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Native Indian Use of Beacon Hill Park by Royal B.C. Museum Archaeologist Dr. Grant Keddie

 

 

Aboriginal History / Uses

Beacon Hill was not always a park. It was once part of the land used and occupied by the Songhees Indians. When first observed by Europeans in the mid-19th century, there were no Indian villages in the present park area. However, the evidence of prehistoric activities and oral tradition tell a different story.

Evidence of prehistoric use of the Park area by native peoples consists of the remains of village refuse at defensive localities along the waterfront and burial grounds nearby.

Indian Defensive Sites

Indian defensive sites in the Victoria area were in some cases fortified villages; in other cases, separate places of refuge used in times of hostility between native groups. These sites were usually located on the point of a raised peninsula, separated by a trench, two metres deep and several metres wide, across the neck of the peninsula.

A site of this type was located on Finlayson Point, immediately in front of Beacon Hill.

Another type of defensive site was located at Holland Point, near the southwest corner of the Park. This site was located on the edge of a steep bluff with a semi-circular trench extending in from the sea bluff. A similar one was located on the bluff at the northwest corner of Clover Point.

There is an interesting tradition about these village sites, recorded from elderly native informants who were alive in the mid-19th century.

The story tells of a disease that came one summer long ago (possibly a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s). Indians living in the pallisaded village at Holland Point fled into the hills while others took all their household belongings and winter food supply and moved to several houses within the pallisaded village at Finlayson Point. In the spring, when the Holland Point people returned, they climbed into the Finlayson Point fort and found everyone dead in their houses. Relatives came and buried the bones in stone cairns on Beacon Hill.

Burial Cairns

Another type of prehistoric site common in the Victoria area were burial cairns or mounds composed of boulders, stones and dirt. These cairns occurred in many different shapes and sizes and were often located on prominent hillsides. They varied in diameter from one to ten metres and were up to two metres in height.

Beneath these cairns a body was usually placed in a shallow grave lined with stones. Rocks of various sizes and dirt were placed over the body and then large boulders placed around or on top of this cluster.

Burial cairns once extended from the top of Beacon Hill down the south-east slope. It was stated in 1858: "An attentive observer will note circles, and that a center mound is within each located near the base of the present flag staff was excavated. In it were found human remains and part of a cedar bark mat for wrapping the body.*

This is a beneath-the surface view of one of the more complex cairn burials excavated in 1989 in the Uplands area of Oak Bay. The body was placed inside a grave pit, surrounded by two rock alignments.

In 1871, James Deans, Victoria's first notable archaeological enthusiast, mentioned that at least 23 cairns "dot the summit and sides of Beacon Hill, some of whish are surrounded with a circular thicket or scrub-oak."

In 1897, Deans observed that many of the surface boulders of cairns had been removed. Since the turn of the century, many more of the cairn boulders have been removed, or shoved to new locations. By the 1970s, only one intact cairn and the circular bases of several others embedded in the ground could be seen down the slope of the hill. In 1986, scattered boulders from some of the original cairns were moved and used in the reconstruction of four burial cairns. These cairn reconstructions resemble some of those observed in the 19th century. The bases of some partially intact cairns can still be seen close to the reconstructed ones.

Later Native Users

In the mid-19th century, the Songhees Indians came here from nearby locations to gather the edible bulbs of the flowering camas. A Songhees elder, Jimmy Fraser, gave the name "Meegan", meaning "warmed by the sun", to the open meadow in Beacon Hill Park where people sat to have their bellies warmed in summer. This meadow was also used as a playing field for qoqwialls, a game played with oak sticks hollowed out spoon-fashion at the end. A ball was propelled along the ground toward goals at each end of the field. Today, the not-too-different game of cricket is played nearby.

Grant Keddie, Native Indian Use of Beacon Hill Park, RBCM Notes, Note #14/88, ISSN 0838-598x