Adventures and Suffering of John R. Jewitt,
Captive of Maquinna, (Douglas & McIntyre, c1987)
One of the best descriptions of native life on the West Coast came from
R. Jewitt, who lived among the Nuu'chah'nulth Indians on Vancouver Island for
more than two years (1803-05) and kept a journal of his experiences.
In 1803, when an American trading ship called the Boston sailed into Nootka
Sound, Jewitt was a 19-year-old English blacksmith. He was employed by the
Boston as an armourer and would make trade goods for the Indians, whom he
had never met. Based in Massachusetts and captained by John Salter, the
Boston was the most extravagantly laden trade vessel to sail out of America.
As was customary, the chief Maquinna came aboard to welcome the captain
and assess the trading possibilities. He offered Salter fresh salmon as a welcoming
gesture. Jewitt's reaction was one of awe.
"I had never before beheld a savage of any nation, it may readily
that the novelty of their appearance, so different from any people that I had
hitherto seen, excited in me strong feelings of surprise and curiosity."
John Jewitt, the young English blacksmith aboard the trading ship the Boston
by the Nuu'chah'nulth people whom he met in 1803. He was particularly struck with the look
of one their chiefs, Maquinna, who had extended welcome to James Cook twenty-five
Maquinna was the chief of the Moachat group of the Nuu'chah'nulth and Jewitt
in his journal as "a man of dignified aspect, about six feet tall in height and extremely
straight and well proportioned: his features were in general good, and his face was
rendered remarkable by a large Roman nose, a very uncommon form of feature among these
people; his complexion was of a dark copper hue, though his face, legs, and arms were on
this occasion, so covered with red paint, that their natural colour could scarcely be
perceived; his eyebrows were painted black in two broad stripes like a new moon, and his long
black hair, which shone with oil, was fastened... over with white down, which gave him a most
curious and extraordinary appearance.
"He was dressed in a large mantle or cloak of the black
sea-otter skin, which reached to his
knees, and was fastened around his middle by a broad belt of the cloth of the country, wrought
or painted with figures of several colours; this dress was by no means unbecoming, but, on
the contrary, had an air of savage magnificence."
Maquinna initiated the trade for his own village and acted as a wholesaler
for other tribes,
taking their goods to the Europeans and making impressive profits. European goods meant
status here, and Maquinna had grown rich trading sea otter pelts to white people for metal
goods. He was a shrewd bargainer and became adept at playing the Spanish against the
English. His influence stemmed, in part, from the wealth he attained and subsequently
redistributed in potlatches.
Through trading, Maquinna built up his base of power, both within
his own tribe and among
others on the coast. He now reigned over a community that had been changed by contact.
In the course of the hunt one of the locks on the gun had broken
and Maquinna told
Salter that it was peshak, that it was bad. Salter assumed the chief had broken it with misuse
and called him a liar, among other insults, and gave the gun to the blacksmith John Jewitt to repair
it . Maquinna had acquired a rudimentary knowledge of English in his dealings with Europeans and Jewitt
realized that Maquinna understood the tenor of Salter's slurs:
"Unfortunately he understood but too well the meaning of the reproachful
the captain addressed to him. He said not a word in reply, but his countenance
sufficiently expressed the rage he felt though he exerted himself to suppress it.
"I observed him, while the captain was speaking, repeatedly put his hand
throat and rub it upon his bosom, which he afterwards told me was to keep down his
heart, which was rising into his throat and choking him."
The next day, Maquinna returned with several of his chiefs, bringing
gift of salmon. He was wearing a wooden mask that had been carved to resemble a
fierce animal. The natives danced wildly for the Boston's crew then stayed for
dinner. Shortly after they finished, Jewitt, who was at his bench in steerage cleaning
muskets, heard a commotion above him and ran up the stairs. One of the chiefs
grabbed Jewitt by the hair, but lost his hold as he swung an ax toward it. Jewitt
missed being decapitated but was hit in the forehead, a clean gash that
penetrated his skull and he collapsed unconscious into steerage.
"I fell stunned and senseless upon the floor. I was, however, soon recalled
recollection by three loud shouts or yells from the savages, which convinced me
that they had got possession of the ship. It is impossible to describe my feelings at
this terrific sound."
He asked Jewitt a series of questions: Would he be Maquinna's slave
for life; would he fight for him
in battles would he repair the muskets and make knives for him. It was this last quality
that caused Jewitt to be spared; Maquinna recognized his practical worth. Jewitt carefully answered yes
to each question and Maquinna led him to the quarter-deck where the twenty-five heads of the
Boston's captain and crew were arranged in a neat line on a thick lamina of blood. Each head was brought
to Jewitt for identification. One of his eyes was swollen shut from a wound in his forehead and he blinked
through the other, offering the grim roll call.
A second man, John Thompson, the ship's sail-maker, was found alive and
spared after Jewitt convinced
Maquinna that Thompson, who was twenty years older than Jewitt, was in fact his father. Jewitt
threatened suicide if his "father" was killed and reminded Maquinna that he would lose his services.
Maquinna reluctantly spared Thompson.
The Boston was emptied and scuttled. And the people held a potlatch - a
and a triumphant show of power where a chief welcomes his guests by handing out
armloads of his excess wealth.
Twenty coastal tribes came to join in the feast. They put on dresses from
the ship's trunks,
put stockings on their heads, slung cartridge belts around themselves and danced on the
shore There was a feast of whale blubber, smoked herring spawn and dried fish.
Jewitt noted, "On this occasion Maquinna gave away no less than
muskets, the same number of looking glasses, four hundred yards of cloth, and
twenty casks of powder, besides other things."
It was the largest potlatch ever seen in that area and helped
position as the dominant force on the island.
Following the Boston massacre, Maquinna took John Jewitt and the ship's
sail-maker John Thompson as
slaves. Thompson, an American born in Philadelphia, despised the natives and was a bitter, resentful,
occasionally violent slave. But Jewitt learned the language and did his best to endear himself.
"I had determined from the first of my capture to adopt a conciliating
conduct towards them, and
conform myself, as far as was in my power, to their customs, and mode of thinking, trusting that
the same divine goodness that had rescued me from death, would not always suffer me to languish
in captivity among these heathens."
Jewitt made fish hooks and knives for the various chiefs and ornaments
for their wives and children.
Maquinna's wife liked Jewitt and her eleven-year-old boy became devoted to him. Maquinna prized
him both as an armourer and as a novelty that he sometimes put on display during trade missions to
"I became quite an object of curiosity to these people," Jewitt wrote
in his diary, "very few of
whom had ever seen a white man. They crowded around me in numbers, taking hold of my
clothes, examining my face, hands and feet, and even opening my mouth to see if I had a
tongue... having undergone this examination for some time, Maquinna at length made
a sign to me to speak to them. On hearing me address them in their own language, they were
greatly astonished and delighted... "
Jewitt was a gifted amateur ethnographer, noting every detail of Nootka
life, measuring the lengths
of dwellings and canoes, observing the complex social hierarchy and recording odd parallels with
his own culture:
"In decorating their heads and faces they place their principal pride,"
he wrote, "and
none of our most fashionable beaus, when preparing for a grand ball can be more particular: For I
have known Maquinna after having been employed for more than an hour in painting his face, to
rub the whole off and recommence the operation anew when it did not entirely please him."
Maquinna was vain and complex, both political and principled, a charismatic
chief whose vanity was
balanced by a strict asceticism. His relationship with Jewitt eventually took on a familial tone
Thompson, on the other hand, remained sullen and combative. He punched Maquinna's son
on one occasion, an offense that would have cost him his life had Jewitt not argued strenuously
on his behalf. To ensure survival, Thompson needed Jewitt, who in turn depended on the
capricious Maquinna. In his happier moments, Maquinna had promised Jewitt that should a ship come,
he could leave with them. But news of the Boston massacre had traveled among
traders, likely gathering horrific embellishments, and no one came to trade.
Maquinna's interest in his slave Jewitt wasn't shared among the 1,500
Nuu'chah'nulth villagers. "As for the
others," Jewitt wrote in his meticulous journals, "some of the chiefs excepted, they cared
little what became of me, and probably would have been gratified with my death." Many felt that
despite their marquee value and practicality, the two white slaves -- Jewitt and Thompson
-- were liabilities; they were witnesses to a massacre and could bring ruin on the village.
On one occasion, Maquinna had to use his club to defend Jewitt against angry chiefs.
When John Jewitt had been at Nootka Sound almost two years, the chief Maquinna
council where it was decided that Jewitt should marry one of their women; it was time he was fully
integrated into the tribe. If Jewitt didn't want one of the local women, Maquinna said, they would go
to another tribe and buy a bride. If he decided not to marry, he would be killed.
"Reduced to this sad extremity," Jewitt wrote, "with death on
the one side, and matrimony on the
other, I thought proper to choose what appeared to me the least of the two evils, and consent to be
Jewitt didn't want any of the local women so he and Maquinna and fifty
men loaded two canoes and
set out for the A-i-tiz-zart tribe, bringing muskets, cloth and sea-otter skins to buy a bride for Jewitt.
They were feted with herring spawn and whale oil and Maquinna asked Jewitt if he saw a woman he
liked. He chose a seventeen year-old beauty, Eu-stoch-ee-exqua, the daughter of the chief
"Maquinna rose," Jewitt recounted, "and in a speech of more than
half an hour, said much in my
praise to the A-i-tiz-zart chief, telling him that I was as good a man as themselves." Maquinna told
the chief that despite the fact that Jewitt was white and looked like a seal, he would make a good
His new wife was beautiful; small and well formed, with soft black hair
and teeth of a whiteness rarely
seen in Europe. Yet Jewitt wasn't happy.
"A compulsory marriage with the most beautiful and accomplished person
in the world, can
never prove a source of real happiness," he wrote, "and in my situation, I could not
but view this connection as a chain that was to bind me down to this savage
land, and prevent me ever again seeing a civilized country... "
Marriage was a psychological burden to Jewitt, an incremental step to actually
Maquinna used it as wedge, arguing that Jewitt should adopt other customs now that he was
married. He had to paint himself in their customary red and black. His European clothes were
abandoned and he wore a breechcloth, suffering constantly from the cold. His European self was
being slowly eroded. One of the last bulwarks was his faith; on Sundays he retreated to the forest
and prayed to his god in solitude.
Despite his Christian misgivings, Jewitt grew closer to Maquinna. He even
came to rationalize the
massacre of his crew mates on the Boston as the result, he believed, of the white man's
"These injuries had excited in the breast of Maquinna an ardent desire
of revenge, the
strongest passion of the savage heart... Unfortunately for us, the long-wished-for
opportunity at length presented itself in our ship...
"And here I cannot but indulge a reflection that has frequently occurred
to me on the manner in
which our people behave towards the natives.
"For, though they are a thievish race, yet I have no doubt that many
of the melancholy disasters
have principally arisen from the imprudent conduct of some of the captains and crews of the ships
employed in this trade, in exasperating them by insulting, plundering, and even killing them on
Jewitt's life among the Nootka was changing from an adventure to a permanent
depressed him. Maquinna told him and Jewitt agreed that his wife would have to be sent back to
her tribe as he could no longer care for her in his depressed state. He was able to conquer his
melancholy long enough to father a child, a son who is mentioned only in passing in his published
journal. His wife pleaded to stay, saying that she would nurse him back to health.
"I told her she must go," Jewitt wrote, "for that I did not
think I should ever recover, which in
truth I but little expected, and that her father would take good care of her...
I was greatly affected with the simple expressions of her regard for me, and could
not but feel strongly interested for this poor girl, who in all her conduct towards me, had
discovered so much mildness and attention to my wishes; and had it not been
that I considered her as an almost insuperable obstacle to my being permitted to
leave the country, I should no doubt have felt the deprivation of her society a real loss."
John Jewitt lived among the Nuu'chah'nulth in Nootka Sound for nearly three
years. He had almost
resigned himself to his fate when suddenly, everything changed.
"On the morning of the nineteenth of July, a day that will be ever
held by me in grateful
remembrance, of the mercies of God... my ears were saluted with the joyful sound
of three cannon, and the cries of the inhabitants, exclaiming... strangers -- white men."
The Lydia, a trading ship out of Boston, had anchored in the sound.
Its captain, Samuel Hill,
was aware that Jewitt and his shipmate John Thompson might be there. Jewitt had written
letters describing his plight and left them with a few chiefs during trading visits, asking them to
pass them along to any ship that came by. Hill had been given one of these letters by a native
chief named Ulatilla. In it, Jewitt outlined the fate of the Boston and said there were two survivors,
Jewitt feigned indifference at the ship's arrival. The villagers were alarmed
though and argued for the
deaths of him and Thompson. At the very least, they should be taken fifteen miles into the bush until the
ship had left, they said. The chiefs adopted a surprisingly conciliatory tone and said the two should
be released. Maquinna, who had so often been Jewitt's protector, was now reluctant to let him go. The
captives sat in limbo, unsure whether they would be rescued or killed.
Maquinna decided to go aboard the Lydia and assess the trading potential,
a decision that
was met with strong opposition among both villagers and chiefs. They said it was dangerous
and unnecessary; he would be killed by the white men. Maquinna replied
that he had no fear and asked Jewitt to write him a letter of recommendation stating that he and
Thompson had been well treated.
As Maquinna watched, Jewitt wrote, "Dear Sir, THE bearer
of this letter is the
Indian king by the name of Maquinna. He was the instigator of the capture the
ship Boston, of Boston in North America, John Salter captain, and of the murder
of twenty-five men of her crew, the two only survivors being now on shore -
Wherefore I hope you will take care to confine him according to his merits, putting in your
dead lights, and keeping so good a watch over him, that he cannot escape from you.
By so doing we shall be able to obtain our release in the course of a few hours."
When Maquinna asked Jewitt to read what he had written, he went over each
line, fabricating a new
narrative, saying that he had instructed the captain to give Maquinna molasses, biscuits and rum and
that he had always been well treated.
"He said 'John, you no lie?'
"Never did I undergo such a scrutiny, or ever experience greater apprehensions
that I felt at that
moment, when my destiny was suspended on the slightest thread, and the least mark of
embarrassment on mine, or suspicion of treachery on his part, would probably have
rendered my life the sacrifice."
After closely examining Jewitt's face, Maquinna said he believed Jewitt
and left in a canoe, carrying the
letter to the Lydia's captain. The chief presented Jewitt's letter to Captain Hill along with a
gift of sea-otter pelts. Hill invited him into his cabin, gave him biscuits and rum and had him
arrested. Maquinna was surprised but offered no resistance. The canoe returned to
shore without the chief, the paddlers conveying the message that Jewitt had betrayed him.
The women in the village wept and sank to their knees, begging Jewitt to
stop the white men from
killing Maquinna. The men took another approach, threatening to cut him into pieces the size of his
thumbnail or slowly roast him alive. A trade was finally arranged and Jewitt and Thompson were taken
out to the Lydia.
Jewitt was dressed almost exactly as Maquinna had been when he had come
aboard the Boston. His hair
hadn't been cut in more than two years and was piled on his head and held with a spruce twig. His face
and entire body were painted in red and black and he was wrapped in a bear skin. Hill said he
had never seen any human in so wild a state.
Maquinna was in irons but welcomed Jewitt. They spent a sleepless night
together in the cabin as
Maquinna reviewed their relationship.
"John," he said, "you know when you [were] alone, and more than five
hundred men were your
enemies, I was your friend and prevented them from putting you and Thompson to
death, and now I am in the power of your friends, you ought to do the same by me."
Jewitt had in fact already convinced Hill to release Maquinna and he assured
the chief that Thompson,
who probably wanted to kill him, would be restrained. Jewitt felt a duty to recover what remained of the
Boston's cargo and arranged for a final trade. In the morning, the cargo was brought on board in exchange
for the great trader, Maquinna.
Before getting in his canoe, Maquinna presented the captain with his mantle
of four sea-otter skins, which
was greatly appreciated. Hill said he would be back a Nootka Sound in November and suggested
Maquinna have more skins ready for trade; they could do business.
"Then, grasping both my hands with much emotion, while the tears trickled
down his cheeks, he
bade me farewell, and stept into the canoe, which immediately paddled him on shore," wrote Jewitt.
The Englishman was unexpectedly moved as well. "Notwithstanding my joy
at my deliverance,"
Jewitt wrote, "...I could not avoid experiencing a painful sensation on parting with
this savage chief, who had preserved my life, and in general treated me with kindness,
and considering their ideas and manners, much better than could have been expected."
Having recovered the two captives from the Boston and after returning Maquinna
to his people,
the Lydia headed north along the coast to trade with other tribes. Among them were the Haida, who
John Jewitt refers to in his diary as the Wooden-lips. Jewitt notes that the women did all their trading.
In November of 1805, the ship returned to Nootka Sound and Maquinna was
see Jewitt, who came ashore, once several chiefs had gone out to the Lydia to insure his safety.
Jewitt's son by Eu-stoch-ee-exqua was now five months old and Maquinna
said that once
the child was weaned he would take him from the mother and raise him as his own.
The Lydia next went to China and Jewitt didn't get back to Boston until
1807, five years after
he had left England. But civilization didn't prove as welcoming as the former captives had hoped.
John Thompson, who had been held captive along with Jewitt, died in 1815
in Havana, Cuba,
or in 1816 in Philadelphia according to differing historical accounts. Jewitt married a woman named
Hester Jones with whom he had five children. They settled in Connecticut, but Jewitt never shook
the effects of his time among the Nootka. He published his diary as A Journal Kept at Nootka Sound,
and peddled the book around New England in a horse drawn cart.
The account was later rewritten by Richard Alsop, a writer of some note,
and appeared in
1815 with the impossible title, A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt; Only
Survivor of the Crew of the Ship Boston, During a Captivity of Nearly 3 Years Among the Savages
of Nootka Sound with an Account of the Manners, Mode of Living, and Religious Opinions of the
Natives. Despite the awkward title it received critical praise and was a modest commercial success,
selling 9,000 copies. Jewitt sold the book door-to-door in the towns along the eastern seaboard and
sent what money he could back to his family in Connecticut.
Jewitt's literary success was parlayed into a dramatization. He collaborated
James Nelson Barker and the result, The Armourer's Escape; Or, three years at Nootka Sound
was a two act melodrama/musical that ran for three performances at the Philadelphia Theatre
starting March 21, 1817. Jewitt played himself and sang two songs, one of them in the
Nootka language. After the play's brief run, he returned to his life as a traveling salesman, constantly
on the road, peddling his retailed adventures.
In January of 1821 at the age of thirty-seven, Jewitt died of unstated causes.
Maquinna was last seen in 1825 by a Hudson's Bay trader visiting Vancouver
Island. The chief was
nearing seventy and hobbled by rheumatism but he still greeted the ships, anxious to trade.
(From CBC's web site... " Canada: A People's History " October 22, 2000)
BC Folklore Society collection
John R. Jewitt Nootka Sound
I speak to you as one who has, by the blessings of fate herself, survived
such as few have ever been subjected to. I, a poor Englishman from abroad seeking
no more than to live out a proper and decent Christian life, found first my fellow
noble men set upon and murdered - yes, ladies and gentlemen, murdered - by those
most uncivilized inhabitants of the Pacific North West. Then, myself and but one
other lone soul enslaved, our very lives dangling precariously upon the merest whims
of the very leader of those who had killed our brethren!
But make no mistake, my good people. While they were of decidedly passionate
malevolent intent, they were also quite wily in this enterprise. They made use not
only of their pitiful captives' defenceless bodies (details of which you must, for
the sake of your very sanity, be spared.
I would, however, draw your attention to the deep scar still to be seen
forhead as a most minute example of their barbarism!), but also—being by now much
more revealing as to their truer purpose!—of their poor talents and skills as well!
Ladies and gentlemen, they forced us, ever by threat of impending and assuredly
torturous death, to disclose to them our simple yet honest knowledge in the
honorable arts of smithing and sailmaking—then corrupted them to their diabolic
purposes! Oh, those horrid memories!
Gentle folk, forgive me. It is not my intention to cause you undue alarm
misfortunes, horrific as they may have been. Ah, many a day I consoled myself—in
those all too infrequent moments when I would perhaps cease to be appropriately
entertaining to my captors; laying huddled up in a corner on the frozen ground;
perhaps being indifferently mistaken for dead—by bringing back to my mind a small
piece of this civilized land I had once known and still dearly loved.
Of all the charms civilization has presented, none are more endearing to
me than her
songs! And, being employed upon a merchant ship, one of course was quickly
acquainted with the jolly "sea shanty". One melody in particular remained in my
mind—an invention of Mr. Charles Dibdin, I believe. With your permission, I should
like to take the liberty of using this fine song to deliver to you a brief account of
my experience. I trust you will find it satisfactory.
John Rodgers Jewitt was a young Englishman at the end of the eighteenth
Having decided to emmigrate to America, he was now looking for a way to make
some money so as to allow him a good start in his new life. At this time the American
sea otter trade was booming, and it was in this enterprise that Jewitt put his hopes.
In the late summer of 1802 the American ship Boston, prior to making its way to the
Pacific Northwest, was taking on trade goods in the North Sea port of Hull. It was
here that Jewitt signed on for his fateful voyage as the ship's armourer or
blacksmith, having acquired the skills of that trade in his youth.
To put it simply, the Boston ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong
Their destination was Nootka Sound, a by now traditional location for trade
between the local Native inhabitants and the Americans, Spanish and English since
Captain Cook's initial visit some twenty-five years earlier. However, the Nootkans
had by this time found themselves outraged and betrayed on numerous occassions in
their dealing with these "White" men - so much so that they had decided to seek out
their revenge on the next ship to enter their waters. That ship was the Boston. In a
well planned attack, the Nootkans - under the leadership of their Chief, Maquinna -
managed to kill all but two of the crew of twenty-seven. The two spared were the
sailmaker, John Thompson, and our blacksmith, Mr. Jewitt. Maquinna was distinctly
aware of their worth as tradesmen, and they ended up spending over two years
(1803-1805) as captive employees, all of which was well documented by John
Jewitt in his personal journal, and followed up on by his book, Narrative of the
Adventures and Sufferings of John R, Jewitt.
Though it would seem that Jewitt personally managed to get on well with
captives - he adapted himself so much to their way of life that Chief Maquinna,
treating him almost like an adopted son, arranged a marriage for him! - he decided,
upon his eventual rescue and disembarkment in Boston, to exploit his experience for
a livelihood. He played upon the sympathies and prejudices of the day, and
delivered it all in an entertainment package appropriate to the time. He lived out the
rest of his life in New England, finally settling down in Connecticut, where he
passed away in 1821.
The Poor Armourer Boy (Philip Thomas SOCAN )
No thrush that e'er pip'd its sweet note from the thorn
Was more lively than I, or more free,
'Till lur'd by false colours, in life's blooming morn
I tempted my fortune at sea.
My father he wept as his blessing he gave,
When I left him "my time to employ"
In climates remote on the rude ocean wave,
Being but a poor Armourer Boy.
Whilst amidst each new scene these "maxims of old"
Upheld me when grief did oppress;
That a fair reputation is better than gold,
And courage will conquer distress:
"So contented I brav'd the rude storm, dry or wet,
Buoy'd up with hopes" light painted toy,
In thinking that Fortune would certainly yet
Deign to smile on the Armourer Boy.
From slav'ry escap'd, I, joyful once more
Hail'd a civiliz'd land, but alone
And a stranger was I on a far-distant shore
From that which my childhood had known.
"If such be life's fate, with emotion I cried,"
Of sorrow so great the alloy;
"Heaven grant the sole blessing that ne'er is denied,"
To the friendless Poor Armourer Boy!
With our ship, on return, with riches full fraught,
We hop'd soon for Boston to steer,
My heart it with ecstacy leap'd at the thought,
"My eyes dropp'd through pleasure a tear."
"But, alas! adverse fate so hard" and unture
"Did all these gay prospects destroy,"
For burn'd was our ship and murder'd our crew,
And wounded the Armourer Boy.
For a long time in pain and sickness I pin'd,
With no one to feel for my woe,
No mother, my wounds, as she sooth'd me, to bind,
No sister her aid to bestow!
By savages fierce for years held a slave,
Did affliction my poor heart annoy,
Till Hope dropp'd her anchor at last on the grave
As the birth* of the Armourer Boy.
"birth" in this case is the old spelling of "berth".
The text is as it appears on Jewitt's broadside. The quotation
marks are puzzling but suggest that the phrases thus marked were
taken from "The Poor Cabin Boy," the song which Jewitt's song
Source: Philip, Thomas J. (SOCAN) Songs of the Pacific Northwest.
Hancock House Publishers Ltd., 1979, pg. 88. Used with permission from the author.
Midi arrangement by T. Whitbread