Captain William Mitchell of the Steamer Beaver.
Courtesy of the British Columbia Archives A-01472.
Born in Aberdeen in 1802, William Mitchell joined the Hudsonís Bay Company in 1836. For much of his career he was an officer on Company ships that sailed between London and the Northwest coast of Canada, bringing sea otter furs to Europe, and returning with goods to be traded with coastal First Nations and supplies for the HBC posts in the area. Mitchell also spent several years based in the Columbia District on ships such as the Una, the Recovery and the S.S Beaver.
The SS Beaver in Victoria Harbour, c. 1874.
Courtesy of the British Columbia Archives A-00011.
Mitchell is perhaps best known for his connection with the 1851-53 gold rush on the islands of Haida Gwaii (known then as The Queen Charlotte Islands). Following the discovery of gold by Haida men, Mitchell, was ordered to sail the Una to the area and begin trading with local people. Soon the HBC decided to open its own gold mine, but altercations broke out between the miners and shipís crew and the Haida. The Una was forced to leave the Islands, though not without a quantity of gold. On the return trip to Victoria in December 1851, the Una got caught in a storm and headed towards Neah Bay for shelter. Her troubles were not yet over. She became grounded on a reef and was ransacked, then burned, by men from the Makah Nation. The crew were rescued, though the gold was not. Captain Mitchell returned to Haida Gwaii the following year, this time on the Recovery, to pursue the Company's interests. Gold mining was never successful in the area, however, for the HBC, the Haida or for the many American prospectors who tried their luck. The HBC scheme was abandoned and Mitchell spent the years from 1853-54 as Chief Trader at Port Simpson, known by the local Tsimshian people as Lax Kw'alaams, before returning to his life as a Captain of HBC ships. Mitchell retired in 1863 and settled in Victoria, Vancouver Island, home to a growing community of British immigrants. There he was well-known as a kind-hearted man who spun salty yarns on street corners until his death in 1876.
Willie Mitchell collected numerous items made by Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk artists during his career. These included wooden and shale carvings, masks, and textiles. He had little interest in record-keeping, so it is unsurprising that there are no documents in the University Archives to offer further information on who the artists were. The collection most probably came to Aberdeen University on Mitchell's death, or was perhaps donated by him on a rare visit to his hometown.