1830 as a result of the increased harassment from northern Indians.


The location of permanent villages on Birch Bay is vague. Sites are not shown on any of the early charts, and other accounts are conflicting. However, it is believed a small number of Semiahmoo lived on Birch Bay. They were extinct by the middle of the century, either as a result of a smallpox epidemic or as a result of an attack by the Klallam.


Within living memory the only existing Semiahmoo settlement has been Campbell River. This camp had been in existence since the 1850's, and as a definite site since 1857 when the American Boundary Commissioners established a base at Camp Semiahmoo near by in 1857. (see Camp Semiahmoo) In the 1880's it is believed to have consisted of three sites. G.H. Richard and H. Kellet in the Admiralty Surveys reported that: on each side of the graveyard on the northwest(White Rock) side of the mouth of the Campbell River, and one beyond the little hill on the southeast (boundary) side of the mouth of the river.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

Eventually these sites were included within the present Semiahmoo reserve.


The winter dwellings of the Semiahmoo were rectangular wooden houses perhaps 30 to 50 feet wide and 50 to 200 feet long. The house was usually built parallel to the water. Its roof was usually the "shed" type, that is, having a single slope, with the higher side of the house facing the water.

Shed structure

The illustration shows the typical construction of a winter dwelling.


By the 1880's or thereabouts most of the old plank houses had been destroyed, and were replaced by houses built mainly in the old style but of lumber, shakes, with gable roofs, and vertical wall planks.


Temporary Summer Encampments

With the coming of spring inhabitants of each permanent center radiated over the acknowledged Semiahmoo territory, setting up shelters at favoured spots for claming, egg gathering, bulb digging, and fishing. The most significant temporary summer camps were established on Cannery Point, Point Roberts and at Crescent Beach.


The Cannery Point camp on the Point Roberts Peninsula is located at the southeastern tip, and was an important reef-netting site. The reef extends toward the southeast from Cannery Point and the reef-netting grounds were by far the largest in the whole area. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, locations on this reef were owned by Semiahmoo, Lummi, Saanich, and even Malahat. Behind the point at the base of the hill is a spring which supplied the camp.


No one stayed at Cannery Point the year round due to its exposure. However, in June, July, and August it seethed with activity. In these temporary campsites the fishermen constructed small houses of mats or large pieces of cedar bark on a pole frame. Four upright poles were used to make a shed-roofed structure. On the beach in front of the houses ran the frying racks, about 14 feet high, the whole length of the beach.


Captain George Vancouver in his journal, described the Cannery Point campsite.

Here (Point Roberts) they landed to dine near a large deserted Village capable of containing at least 400 or 500 Inhabitants, though it was now in perfect ruins - nothing but the skeletons of the houses remained, these however were sufficient to show their general form structure and position. Each house appeared distinct and capacious of the form of an oblong square, and they were arranged in three separate rows of considerable length; the Beams consisted of huge long pieces of Timber placed in Notches on the top of supporters 14 feet from the ground, but by what mechanical power the natives had raised these bulky beams to that height they could not conjecture. Three supporters stood at each end for the longitudinal beams, and an equal number were arranged on each side for the support of smaller cross beams in each house.
C.F. Newcombe ed. Menzies Journal of Vancouver's Voyages April to October, 1792

What Captain Vancouver saw must have the frames of houses or the drying racks upon which they put their fish.

Small camp at Point Roberts

This is a small camp along the Eastern shore of Point Roberts. Formerly, Cannery Point on Point Roberts had been a seasonal center for many Straits Salish Peoples to communally fish the Fraser summer salmon runs.


A second temporary summer camp was located at Crescent Beach. This had been Snokomish territory until a smallpox epidemic wiped out the group and the Semiahmoo took over their territory. A weir site was located at the mouth of the Nicomekl River, and the tidal mud flats was a good clam digging area. Wild berries, especially cranberries, found in the flood plains of the Serpentine and Nicomekl River made Crescent Beach an attractive summer site.


Temporary summer camps where in locations easily accessible by water. The frames of the habitations would be used from season to season.


Semiahmoo Forts

The third type of structure associated with the Semiahmoo Band were the forts - one located on the present site of Blaine, the second located on the bluff in present Ocean Park, Surrey. The Semiahmoo forts were constructed during the early part of the nineteenth century. They came into being due to the increase in raids from northern Indians, or in response to the forts built in the area by the Hudson's Bay Company - for example, Fort Langley in 1827. Raids by northern Indians became more frequent after 1800, especially the southernmost Kwakiutl group, known locally as the Yucalta.

The Yucalta 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 Yucalta to expand from their original homes....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. These activities persisted until the 1850's or even later.
Suttles, Post Contact Culture Among the Lummi Indians
The fortifications were probably built around 1820-1830. One Semiahmoo fort was at the present site of Blaine, north of the mouths of Dakota and California Creeks. The fort is said to have been built in 1830 and destroyed by white miners during the Fraser Gold rush of 1858. The Semiahmoo fort was described as consisting 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.
Suttles, Economic Life of the Coast Salish

The second Semiahmoo fort was constructed on the bluff overlooking 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.

(see Indian Fort Drive)
Among the earliest evidences of development in this area was the entrenched Indian fort or camp, 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 Mud Bay, a part of Semiahmoo Bay and also Point Roberts. It was excellently situated for 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 terminations 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.
Henry T. Thrift, Surrey Leader, Nov. 11, 1954

With the advent of British common law and order with colonial status for British Columbia in 1858, Indian wars decreased and the forts fell into disrepair.

Next Page: The Heritage of Indian Fort Drive

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