John Jewitt image B-01513 courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum
In 1807 a short book was published. Called "A Journal Kept At Nootka Sound”, it was the story of a young sailor held captive by the Nootka Indians. It consisted mostly of short notes of his everyday life, and had little literary merit. It received little notice, and could well have disappeared. But scattered here and there were intriguing bits of information. They hinted at a fascinating story behind the narrative.
Richard Alsop certainly thought so. Alsop was one of the leading writers and public figures in New England. He and other writers were attempting to forge a new American literature, and were looking for new themes. Jewitt’s book had possibilities.
Alsop therefore arranged to meet with Jewitt. Using the “Journal” as his basis, he conducted four long interviews. It was a difficult business. Jewitt, although very intelligent, was not much of a raconteur. But Alsop worked hard, and a fascinating story began to emerge.
Jewitt was born and grew up in England. He had been well educated, but preferred to be a blacksmith. He was restless, and had an itch to see the world. Living in the sea port of Hull, he saw many ships come in. One day a ship bound for North America arrived. They needed a blacksmith, so he signed on board.
It was an “otter ship”. These ships traded with the northwest tribes for sea otter pelts, and sold them for a fortune in China. Jewitt appears to have enjoyed his sojourn aboard. He liked and respected his captain, and seems to have gotten along well with the rest of the crew. The trip went relatively quickly, and after six months they arrived at Nootka Sound.
Nootka Sound was not their main destination. They stopped there to get fresh fuel and supplies, and do a little trading with the local tribe. Then they would move on to other areas with richer supplies of furs. But what they didn’t know was that trouble was brewing with the local natives. Other otter ships had treated them badly, killing some natives and stealing their furs. Anger had been building up, and was on the verge of exploding.
Normally otter ships were wary of allowing natives on board. But Captain Salter did allow them, although checking first to make sure they had no weapons. The captain made a present of a musket to their chief, Maquinna. But when Maquinna took it home, it malfunctioned. He took it back to the captain, saying it wasn’t any good. Captain Salter disparaged Maquinna, saying it was good, and that Maquinna hadn’t used it properly. This was a fatal error. It drove Maquinna into a murderous rage.
Next day the natives came back on board with smuggled weapons. At a prearranged signal they attacked, massacring almost the entire crew. Jewitt was saved because of his skills. Maquinna knew he could make very good weapons and other implements, and made him a slave. Later it was discovered that another European, John Thompson, had also escaped the massacre. Jewitt pleaded for Thompson’s life, saying Thompson was his father. It’s unlikely Maquinna was deceived. But Maquinna knew Thompson was a sailmaker, and could be useful as well. So he spared him.
Jewitt and Thompson had to adapt to native life. It was very difficult. They were despised by the tribe, and completely at Maquinna’s mercy. The food was different and hard to eat. Medical attention was nonexistent. Worst of all was the isolation. They lived in constant terror for their lives, and had no conceivable means of escape.
But life did start to improve. Jewitt in particular adapted. He had a far sunnier disposition than Thompson, and learned the native language. He made the weapons and tools they needed, and went out of his way to make fine ornaments. He became a personal favourite of Maquinna.
Jewitt began to integrate with the native way of life. He adopted native dress and was initiated into their rituals. When they moved to different camps he went with them. But Maquinna knew that something else was necessary. He insisted that Jewitt take a wife. Since Jewitt was not interested in any of the Nootka women, Maquinna took him to a neighbouring tribe. He picked one, and went through the whole marriage ceremony. The description of this is one of the most fascinating in the book.
In a book aimed at white audiences this marriage is understandably muted. But there seems to have been genuine love and caring between them. Together they had a son. Jewitt was later forced to send her back to her tribe. He regretted it terribly, but knew it was necessary. He was planning to escape, and she would be badly treated when he was gone.
Thompson was a different story. He never relented in his hatred of the Nootka, and would occasionally have fights. Jewitt was constantly interceding for him. But when he and Jewitt took part in a raid on another tribe he killed seven of the enemy. After that the Nootka let him alone.
Jewitt and Thompson continued to practice their Christianity. On Sundays Maquinna let them go off for brief, simple ceremonies. Jewitt never failed to pray for their freedom. He was also devising a scheme for that freedom. Before their ship had been destroyed he had managed to obtain some paper. He did not have ink, but managed to create some from soot and berry juice. With these he wrote letters addressed to any ship captain, outlining their plight and asking for rescue. He would give a letter to anyone from another tribe who might deliver it. In this manner he gave out sixteen, one of which reached a captain.
One day a ship hove into view. Captain Hill of the brig Lydia had received one of these letters. There was great excitement in the village, but Jewitt pretended not to care. Maquinna, though, was anxious to go on board, and asked Jewitt to write a letter of recommendation. This was Jewitt’s chance. He wrote a letter blaming Maquinna for the massacre, and asked them to capture Maquinna and arrange an exchange. Jewitt felt safe doing this, because none of the Nootka could read English. The tribe members suspected a trap, and told Maquinna not to go. But Maquinna was so keen he ignored their advice. He was duly captured.
In due course the exchange was made, and Jewitt bade farewell to Maquinna. A strange bond had developed between them. They met again a few months later, when the Lydia returned to pick up furs. They greeted each other warmly, and Maquinna promised to raise Jewitt’s son as his own. Then they said goodbye forever.
After settling in Connecticut Jewitt published his “Journal”. Some time in the next few years Richard Alsop read the “Journal” and saw its potential. After interviewing Jewitt he wrote a full book on Jewitt’s adventures called “A Narrative Of The Adventures And Sufferings Of John R. Jewitt, Only Survivor Of The Crew Of The Ship Boston”. He published it under Jewitt’s name in 1815. He apparently did not wish to claim any credit. It was an immediate bestseller, and went through numerous printings. It has had many editions in the two centuries since, and is still in print today.
In a way its popularity is not surprising. Alsop modelled its composition on the enormously popular novel “Robinson Crusoe.” This was the story of a Englishman forced to adapt to wilderness life. Also, it was an excellent example of a “captivity narrative”. These were stories of white people who had been captured and forced to live with native tribes. It was a new and popular genre, and distinctively North American. But the biggest reason has to be the quality of the writing. Two centuries later it is still an enjoyable book to read.
One thing particularly striking in the book is the portrait of Maquinna. He emerges as a powerful and complex personality, and a worthy opponent to the main character Jewitt. Indeed it is the relationship between the two of them which really drives the book. To have a native person at this early date described with such subtlety and realism is a landmark in its own right.
Alsop died soon after the publication of the book. Jewitt, though, benefitted from its sales. He took to travelling the eastern seaboard peddling it. Later there were stage versions, in which he took part. Despite marrying and having a family he still seemed to prefer the roving life. His letters home give us some idea of his last years. He died in 1821.
Jewitt’s “Narrative” works on several levels. First, and perhaps foremost, it is a classic work on west coast native ethnography. Jewitt was living with the Nootka (now Nuu-Chah-Nulth) at a time when they were relatively untouched by white civilization. He records their everyday life, and is a particularly rich source on their material culture. He has less understanding of their social and spiritual life. But through his descriptions of their various ceremonies we have a glimpse of their inner world.
Secondly, it is an important document in the commercial history of the west coast. After Cook and Vancouver the main western presence on the coast were the “otter ships”. Documents on this trade are scarce, as captains wanted to keep their sources secret. Jewitt gives us a participant’s account, and is especially good on the native side of that trade.
Thirdly, it is an important text in the history of American literature. Alsop and his literary friends had been searching for ways to fuse classic literary styles with North American themes. The “Narrative” is a brilliant example of that. Its enormous popularity must have been gratifying proof that they were on the right track.
Finally, and by no means least, is its role in our own west coast literature. This is, after all, a story of where we live and of the early themes in our history. Exploration, fur-trading, and native-white relations are integral to our sense of who we are. Jewitt illuminates all of these, and does so in a wonderfully readable way. It is highly recommended for all British Columbians.
For further reading:
The library owns copies of several editions of Jewitt’s “Narrative”. These include, in our Local History Room, a second edition from 1815. Also in Local History is an edition from 1896 with an introduction by Robert Brown, an early explorer of Vancouver Island’s interior. We have circulating and Local History copies of some later editions. There is also a fictional account of his life, titled “Rivers Of Rain”, and a pamphlet on his later life, called appropriately “Later Life Of John R. Jewitt”, both held in our Local History Room. A few years ago a reprint edition was published of Jewitt’s original “Journal”. We have both circulating and Local History copies of that. It’s interesting to read the “Journal” first, then the “Narrative”, to see how the story evolved. Finally, we have a newspaper clipping file on Jewitt in our Local History Room.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian