A Coast Salish Mausoleum, 1864

A Salish Grave, 1864. Watercolour by Edward M. Richardson. No specific locale given. Source: CollectionsCanada.gc.ca

A Salish Grave, 1864. Watercolour by Edward M. Richardson. No specific locale given. Source: CollectionsCanada.gc.ca  Click to enlarge slightly.

“Grave House” is one of those archaeological terms which render slightly creepy a feature that is more or less an everyday experience: the mausoleum, a house for the dead, filled with coffins.

This is a fascinating image I hadn’t come across before: a very early image of a Coast Salish mausoleum.  It highlights the artistry and vividness of these features better than the few sketches or early photographs do. The accompanying text at the Canadian Archives is:

Subject depicts grave boxes in a grave house with guardian figures. The grave house is covered with a roof of wooden planks but has no walls. At the front of the house stands six guardian figures. There are flags to the left and right of the house. On the left hand side of the house a tent is set up and clothes are hanging. A shotgun hangs from the front beam of the house. Item was up for auction in the September 28, 1970 Christie’s sale in Calgary. Lot 31.

The image isn’t very high-resolution but there are still some things to talk about – and there is another Richardson painting I’ll link to in a day or two. (edit: here)

Salish tomb detail 1

Salish tomb detail 1

The two right-most figures in the painting show a sort of squared off top, suggesting they may have been fitted into a house or other structure at one time. At the far right in the rear (above) you can clearly see some bas-relief carving, probably of “fishers” which are a creature with significant supernatural powers, according to for example, Diamond Jenness’ unpublished ethnography of the “Saanich”. Or they might be river otters, which memory tells me were also supernaturally-charged. You can see a very similar box below from Musqueam, including the curved pedestal, via “Don’s Maps” site, where you can also see several grave figures (scroll down) which it seems “Don” photographed at the MOA.

Musqueam box with fishers. Via Don's Maps.

Musqueam box with fishers. Source: Don’s Maps.

As the caption for the Richardson painting notes, there is a shotgun hanging from the front lintel, which is quite remarkable really.  It also appears two of the guardian figures are carved holding firearms, while two more appear to have their hands in their pockets (though I wouldn’t vouch for that – it promotes a kind of relaxed “this is our place” sense).  The large coffin in the centre has a vivid pattern which almost forms an optical illusion of depth.

Salish tomb detail 2

Salish tomb detail 2

In front of the house there is an old log and a stake or small post, which suggests there had been a previous house or grave house on the spot.  And note the prominent rocks scattered about.  It makes me wonder if there had been burial cairns here as well, perhaps dismantled to re-inter the ancestors in boxes.  Or, perhaps, the grave houses were placed in and among a burial cairn complex.

To the left of the house is a tent, with clothing hung out to dry.  Wherever this mausoleum was, the living people were hanging out right nearby.  I’m also really interested in these pennants.  At first glance they seem to include the Christian Cross or even the Cross of St. George, and yet the circle seems a little more unusual in this setting.  I wonder if they are re-purposed naval flags?  Or if they are an early example of a cultural-fusion – it would have been easy to have such pennants made on the coast at the time, what with all the naval and marine activity centred there. A long time ago I linked to a painting of tree burials at Tsaxis, where less well-formed pennants appeared to be attached to the coffins in the trees.

These details matter to fully appreciate the aesthetic and spiritual context of  burial practices which don’t have a durable archaeological record.  This painting seems to be a highly faithful rendering of an important part of the Coast Salish built environment. We often think that the 19th century happened in black and white, because it is then that photography takes over as our index of realism.

Of course, not all non-photographic images of these capture their vibrantly alive aspects – the image below  from around 1850 shows grave houses in Victoria in a much gloomier fashion.  (I’ve seen one reference to this image being at Laurel Point but the setting does not look familiar – it might be the small islet near the trestle, known to have been a burial island, or any one of the perhaps dozens of such burial islands known from Greater Victoria.)

In any case, it is worth remembering how much the landscape of the Salish Sea had been modified or imbued with deep spiritual significance – and that the physical evidence of this may not always mark the archaeological record with a very strong signature.

"Indian Graves in Victoria". Ca. 1849-1853 sketch by W.B. McMurtrie. Source; Museum of Fine Ats, Boston.

“Indian Graves in Victoria”. Ca. 1849-1853 charcoal sketch by W.B. McMurtrie. Source; Museum of Fine Ats, Boston.

30 responses to “A Coast Salish Mausoleum, 1864

  1. A very interesting post, and burial practices I’ve not come across before. The grave boxes look quite small – were the newly-dead placed in them, or was it the practice to place only the bones/grave goods if any? Contrasts with the burial cairns of much greater antiquity I’ve been exploring in the last few days.


  2. I haven’t had time to look them up yet but there are apparently four other artworks by Edward Mallcott Richardson (other than the three in Library and Archives Canada) in our own PABC. Might be interesting to see what they show.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loraine Littlefield

    This is a very interesting image and I too have never seen it before. I wonder when Richardson was in British Columbia and where he went. One of the images on the far left is a woman. I hadn’t notice women depicted as a grave image before. The dress would seem to indicate post contact.


  4. Quinten: You mentioned the possibility of dismantled cairn burials that could have been re-inter in the ancesters in the burial boxes. I was wondering how late cairn burials have been dated? Was this method of burial used in the late period? We mostly have tree burials in our area, often in boxes or canoes. Thanks for any thoughts on the use of cairn burials into the late period? Dale


  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Lorraine – I find it interesting you haven’t come across the painting before either. Sometimes I think I am the last one to the party. That’s interesting about the female figure, I didn’t know that would be uncommon. On second glance I am questioning if the two figures holding “guns” and the bas-relief on the leftmost box, are actually guns. Perhaps they are actually rattles? Clicking on the topmost link makes it a little bigger but not so much that one can really see detail which, it being a watercolour, might not be there to begin with.

    The image below, which surely is by Frederick, not Edward, Whymper shows a grave house near Chapman’s Bar, which is in the lower Fraser Canyon. It seems to show a female figure as well? Not to mention the “hands in pockets” motif – maybe artists have always hated to draw hands….

    Salish Grave near Chapman's Bar
    Source: http://www.glenbow.org/media/coast_lp_grade_1-3.pdf

    Mike – thanks for the lead. I noted one more painting at the national archives, and I’ll have a look at provincial ones as well.

    Patrick — I don’t know the answer specifically — but in some places on the coast, burial boxes would hold a secondary burial, that is, the remains would be exposed first in some sort of sky burial (tree platform for example), the skeletal remains would then be put into the box (coffin, really, to keep it humanized!), then put into a tree platform/raised canoe/mortuary house/mortuary pole. Those flat cairns you show at your blog are kind of interesting. Some of the cairns and mounds around here are fairly monumental in size, surprisingly so perhaps, but many are just two or three rocks.

    Dale – we need Darcy to chime in here, but my recollection is that some may be dated to as recently as 5 or 600 years ago, although most dated ones are more like 1500 to 1000 years old. Some, like the ones at Little Beach near Ucluelet, are over 3,000 years old. My comment was pretty speculative, but I know there is always a creeping Marpoleia in the Salish Sea and I don’t think we can rule out more recent ones as well. I mean, I’ve heard of one having been built as recently as the last 10 years 🙂 – and plans afoot to perhaps build more in the future (more on that when I get a chance)

    I mean, happily enough in some ways we don’t have a lot of dates on cairns, but that doesn’t mean cairns aren’t getting impacted in all kinds of manners – the Grace Islet case being prominent recently, though I haven’t got around to posting about that one either.


  6. Thanks Quentin – secondary burial was the term that eluded me, and makes sense of the structures and artefacts.


  7. These are interesting in many respects, I had thought that the Yuquot Whalers Shrine was a rather rare type of place. These appear quite similar, at least in my dim memory. Regarding the “hands in pockets”, maybe wood carvers found it difficult to carve hands? I’ll have to pull Jonaitis’ book out of a box somewhere and see if those have hands and if other features are at all comparable but I don’t remember the Yuquot ones having clothing, I believe they are simpler in execution.


  8. Quentin, thanks for calling this to everyone’s attention.Extremely interesting. The Whaler’s Shrine figures are much plainer and some are almost spirit boards lacking arms, let alone hands and pockets. The carving focus seems entirely on the faces, but I haven’t pulled out Jonaitas’ book. The Whaler’s Shrine is gable roofed. I wonder what the curved object is (Salish Tomb detail 1) in front of the box with the otters/fishers (?). A small shovel nosed canoe? There are carvings of people in European dress but I can’t recall whether they have their hands in their pockets. There were many mortuary structures on islands in the Columbia Gorge and they also have anthropomorphic figures, from what I’ve been told.


  9. PS if you look through carvings, you’ll see a lot of hands.


  10. I’m un-lurking again for some idle speculation. The pennants are of proportions consistent with maritime pennants, but the devices aren’t proportioned like any I’ve ever seen. In maritime conventions balls are common but not circles, which are harder to distinguish. Crosses tend to be broader and either positioned near the hoist or extend the full length of the pennant so that they can be easily identified at long distance with only a slight breeze. These appear to be intended to be hung as banners, which leans me toward the cultural fusion theory.

    With the hands-in-pockets thing, I wonder if maybe it indicates the fineness of the clothing. Before the advent of the sewing machine, I believe pockets were less common in work clothing and more of an indication of tailoring. To stand around with your hands in the pockets of a pair of well-tailored trousers can be an indication of wealth in many cultures, even today. This would fit with the stovepipe hats worn in the other image.

    The two figures in the blue shirts with white trousers interest me. That was common sailor’s dress during the maritime fur trade. The gun is interesting as well. From the commercial papers I’ve read, it seems the the three items most commonly in demand on the Northwest coast during the early trade were firearms, copper, and sailor’s clothing. I’m thinking it would make sense if these standards of wealth were reflected in burial goods.


    • Hi David, Thanks for the comments.

      Interesting that if these were ships pennants, then the red cross aligned longways would likely indicate “Commissioned Ship” i.e., the vessel was a warship. Compare to:
      Commissioning pennant

      Looking at the one in the far left corner, it has a double-V on the trailing edge. I note the combination of red cross with a dot indicating rank, as in, Commodores pennant. See this one, with the double-V and single dot.
      Commodore rank

      I didn’t see any use of open circles in my 7 1/2 minutes of research. However, it’s interesting these two features align with a scenario of Salish man walking into Ye Olde Pennante Shoppe and asking for one to be made up signifying warrior-ness and rank.

      The association of the red cross with ships of war would undoubtedly have been noticed.

      Regarding sailor clothing, here’s a crazy idea: look up in the comments to the example from Chapman’s Bar – the figure on the right appears to be wearing actual pants. Look at those wrinkles. That is, the statue was clothed in ….. clothing. Crazy idea?

      Doesn’t it seem that the gun is rather long for a shotgun?

      I do agree with your point that the choice of artifacts and design elements is very unlikely to be random but rather to be carefully selected to reflect the identities of the individuals and families within the mausoleum. Elsewhere I’ve read the ‘guardian figures’ are carved to reflect aspects of individual characters or biographies, and are not “crests” or more generic symbols.


  11. It’s my understanding that the platforms in the trees were the initial mortuary practice. Once the body had deteriorated to skeletal remains & the appropriate time had passed the skeletal remains were moved to the family grave box such as the sχʷəməcən (fisher) carved one (pictured) now housed at MOA.


  12. Just to close one loop, I found Jonaitis’ book and the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine figures do not have arms at all. As Ken says, the roof is gabled. There were (or are, in the AMNH) 88 human figures, 4 whales, and 16 human skulls. George Hunt, who worked for Boas in the acquisition, wrote to Boas in March 1906: “…I have been trying to find out if there is another one like it. But they say it’s the only one of its kind.” (Jonaitis 1999:3).


  13. Ken – I wonder if the curved object is comparable to the slightly-curved, snowboard shaped base of the Musqueam example shown above? These could be somewhow related to canoes via “canoe burials”, in a process whereby the canoe becomes reduced to a curved base. Or, indeed, it could easily be a shovel-nosed canoe as you suggest. It looks more substantial than the Musqueam Example.

    Victor: welcome back, and thanks for the information. That fits with my (highly superficial) knowledge as well.

    Mad Dog: yes, I don’t get the sense these Salish mausolea were “shrines” per se. I believe the whaler’s shrine was in a secluded location near a bathing pond and was a place of ritual practice. These grave houses appear to have been relatively visible on the landscape, at least judged by these three examples. “Mortuary Houses” associated with villages are well known from historic villages on the NW Coast of course. These apparently stand-alone ones are maybe a little different in setting and intent.

    It’s interesting but not surprising they attracted the interest of artists in the early colonial period – they must have appealed strongly to Victorian sensibilities of mournful and ostentatious melancholy.


  14. Here is the Yuquot Shrine in 1904. Note the board-like bodies noted by Ken, and also the skulls on the ground along the very back.

    (Don’t tell my students I’m linking to Wikipedia, ok)

    There’s a rather good general interest article from our local library on the shrine including efforts to repatriate it from the AMNH.


  15. Hmm…I think you might be onto something about the use of actual clothing. The trousers in that picture appear to match the necktie which looks asymmetrical, as if it too were fabric. Also, those stovepipe hats would be relatively difficult to carve, but it would be quite easy to put real hats on wooden heads. Looking back at the original picture I notice that the heads of the two figures on the right appear to have incomplete tops, as if they once wore hats(?).

    The “shotgun” appears to have the proportions of a muzzleloading military musket or trade musket, which were often loaded as shotguns. I seem to remember reading that Hudson’s Bay Co was still selling flintlock trade muskets into the second half of the 19th century.

    Regarding the pennants, I think it’s probable that the devices are either painted on, appliqued, or less likely, embroidered. I believe a professional flagmaker would be hesitant about piecing an inclosed device into a flag, as it’s important to get the fabric tensions even while doing a double-seam (which sucks up fabric in uneven ways). For this reason most pieced flags are laid out so that each panel has at least one edge that reaches to the edge of the final flag, so that it can be stitched together before it’s stretched and trimmed. Look on the two examples of pennants you chose, and you’ll see that each panel of the cross has such an edge.

    That’s what strikes me as wrong about the crosses if they were laid out by a professional sailmaker. I’m much more inclined to think they were made as one piece of fabric which was later painted or appliqued by the owner.

    And that’s about as much as I know about flag making.


  16. None of these were shrines. We honoured our ancestors in the same way as we recognize that the creator bestowed souls upon us the same as he did upon the rest of the creatures that share this planet. We’re not so arrogant as to think we’re the only ones chosen by the creator. Our fellow brethren that live here on the planet with us have a right to life too.


  17. important perhaps to note that the Yuquot whaler’s shrine is in Nuu-chah-nulth territory (not in the Coast Salish region) and has its own significance as a place associated with the chiefly power of whaling that is somewhat differentiated from the commemoration of the dead.

    it is also significant that that Yuquot whaler’s shrine is no longer in Nuu-chah-nulth territory but… New York City. Numerous Nuu-chah-nulth have sought to repatriate the shrine lead by members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht Nation. There is currently a plan that awaits funding for making this happen and has broad community support :


  18. On the flags–too early for Indian Shaker Church–what were the missionaries that may have had an influence there at that time? Since churches were often meeting places between the cultures, maybe this shows that “cross”-cultural-influence.

    We have the Mother Indian Shaker Church across the bay from Qwu?gwes, where John and Mary Slocum started this wide-spread BC/WA/OR/CA Indian Church movement. We are developing historic markers (as a partnership of the Thurston County Historic Commission and Indian Shaker Church leaders (Bishop, Minister and regional Missionary)) that will be placed on both highways leading to the church. We hope to have them dedicated for a gathering of BC/WA/OR/CA delegates meeting there in October for elections.

    Somewhat unique in that this was a christian movement started by Indians with a widespread influence. They have been very involved with all aspects of our dig across the bay–all artifacts were blessed and cleared for display in the Squaxin Museum by the ministers from these local Shaker Churches. We (Commission and Church) may nominate this Mother church for the National Register because of its influence in the future.


  19. Re: the Whympers – Edward and Frederick were brothers and both spent time in BC. Both were also accomplished illustrators. Edward was here in the early 1900s and Frederick in the mid 1860s. The image seems to be undated, but there is no reason I can see (being ignorant of EW’s itinerary) for it to not date to around 1901 when Edward was climbing in the Rockies – the CPR made western BC a pretty short hop from the Rockies by then.


  20. Just an observation about the “guns” or rattles– a carved figure on the box to the left is also carrying one of the objects, and given the curves to what would be the barrels, I’m guessing they aren’t guns, although the “stock” ends sure look like gunstocks. But I assume the carvers could have just as easily carved straight barrels as curved ones, if they were guns. Although I always wonder how much artistic license the illustrator of such paintings takes, when they do the final from sketches.

    Great stuff, as usual, Quentin– thanks for posting this.


  21. David, good point. I suppose the cross could be a separate piece of cloth, stitched onto a plain banner. Indeed this would be simple and well within any 19th century person’s ability to make at home.

    Dale, interestingly, a plain blue cross in the UK pennant idiom means “church”. it’d be a potent mixture for the indigenous observed to see crosses displayed on both churches and warships, a conjunction which could easily be glossed as “supernatural potency”.

    Victor, twoeyes: quite right, and we do need to keep in mind how much of the archaeological record, material culture in museums, and even certain places are highly charged. It’d be great to see the Whaler’s Shrine repatriated. I would assume that there were or are more such shrines along the west coast in Nuu-chah-nulth or Makah territory.

    Scott — yes who knows how faithful is the design. And often these things are composited from sketches, so even the artist is working from a sketchbook of impressions.

    ehpem: good point, do you think this mausoleum would be as intact as it clearly is in 1901 – well into the wave of collection – you’d think the Rothschild Museum of Curios or some such would have bought or stolen it by then. Still, which is more likely – that I’m wrong or that the Glenbow is? Though they might be more familiar with the Rocky Mountain Whymper (aka last few Flames seasons).


    • Rocky Mountain Whymper *is* familiar to Calgarians right now! After submitting my previous comment I did see a biography of Frederick that listed where his known collections were, and Glenbow was included. Not to say it couldn’t be Edward but, all things considered, Frederick seems more likely. Comparing photos of such places between the 1860s/70s and very early 1900s would likely show these places much less likely to have been intact in the later times.


  22. Hi Quentin,

    I could not figure out how to upload images to your blog so I resort to an email.

    I had seen the Richardson image in the distant past but had forgotten it until you posted it. It is useful to put it into the context of two images at the BCA Archives which I attach. Indian Burial Ground at Boston Bar by Fred Whymper shows banners much like the ones Richardson painted and others as well. It shows a graveyard of simple tents. I was puzzled about why people would camp in a cemetery until I came across this photo of a graveyard at Lytton which shows a tent, inside a grave fence. I am thinking that the tents were temporary grave houses, possibly with the intent that one day a more substantial house would be built.
    Thanks for the intriguing blog posts….

    John Lutz


  23. The burial practices in this area is an interesting topic as burials are found within the middens and others in cairns, rockshelters and near (on) the surface. Here is a Snohomish grave house photo’s by Curtis in 1912:

    Snohomish grave from Curtis


    It appears rather plain compared to the elaborate one depicted above. My limited knowledge would guess the illustration shows a high status grave house just after or during a ceremony – the clothes in the tent likely belonging to the deceased and acquired before or after death…. Looks like cedar bark on the roof in the older image.

    Looking foward to Darcy’s thesis!


  24. Hi John,
    Thanks for your comments. Mere humans can’t upload pictures here, they have to send them to me and I will do so — or if you upload to some other domain you can paste a link into a comment. (more than two links gets you sent to the moderation bin since that’s a spam filter threshold). Simplest is to send me pic or send me link….

    Anyway, another pic of a tent right close by the tombs would be really interesting. At Scowlitz, the mounds are right in and around the village itself, and like I mentioned at a lot of northern NW Coast historic villages the dead were put into mortuary houses right behind the habitations, or a select few in mortuary poles.

    Jim — Thanks for that! I had that image in my head but couldn’t recall where I had seen it. That one seems to be in a fairly overgrown spot, more secluded, but that could just be a decade or less of underbrush growth.

    There’re some interesting accounts in this old (ca. 1880 I think) overview by Yarrow:

    Which quotes the missionary/amateur anthropologist Myron Eells in a couple of places:

    “(c) About twenty years ago gold mines were discovered in British Columbia, and boats being scarce in the region, unprincipled white men took many of the canoes in which the Indian dead had been left, emptying them of their contents. This incensed the Indians and they changed their mode of burial somewhat by burying the dead in one place, placing them in boxes whenever they could obtain them, by building scaffolds for them instead of placing them in forks of trees, and in cutting their canoes so as to render them useless, when they were used as coffins or left by the side of the dead. The ruins of one such graveyard now remain about two miles from this agency. Nearly all the remains were removed a few years ago.”

    Which makes me wonder about the Chapman’s Bar example, above, which would be about that time and in the right place.

    Also, there is a description for the Twana (Salish, Puget Sound) – note the bit emphasize at the end:

    “(d) The grave is dug after the style of the whites and the coffin then placed in it. After it has been covered it is customary though not universal, to build some kind of an inclosure over it or around it in the shape of a small house, shed, lodge or fence. These are from 2 to 12 feet high, from 2 to 6 feet wide, and from 5 to 12 feet long. Some of these are so well inclosed that it is impossible to see within and some are quite open. Occasionally a window is placed in the front side. Sometimes these enclosures are 176 covered with cloth, which is generally white, sometimes partly covered, and some have none. Around the grave, both outside and inside of the inclosure, various articles are placed, as guns, canoes, dishes, pails, cloth, sheets, blankets, beads, tubs, lamps, bows, mats, and occasionally a roughly-carved human image rudely painted. It is said that around and in the grave of one Clallam chief, buried a few years ago, $500 worth of such things were left. Most of these articles are cut or broken so as to render them valueless to man and to prevent their being stolen. Poles are also often erected, from 10 to 30 feet long, on which American flags, handkerchiefs, clothes, and cloths of various colors are hung.A few graves have nothing of this kind. On some graves these things are renewed every year or two. This depends mainly on the number of relatives living and the esteem in which they hold the deceased.


  25. I was recently told about a large burial area near Victoria which could be seen from the water (a hillside) and the many things that were hung near the internments (as described above) could be seen by the relatives and respected, however non-indigenous folks took it upon themselves to desecrate the graves and take things etc as described above.

    Burial canoes common along much or all? of the bc coast, maybe all coast lines… Another from Oregon depicted here:



  26. Wow, such a great conversation. I’m coming very late to this – mostly because our favourite blogger keeps giving me edits. But since Quentin is making me cut stuff out of my dissertation, maybe I can fill his blog with it. Hah!
    Because I am a social archaeologist, I can speculate at will, but I think some of these burial features were intended as metaphorical houses for the dead (others have different significances that I won’t go into here). The largest of these burials are straight-sided (walls) with smaller cairns built in each corner (posts). The body was placed in a larger internal corner cairn, much in the same way that a house owner occupied a corner of a longhouse. What we see ethnographically is a more literal house, such as those depicted in the artwork that Quentin provides. Interestingly, whereas funerary petroforms (my term for cairns and mounds) contained individuals, the historic mausolea above housed several members of a household. So there is a pattern of continuity of practice, as well as change through time. But the change is predicated upon and legitimated by earlier practices.
    I also suspect that the building of funerary petroforms has considerable antiquity, beginning with small stone associations seen in midden inhumation burials dating to at least the Middle Pacific Period. Through time and ritual practice, these stone and sediment-associated burials move upwards and outwards, away from the domestic space of the living. They become inverted inhumations – mirror images of former practices – and form houses and villages of the dead.
    There is a rich story of social and ritual relationships here that underscores longstanding Coast Salish relationships with their ancestral dead, which are at the core of their identity and connections to place.


  27. Pingback: Suquamish traditions | Chinook Jargon

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