UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

William Duncan of Metlakatla: A Victorian Missionary in British Columbia Usher, Jean


This thesis is a case study of a Victorian missionary in a British Columbia context and focuses primarily on the model Christian Indian utopia of Metlakatla, established for the Tsimshian nation by William Duncan in 1862. Before offering his services to the evangelical Anglican Church Missionary Society, Duncan had been an ambitious clerk and travelling salesman for a Yorkshire leather firm. He was imbued with the cultural values of lower middle class Victorian England, and like many of Samuel Smiles' readers, devoted his early life to self- improvement, thrift, work and industry. Under the aegis of the C.M.S. Duncan trained as a missionary schoolmaster at Highbury College. Here he was brought into contact with experienced and prospective missionaries and learnt much of the anthropological attitudes of the missionary movement and of the goals and expectations of the C.M.S. for native peoples. In particular, Duncan was deeply influenced by the theories and policies of Henry Venn, the Secretary of the C.M.S. who advocated the formation of independent self-supporting Native Churches. Although he expected to work in West Africa, in 1856 Duncan was selected to commence a new C.M.S. mission on the North Pacific coast to the Tsimshian people at Fort Simpson. Four years of experience at this Hudson’s Bay Company post convinced the young missionary that his dual mission of Christianity and civilisation could not succeed in such an environment. Thus in 1862 a new village was created "reflecting light and radiating heat to all the spiritually dark and dead masses of humanity around us." The settlement grew rapidly and with its many industries, large church, neat houses and gardens became widely known as a model of missionary endeavour. In this environment where the Victorian values of self-help and work had a relevance, the Tsimshian were introduced to a period of rapid social change. Duncan’s success in establishing so quickly a Christian industrial utopia among previously heathen tribes is attributed largely to his intimate knowledge of Tsimshian language, culture and behaviour, and to his willingness to adapt many of his ideas to the traditional needs and values of the Tsimshian. More important perhaps is the probability that the Tsimshian, as the pre-eminent coastal traders had long been in a culture contact situation with various neighbouring tribes and were well able to integrate elements of other cultures into their own life. Their wealth and acquisitiveness also pre-disposed the Tsimshian to accept the type of society offered at Metlakatla. The schism in the Anglican Church at Victoria led to the establishment of a new diocese of Caledonia in 1879 and to the establishment of a Bishop, William Ridley, at Metlakatla. Both the new Bishop and the C.M.S. who supported him, were anxious to introduce into Metlakatla more orthodox Anglican practice than Duncan felt was desirable for Indian Christians. Eventually Duncan's refusal to permit the celebration of Holy Communion led to his dismissal from the C.M.S. Several discontented chiefs were then able to use the Bishop as a focus for their growing hostility to Duncan's authority, and the essential unity of the utopia was broken as the village divided into two factions. Duncan and the majority Indians attempted to remove the Bishop from the Metlakatla Reserve and as a means to this end the Indians raised the question of their aboriginal land title. Hoping to force British Columbia to recognise this title, the Indians refused to allow surveys of their land or to permit an Indian agent to reside among them. The Dominion and Provincial governments would not consider the land question and were prepared to use force to quell the disturbances. To avoid such a situation, Duncan obtained a grant of land in Alaska on Annette Island, where in 1887, accompanied by six hundred Tsimshian, he established his second utopia at New Metlakatla. The breakdown of Metlakatla was due mainly to the fact that Duncan had never adequately satisfied the social needs and pride of rank of the Tsimshian chiefs. Thus, although his ability to adapt to the Indian culture, and the pre-disposition of the Tsimshian to readily accept new cultural elements gave Duncan his initial success, ironically it was the missionary's inability to adapt his system to the most vital cultural reality of the Tsimshian that brought the ultimate breakdown of this vigorous social experiment.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.