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Kwantlen of the Coast Salish: A Halkomelem tribe

Linguistic map

The Salish People – Charles Hill–Tout

A division of the Coast Salish people occupied the lower Fraser Valley at the beginning of the 19th Century. This division was not confined to the Mainland and an important branch of it is found on Vancouver Island in the Nanaimo and Cowichan People. The Salish were far from homogeneous in language or culture. They spoke a common language known as Halkomelem, meaning river, but there were differences in dialect between upper and lower river inhabitants. They referred to themselves as the Stalo. Upper Sto:lo tribes, like the Chilliwack and Tait, lived in smaller houses than lower Sto:lo natives, and depended more on hunting.


The Sto:lo population consisted of about 3,500 person in the early 1800s. The natives lived in a clearly regulated environment, with the river dictating their life cycle. The river people consisted of numerous tribes, including the Katzie, Coquitlam, Whonnock, Nicomen, Pilalt, and Tait; the largest tribes, however, were the Musqueam, Kwantlen, and Chilliwack.

Indian place names in the Fraser Valley

The Musqueam occupied the Vancouver area and part of Richmond, with their village life centered at Marpole. The Kwantlen extended from Marpole on the north arm and Ladner on the south arm of the Fraser, all the way east to present day Hatzic. The Chilliwack tribe was centered in the Chilliwack River region. The Kwantlen were formerly one of the most powerful and extensive of the river Halkomelem tribes. Their territory extended from the mouth of the south arm of the Fraser up to the present settlement of Hatzic. They occupied or controlled more than half of the Halkomelem lands of the Mainland.

They touched the Qmuskiem (Musqueam) of the north arm, and the Sewacen (Tsawwasen) on the sound on their west; the Ketse (Katzie) on Pitt River, a tributary of the Fraser, which enters the river a little above New Westminster; the Macqui (Matsqui), whom they drove back from the river front, in their centre; and the Nekamen (Nicomen) on their east. Their occupation of the upper part of this territory dates only from the founding of Fort Langley by the Hudson's Bay Company. Prior to this they were mainly settled at or near what is now the city of New Westminster.
The Salish People – Charles Hill–Tout

These tribal boundaries were constantly shifting, due to disease and the ravages of invading Yucultas. An entire village might be decimated, allowing a neighbouring tribe to extend its domain.


In the year 1800, the main village of the Kwantlen people stood on the river bank at Skaiametl (present day New Westminster). A small seasonal village Kikait existed on the south shore (Brownsville). The population of the Kwantlen had seriously declined before the turn of the century. Three-quarters of the Stalo population along the river had perished in a smallpox epidemic. This combined with the predations of the Yukultas as their warring parties came to plunder villages, kill the men and abduct the women and children as slaves.


To the Kwantlen fishing provided the main sustenance and the fish, like the river itself, were sacred. The spring and sockeye runs were the climactic events of the year. Mid-summer runs were immense and the people spoke of the river being so thick with fish that one could walk on their backs. Other Halkomelem people came seasonally to share the salmon runs along the Fraser. This strengthened the linguistic and cultural bonds of the Halkomelem.


First White Contact; the Simon Fraser expedition

The Kwantlen's first contact with white men came in 1808 when the Simon Fraser expedition descended the river to its mouth. As Fraser moved downstream, near present-day New Westminster, he observed on the river's south bank, Kikait, the small summer fishing camp of the Kwantlen, who resided at the larger village of Skaiametl on the north shore. At Kikait, the Kwantlen sub-chief Whattlekainum watched with startled eyes as the party passed by. No such strange white travelers had ever been seen on the river before and although he had heard of white gods on the seas, these men had come from the east! One of the chiefs, Staquist, describes the reaction of the Kwantlen people:

I was there when Simon Fraser came. All the people were frightened. They called out and ran around. Some picked up their bows and spears. Others just stood still and looked. It was seen that some of the people in the canoes were just like those who had come in the white-winged canoes. They were not like any of the people who lived on the river, or like those who came when the salmon ran thick in the summer. The faces of some were pale; others had big beards. They wore strange clothes. They were the Sky–people, we thought.
The Fraser Valley: A History – John A. Cherrington
Simon Fraser Portrait

Simon Fraser was an employee of the North West Company. In response to the American Lewis and Clark expedition, Fraser was charged with establishing posts in the Pacific Region beyond the Rockies and then finding a route to the mouth of the Columbia River through the rugged mountains.


Fraser continued down the north arm and reached the Musqueam village but was urged to leave quickly to avoid attack. Fraser's party turned back upstream. Angry Musqueam natives pursued them up river. The explorers paddled furiously through most of the night and dropped ashore at Kikait. There they rested and in the morning discovered that some goods had been stolen in the night. Staquist relates that Fraser was angry:

They took the things from the young men and kicked them. That was bad. It is all right to kick a squaw, but not a warrior. It makes him ashamed. So the hearts of the young men grew black inside of them. And so it was resolved to pursue the white and kill them later that night.
The Fraser Valley: A History – John A. Cherrington

After Fraser's party had left, Whattlekainum, the Kwantlen sub-chief, discovered the plan of the young warriors to kill the whites, and forbade them to give chase. He warned them that if they killed Fraser and his men, more whites would return and massacre the Kwantlen people. The chief's intervention undoubtedly saved Fraser and his party.


Hudson Bay Company establishes Fort Langley.

In 1824 James McMillan led a party from Fort Vancouver to choose a site for a new Hudson Bay Company Fort near the mouth of the Fraser River. The site chosen was at Derby which is located 2.3km west of the mouth of the Salmon River. In July 1827, the sailing ship Cadboro entered the Fraser River. Chief Whattlekainum had observed the great winged canoe on the river and spread the word among the Kwantlen that no hostile acts were to be committed against the sky people. Early next morning, Whattlekainum and some Kwantlen braves set out in a canoe laden with beaver skins and cautiously approached the Cadboro.


The Kwantlen were warmly welcomed by McMillan, who noted in his diary:

Whattlekainum, a Quoitle Chief, was on board this morning, and was kindly received. He traded a few Beaver skins for knives.
The Fraser Valley: A History – John A. Cherrington

By fall the rudimentary beginnings of Fort Langley were established at the site of Derby. By 1828, so many Indians established encampments near the fort, and settled on Kanaka Creek directly opposite the fort, that the main Kwantlen tribe eventually became known as the Langley Band. Whattlekainum had led this re settlement from the Skaiametl and Kikait areas. He decided that the sky people could offer protection to his people from the constant Yuculta depredations.


James McMillan wrote:

This warfare keeps the Indians of this vicinity in such continual alarm that they cannot turn their attention to anything but the care of their family and that they do but poorly; while the powerful tribes from Vancouver Island harass them in this manner, little hunts can be expected from them and unless the Company supports them against those lawless villains, little exertions can be expected from them.
The Fraser Valley: A History – John A. Cherrington

The Kwantlen were very important to the Hudson Bay Company, along with the other Salo people, as they provided furs but more importantly; salmon, sturgeon, berries, wappatoes (a potato-like root) and labour for the many activities demanded at the Fort. The Company saw them as vital to their prosperity and worthy of protection. In turn the Kwantlen grew dependent on the commercial activities at the Fort.


James McMillan wrote:

One early evening in 1837, the Fort Langley canon boomed in anger. Over a thousand Yucultas streamed up the Fraser to attack Stalo villages. This time, however, instead of proceeding far up the river to prey upon the Chilliwack settlements, the fleet turned suddenly southward toward Whattlekainum's peaceful Kwantlen village near the Fort. The attack came just before dusk. The sentries yelled. The canon loaded. The swivel guns on the walls armed, and muskets readied. Kwantlen villagers fled for safety into the forest. When the war canoes came into range, the gunners were signaled to fire. Canoes were blown apart; warriors spilled into the water and swam frantically out into the river channel, where many drowned. The Kwantlen, who had fled, now emerged from the woods and with knives and clubs massacred dozens of Yucultas. The remnants of the huge war party escaped down river. Never again would the Yucultas be an important factor in the life of the Fraser Valley.
The Fraser Valley: A History – John A. Cherrington

The Fort at Derby was crowded and subject to seasonal flooding of the Fraser. In addition the arable land near the fort was limited. In 1838 the decision was made to move the site of the fort some 4km up the Fraser from the mouth of the Salmon River and onto a gravel ridge that was above the seasonal flood level. This new site also gave better access to the farm land of Langley Prairie, the old portage area between the Nicomekl and Salmon Rivers. Agriculture was becoming one of the major exports from the fort.


The Kwantlen, desiring the continued protection of the whites, moved with the members of the fort and located on McMillan Island where they built their new home. Security and economic dependency tied the local Indians to the security and employment offered by the Hudson Bay Company Fort. They were beginning to copy the whites. James Douglas reported to London:

...the Cowegian around Fort Langley, influenced by the counsel and example of the fort, are beginning to cultivate the soil, many of them having with great perseverance and industry cleared patches of forest land of sufficient extent to plant, each ten bushels of potatoes; the same spirit of enterprise extends...
Fort Langley – B.A. McKelvie
Fort Langley

Fort Langley as the Kwantlen People would have known it.


1858 The Fraser River Gold Rush.

The gold rush had long lasting effects on the Salo and the Kwantlen in particular. The rush had the immediate effect of ruining the trade relationship, which had flourished between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Stalo people. Some Indians opted to sell fish and other foodstuffs to the miners directly in return for cash and trade goods. Others guided or transported the prospectors along the river. Some opted to pan for gold themselves.


A side effect of the gold rush was a series of white encroachments that obliterated the last traces of the Kwantlen in the lower valley:


On November 19th 1858, Fort Langley was proclaimed the capital of the New British Columbia. Governor Douglas ordered the construction of administrative buildings at Derby; the site of the old original Fort Langley constructed by McMillan. The Kwantlen were displaced.


In February 1859, a new capital, New Westminster, was to be located on the Kwantlen's Skaiametl site, which provided a deep harbour and a high slope to dominate the approaches to the Fraser River. Two months later the Royal Engineers arrived and set up residence on the eastern portions of the Skaiametl site which became known as Sapperton.


Ebenezer Brown, a liquor merchant in New Westminster, preempted the Kwantlen's Kikait camp, on the south shore of the Fraser. Brown built a hotel on part of his property and subdivided it into lots. Within 10 years it had become Brown's Landing, the ferry link to New Westminster and the terminus of the Semiahmoo Road 1872-73, Yale Road 1875, and Scott Road 1875. By 1891 it was the terminus of the New Westminster Southern Railway.

New Westminster from Surrey

The main Kwantlen winter encampment (Skaiametl) became the site of New Westminster. Here the site is viewed from the Surrey shore of the Fraser River


The Kwantlen settlements were now predominantly in the eastern portions of their traditional territory. The greatest concentrations were around Fort Langley, McMillan Island, and the mouth of the Stave River. At the end of the 19th Century Charles Hill-Tout described the Kwantlen settlements.

The present village settlements of the Kwantlen, as enumerated by my informants, are as follows, the order being from east to west down the river: (1) Sqaiets, on the Stave River; (2) Honak, a division a few miles below the mouth of the Stave River, which has given the name Whonnock (Whonnock) to the white settlement and railway station of that vicinity; (3) Kwantlen, at Fort Langley; (4) Skaiametl, at New Westminster; (5) Kikait, at Brownsville, on the opposite side of the river.
The Salish People – Charles Hill–Tout

Kwantlen Reservations

Land rights became a heightened priority for natives after Confederation. White encroachment upon the best lands threatened to deprive Indians of the means to regain self-sufficiency. In addition, the provincial government was viewed as being recalcitrant in meeting the needs of particular reserves. Confederation terms had conferred jurisdiction over Indian matters to the Federal Government. Ottawa decided that eighty acres per family should be the standard, but Victoria countered with the ten-acre maximum policy. Ultimately the Kwantlen band received 1,100 acres of land. This for Whattlekainum's proud Kwantlen nation, that at one time was the most populous Sto:lo tribe in the Valley. This allotment included a 40-acre reserve in Surrey.


Kwantlen Park, Surrey

Tree burial was common among the Kwantlen and the most favoured site was the trees behind the Kikait village. The deceased body was doubled up and wrapped in blankets and conveyed to the burial grounds and deposited in the family coffin. This receptacle was a large box capable of holding the remains of several persons. Large boxes were left on the ground, but smaller boxes would then be placed in a tree. The Royal Engineers and the first white settlers encountered a large number of skeletons in burial boxes hanging in the trees. It is believed that the Royal Engineers persuaded the Indians to take down and rebury their dead in a burial ground. Father Durieu had the boxes hauled to a burial ground between the Yale and Roebuck Roads. This later became a 40-acre Kwantlen reserve on what was possibly a historic hunting camp bordering a small lake. Surrey bought the Kwantlen Reserve from Royal Kwantlen No. 2 Reserve of the McMillan Island Band. All the residents of the reserve were gone and Surrey wanted to preserve the area as a park. Ten acres were to be used for a school, two acres for a fire hall, and the remaining twenty-eight acres for a park, Kwantlen Park.

For further information on Stolo People visit the web site:
Stolo Nation: People of the River

For further information on Kwantlen Park visit the web site:
Kwantlen Park

Next Page: Camp Semiahmoo

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