Much of this novel was directly inspired by the diary entries of young English seaman John Jewitt during his time aboard the brig The Boston and also during his sojourn at Nootka Sound, on North America’s western seaboard, from 1802 to 1805.
A novel based on a true story.
“Many paddles, one canoe” –First Nations saying
In the skies above North America’s west coast, amongst the clouds, a bald eagle glided in lazy circles. With her magnificent white head and tail feathers, and her six-foot wingspan, she was the queen of her domain as she made use of the thermals that rose from the unseen terrain below.
The clouds parted to reveal a village – one of many populated by the indigenous people of the remote Northwest Pacific region. Nootka village was bordered by rugged, forest-covered hills which rose up out of the sea. Comprised of twenty or so large, wooden lodges, it was home to the Mowachaht tribe, one of the twenty-five Nuu-chah-nulth indigenous groups that occupied the region’s craggy coastline. A two-masted schooner lay at anchor offshore, safe for the moment in an inlet with the unlikely name of Friendly Cove.
Distance was no problem for the eagle whose sharp eyesight could distinguish any object from another, even if those objects were little bigger than a pinhead. Right now, her eyes were focused on a Chinook salmon swimming between the schooner and shore. The eagle flattened her wings and dove head first, extending her wings moments before she struck the water. Talons extended and now in a shallow dive, the eagle grasped the salmon and, with a few mighty beats of her wings, rose sluggishly skyward with her catch.
The eagle’s labored flight took her directly over the village. If any of the villagers had been waiting for her, with bow or musket primed, they’d have shot her down easily for she was as yet barely higher than the colorful totem poles that lined the shore. Fortunately for her, eagles were sacred to these people and so they ruled the skies with impunity.
A trade was going down with a dozen crewmen from the schooner. Unkempt and ill disciplined, the crewmen were typical of the freebooters who visited these shores in increasing numbers. They carried with them an assortment of weapons and were clearly no strangers to violence.
Armed Mowachaht warriors, ever-mindful of bad experiences they’d had with other European traders, kept a wary eye on the visitors. Most were armed with muskets, some carried blunderbusses and a few bore traditional weapons, including clubs, spears and tomahawks.
The traders had come to exchange muskets for sea-otter pelts. Much sought-after, the beautiful pelts fetched a princely sum in the civilized world – especially in London and in Macau, China. Consequently, Nootka village and the sound named after it was an increasingly popular port of call for traders intent on filling their ships’ holds with the bounty of the New World.
Most of Nootka’s fifteen hundred residents were present to observe the trade, which was being conducted on a sandy beach in front of the village. Trading, especially with visiting Europeans, was a highlight of their short, hard lives. More so after the long winter months – as was the case on this pleasant spring day.
Among the Mowachahts, the common or untitled people wore sealskin and coarse cedar bark clothing, which afforded protection from the constant rain in these parts. The chiefs and men and women of high ranking wore animal skins and colorful capes or, in rare cases, the pelt of the sea-otter.
Headmen invariably wore the striking black sea otter pelt. It extended to the knees and was fastened around the waist by a wide band of colorful, woven cedar bark. The warriors wore square-cut, yellow mantles with holes cut for the arms – similar to those worn by the commoners except theirs were dyed red and were more basic.
Absent from the trading activities were the Mowachahts’ slaves. Acquired in raids on neighboring tribes, the slaves were readily identifiable as such as they collected firewood and performed other menial tasks in and around the village. Though they spoke the same Wakashan language as their Mowachaht masters, their appearance was quite different: each bore the physical characteristics of his or her tribe. Some were lighter skinned, others darker; some were tall and slender, others short and stocky; some male slaves were bald or wore their hair short, others wore their hair in long ringlets; most wore raggedy sealskin clothing while some were near-naked. Their number included almost as many females as males – the former more often than not serving as sex slaves as well as manual workers.
Above the beach, the Mowachahts’ lodges extended to the tree line. They were a sprawling collection of wooden dwellings, the remnants of a Spanish trading outpost vacated some years earlier. Smoke from cooking fires curled up into the sky from strategically placed openings in the lodges’ roofs.
The totem poles – some even taller than the surrounding fir trees – towered over the lodges.
On the beach, there was an air of tension as the schooner’s master, Captain Alvin Walsh, an abrasive New Yorker with a well deserved reputation for dishonest trades, bargained with a group of headmen. Foremost among the latter was Maquina, chief of the Mowachahts. Tall, bronze and muscular, the middle-aged Maquina cut an impressive figure in his ceremonial cloak. Feathers protruded from his long, black hair, which he wore as a bun on top of his head. Like all the headmen, white down covered his head and shoulders, conveying the impression of falling snow.
Captain Walsh’s steely gaze was fixed on the bundles of pelts that lay at his feet while Maquina’s hawk-like eyes were fixed on a dozen new muskets stacked end-to-end in an open casket. The casket lay on top of five identical unopened caskets.
Hard-nosed bartering had begun soon after the traders had stepped ashore earlier in the day and, to both parties, it seemed a successful trade was no closer. Tempers were becoming frayed.
Maquina pointed at the caskets and, in broken English, said, “Maquina say…five pelts…one musket.”
Walsh shook his head. “One musket…ten pelts.” He appeared ready to depart, a shrewd strategy he’d fine-tuned years earlier when trading watered-down whisky to the East Coast tribes.
The chief quickly nodded to his opposite, indicating they had a deal. Walsh gestured to his men who immediately began scooping up bundles of pelts.
Maquina intervened. “Try musket first,” he said.
Walsh cursed under his breath as he motioned to his men to hold off for the moment. He then selected a musket from the open casket and handed it to Maquina. The shrewd chief ignored the offering and selected another musket. He expertly primed it and fired it into the air. The shot echoed throughout Nootka Sound. Still suspicious, Maquina broke open another casket. He tested a second musket with the same result. Satisfied, he made the faintest of hand gestures to his warriors who immediately uplifted the caskets and carried them away.
A relieved Walsh motioned to his men to resume gathering up the pelts. Under Maquina’s penetrating gaze, the captain appeared tense and he exhorted his men to hurry.
There was good reason for Maquina’s suspicion. The Mowachahts – like all members of the wider Nuu-chah-nulth community – had been short-changed, and worse, by European traders. As the number of visiting trading vessels increased, so too had the number of unsavory incidents. The indiscriminate shooting of villagers by drunk or disgruntled traders was becoming almost commonplace and the rape and mistreatment of women even more so.
And so it was with some malevolence that Maquina and his people observed these latest traders as they ferried their trade items back to the waiting ship.
Early next morning, Maquina led a six-strong hunting party into the hills behind Nootka village. His five companions included Peshwar, a forbidding headman whose reputation as a fearsome warrior rivalled that of the chief and extended far beyond the borders of the Mowachahts’ territory. All six hunters carried shiny, new muskets acquired in the previous day’s trade, and they were keen to put them to good use.
Ahead of them, in dense forest, an elk grazed. Something spooked him. He wasn’t sure what – a scent or a sound perhaps – and he took off.
Soon after, Maquina spotted the elk’s tracks and knelt down to study them. He then led his fellow hunters deeper into the trees at a fast trot.
Elsewhere in the forest, the same elk burst into a clearing, disturbing a twelve-strong war party of Haachaht warriors, traditional enemies of the Mowachahts. They carried bows, tomahawks and other traditional weapons, and wore the grotesque wolf’s brow mask associated with their tribe.
The Haachahts’ chief, Callicum, a stocky man who wore a large nose-ring, stared into the surrounding trees. He flashed a hand signal at his warriors and they quickly dispersed. Now hidden from sight, they could hear the Mowachaht hunters moving through the undergrowth in pursuit of the elk.
Reaching the forest clearing, the Mowachahts stopped to study their quarry’s tracks. Maquina’s eyes were drawn to an eagle circling high above. He stared at the bird for a few seconds before returning his gaze to the trees. Sensing danger, he primed his musket. His fellow hunters followed suite.
A Haachaht bowman stepped out from behind a tree and aimed an arrow directly at Maquina. The bowman held his bow horizontal, in the manner of the indigenous people of the west coast. Maquina dropped to one knee and swung his musket up just as the bowman loosed his arrow. The arrow lodged in the throat of a tall Mowachaht standing directly behind Maquina. Mortally wounded, the warrior collapsed, choking on his own blood. Maquina killed the bowman with one well placed shot.
Haachaht war cries rang out as Callicum led his warriors out from the trees. Another arrow found its mark, killing a young Mowachaht. Reduced to four, the remaining Mowachahts fought like men possessed.
Two Haachahts closed in on Peshwar. He aimed his musket at the nearest of the two. A hollow click signalled it had malfunctioned. Cursing, Peshwar threw his musket aside and drew his tomahawk. “Peshak!” he swore as he grappled with his enemies. With two mighty swings of his tomahawk, the two Haachahts lay dead at his feet, their heads almost severed from their bodies.
As the fight escalated, a short Mowachaht aimed his musket at a burly Haachaht who rushed him, club in hand. His musket also misfired and he was clubbed to the ground. The Haachaht finished him off before he was felled by a musket shot.
Nearby, Maquina found himself fighting alongside Peshwar. “The muskets are faulty!” Maquina shouted.
Peshwar nodded. “The White-Faces have deceived us!”
The chief found himself face-to-face with Callicum who charged him with a tomahawk in each hand. Maquina raised his musket and pulled the trigger. This time his weapon misfired. Before he could reload, the Haachaht chief was onto him. Maquina was forced to back-peddle and use his musket to block his attacker’s blows. Peshwar came to his aid, wounding Callicum with his own tomahawk.
Seeing their chief in trouble, the other Haachahts seemed unsure what to do next.
Maquina and Peshwar took advantage of their enemies’ indecision and fled, dragging with them the other surviving hunter.
As they made good their escape, Maquina was consumed by the anger he felt toward the European traders. Yet again his people had fallen foul of the traders’ unscrupulous ways. On this occasion, faulty muskets had contributed to the deaths of three of his finest warriors.
INTO THE AMERICAS (A novel based on a true story) is available as a paperback and Kindle ebook exclusively via Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Into-Americas-novel-based-story-ebook/dp/B00YJKM51E/