Cole Harris


This article was published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1985, and republished in 1997. However, as it has not been generally available in the Slocan, I include it in this series of local booklets with the hope that readers will not find its academic style too heavy going. It contains a good deal of information and a framework for thinking about the early Slocan that are not readily available elsewhere.

The Sinixt in the Slocan, 1750–1900

Here, I sketch what seems to me the most plausible current account of the Sinixt in the Slocan Valley during the long century before a mining rush broke into their territory. It is now clear that at various times since about 1500 BC, when the first pit house villages appeared along the Slocan River, alot of people have lived in the Slocan, and also clear that, for much debated reasons, the valley’s population has fluctuated a good deal. There is no consensus about numbers, even in relatively recent times. James Teit thought that there were perhaps 2,000 Sinixt in the mid-18th century, half along the Columbia River north of the international border, the Arrow Lakes, and in the Slocan Valley.

But I cannot republish this article without revisiting its assertion that Native people had never lived in the vicinity of Idaho Peak. I should also say a few words about Harold Innis, the economic historian to whom I allude towards the end of the article.

The assertion that Native people had never lived near Idaho Peak is wrong, and I should have known better. I did not know that James Teit, early 20th century ethnographer of Interior Salish peoples, had reported five Sinixt villages in the Slocan Valley, three of them along Slocan Lake, and also that the Native population in the valley had been decimated by epidemics. Moreover, archaeologists had begun to work on the Sinixt, 3 and by the early 1980s it was becoming clear that the Slocan had a long Native history. I should have known this, and when the article was republished, I wrote an introduction that attempted to bring the Sinixt into some focus. Since 1997, archaeological investigations have advanced, and a chronology of Sinixt life in the Slocan Valley is gradually emerging.

Verne F. Ray, a lifelong student of Native peoples in the Columbia Basin, thought Teit’s figure too high and estimated 800 for all the Sinixt. 6 Given what we know of the effects of introduced diseases and of the tendency, when estimating pre-contact Native populations, to extrapolate backwards from devastated populations, Teit’s estimate is certainly possible. But, realistically, no more can be said than that the mid-18th century Sinixt seem to have been a fairly numerous people. There was no reason for them not to be. Salmon arrived each year, game was fairly abundant, gathering was productive, and methods of food preservation and storage were well developed.
Whatever the Sinixt population in the mid-18th century, it was many times smaller in the early 1890s when the first miners arrived. For this, introduced infectious diseases were principally responsible. Superimposed on this demographic disaster was the fur trade, which tended to shift the Sinixt southward, out of the Slocan Valley.

Smallpox arrived in the early 1780s, part of a hemispheric pandemic that broke out in Mexico City in 1779, reached the New Mexico Pueblos in 1780, spread rapidly across the plains in 1781, and by early 1782 was among the Cree north of Lake Manitoba, and the Chipewyan beyond. From the plains it crossed the Rocky Mountains and must have reached the Sinixt. David Thompson, at Kootenay House in 1807, reported that the Kootenay Indians, with whom the Sinixt were in regular contact, had once been numerous, but war and the first disease introductions. In 1825 a Sinixt chief told the fur trader Alexander Ross that there were about 200 Sinixt; in 1827 the trader John Dease reported 34 Lakes (Sinixt) men; and in 1829 John Work put the Sinixt population at 138 (34 men, 38 women, 25 boys, and 41 girls). By the 1870s their number was estimated to be between two and three hundred, and by the 1880s, in the low three hundreds. On the basis of these numbers, questionable as they are, it would appear that the Sinixt population recovered very little during the fifty years following the first smallpox epidemic and then may have grown slightly.

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“David Thompson reported in 1807 that war and smallpox had almost entirely rooted them out.”