theres a dramatic story behind the kohklux map

Robert Campbell knew that there was going to be trouble from the moment that they arrived at Fort Selkirk.

Robert Campbell knew that there was going to be trouble from the moment that they arrived at Fort Selkirk.

There was only a handful of staff at the Hudson’s Bay trading post when 27 Chilkats arrived from the coast in several boats. It was August 20th, 1852.

The post was strategically located on the Yukon River where the Pelly River comes into it from the east.

A half-century later, the Canadian government considered making it the capital of the Yukon, but at this moment, the very lives of the European occupants of the settlement were at risk.

The Chilkats outnumbered and outgunned Campbell’s party and he knew from the outset that they were in trouble.

At one point, Campbell was staring down the barrel of a loaded musket, and he barely avoided being stabbed as he struggled against several of them.

All the company traders could do was stand by helplessly as the intruders pillaged the post at will and threatened the lives of its inhabitants.

Campbell deployed his staff in several key buildings that evening in the hope that it might protect their supplies, but marauders wandered around the site all night boldly getting into mischief. Campbell didn’t get much sleep, and the following day, things got worse.

On the 22nd of August, Campbell and his party fled the post by canoe and put ashore a few miles below. At some point during the excitement of the Chilkat raid, Mrs. Flett, the wife of one of his staff, gave birth to a baby boy.

The following day, August 23rd, Campbell and his party returned on foot to the now abandoned trading post. What supplies that had not been taken away lay strewn about, destroyed. The buildings had been vandalized and the post was now unlivable.

Campbell left shortly after the Chilkat raid, making his way back over the Hudson’s Bay Company trade route to the headquarters thousands of miles away, in the expectation that the company would give him the support to re-provision the post, but this was denied.

The great trading company did not return until well into the 20th century.

Twenty years after the raid, all that remained of the post were the decaying ruins of the stone fireplaces.

The Chilkat raid was nothing more than a move by the coastal people to protect their trade monopoly with the people of the interior.

Long before the white man arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the Tlingit people of the coast had a well-developed commerce with those of the interior. They gained access to the interior markets by way of various coastal passes such as the Chilkoot and Chilkat passes on the Lynn Canal.

The Chilkat people of Lynn Canal controlled the access to the passes and aggressively maintained a monopoly of trade and movement into the interior till as late as 1890.

The Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Selkirk therefore posed a challenge to the Chilkat trade monopoly that could not be ignored. Thus it was that in 1852, a leader from Klukwan, a Chilkat Tlingit village near modern-day Haines, guided the raiding party that looted and destroyed the post, ensuring their trade control in the region for another 30 years.

They entered the Yukon along the Chilkat Pass and Kusawa Lake, from which they travelled downriver by boat until they reached the Yukon and, eventually, Fort Selkirk.

Returning to the coast after the raid, the party travelled up the Yukon River as far as present-day Carmacks, then overland to the Chilkat Pass and back to Klukwan.

Nearly 20 years later, Dr. George Davidson, who had, in 1867 surveyed the region, returned to Alaska to view an eclipse of the sun, slated to occur August 7, 1869.

Kohklux, the leader of the Chilkats at Klukwan, was approached to make it possible to view the event from their village. Kohklux had accompanied his father, who led the raid on Fort Selkirk in 1852.

Kohklux was a man, according to Davidson, of  “commanding presence, nearly six feet high, broad chest and well-formed head…” who “carried a bullet-hole in his cheek” and was renowned as a great warrior and diplomat.

Through Kohklux, Davidson’s passage to Klukwan and the viewing of the eclipse transpired without incident. After the event, Davidson drew a diagram that described how the eclipse had occurred.

In exchange, Kohklux told the story of how he had participated in the destruction of Fort Selkirk 17 years before.

Assisted by his two wives, over the course of two or three days, they sketched a map of the route followed to and from Fort Selkirk, to which Davidson applied the names they used for different points along the way.

This was the first time that Kohklux and his wives had used pencil and paper.

According to Davidson, who wrote down on their map his best phonetic rendering of the place names, Kohklux and his wives were mystified by Davidson’s ability to repeat the names that they had given him

They assembled a map built from their memories of the trip taken years before, showing the lakes, streams, rapids and mountains. They charted the distances not by degrees of latitude and longitude, but by days of travel. The map summarized the features important to travelling over the landscape.

The map that Davidson eventually published in 1901was not the original Kohklux map, but a more traditional mapmaker’s version that included many of the place names provided by Kohklux, but also those of European recorders. The Kohklux original vanished into the mists of time.

In 1984, Linda Johnson, then an archivist with the government of Yukon, set out on a quest that earns her the honourable title of History Hunter when, on a holiday trip to California, she succeeded in identifying the original Kohklux map as part of a new acquisition at the Bancroft Library.

A few years later, the Bancroft Library agreed to loan the original map for display at a Yukon Historical and Museums Association conference held in Whitehorse.

In 1995, I participated in a gathering at Fort Selkirk, where members of the current-day Chilkat Tlingit joined those of the Selkirk First Nation and other Yukon residents in a much friendlier gathering at the site than the original encounter 143 years earlier. 

A booklet about the Kohklux map was published for that event and is still available, for those who are interested, by contacting the Yukon Historical and Museums Association at 667-4704.

The Kohklux map is one of the most important documents pertaining to the Yukon dating from the 19th century.

First Nations people have a long and intimate relationship with the landscape of the Yukon, their homeland, gained through first-hand encounter and personal travel over a lifetime, and the accumulated knowledge of many generations.

Because this knowledge has traditionally been passed down by word of mouth, it was a rare and significant event that Kohklux and his wives chose to capture this knowledge graphically through a medium they were unaccustomed to using.

What’s in a map?

There is more to a map than the mere physical portrayal of places. A map is a cultural artifact, and the meaning of the Kohklux map as a cultural document is yet to be fully explained.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.