Destruction of Kwalate Village

Major landslide scar near Kwalate Village. Source: panoramio user Obslord.

Yesterday’s post about Marianne Nicolson’s powerful pictograph in Kingcome Inlet and the post from a few days ago about the enormous Tsunami in Lituya Bay got me thinking again about recent work in Knight Inlet on the central B.C. Coast (map).

A recent project by a team of geomorphologists and an archaeologist, UVic’s own Duncan McLaren, investigated oral historical accounts about Kwalate Village of the A’wa’etlala and Da’naxda’xw peoples, of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations.  The accounts state that a landslide in Knight Inlet triggered a local Tsunami which swept this village away. This account is known anthropologically through a number of sources, including Franz Boas (1910, Kwakiutl Tales):

“About three generations ago, or possibly at an earlier date, a large portion of the mountain opposite Kwalate Point slid into the inlet causing a huge tidal wave which wiped out all of the inhabitants of the village opposite…and the vast slide is noticeable today”.

Of course, the story of the destruction of Kwalate is still told and the dead, unknown in number but perhaps up to one hundred, are still mourned and memorialized in the surrounding communities.  While it is not necessary, or even desirable or possible, for archaeology to confirm oral historical accounts, when that happens it can be of interest to archaeologists and First Nations people alike.

Bathymetry of the landslide lies on the bottom of Knight Inlet in water up to 500 metres deep. Source: Bornhold et al. 2007.

The research project did indeed confirm that there was stratigraphic evidence of  Tsunami deposits overlaying a one-metre thick shell midden, with a series of radiocarbon dates putting the Tsunami event at between about 1550 and 1600 C.E., somewhat older than Boas’ estimation.  But, being 300 to 400 years ago, they are still within recent cultural memory among those who have strongly structured oral historical traditions.

The origin of the slide, which consumed over 800 vertical metres of mountain and amounted to about four million cubic metres of rock, is only a few kilometers away and the wave would have struck just over one minute after the failure allowing no time for escape.  The authors describe the wave as 2-5 metres in height.  However, such waves constitute the displacement of the entire water column at a water depth of several hundred meters, and are not just surficial phenomenona like normal waves. When such a wave runs up into shallow areas the hundreds of metres of water column are forced upwards and outwards, increasing the size of wave by several orders of magnitude just when it matters most: as it hits the shore

In memory of the dead from the four numayns, or kinship groups afffected , four pictographs were painted on a nearby rock face.  Each design is a copper, comparable to Marianne Nicolson’s “Cliff Painting” which is in the next inlet to the north.  These memorial pictographs can still be seen to this day.  As seen below, note that each copper design is different, and most likely represented an individual, named copper with its own history and deep set of associations. These would have been immediately recognizable to all who passed by this tragic location.

Pictographs near Kwalate, as recorded in 1935 by Francis Barrow. Click to enlarge. Source: McLaren et al. 2005.


Brian D. Bornhold, John R. Harper, Duncan McLaren, and Richard E. Thomson (2007).  Destruction of the First Nations Village of Kwalate by a Rock Avalanche-generated Tsunami. ATMOSPHERE-OCEAN 45(2) 2007, 123–128 doi:10.3137/ao.450205

8 responses to “Destruction of Kwalate Village

  1. In many ways, this is ‘way’ more exciting than the Lituya Bay story as it has the oral history, the archaeology, the multibeam, the team effort!

    I’d really like to hear more about this and wish they’d expand this short format paper into a more extended one (showing some annotated profiles!) and discussing the relevance and correspondence of oral histories archaeology and paleoevents!


  2. PS oh and i looked up the elevations on the Lituya bay run-up in Google earth and where those dead/dying trees are (closer to the outlet of the lake, not the super high run-up) is not 600 ft like they say in the annotated photo but more like 60 meters (those funny Americans – getting their metrics mixed up!)


  3. Thanks twoeyes. Look out tomorrow for some oral history about the volatile nature of Lituya Bay and a Tlingit perspective on La Perouse’s visit.


  4. aaron blake evans

    Hey There, I work as a contract arch in and around NVI, the Broughton and head of Knight Inlet usually contracting with SOURCES. I am always trying to be up on background research so when we go into the field I can make as educated a guess as to the location and thus hopeful recording and protection of arch sites. I was am familiar with Barrow and Day’s “Upcoast Summers” but the jpeg referenced in this article looks to be from primary notes that led to the book. The sketches are awesome and I am curious if the original Barrow – Day notes are in a private collection or BCARS? Thanks Sincerely.


    • There are some Barrow rock art manuscripts at the RBCM in the Visual Records section in Human History – not sure if they include other field notes, but that is where I would start my search. The mss are very nice – black and white prints of rock art and written descriptions, if I recall correctly (its been 20 years since I last looked at them). That page reproduced above looks a lot like what I remember, so possibly from the same source. Maybe Duncan McLaren will drop by the blog and let you know.


  5. aaron blake evans

    Thank you, I will check out RBCM and BCARS.


  6. I find the rock art of the “coppers” to be intriguing. This is an event that supposedly took place between 1550 and 1600 C.E., yet most of the analysis ive read about coppers indicates that almost all “coppers” can be attributed to European sheet copper trade, with the note that it must have stemmed from some pre-contact tradition into a new form.

    Has the rock art been dated? If the “copper form” that is depicted is historic, it would mean that hundreds of years after the event, people came and created these memorials, which is itself a very interesting element in itself.

    I would guess they would not be deemed pre-contact, but if they were it would shed some light on the origins of the “copper” form that contradicts a lot of analysis. Unlikely though.

    If each pictograph represents a copper, this would be clearly indicative of some kind of formalized memorialization, led by those who actually possessed coppers and left the pictographs almost like a signature. It seems it would be unlikely that the coppers represent those who died in the slide but who knows


  7. This video clip of a mining incident gives some idea (on a much smaller scale) of these landslide induced Tsunami events:


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