Duncan, William
b. 1832-04-03
d. 1918
William Duncan was born April 3, 1832, in Beverley, England, and took up training in 1854 at the Anglican Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) Highbury College, London.1 He arrived at Victoria in June, 1857, as the first CMS missionary to arrive in Vancouver Island, given the task of establishing a mission around Fort Simpson.2 At the invitation of Rev. Edward Cridge, Duncan stayed at the rectory of Christ’s Church, acting as the secretary of the Indian Improvement Committee in Victoria until departing for Fort Simpson in October, 1857.3
Over the course of eight months at Fort Simpson, Duncan exchanged languages—English and Sm’algyax—with Arthur Wellington Clah, a Tsimshian hereditary chief and employee of the Hudsons Bay Company, and used this knowledge to translate portions of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Sm’algyax.4 Shortly after beginning his mission to the Tsimshian, in 1859, Duncan had come to the conclusion that if the work he was carrying on should have any permanent results, it would be necessary to remove those of the Indians, who had become subject to the power of the Gospel, from the evil influences of the heathen homes and surroundings.5 So, with the approval of Governor Douglas in 1860, Duncan set out to establish a permanent Protestant missionary settlement in Metlakatla.6
Duncan drafted fifteen rules that each of the ~350 Indigenous members of the model Christian village in Metlakatla pledged to follow.7 It was widely acknowledged by scholars contemporary to him that, to the Tsimshian, following the first five rules that restricted their religious rites and national customs would be like cutting of the right hand or plucking out the right eye.8 Life in the protestant Missionary settlement started changing rapidly when, in 1879, Rev. William Ridley was consecrated as the Bishop of the diocese of Caledonia and choose Metlakatla as the seat of his See.9 Duncan and Ridley disagreed widely on how the missionary project was to be pursued, especially on the question of administering Christian sacraments (such as baptism and communion) to the Tsimshian, which Duncan adamantly opposed.10
As a consequence of this disagreement with the Bishop, in November, 1881, Duncan’s relation with the CMS was dissolved, and he began to lose control over the missionary project in Metlakatla.11 To protest the situation in Metlakatla, as well as the presence of nearby white land-grabbers, Duncan and the Tsimshian began to dismantle the buildings in the settlement, leaving the site altogether and establishing “New” Metlakatla (with ~800 Tsimshian), under the protection of the stars and stripes, in 1887.12
In 1918, Duncan died in Metlakatla, leaving behind a legacy as complicated as his life. Duncan’s missionary work to the Tsimshian gained him great notoriety and acclaim, catching the attention of Governor Douglas (in the 1860s), and then the federal government (in the 1870s).13 One scholar argues that Duncan, who prepared reports during the 1870s for the Federal and Provincial governments on his experiences in Metlakatla, articulated a new kind of assimilationist policy that would inform, at least in part, the Indian Act that was passed in 1876, an Act which became the legal foundation for the state’s organized assault on Indigenous lifeways through Canada’s Residential School system.14
Mentions of this person in the documents
People in this document

Cridge, Edward

Douglas, James

Places in this document

Lax Kw'alaams



The Colonial Despatches Team. Duncan, William. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/duncan_w.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)