MUQUINNA (Macuina, Maquilla, Maquinna), Nootka chief on the west coast of what is now Vancouver Island, B.C.; the name, written mukwina in proper native orthography, means possessor of pebbles; he apparently was active as early as 1778 and probably died in 1795.
Muquinna was the name of a series of ranking chiefs of the Moachat group of Nootka Indians. This group had its most important summer village at Yuquot, at the mouth of Nootka Sound, and its winter village at Tahsis. Although it is not absolutely certain, there is evidence that the subject of this biography assumed leadership on the death of his father, Anapā, in 1778 and that he died in 1795, to be succeeded by another chief with the same name. Muquinna’s leadership among the Nootka Indians coincided with the early years of contact with Europeans on the northwest coast and with the development of a maritime fur trade. This same period was one of rivalry between Britain and Spain on the coast in which the Indians became involved. In fact, most of what we know about Muquinna is related in or must be inferred from the journals of European explorers and fur-traders.
Although the Spanish navigator Juan Josef Pérez Hernández was in the Nootka Sound area in 1774, the first extended contact between Nootka Indians and Europeans came in 1778 when Captain James Cook spent nearly a month at Ship Cove (Resolution Cove) refitting his ships. It is quite possible that the Indian leader, not named by Cook, who held many discussions and arranged transactions with him was Muquinna. Friendly trading relations were established with the people of Yuquot, and a variety of items changed hands, including sea otter pelts, which Cook’s crews later traded at great profit in Canton (People’s Republic of China). The publication of the journals of Cook’s third voyage revealed the profits to be made in a maritime fur trade with China. From its beginning Nootka Sound was a popular port of call for traders, and it soon became an important centre of the trade. Muquinna emerges as the dominant Indian leader at the sound.
The first expedition to the northwest coast after Cook’s was that of James Hanna in 1785. In August Muquinna led an unsuccessful attack on his ship; a later Spanish account records him as saying it was provoked by a practical joke Hanna played on him. Initially most of the trading ships that called at Nootka Sound were British, but in the following years American vessels, mainly out of Boston, increasingly dominated. Muquinna traded with the British captain John Meares* in 1788 and allowed him to erect a small building on some land at Yuquot, an action that was later to embroil his people in international politics. Meares describes Muquinna as “of a middle size, but extremely well made, and possessing a countenance that was formed to interest all who saw him.”
The developing intensity of the maritime fur trade placed Muquinna in a strategic position. Astute Indian leaders like him could exercise a great deal of control over the trade and mould it to serve their own ends. Those who had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, and were sagacious enough to use their situation, became extremely wealthy as a result.
On the one side, Muquinna was able to take advantage of the popularity of Nootka Sound to manipulate competition between traders which forced prices upwards. On the other side, he was able to regulate the activities of other Indians in the area. From the time of Cook’s visit it was apparent the people of Yuquot were attempting to control contacts between Europeans and other Indian groups, a pattern consolidated under Muquinna’s leadership as he endeavoured to ensure that all furs traded at Nootka passed through his hands, or, at least, through those of his people. By 1792 he controlled a trading network with the Kwakiutl group at the mouth of the Nimpkish River (on the east coast of Vancouver Island); his agents used the well-established trade routes to cross the island and purchase furs which were then sold to crews visiting Nootka. Like the European captains, Muquinna knew a good deal about price differentials, and the trader John Hoskins reports that his profits as a broker were considerable.
Meanwhile, however, international rivalries had begun to create problems for Muquinna and his people. Spain, dismayed by the number of British vessels now off the Pacific coast to which she had long laid claim, had sent a frigate north in 1789. Muquinna had seen it arrive in May at Nootka under the command of Esteban José Martínez, who claimed the sound for Charles III. When Martínez arrested the trader James Colnett* for infringing on Spanish sovereignty, the threat to a profitable trade was felt by the Indians. On 13 July Muquinna’s brother, Callicum, paddled out to berate the Spanish, only to be shot dead by a seaman. Muquinna thereupon moved to Opitsat, the village of Wikinanish, Callicum’s father-in-law, in Clayoquot Sound. Indian rivalries, however, required him to watch events at Yuquot closely, and when a rival visited Martínez on 1 August, Muquinna also came for a visit. He was at Yuquot again on 1 September and promised Martínez, then departing, to take care of the buildings in the small post he had established.
Much more was seen of the Spaniards in 1790. Madrid having decided to reoccupy Nootka Sound, a force under Francisco de Eliza* y Reventa arrived at Yuquot in April and began to build a small settlement. The Nootka Indians, suspicious of the Spaniards, tended to avoid the cove, and their fears were not allayed by Eliza’s plunder of a local village for planks. In June Muquinna encountered an exploring mission under Manuel Quimper at Opitsat and was reassured enough that in October he helped search for survivors of a shipwreck. But Colnett arrived at Yuquot in January 1791 and before he departed on 2 March tried to win Muquinna to the British cause; Muquinna asked “to see a larger ship.” He had to keep on good terms with the Spaniards, for Eliza, having heard about ritual cannibalism, had threatened to destroy his village if the act were repeated. Muquinna remained at Tahsis, and when Alexandro Malaspina* visited there in August, he ratified the cession to the Spanish of land at Yuquot made in 1790.
Spain and Britain were on the brink of war in 1790 following Martínez’ seizure of Colnett in 1789 and Meares’s claim to own by purchase the land now occupied by the Spanish at Yuquot. The quarrel was eventually settled by the diplomatic action of the Nootka Conventions. When in 1792 Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra arrived at Yuquot to arrange application of the terms, Muquinna struck up a close relationship with him and was his frequent dinner guest. Bodega became convinced, partly by Muquinna’s testimony, that Meares’s claim to all Yuquot was unfounded, and when George Vancouver arrived in August to repossess Meares’s land, Muquinna found himself feted by both sides during the negotiations. He proved adept in the art of diplomacy, entertaining the foreign emissaries at Tahsis. When Bodega left Nootka Sound in September, Yuquot was still in Spanish hands, and only in March 1795, after further negotiations between Spain and Britain, did the Europeans abandon the sound. Muquinna’s people soon tore down the buildings and reasserted their dominance over the area they had earlier abandoned; in September a visitor, Charles Bishop, reported an Indian village stood at Yuquot. Muquinna was said to be “very ill of an ague,” and a few weeks later Bishop was told by Wikinanish at Clayoquot Sound that he had died.
Muquinna was a Nootka chief in the traditional sense but also a leader whose role was changing with the impact of the Europeans. He had almost certainly attained his position of leadership at the time of Cook’s visit by traditional Indian usages and validated it by potlatching as had his predecessors. But since the measure of a leader’s influence and prestige was largely the wealth that passed through his hands, his position was enhanced by the profits he acquired through the control of trade with foreign visitors and exploitation of existing trading relationships with other Indian groups. Thus he probably became more powerful through the fur trade than he might otherwise have done, and this new power of Muquinna and his people was expressed in their relations with other groups in the Nootka Sound area. Nevertheless it is possible that his position was exaggerated in the journals of European visitors simply because Nootka was so important to them at this time; perhaps Muquinna’s neighbour and intermittent ally, Wikinanish, the Clayoquot leader, was more powerful. Neither, however, was the kind of ruler ship captains tended to suppose: they led by influence rather than by authority and by prestige rather than power [see Koyah]. There is no doubt, however, that Muquinna was one of the most important Indian leaders in the area during the early contact period, and his role in this phase of northwest coast history is as significant as that of any of the Europeans who sailed into Nootka Sound.
The journal and letters of Captain Charles Bishop on the north-west coast of America, in the Pacific and in New South Wales, 1794–1799, ed. and intro. Michael Roe (Cambridge, Eng., 1967). Journals of Captain James Cook (Beaglehole), III. Meares, Voyages. J. M. Moziño Suárez de Figueroa, Noticias de Nutka; an account of Nootka Sound in 1792, trans. and ed. I. H. Wilson (Seattle, Wash., 1970). G. Vancouver, Voyage of discovery (J. Vancouver). Voyages of ‘Columbia’ (Howay). Cook, Flood tide of empire. Philip Drucker The northern and central Nootkan tribes (Washington, 1951). Robin Fisher, Contact and conflict: Indian-European relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (Vancouver, 1977).
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Cite This Article
Robin A. Fisher, “MUQUINNA (d. 1795),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/muquinna_1795_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:
|Author of Article:||Robin A. Fisher|
|Title of Article:||MUQUINNA (d. 1795)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||May 27, 2023|