Chief Kw’eh, ‘The King’
Legendary Dakelh leader becomes key figure in burgeoning fur trade
They called him ‘The King.’ Because without Chief Kw’eh, the first fur traders in central British Columbia may not have secured many pelts, let alone survived at all.
Born around 1755, Kw’eh distinguished himself early on as a warrior during battles between his people and the Tsilhqot’in from B.C.’s southern Interior. According to legend, he also gained fame for avenging the murder of his father, Tsalekulhyé, at the hands of another Dakelh, or Carrier, tribe. By the time settlers arrived, Kw’eh was chief of what is now the Nak’azdli Whut’en Nation and had experience as a mediator. He often helped resolve conflicts between villages in the region. But his skill for diplomacy didn’t mean the Dakelh nobleman hesitated to stand his ground when he saw fit. During one dispute with a fur trader, Kw’eh reminded his European counterpart of the equality between them. “Do I not manage my affairs as well as you do yours?” he asked. “I never want for anything, and my family is always well-clothed.”
One of the first non-Indigenous people to explore Central B.C. was American-born fur trader Simon Fraser. He met Chief Kw’eh in 1806 during an expedition near Nak’azdli, Kw’eh’s village at the foot of Stuart Lake, west of present-day Prince George. The North West Company (NWC) had tasked Fraser to expand its operations west of the Rocky Mountains. He founded the first non-Indigenous settlements in the area, beginning with Fort McLeod, just north of Prince George, in 1805. The son of Scottish parents, Fraser gave pre-colonial B.C. the moniker New Caledonia, a bygone name for Scotland.
On the day he met Chief Kw’eh, Fraser’s canoes had floundered, so Kw’eh’s people led him and his men to Tsaooche, the Dakelh people’s main village in Sowchea Bay on Stuart Lake. Kw’eh later gave Fraser beaver and rabbit meat to feed him and his crew. To show his gratitude, Fraser gifted the chief a red cloth. In the years that followed, Kw’eh acted as a powerful intermediary between the local Indigenous people and the fur traders who set up outposts in the area, such as Fort St. James near Nak’azdli.
Though Kw’eh gained a reputation for challenging the traders, he was also remembered for his generosity. He supplied an indispensable amount of fish — as many as 30 to 40 thousand salmon a year — to the newcomers. One fur trader described Kw’eh as “the only Indian who can and will give fish, and on whom we must depend in a great measure. It behooves us to endeavour to keep friends with him.” Kw’eh’s good nature is likely best remembered by his decision to spare James Douglas’s life during a dispute with the future governor of British Columbia in 1828.
Kw’eh continued to play a vital role in settler-Indigenous relations after the NWC merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. As heir to exclusive beaver trapping territory, he was the chief supplier of beaver fur at Fort St. James, then the centre of the area’s fur trade. Through his relationship with settlers, Kw’eh collected coveted foreign items that he gifted at potlatches to solidify his status as an influential Dakelh leader and regional peacemaker. By the time of his death in the summer of 1840, Kw’eh was considered one of the most important Indigenous people in New Caledonia.
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