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Taissumani: July 22, 1755 – Massacre at Knapp’s Bay



The west coast of Hudson Bay north of Churchill, what we know today as the Kivalliq or Keewatin, was largely Chipewyan Indian territory 300 years ago.

The Chipewyans spent their winters in the boreal forest but followed the caribou herds north of the tree line in the summer, possibly right to the Arctic coast. A group of Inuit — probably numbering between 100 and 200 — migrated from Coronation Gulf far to the west — the Kugluktuk area — to the vicinity of Chesterfield Inlet between 1650 and 1715. Some scientists surmise that, en route, they spent several generations on an upper arm of the Thelon River, a wooded area. If so, their new coastal home on Hudson Bay would have been a marked change from what they were used to.

The move brought the Inuit onto a coast that was seasonally Chipewyan territory. (Inuit had lived as far south as Churchill between 1200 and about 1450, but had withdrawn far to the north by 1500 as a result of a deteriorating climate.)

By the early years of the eighteenth century, there was a third group involved in the southern part of this area. In 1717, the Hudson’s Bay Company had established a post at Churchill and quickly established trade relations with the “Northern Indians” and the “Southern Indians,” their names for the Chipewyan and the Cree.

The very next year the HBC began sending trading vessels north along the coast during the summer, to trade with the Inuit at Whale Cove and a little to the south at Knapp’s Bay. They wanted to learn more about the potential for trade with the Inuit, and to entice them south to trade at Churchill.

But the Inuit resisted the suggestion, probably in fear of the Chipewyans. Company officials, too, questioned the policy, writing to London, “…we think there may be danger in drawing them to Ascomay Point [Churchill River]… while so mortal an enmity is subsisting between them and the Northern Indians.” So in 1739 the Bay changed its tactic — it would trade each summer by ship as far north as the ice would permit.

The Chipewyans resented the actions of these two groups of newcomers — the British and the Inuit — in what they viewed as their territory. They saw the British policy as favouritism. The Chipewyan had to travel over great distances to trade at Churchill, while the Inuit had only to remain in their camps and the floating trading posts would come to them.

In 1755, John Bean, captain of the sloop, Churchill, traded with Inuit at Knapp’s Bay and reported them “very kind and courteous.” He provided them with awls, needles, files, hatchets, tin pots and ice chisels and in return they gave him blubber and baleen as well as five wolf pelts and two fox skins.

While John Bean had been guiding his ship northward, a group of Chipewyan had been travelling south on foot, bound for Churchill to trade. When they saw the vessel, they sent up a smoke signal, but Bean realized that it was a Chipewyan signal and ignored it. His instructions were to trade only with Inuit on the coast.

The Chipewyans were incensed. They reversed their course and followed the vessel along the coast to Knapp’s Bay. Unseen by the Inuit and the British, they watched the trading until the vessel left. Then they waited until everyone was asleep in their tents, and attacked. They killed between 16 and 18 people. They kept one young woman alive, but when she escaped, they tracked her to a shallow pool where she was hiding, and “shot her instantly in the water.”

Hudson’s Bay Company records distinguish between “Home Indians” and “Away Indians.” The Home Indians lived at or near the trading posts and the company employed them as interpreters, hunters and labourers. They learned English and the dialects of any aboriginal neighbours, and became familiar with company trading methods and policies. “Away Indians” lived far from the posts, were more traditional hunters and less familiar with the ways of the white men. The massacre at Knapp’s Bay was undoubtedly the work of “Away Indians.”

Despite this incident, there was no subsequent increase in hostilities between Chipewyan and Inuit. On the contrary, the “Home Indians” wanted peace, as did the British and the Inuit. A few years after the incident, a few Chipewyan families began to spend their summers alongside the Inuit at Knapp’s Bay. They told the captain of a trading vessel in 1762 that there was a truce between the groups. Two years later, a company official reported that the Inuit and Chipewyan were “now tolerably well reconciled with each other.”

For the next quarter century, Chipewyan and Inuit lived in peace at Knapp’s Bay, an early and successful experiment in biculturalism. The Chipewyan were even the larger of the two groups, often outnumbering the Inuit three to one.

But this co-operation came to a sudden end. And violence had nothing to do with it. A smallpox epidemic in 1781-2 almost wiped out the Chipewyan. The French seized and occupied Churchill between 1782 and 1784, which prevented all trade north. On top of this, the climate was noticeably deteriorating. The Little Ice Age resulted in ocean cooling and terrible ice conditions off the Kivalliq coast. The caribou herds declined, making the area even less hospitable for the few remaining Chipewyan, who left the coast and withdrew to the more southerly forest.

Today, an opposite climate change, global warming, is noticeably affecting Inuit communities throughout the Arctic. Who can predict what changes it will cause to settlement patterns and land use practices that we take for granted today?

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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