Flea Village or …? – by Judith Williams

Flea Village, Wm Alexander copy of John Sykes drawing, jn 1792
Watercolour by William Alexander

The curious name of this Sliammon /Klahoose territory village site comes from a story in “The Journals of Archibald Menzies,” surgeon/botanist aboard Capt. George Vancouver’s Discovery during its exploration of the West Coast of British Columbia. In June 1792, the Discovery and its companion ship the Chatham entered the area Vancouver was to call Desolation Sound in company with the Spanish ships Sutil and Mexicana commanded by captains Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes. The four ships anchored off Kinghorn Island in the Sound, but wind forced them to move to Teakerne Arm on West Redonda Island. During the period from June 26th to July 13th, Menzies and a small crew rowed, sailed and surveyed through the area in small boats. On June 30, after breakfasting on a small island covered with pines, they headed out of Theodosia Inlet where they’d spent the night and headed north:

[T]o the great arm [Desolation Sound] and proceeded along shore to the North Eastward passing a large island [Mink Island] in mid-channel, where the Arm is at least a league-wide. We soon rounded out a deep Bay, [Tenedos Bay] on the West side of which we saw a great number of fish stages erected from the ground in a slanting manner for the purpose of exposing the fish fastened to them to the most advantageous aspect for drying. These stages occupied a considerable space along shore and at a little distance appeared like the skeleton of a considerable Village; they were made of thin Lathes ingeniously fastened together with Withes of the roots of pine trees and from the pains and labour bestowed on them it was natural to infer that Fish must be plenty here at some time of the year and that a considerable number of Natives rendezvous for the purpose of catching and drying them for winter sustenance, but, as we observed no huts or places of shelter for their convenience, it is probable they make but a short stay.

Fish and fish drying racks in Klahoose territory at Walsh Cove.

3-JW-image005After quitting this Bay we followed the same shore which trended North Eastward and soon after passed by a narrow channel on the inside of a cluster of steep rocky islands wooded with pines but did not proceed above a league when at the farther end of these islands we came to a small cove in the bottom of which the picturesque ruins of a deserted village placed on the summit of an elevated projecting rock excited our curiosity and induced us to land close to it to view its structure.

This rock was inaccessible on every side except a narrow pass from the land by means of steps which admitted only one person to ascend at a time and which seemed to be well guarded in case of attack for right over it a large maple tree diffused its spreading branches in such an advantageous manner as to afford an easy and ready access from the summit of the rock to a concealed place amongst its branches, where a small party could watch unobserved and defend the pass with ease. We found the top of the rock nearly level and wholly occupied with the skeletons of houses – irregularly arranged and very crowded; in some places, the space was enlarged by strong scaffolds projecting over the rock and supporting houses apparently well secured. These also acted as a defence by increasing the natural strength of the place and rendering it still more secure and inaccessible.”  [i]

After rudely riffling through the effects of what they estimated might be as many as 300 inhabitants, Menzies and the sailors were routed from the mound by attacking fleas. They ran downhill to stand up to their necks in water, then stripped to the buff and headed back to Teakerne dragging their clothes behind the boat. At the ships, they stood naked in a line while their clothing was boiled free of fleas lest these saucy vermin become established onboard. This seriocomic event led to the designation of the site as Flea Village. It is now listed as a defensive site in the archeological records. Sliammon elder, Norm Gallagher, who surveyed this area with provincial Parks officials in the summer of 2005, stated it was more of a settled village than just a seasonal encampment. The explorers felt the buildings were stripped of their outer cladding and the place deserted due to the fleas, but they had no sense the local First Nations moved from winter village to seasonal camp to procure and process food and would return when appropriate. Royal Engineer Robert Homfray reported seeing Native people, in the fall of 1861, using boards bridging canoes to ferry fish down what is now called Homfray Channel. House planks could be stripped off to move goods and then side another seasonal dwelling.

The exact location of this village became obscured over time despite Menzies noting John Sykes had made a drawing on the spot. The British Admiralty required all logs and drawings to be turned over when the voyagers arrived home. A few images were worked up in watercolour by William Alexander and some engraved for the publication of Vancouver’s journals.

Beth Hill was a most energetic upcoast sleuth, ferreting out rock art locations and long time coastal residents and their stories. She and her husband Ray Hill accomplished the first organized recording of upcoast petroglyphs and their Indian Petroglyphs of the Pacific Northwest, published in 1974, is still the only extensive text on the subject. If Beth thought she knew where Flea village was, I was on board and I boated us out of Refuge Cove across Desolation Sd., to Prideaux Haven and into the rocky bay behind Roffey Island as instructed. I slid the boat into a beach to the left of a high rock mound, let Beth off and she disappeared into the bush. I waited. Suddenly there was a scream from above: “I found it, I found it! This is it! You have to come up!” Beth materialized on the beach full of instructions on how I should scramble up the backside of the rock via a maple tree. She held the boat while I pulled myself up a narrow passage at the east side of the mound. The handsome flat top was crowded with trees under-laid by the exquisite Vanilla Leaf, used by First Nations as an insect repellent, now in spiky bloom. I found a few rusted stove remnants and felt the odd moss-cloaked, rotting board underfoot, but there was no obvious sign of buildings or the bridgework Menzies described. From the front of the mound, there was a clear view out into the entrance to Homfray Channel and across to the abrupt rise of East Redonda. Large Maples still grew at the back of the mound and a stream flowed down the south side. Everything announced a secure site.

Beth was able to figure out the location of Flea Village through photographs and notes by Francis Barrow of Bertram Saulter and his friend Frank who lived atop the mound in the 30s. They hand logged, were building a boat and had a garden on the lower Native house site from which they brought the anchored Barrows a “pan of peas.” Saulter had likely been given a preemption there.

Barrow was the first upcoast boater to spend his summers photographing and drawings pictographs, petroglyphs, village sites and artifacts during this period for the Royal B.C. Museum and the National Museum in Ottawa. He photographed many of the people living in the areas thru which he and his wife Amy travelled in their small, wooden cruiser Toketie from Sidney as far north as the Broughton Archipelago. Beth compiled his notes and Ray Hill restored his photos for Upcoast Summers. [ii]

There is always more to discover. If this was a long-term village site as well as a defensive one, there is likely a Coast Salish name. The Klahoose name for Forbes Bay just north is Aap’ukw’m, meaning “having maggots.” It’s said the cliff at the north entrance to the bay turns white to represent maggot eggs when the salmon are about to run upriver. The Klahoose camped on the wide flat north of the river where they still have an adventure camp and they made use of the rock tidal weir to harvest the fish. The Roffey Island mound sits in the middle of a food complex from there south through Prideaux Haven and Tenedos Bay and over Portage Cove to the abundant salmon run in the Theodosia River at the village site of Tuukwanen, Sliammon ID Reserve #4. While researching Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast, I found a semicircular clam garden below the mound, two canoe slides and a heart-shaped, rock base of a fish weir behind Coppelstone Island south. [iii] Sliammon Elder Elsie Paul’s recent memoir [iv] tells how she moved with her grandparents right through this territory in the 20s and 30s as food and work were seasonally available. It would be polite to at least augment the derogatory name “Flea Village” with a First Nations name.

The area is now Prideaux Haven Marine Park and crowded with boats in the summer.


[i] “The Journal of Archibald Menzies, Journal of Vancouver’s Voyage, April to October 1792.” Ed C.F. Newcombe, Victoria, BC, 1923 (Archives of BC, Memoir v)

[ii] Upcoast Summers, Beth Hill, Touchwood Editions,1985.

[iii] Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture On Canada’s West Coast, New Star Books, Vancouver, 2006.

[iv] Elsie Paul, Written As I Remember It.

For more information on Flea Village and other spots on the West Coast check out Judith William’s website and blog http://www.judithmwilliams.com/blog/


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