Semiahmoo People

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/09/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9123

The Semiahmoo were a band of Native Americans who lived in the Blaine and Birch Bay area (future Whatcom County) in the centuries prior to European settlement. Culturally and linguistically a Straits Salish band, they were distinguished from many other area tribes because they fished with reef nets, catching thousands of salmon yearly this way off Point Roberts and Birch Point.  In the early 1850s most of the Semiahmoo moved a short distance north of Blaine, only a few years before the first non-Indian settlers arrived; this move was just far enough north to place them in Canada when the U.S.-Canadian boundary was drawn in the late 1850s. Today (2009) many of the remaining Semiahmoo live in the Semiahmoo Indian Reserve, just northwest of the Canadian side of Peace Arch Park.

A Straits Salish People

The Semiahmoo were a small band; a 1790 estimate placed their number at approximately 300. There are different interpretations as to what the word “Semiahmoo” means. Semiahmoo historian Jack Brown writes that, according to Chief James “Jimmy” Charles (1867-1952), chief of the Semiahmoo from 1909 to 1952, the word Semiahmoo means “half-moon,” and describes the shape of Semiahmoo Bay. But White Rock, B.C., historian Lorraine Ellenwood writes that “it translates, in one sense, as ‘water all around’ or ‘hole in the sky’” (Years of Promise, 28). The reader should also keep in mind that the name “Semiahmoo” is a derivative of a name given to this group of Native Americans in 1854 by U.S. Indian Agent E. C. Fitzhugh, based on his hearing of what they called themselves. There have also been different spellings over the years of “Semiahmoo” -- two other commonly used spellings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Semmianma, (or Siamannas), and Semiamu. They were known for being a peaceful group, not given to war unless necessary for defense.

The Semiahmoo’s territory included the area around Semiahmoo Spit (known by Indians and early nineteenth century fur traders as Tongue Point) and Birch Bay, stretched south to Point Whitehorn, turned east to include Lake Terrell, then turned north to encompass the area around Blaine, along the shore of Drayton Harbor and the drainage basins of California and Dakota creeks.  In the years before the mid-nineteenth century, the territory also included the Semiahmoo Bay shoreline that went north and west into British Columbia, past White Rock and the shores of Mud Bay and Boundary Bay, then curved back south to cover the eastern shore of what we today know as Point Roberts.  In the 1850s their territory expanded north and east to include an additional part of the British Columbia Lower Mainland.   

Villages and Camps  

Semiahmoo villages were located at Birch Bay, Drayton Harbor (between Dakota and California creeks), and at the entry to Semiahmoo Spit. Brown writes that the village on Semiahmoo Spit was the principal village in the years before the arrival of the first European explorers in the late eighteenth century. He describes the village as having three rows of houses, forming an inverted V; one row of houses faced east to Drayton Harbor, and two rows faced west to Semiahmoo Bay. The Semiahmoo lived in rectangular wooden longhouses, up to 50 feet wide and anywhere from 50 to 200 feet long, which were typically built parallel to the water. A burial ground was located just beyond the village, at about the point where the spit narrows. A few villagers lived at the far end of the spit, where the Semiahmoo Resort is located today. This area was more wooded than it is today. 

By the time European explorers passed through in the 1790s, the band had moved their main village to the eastern shore of Drayton Harbor, between Dakota and California creeks. In the 1850s the Semiahmoo moved again, this time a few miles north, and established their primary village at the mouth of Campbell River on Semiahmoo Bay, near what is today the southeastern edge of White Rock, B.C.    

The Semiahmoo established temporary summer camps throughout their territory as well. The two biggest camps were at Lily Point on Point Roberts, the Semiahmoo’s favored fishing ground (British explorer George Vancouver saw one such abandoned camp when he landed at Point Roberts in 1792), and later at Crescent Beach  just northwest of White Rock, B.C.  The Crescent Beach location was chosen because the area’s tideflats had lots of clams, and on the nearby flood plains, wild berries, in particular cranberries, were available by the basketful.

Reef Netting

The Semiahmoo -- along with other Straits Salish peoples -- were distinguished from  other Northwest Indians in the way they fished with reef nets rather than with small mobile nets or traps. Salmon was the staple of their diet (with sturgeon a close second), supplemented by roots, bulbs, berries, and fruit gathered by the women. To a smaller degree the Semiahmoo also hunted, primarily for waterfowl.  

The Semiahmoo had two principal fishing spots -- Birch Point, where Birch Bay meets Semiahmoo Bay, and Lily Point, on the eastern shore of Point Roberts.  The Point Roberts location was the more important of the two, as it was here that the Indians caught most of the food that would sustain them through the winter.  Semiahmoo (as well as Saanich, Cowichan, and Lummi) fishermen gathered by the dozens and set their nets in a long arc on a reef that stretched east and south from the shoreline. The nets were anchored to the reef, with floats attached to the ends to keep it on the surface.  Fishermen in canoes nearby attached a rope to the net and when the salmon swam into it the fishermen drew the net up; on a good day they could catch thousands of fish. The fish were taken to temporary camps set up on the shore, split, and placed on drying racks to dry in the wind and sun. Smudge fires were built under the racks to shoo away flies and enhance the taste of the fish. Once the fish was properly cured and packed, it could keep all winter.

Disease and Raids

By 1800 the Semiahmoo population was declining, and this decline became more pronounced during the nineteenth century. By the early 1900s estimates placed the population at well under 100. This was due in part to smallpox and other epidemics that swept the area as a result of the increasing European presence.

Another big problem for the Semiahmoo were raids from northern Indians, which increased as the nineteenth century got underway and continued until mid-century. These raiders periodically swept through Semiahmoo territory, killing and looting and carrying off women and children as slaves. 

In response to these attacks, the Semiahmoo built two forts. One, built about 1830, was located where the city of Blaine is today. (The fort is said to have lasted until 1858, when it was destroyed by miners headed north during the Fraser Gold Rush.) The second fort was about six miles northwest, on top of a bluff in the community of Ocean Park, B.C. (near Indian Fort Drive), just south of Crescent Beach.    

A Short Walk to Canada

Shortly before 1850, a smallpox epidemic virtually wiped out the Snokomish Tribe, the Semiahmoo’s neighbor to its immediate north and east. A few Snokomish survivors joined the Semiahmoo, and in the early 1850s many of the Semiahmoo moved a few miles north and absorbed what had formerly been Snokomish territory, which included the shorelines of the Nicomekl and Serpentine rivers in southwestern British Columbia, and covered more of present-day Surrey, B.C.  

This move of just a few miles put the Semiahmoo on the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canadian border when the border was surveyed by teams of American and British members of the North American Boundary Commission later in the decade. Indeed, the move was still so fresh in the 1850s that the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty between Native Americans in Washington Territory and the U.S. government assigned the Semiahmoo to the same reservation as their Lummi neighbors to the south, although the Semiahmoo were not a signatory party to the treaty. A few Semiahmoo did join the Lummis, but by this time most of the band had relocated (some may have still been relocating) north of the 49th parallel and ended up staying in Canada.   

By the late 1850s the main Semiahmoo village was located near the mouth of the Campbell River on Semiahmoo Bay, slightly more than a mile northwest of the U.S. - Canadian border. Inspector General Joseph K. F. Mansfield visited the site in December 1858 as part of his inspection of nearby Camp Semiahmoo, where the American Boundary Commission had set up its camp (even though it was on the British side of the border) as a base for their work in surveying the boundary. In his report Mansfield remarked on the nearby Native Americans, observing “The Indians in this immediate neighborhood consist of about 50 in lodges, a hundred yards off harmless and peaceable” (“Semiahmoo People”).  The little settlement is said to have been located on both sides of the Campbell River.

A number of Semiahmoo men cut trees as part of the work of the Boundary Commission; some later worked as loggers. But reef netting continued to be their main occupation until increasing non-Indian settlement in the 1880s and 1890s drove many of them from their accustomed fishing grounds. However, the Semiahmoo fared slightly better with the government north of the border than the one south. Although  the U.S. government did not establish a reserve for the Semiahmoo, the Canadian government did, after a years-long battle between the British Columbia provincial government and the Canadian federal government over the amount of land to be allotted. 

Semiahmoo Indian Reserve

In 1887 the Semiahmoo Indian Reserve was established. The reserve is located in extreme southwestern British Columbia, and is bordered by Semiahmoo Bay to the south and west, Marine Drive (in White Rock) and 8th Avenue (in Surrey) to the north, Highway 99 to the east and the Canadian side of Peace Arch Provincial Park to the southeast. Originally 392 acres, the reserve has shrunk to 319 acres over the years due to land being nibbled away for the Great Northern Railway right of way, the Canadian side of the Peace Arch Park, and for two highways.

The reserve is administered by the Semiahmoo First Nation, even though currently more non-Semiahmoo than Semiahmoo actually live on the reservation. A 2001 census placed the reserve’s total population at 130. According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, there were a total of 81 Semiahmoo registered with the Canadian government in June 2009, with 49 living on the Semiahmoo Reserve.


Sources: Jack Brown, “Semiahmoo People” (Master’s thesis, University of British Columbia, 1971), website accessed June 25, 2009 (http://members.shaw.ca/brownja/semipeople.html);  Ron Dowle, The Semiahmoo  Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories (Surrey, B.C.: Surrey Historical Society, 2008), 8;  Lorraine Ellenwood, Years Of Promise: White Rock 1858-1958 (White Rock, B.C.: White Rock Museum and Archives Society, 2004), 27-29;  Lottie Roeder Roth, History of Whatcom County, Vol. I (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 53;  Whatcom Genealogical Society, Pioneers of Peace: Diamond Jubilee of Blaine, Washington, 1884-1959 (Bellingham: Whatcom Genealogical Society, 1976 [reprint of 1959 edition]), 9-10;  HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Whatcom County -- Thumbnail History” (by Janet Oakley), http://www.historylink.org (accessed July 3, 2009);  “First Nation Detail,” Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website accessed July 5, 2009 (http://pse5-esd5.ainc-inac.gc.ca/fnp/Main/Search/FNMain.aspx?BAND_NUMBER=569&lang=eng);  “James Charles,” Find A Grave website accessed July 7, 2009 (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Charles&GSfn=James&GSbyrel=in&GSdy=1952&GSdyrel =in&GScntry=10&GSob=n&GRid=7422231).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You