Edenshaw, Chief
b. 1810
d. 1894
Edenshaw, reputed to have an extensive knowledge of Haida Gwaii and its surrounding waters, was a trade contact and pilot for several British and American ships.1 Edenshaw is mentioned in the despatches for his involvement in the capture and destruction of the vessel, the Susan Sturges. In Douglas, Chief Factor Governor Vice-Admiral Sir James to Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle Henry Pelham Fiennes 26 July 1853, CO 305:4, no. 9498, 61, Douglas reports on the investigation performed by Prevost. Enclosed within the despatch is Prevost's report as well as the testimonies of three witnesses, Edenshaw, Scowall, and Winnet. All three testimonies agree that the affair began while Edenshaw was conversing with Masset traders, purportedly trading dried fish, and that the plunder of the Susan Sturges began after the assault of one Masset member who had boarded the vessel. The statements disagree, however, on the person responsible for orchestrating the attack and who set the fire that destroyed the schooner.
According to Edenshaw, his wife took Rooney, the captain of the ship, to the captain's cabin as the attack began while Edenshaw guarded the door, urging “Chief Seakai” to spare the crew's lives and plunder the ship instead.2 He ends his statement by claiming no knowledge of who set the ship alight, but he hints that Scowall, who was responsible for secreting Rooney away to shore, took 4 or 5 barrels of powder.3 Later, he told Reverend William Henry Collison that the ship's capture and destruction was executed by the northern Haida tribes.4 Scowall, on the other hand, testifies that Edenshaw was involved from the beginning, and that he was responsible for the burning of the vessel.5 Winnet gives an equally damning statement, claiming that Edenshaw did nothing to prevent the Masset tribe from overpowering the crew.6 Due to the contradictory accounts given and the compromising involvement of each witness in the event, Douglas concludes that Prevost's investigation is unable to come to any conclusion as to who the authors of that outrage are,7 though Rooney's statement attributes his and his crew's rescue to Edenshaw.8 Haida oral histories, and some accounts reported to Collison by several Haida at the time, rebuke this version of events, alleging that Edenshaw was responsible for planning the attack.9
Along with his questionable role in the Susan Sturges event, Edenshaw's self-proclaimed role as a great Haida chief is a similarly contentious issue. Edenshaw was born ca. 1810-1812 as Gwai-Gwun-Thlin at the village of Gaahluns Kun (now known as Cape Ball), and later took the name Edenshaw, an anglicization of the Tlingit word, Eda'nsa.10 He married into the Daden tribe, whose chiefship was passed down to the chief's eldest sister's son, and by claiming to be the nephew of the former chief, he attempted to become town chief.11 Edenshaw notably exploited his good relationship with settlers in order to legitimize his claims, a practice that conflicts with Haida tradition in which chiefship cannot be determined by anyone outside of the Haida clan.12 Despite his controversial legacy among some Haida, Edenshaw has been remembered in popular history as a great contributor in preserving Haida culture and serves as the protagonist of Christie Harris's award-winning novel, Raven's Cry. He is also known for his skill as an artist and carver, skills which he passed on to his similarly famous nephew and successor, Charles Edenshaw.
  • 1. Barry Gough, New Light on Haida Chiefship: the Case of Edenshaw 1850-1853, Ethnohistory, 29, no. 2 (1982): 133-135.
  • 2. Enclosure in Douglas to Newcastle, 26 July 1853, 9498, CO 305/4, 61.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Gough, New Light on Haida Chiefship, 134-135.
  • 5. Enclosure in Douglas to Newcastle
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Douglas to Newcastle, 26 July 1853, 9498, CO 305/4, 61.
  • 8. Kathy Bedard Sparrow, Correcting the Record: Haida Oral Tradition in Anthropological Narratives, Anthropologica, 40, no. 2 (1998): 218-219.
  • 9. Gough, New Light on Haida Chiefship, 135; Sparrow, Correcting the Record, 219.
  • 10. Gough, New Light on Haida Chiefship 132.
  • 11. Sparrow, Correcting the Record, 217.
  • 12. Ibid., 220.
Mentions of this person in the documents
People in this document

Douglas, James

Prevost, James Charles

Rooney, Matthew

Scowell, Chief

Seakai, Chief

Winnet, John

Vessels in this document

Susan Sturges

Places in this document

Haida Gwaii