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KOYAH (Coya, Coyour, Kower, Kouyer; phonetically the name is xo’ya, and means raven), ranking chief of the Kunghit-Haidas, the southernmost division of the Queen Charlotte Islands Haidas; probably d. 21 June 1795.

What little is known of Koyah’s life comes from the journals of a few New England seamen, which provide a fragmentary and biased account. Yet it is apparent that Koyah, a “little diminutive savage looking fellow,” was embroiled in more clashes with trading vessels than any other northwest coast chief, and his life throws some light on the origins of the violence that often marred the Pacific fur trade.

As elsewhere on the northwest coast of Canada, the fur trade at Red-Cod-Island-Town (Ninstints, Anthony Island, B.C.), the principal village of Koyah’s people, began on peaceful terms. The settlement, called Koyah’s by the traders, who followed the practice of naming each village after its chief, had been visited in 1787 by George Dixon and in 1788 by Charles Duncan. In June 1789 the Lady Washington, commanded by Robert Gray*, arrived. As Robert Haswell* recorded in the ship’s log, “A brisk trade was soon set on foot by Coya the Chief, who bartered for all his Subjects, and a number of Sea Otter skins were purchased before night.” Business was conducted with “the strictest friendship.”

In July Gray exchanged vessels with his partner, John Kendrick, and sailed to China. Kendrick, who lacked Gray’s experience in the trade, returned to Koyah’s. He permitted too many Indians on board and became angered when some minor items, including his personal linens, were pilfered. Seizing Koyah and another chief, Skulkinanse, Kendrick bolted one leg of each chief to a gun-carriage and threatened them with death until all the stolen items were returned and all the furs in the village were traded to him. As the Indians later reported to Gray, Kendrick “took Coyah, tied a rope round his neck, whipt him, painted his face, cut off his hair, took away from him a great many skins, and turned him ashore.”

Although Koyah could always count on the loyalty of his kin, his ability to command the other villagers depended on his prestige. The treatment he had received at the hands of Kendrick was in Haida terms a shocking violation of a noble person. For this reason Koyah was driven to seek revenge when Kendrick returned to the village on 16 June 1791. The episode is known in unusual detail, from several second-hand accounts in journals and one first-hand account which survived as a song, “The ballad of the bold northwestman.” Trade was brisk and Kendrick, “in liquour” that day, again permitted too many Indians on board. They overran and seized his ship. Koyah is reported to have pointed to his leg and gloated, “Now put me into your gun carriage.” After a brief scuffle with the captain, however, Koyah and his followers were driven overboard with a loss of about 40. Among the dead were his wife and two of his children; he himself was wounded. To Koyah’s previous humiliation had been added defeat in battle, personal injury, and bereavement.

This second encounter with Kendrick must have had a disastrous effect on Koyah’s standing. Gray visited the village on 8 July (he was told of Kendrick’s first visit but not of his second) and reported that Koyah “appeared to be much frightened, being in a constant tremor the whole time.” Moreover, as the Indians explained to him, “Coyah was now no longer a Chief, but an ‘Ahliko,’ or one of the lower class; they have now no head Chief, but many inferior Chiefs.”

The next events show Koyah engaged in activities that would regain for him some of his prestige. On 27 August Captain Joseph Ingraham, at anchor in Cumshewa Inlet (Moresby Island, B.C.), saw Koyah and Skulkinanse leading 12 large canoes to war against a traditional enemy, Chief Skidegate. The outcome of that raid is not known. In the summer of 1794 Koyah, along with the chiefs Cumshewa and Scorch Eye, captured at Cumshewa an American brig manned by 11 men and put to death all but one, who was held in slavery for a year. During the winter of 1794–95 he captured a large British vessel which had anchored nearby to replace broken masts. The entire crew was killed.

On 21 June 1795 the Boston sloop Union, commanded by John Boit, dropped anchor off Koyah’s village. Forty canoes containing 300 men surrounded the vessel, and eight of the chiefs, including Koyah, came aboard. In Boit’s words, “Scorch Eye the head chief began the attack by seizing Mr. Hudson, the 2nd officer. At the same time the Indians along side attempted to board, with the most hideous yells. . . . I killed their first chief, Scorch Eye, in the 2nd mates arms, while they was struggling together. The rest of the Chiefs on board was knock’d down & wounded & we kill’d from the Nettings & in the Canoes along side above 40 more. . . . Suppose in this fracas we kill’d and wounded about 50 but the Indians said we killed 70.” Next day the Indians ransomed back the captured chiefs, who had been held in irons. Boit’s identification of Scorch Eye as the head chief, together with the report of this incident made by Captain Charles Bishop, who wrote that “Koyer . . . attacked Captain Boyds vessel,” has led historians to conclude that it was Koyah, rather than Scorch Eye, who was killed in the attack. At all events, this is the last time that Koyah is mentioned in contemporary accounts.

The Kunghit-Haidas survived for a time, but Koyah’s dynasty did not; in the following decade the Eagle chief, Ninstints, took ascendancy. Reduced by the encounters with Kendrick and Boit and by the smallpox epidemic of 1862, the remnants of the tribe abandoned their village about 1885, moved to Skidegate (B.C.), and became Christians.

Wilson Duff

Provincial Archives of B.C. (Victoria), Hope (ship), “Journal of the voyage from Boston to the north west coast of America, 1790–1792,” by Joseph Ingraham, photocopy of original; Ruby (ship), “Commercial journal, copy’s of letters and accts. of Ship Rubys voyage to N. Wt. coast of America and China, 1794.5.6,” by Chas. Bishop. The sea, the ship, and the sailor: tales of adventure from log books and original narratives, ed. Elliot Snow (Salem, Mass., 1925). Voyages ofColumbia’ (Howay). K. E. Dalzell, The Queen Charlotte Islands, 1774–1966 (Terrace, B.C., 1968); The Queen Charlotte Islands, book 2, of places and names (Prince Rupert, B.C., 1973). J. R. Swanton, Contributions to the ethnology of the Haida (New York, 1905). Wilson Duff and Michael Kew, “Anthony Island, a home of the Haidas,” B.C., Provincial Museum, Report (Victoria), 1957, 37–64. F. W. Howay, “The ballad of the bold northwestman: an incident in the life of Captain John Kendrick,” Washington Hist. Quarterly (Seattle), XX (1929), 114–23; “Indian attacks upon maritime traders of the north-west coast, 1785–1805,” CHR, VI (1925), 287–309.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Wilson Duff, “KOYAH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/koyah_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/koyah_4E.html
Author of Article:   Wilson Duff
Title of Article:   KOYAH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   February 24, 2024