The Coveted Pacific Coast

The Vikings of the North Pacific

The Military Art of the American Northwest

The coastal nations, which consisted essentially of navigators, often attacked enemy villages or forts in flotillas of canoes. These large, richly decorated vessels could be 20 metres long. They were especially fast and effective when propelled by many paddlers: when the paddlers maintained a rapid pace, the canoes could travel at a speed of more than seven knots, which was faster than a European frigate. These people were also familiar with the use of the sail. Their sailing raids were used primarily to take prisoners, who were then kept as slaves. In villages accustomed to successful expeditions, up to one third of the population could be slaves. Unlike the Natives in the east and centre of the continent, those on the Pacific coast did not practise ritual torture and did not take scalps, but they did cut off the heads of the enemies they killed to keep as trophies. For both their bravery and their navigating skills, they were sometimes called "the Vikings of the North Pacific."

Apart from their impressive villages, these people built coastal forts using tall cedar trunks. They also erected such forts on the summits of hills and along the rivers to control and tax maritime traffic on the waterways running through their land. Recent archaeological digs revealed Fort Kitwanga, built on a promontory of this type located upstream on the Skeena River; there were many others used as toll stations. Occasional disputes concerning right of way may have led to sieges during which the attackers would attempt to set fire to the fort, with the defenders throwing tree trunks onto them from the top of the palisades.

The military art of the people of the American northwest was therefore relatively well developed, and they were potentially formidable adversaries for the Europeans. Indeed, when the first contacts occurred, they showed no fear of the white newcomers arriving in great sailing ships.