About 1777, give or take a few years, a Spanish trading schooner probed Vancouver Island’s southwestern coast, eventually sighting a large native village on a sandspit created by the Gordon River pouring into the sea. Earlier explorers had found Island Indians eager to trade prime furs for hardware, bric-a-brac and trinkets. A large settlement such as this would yield a profitable haul, reasoned the captain, and the Spaniards anchored in the harbor.
Trading went well the first few days, the friendly Nitinats happily bartering away rich pelts for cheap utensils and bolts of cloth. It was not until two seamen decided to go fishing in the mouth of the San Juan River across the bay, that the tragedy began to unfold.
The duo had not been angling for long before they excitedly dropped their lines to ‘‘fish” for something far more interesting. For the observant Spaniards had spotted tiny flecks of yellow in the swirling stream — gold.
Panning the gravel with a plate, they recovered several water-polished nuggets. Enough to warrant further investigation, for it did not take a geologist to realize the mother lode must be upstream. Rushing back to their ship, they breathlessly told the others. Within seconds, all except the wives of the captain and mate, who had accompanied the voyage, were gripped by gold fever. Furs were forgotten as the men cast lots to see who would remain aboard to guard the ship. Seven men packed their gear and headed to the San Juan to find their fortunes.
The Spaniards were no sooner out of sight when the Indians began casting hungry eyes on the sloop. Just a single man stood between them and more booty than they had ever dreamed of. Not to mention two fair ladies as slaves. To the Island’s original copper-skinned residents, tribal warfare was a way of life; treachery, murder and kidnapping were all in the day’s work.
Paddling out to the ship, several braves clambered aboard with plush furs, pretending to offer them in trade. The lone seaman must have been wary of his customers and kept his musket handy. But he could not watch all the jabbering, gesturing savages. The second he dropped his guard, a knife arched into his back. Stripping the body, the victorious warriors threw it overboard, seized the women and looted the ship.
They torched the vessel, burning to the waterline, and sank in a hissing cloud of steam. Overjoyed by their coup, the tribal chieftain lost no time in dispatching 40 of his finest after braves after the prospectors. It was 31 miles upriver, on the right hank of the San Juan’s left fork, the that the murderous expedition found its unsuspecting quarry three days later.
Hiding in the dense forest, they waited for dawn, then attacked with terrifying swiftness and efficiency. Seconds later, the deed was done, the Spaniards hacked to death. Few of the ill-fated prospectors knew what struck them. Ecstatic at their second success. the warriors decided to celebrate their victory on the spot. It was a fatal error.
Divine vengeance struck that afternoon in the form of a torrential downpour. For two days and nights it rained without pause. Almost instantly, the docile San Juan had became a torrent of rampaging brown water, sweeping away trees, boulders and anything else in its path.
Unable to cross, the braves fled downstream to the forks following the right branch to its source. Here it pinched off into a series of creeks which would he easier to ford. But while it had been raining in the lower country, it had snowed on the upper reaches of the river. A heavy, soggy blanket of snow one and half feet deep lay on the ground, making the travelling slow and tiresome. The days were mild with sharp frosts at night Unable to build a fire owing to everything being soaked, they suffered terribly from cold and frostbite.
The weary days dragged along, the party growing weaker all the time, dying from exposure or falling prey to roaming black wolves. Of the 40 warriors which had stalked the Spaniards up the San Juan, only 19 exhausted braves staggered back to camp, three long weeks later.
The two women, taken as wives by the chief, lived with the tribe for several years until a Spanish man-o’-war chanced upon the scene. A squad of armed marines affected the prisoners’ release. The ship then sailed away. But not without exacting a heavy toll for the Indians treachery. The Spaniards left several presents, in token reparation for the women. In so doing, whether by design or accident, they doomed the village almost to a soul; the gifts of bedding harbored a deadly smallpox virus. Weeks later, only four of more than 400 persons still lived. The village was abandoned and never reoccupied.
The San Juan was well known to the Spaniards in the early days, and evidence of their mining for gold on its banks are frequently found. They harbored their small ships at its mouth, from which they had a mule train leading to the headwaters. After the famous territorial dispute with Great Britain, which almost led to war, Spain formally withdrew from the Northwest in March, 1796, ending all official Spanish activity in this region.
Several years after the massacre, a New England trading ship visited the village which had since been established at the mouth of the San Juan. During a pause in business, a few seamen toured the encampment, fascinated by the native way of life. Some giggling children playing on the river bank aroused their curiosity. The naked youngsters were toying with “shiny yellow stones.” Gold nuggets.
The villagers offered the excited sailors a romantic tale. Many moons before, a Cowichan war party from the Duncan area had attacked the Nitinats. The marauders had captured much booty and many slaves, including the heroine of this legend. The young squaw determined to escape at first opportunity, but her greatest handicap was navigation, as she had no idea of the route back to her village. Finally came the day when she . overheard the Cowichans talking of her people.
She learned that the Cowichans had planned to travel overland and destroy, the San Juan village by travelling up the Cowichan River to the (Cowichan) lake, and then taking the first river entering the river entering the lake from the opposite direction in which the sun travelled during the day. This was apparently Robertson Creek. Waiting until early summer when wild berries were ripe, with some scraps of scrounged food in a tiny basket, which doubled as a fish trap, the courageous girl slipped away. Eventually she struggled out of the rain forest at the San Juan. Hurrying downstream, she was home.
After a joyous reunion, she told of her adventures. Then she produced a handful of “pretty stones.” She had broken them from a big yellow rock high up the San Juan, she said. She had pocketed them as playthings for the village children.
Possible confirmation of the Spanish massacre came some years later, when a young Victoria hunter found a rusting cutlass on the grassy eastern bank of Sooke River, 15 miles inland from the San Juan. To date, the pitted blade has not been identified. However, illustrations in reference books of the Victoria Public Library would indicate the weapon is of a type used by Spanish and British seamen during the latter years of the 18th century, the period of the massacre.