This is a story of adventure, massacre, honour and revenge and it all started because of some underwear. There are many non-wars with odd names, such as the Pig War, and perhaps if this non-war could have been called anything other than the Underpant War, perhaps this would have joined the list. It is the story of two ultimately flawed men, victims of their times and cultures, set in a mysterious beautiful and dangerous land, and it was all started because someone hung the washing out to dry. Read on and I’ll tell you about it.
“Seize the Chief’s!” Captain John Kendrick shouted furiously to his men. The barked order given in a deep sea bellow shattered the amicable atmosphere aboard the sloop Lady Washington, anchored in the sheltered bay of the Haida village on Anthony Island.
The Chief’s, Koyah and Skulkinanse, were promptly seized and brought to the 47 year old Kendrick. “Dismount that cannon” he ordered pointing to one of the ship’s two small calibre guns. The gun was swiftly dismounted, and one leg each of the chief’s was secured to the iron ring mounts that held the cannon in place. With the two Indians safely pinioned Kendrick uttered a warning “Now either you order your people to bring back everything they have stolen or you die”. The stolen articles in question being some small personal possessions, and a pair of Kendrick’s linen underwear that had been hanging out to dry.
The chief of the village, Koyah, saw that the “Boston Man” as the Haida called all Americans, was serious, by coincidence Kendrick had actually been born in Massachusetts in 1740 and had served as a privateer during the American Revolution, fighting as a government pirate for the new United States. His career had been chequered and he had been captured and exchanged by the British during the war. He had come to the Pacific Northwest in a joint trading venture with his junior partner Robert Grey, the one eyed 32 year old veteran of the Revolution who would become the first American to circumnavigate the world, who had previously put into Koyah’s port in the Lady Washington and traded in “Strict Friendship” with him in 1789. But now in 1791 Grey was sailing towards China in the cartel’s other ship Columbia and it was Kendrick, the privateer turned trader, that was in command now, and the old privateer died hard in John Kendrick.
The chief was up against a wall and ordered his people to do what they were told; hoping that would be the end of it. The stolen items were returned all save for a few items which was made up in trade goods, but Kendrick still didn’t let them go, he saw the chance for a little extortion and demanded the Indians trade him all their furs in return for the two chief’s. His demands were complied with, though not before Kendrick had made an example of Koyah. He tied a rope around his neck and painted his face, then he cut his hair off and had him flogged a few lashes before turning him ashore, a lesson well learned. Kendrick had no idea how well.
The bruised and humiliated Koyah staggerd off the canoe and crunched up the pebbly beach to watch the ship flying the red white and blue flag of the Boston men sail away. Koyah was one of the chief’s of the Raven clan of the Kunghit Haida, a southern branch of the warlike tribe of coastal Indians that lived on Anthony Island at Koyah’s village just north of Barrel Sound. His name actually meant “Raven” and up until then he had been a, dignified and respected man. Now his prestige had been badly damaged, the only way he could save face was to exact a revenge from the man who had shamed him and distribute his wealth to his people, quite often this revenge could be taken in blood.
The Kunghit had been in contact with British and American traders since before 1787, and every time a trading vessel had come into the shallow bay, people had come rowing out from all over the little coast of what the Haida called Red Cod Island to bargain with them for iron and cloth.
Kendrick’s supreme ignorance of these things is instantly apparent when you see what he did next. After an absence of four days the Lady Washington appeared in the mouth of the southern channel of Koyah’s village, it was the 16th of June. From the deck of the ship it seemed like nothing had changed. The village with its sturdy timber framed houses stood peacefully in the sunlight on a 20 foot shelf, hugging the rim of a curving half-moon beach. The vividly towering ranks of their intricately carved totem poles rose above each house as silent sentinels. At high tide the sea flooded the dry basin of the bay to create a shallow glacial pond and the sailors watched as canoes were run down to the beach and rowed out past the rocky shore of Grave House Island, which sheltered the village from westerly weather. The splash of oars mixing with the lap of waves and the cries of the sea birds flocking overhead.
First Koyah came aboard and all seemed well, then some of his people stepped onto the deck, then some more and then some more. Kendrick, having been caught with his pants down once, was about to get hung out to dry. The master gunner saw that the decks were awash with the Haida, he at least remembered that all the trouble before had been caused because Kendrick had let too many of them aboard. Perhaps he noticed that there were no women in the group, which meant the Haida had other things on their mind than trading. He asked the captain to take the keys to the arms chest just in case but Kendrick didn’t listen to him. It seems he was somewhere on the other side of being drunk and the gunner was expelled from the quarterdeck and the captain bartered with the chief. Maybe it was Koyah’s expression or perhaps it was the flash of light on knives being drawn across the ship, but Kendrick soon regretted his arrogance. In a blink things spiralled out of control, the 20 or so crew were now vastly outnumbered by the 50 or so Indians crowding the deck and there were 100 or more down in the canoes. The crew were herded together and locked below.
Gleefully the Haida plucked hats and kerchiefs and anything else they fancied from this human pick and mix as they went, including the keys to the arms chest. Then they began singing a war song and gathered to watch their chief take revenge. With his enemy in his power Koyah mocked Kendrick, much to the amusement of the singing warriors. He stuck out his foot and pointing crowed “Now put me in your gun!” For Kendrick things couldn’t have been worse, but imminent danger seemed to sober him up, he began trying to barter for the keys arms chest. Now it was Koyah who became complacent, he was more interested in plunder than noticing Kendrick’s stalling tactics. Being a generous chief he wanted the women and children to have a share in the spoils and he sent back for them, while he waited Kendrick managed to whisper some orders to his men below.
Unbeknownst to the Chief but probably not to Kendrick, who would have guessed, the officers below had rustled up some muskets, cutlasses, axes and pistols and shared them out. Kendrick warned them not to do anything until he gave the word “follow me.”
As the women came aboard and the looting resumed, Koyah got an inkling that something was wrong, what were the men below doing? He went to the companion way, pushing past Kendrick, and jumped down to have a quick look. Seeing the back of the chief below him Kendrick took his chance and leapt on Koyah. It almost proved fatal as the chief whipped around like lighting and slashed open Kendrick’s shirt with his knife, but before he could cut again the crew, hearing the disturbance, made their move. Koyah saw the multiple musket barrels appear in the doorway and twisted away. “Follow Me!” cried Kendrick. The sailors rushed on deck, hot on Koyah’s heels, shooting their muskets left and right with their captain leading them forwards, the Haida recoiled at the sudden fusillade and the arms chest was recaptured “Arm the men!” yelled Kendrick. More men armed themselves and a panic ensued amongst the Indians, who began tumbling over the side and into the canoes. Kendrick brandished a cutlass and cut his way furiously to the forecastle. Here he encountered an enraged woman screaming at the Warriors to stand and fight, Kendrick callously severed her arm, and she jumped over the side to save herself. The Privateer then drew a pistol and promptly shot her dead in the water. Koyah stumbled over the side, wounded by a shot in the back, he had just seen his wife and two children shot down dead in front of him. Stunned and bleeding he was hauled into a canoe were many other wounded, like his two brothers and his friend chief Skulkinanse were being raced away.
With the Haida ejected and their canoes pulling away the Lady Washington’s guns opened fire to hurry them along. From the shore the Indians watched in horror as the Boston men lowered their boats and began shooting the survivors struggling in the water. After it was over there was seen over the decks of the Lady Washington and bobbing in the calm waters of the inlet the bodies of 40 people; Koyah had paid a heavy price for his vengeance. The next morning Kendrick trained his guns on the village and demanded back stolen items and probably a few skins for good measure, then once he had got what he wanted he sailed away, to become a hero, remembered in verse. So was the legend of another Indian fighter born.
Koyah was disgraced, not only had he been humiliated but now he had been defeated in battle. When the redoubtable Captain Grey returned to the inlet on the 8th of July, he talked to him, Koyah seemed frightened and in a tremor, which confused Grey who had no idea what had occured, the chief would give no details about what had happened, but his people told him and that Koyah was no longer a chief to them but a Ahiko, or commoner, and that the tribe was now lead by many lesser chiefs. Perplexed Grey left Koyah to heal and mourn for his dead family. His grief lasted until August when he rose from his mourning, burning to redeem himself. To make a start he teamed up with his ally Skulkinanse for a raid on the traditional enemy of the Kinghit; the village of Skidgate. Knocking fellow Indians on the head would go a long way to regaining his prestige, after that summer Koyah could not be persuaded to speak to any traders.
Koyah was not the only one to feel resentment towards the Boston Men, 1791 would mark the start of troubles along the whole northern pacific coast. Perhaps hearing of the treatment of the Kunghit at the hands of the Merchants, under the pretence of trading, 150 Haida attempted to seize another ship, commanded by a captain Thomas Barnett of the Gustavus. Barnett was a canny fellow however and he noticed that there were no women or children in the canoes and sent armed men to the tops and the deck, which calmed things down.
The crew of the American Brig Eleanora would not be so lucky. In the summer of 1794 Captain Simon Metcalf was trading with chief’s Koyah, Cumshewa and another ally called Scorch Eye. Metcalf was allot like Kendrick, he had fought in the Revolution and been captured by the British and then gone to the Pacific to trade when the fighting ended. He too was irascible and harsh. In 1789 he had flogged a Hawaiian chief for a minor infraction and punished the retaliatory murder of one of his crew by massacring 100 men women and children in the infamous Olowalu massacre, an event which makes Kendrick’s affair seem rather innocent. Because of this his 19 year old son and all but 1 of his 4 man crew were in turn massacred in a reprisal raid by the Hawaiian’s just down the coast, Metcalf never actually found out what happened to his son, who had to pay for the sins of his father. Now off the coast of British Columbia he made the fatal mistake of allowing too many Indians aboard, and this time the Haida were playing for keeps, Koyah recognised Kendrick’s type in Metcalf and of the 11 men of the Eleanora’s crew all but one were killed in the ensuing fight. The survivor hid in the main top and was spared, but made a slave. For 12 months he was forced to do menial chores and cut and haul wood in all weathers. When ships came in sight he was tied to a tree until they left, eventually he was traded to the Hawaiians where he told his story to John Young, Metcalf’s boatswain who had been captured by King Kehmehameha around the time of the Olowalu massacre and made his military advisor.
Fresh from victory Koyah and Cumshewa struck again, barely weeks later, taking the American schooner Resolution. Completely bent on wiping his record clean with a list of massacres Koyah eagerly awaited his next chance, which fell right into his lap as if sent from above. A British ship had broken her masts and had run herself aground to repair them. Koyah lead his people out and made a show of supplying the crew with food. For a few days he won their trust by returning to trade with them, then one day, when he knew they were ashore to get wood for the masts, he jumped the British sailors and killed them all, burning the ship to the waterline after pillaging its contents.
The list of Koyah’s attacks differ, most people say he only attacked 4 ships, and was successful in two attacks. Why? Because they don’t count his involvement in the Resolution attack, crediting this to Cumshewa who was in charge of the show, nevertheless his presence there cannot be ignored, which is why I included it. Koyah was now well on his way back to the top, he had a string of three victories in four battles under his belt (The outcome of the attack on Skidgate is unknown but I assume it was successful or else he really must have had a loyal following). He had pillaged ships and distributed their wealth, he had gotten new muskets, pistols, swords and axes for his men, he may even have taken some swivel guns and cannons away but I don’t know for sure. Koyah the trader had turned into Koyah the pirate, and he had a better reason than most to do so, without his blatantly piratical activities he was little more than dirt in his own village. In fact his career isn’t at all dissimilar to most Caribbean pirates in that it was short, violent and profitable.
It all ended were it had began, in the idyllic bay of Koyah’s village. Someone had obviously forgotten to tell the 19 or 20 year old John Boit of the Sloop Union that Koyah’s Place on Anthony Island was somewhere to be avoided if you wanted to keep breathing, either that or he felt he was a match for any Indian on the coast.
He sailed into the south channel of the inlet on the 21st June 1795 and dropped anchor off the mortuary island. The Indians of the Haida Gwaii always knew in advance when the traders were coming and could muster sometimes over 180 people from seasonal camps and winter villages all along the coast to do business. Due to Koyah’s successes, the amount of attacks on trading vessels had increased along the archipelago in a similar manner, he had inspired everyone with his buccaneering spirit, and the chief now had 300 warriors waiting to row out to “trade” with the Boston men. Koyah decided to go with the tried and true plan of tricking the traders into allowing as many men as possible on board and then jumping them. His 40 odd canoes, some of which may have been longer than the Union itself and painted with wondrous images of, ravens, whales, otters, eagles, bears and other animals, sailed out from the totem pole shore to Boit’s ship. Just to demonstrate the size of his alliance not just one but 8 chiefs climbed aboard to talk to Boit Scorch Eye began to go through the motions of thrashing out prices for furs and skins, meanwhile the excited warriors were buzzing the ship in their canoes. It could be that Boit saw the lack of women and children in the canoes, the telltale sign of trouble, or perhaps he was just tipped off when Indian canoes surrounded his ship and warriors began to climb the nettings.
Feeling things turning their way the Haida chiefs began getting rather “Saucy”, they were confident of victory and Scorch Eye, who it seems had been the lead voice among the chiefs, initiated the fight when he seized the Union’s 2nd officer Mr. Hudson calling the warriors to attack. The air became filled with the shrieking war cries from the canoes, the nearest warriors yelled hideously and began climbing up the steep sides of the ship. To Boit it seemed the right time to start shooting; he pulled out his pistol and coolly shot Scorch Eye dead in Mr. Hudson’s arms, as the chief slumped to the deck, the other chief’s were “Knocked down and wounded”. The young captain then repelled boarders and had his crew line the rails, the warriors who had clambered onto the nettings were shot and fell into the water or dangled limply from the ropes. Cannon shots and musket volleys echoed around the inlet, the water frothed, men shouted and screamed, then as suddenly as it had started it was over. Boit said he could have killed a hundred more than he did if he had chosen to open up with grapeshot, but, perhaps sickened by the sight of 50 to 70 Indians laying dead and wounded around his ship and floating in the water he “Let humanity prevail”. It is not at all certain but it is thought that Chief Koyah was amongst the casualties rather than Scorch Eye, but whether Koyah lived or died, he suddenly disappeared from history.
The Kungit Haida survived him. Boit did not bombard the quiet timber village with its many totem poles that silently condemned him with their painted eyes from across the bay. None of his men had been hurt. The next morning at 9 three canoes were launched from the pebble shore, the rowers waving green boughs. They were laden with furs to ransom their manacled chiefs. When they came aboard they found that Boit had treated his prisoners well, he returned his captives to their people and paid full price for every fur in the village, by 11 o’clock their business was done and the Indians left. Shortly after so did the Boston Men, with the shouts and good wishes of the Haida being carried after them on the wind.
The Kunghit Haida survived on afterwards as they always had, fishing, hunting, raiding and trading, but Koyah’s dynasty did not. In the following decade a chief of the Haida Eagle clan called Ninstints took power over the tribe, and Koyah’s name disappeared from the village due to the trader’s practice of calling Haida villages after the name of their headmen. Koyah’s village is now called Ninstints. As time went on the population of the Kunghit lessened, the 1862 smallpox epidemic took a heavy toll and the remnants of the tribe abandoned their village in the 1880s and moved to Skidgate were they became Christians. Violence from the Haida did not altogether peter out with Koyah, attacks on American and Russian ships continued all the way up to 1800, and of the ten recorded incidents Koyah was involved in five of them, of which three were successful. Making him the chief who captured the most ships of all the Haida nation, (no one else managed to take more than one).
What makes Koyah’s story unique is that his war was a personal one. It was only partly influenced by selfless desire to defend his own land. He began fighting for honour, but soon he was purely driven by revenge and it eventually consumed him, in the end he became little better than Kendrick, who must bare the full blame for his misery. In all about 100 of his people may have died to try and regain his prestige, and at a point not even that seemed to matter anymore. It was a long trail of violence and revenge that had gotten him there and eaten him up, a sombre train of events to be started by as paltry a thing as the theft of a pair of underpants.
I hope you enjoyed this adventure, I’m afraid I didn’t collect a source list for this one, but I consulted allot of very clever books and crosschecked different angles exhaustively, which is why it’s so annoying that I didn’t keep track of them, but hopefully you all trust me by now to do my best to keep history real! See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.