Holding an important place among the
majority of curious tales held in veneration by the
coast tribes are those of the sea-serpent. The
monster appears and reappears with almost monotonous
frequency in connection with history, traditions,
legends and superstitions; but perhaps the most wonderful
part it ever played was in the great drama that held
the stage of Europe, and incidentally all the world
during the stormy days of the first Napoleon.
Throughout Canada I have never failed
to find an amazing knowledge of Napoleon Bonaparte
amongst the very old and “uncivilized”
Indians. Perhaps they may be unfamiliar with
every other historical character from Adam down, but
they will all tell you they have heard of the “Great
French Fighter,” as they call the wonderful little
Whether this knowledge was obtained
through the fact that our earliest settlers and pioneers
were French, or whether Napoleon’s almost magical
fighting career attracted the Indian mind to the exclusion
of lesser warriors, I have never yet decided.
But the fact remains that the Indians of our generation
are not as familiar with Bonaparte’s name as
were their fathers and grandfathers, so either the
predominance of English-speaking settlers or the thinning
of their ancient war-loving blood by modern civilization
and peaceful times, must one or the other account
for the younger Indian’s ignorance of the Emperor
of the French.
In telling me the legend of The Lost
Talisman, my good tillicum, the late Chief Capilano,
began the story with the almost amazing question,
Had I ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte? It was
some moments before I just caught the name, for his
English, always quaint and beautiful, was at times
a little halting; but when he said by way of explanation,
“You know big fighter, Frenchman. The
English they beat him in big battle,” I grasped
immediately of whom he spoke.
“What do you know of him?” I asked.
His voice lowered, almost as if he
spoke a state secret. “I know how it is
that English they beat him.”
I have read many historians on this
event, but to hear the Squamish version was a novel
and absorbing thing. “Yes?” I said my
usual “leading” word to lure him into
channels of tradition.
“Yes,” he affirmed.
Then, still in a half whisper, he proceeded to tell
me that it all happened through the agency of a single
joint from the vertebra of a sea-serpent.
In telling me the story of Brockton
Point and the valiant boy who killed the monster,
he dwelt lightly on the fact that all people who approach
the vicinity of the creature are palsied, both mentally
and physically bewitched, in fact so
that their bones become disjointed and their brains
incapable; but to-day he elaborated upon this peculiarity
until I harked back to the boy of Brockton Point and
asked how it was that his body and brain escaped this
“He was all good, and had no
greed,” he replied. “He proof against
all bad things.”
I nodded understandingly, and he proceeded
to tell me that all successful Indian fighters and
warriors carried somewhere about their person a joint
of a sea-serpent’s vertebra, that the medicine
men threw “the power” about them so that
they were not personally affected by this little “charm,”
but that immediately they approached an enemy the
“charm” worked disaster, and victory was
assured to the fortunate possessor of the talisman.
There was one particularly effective joint that had
been treasured and carried by the warriors of a great
Squamish family for a century. These warriors
had conquered every foe they encountered, until the
talisman had become so renowned that the totem pole
of their entire “clan” was remodelled,
and the new one crested by the figure of a single
joint of a sea-serpent’s vertebra.
About this time stories of Napoleon’s
first great achievements drifted across the seas;
not across the land and just here may be
a clue to buried coast-Indian history, which those
who are cleverer at research than I, can puzzle over.
The chief was most emphatic about the source of Indian
knowledge of Napoleon.
“I suppose you heard of him
from Quebec, through, perhaps, some of the French
priests,” I remarked.
“No, no,” he contradicted
hurriedly. “Not from East; we hear it from
over the Pacific, from the place they call Russia.”
But who conveyed the news or by what means it came
he could not further enlighten me. But a strange
thing happened to the Squamish family about this time.
There was a large blood connection, but the only male
member living was a very old warrior, the hero of
many battles, and the possessor of the talisman.
On his death-bed his women of three generations gathered
about him; his wife, his sisters, his daughters, his
granddaughters, but not one man, nor yet a boy of
his own blood stood by to speed his departing warrior
spirit to the land of peace and plenty.
“The charm cannot rest in the
hands of women,” he murmured almost with his
last breath. “Women may not war and fight
other nations or other tribes; women are for the peaceful
lodge and for the leading of little children.
They are for holding baby hands, teaching baby feet
to walk. No, the charm cannot rest with you,
women. I have no brother, no cousin, no son,
no grandson, and the charm must not go to a lesser
warrior than I. None of our tribe, nor of any tribe
on the coast, ever conquered me. The charm must
go to one as unconquerable as I have been. When
I am dead send it across the great salt chuck, to the
victorious ‘Frenchman’; they call him Napoleon
Bonaparte.” They were his last words.
The older women wished to bury the
charm with him, but the younger women, inspired with
the spirit of their generation, were determined to
send it over seas. “In the grave it will
be dead,” they argued. “Let it still
live on. Let it help some other fighter to greatness
As if to confirm their decision, the
next day a small sealing vessel anchored in the Inlet.
All the men aboard spoke Russian, save two thin,
dark, agile sailors, who kept aloof from the crew and
conversed in another language. These two came
ashore with part of the crew and talked in French
with a wandering Hudson’s Bay trapper, who often
lodged with the Squamish people. Thus the women,
who yet mourned over their dead warrior, knew these
two strangers to be from the land where the great
“Frenchman” was fighting against the world.
Here I interrupted the chief.
“How came the Frenchmen in a Russian sealer?”
“Captives,” he replied.
“Almost slaves, and hated by their captors,
as the majority always hate the few. So the
women drew those two Frenchmen apart from the rest
and told them the story of the bone of the sea-serpent,
urging them to carry it back to their own country and
give it to the great ‘Frenchman’ who was
as courageous and as brave as their dead leader.
“The Frenchmen hesitated; the
talisman might affect them, they said; might jangle
their own brains, so that on their return to Russia
they would not have the sagacity to plan an escape
to their own country; might disjoint their bodies,
so that their feet and hands would be useless, and
they would become as weak as children. But the
women assured them that the charm only worked its
magical powers over a man’s enemies, that the
ancient medicine men had ‘bewitched’ it
with this quality. So the Frenchmen took it
and promised that if it were in the power of man they
would convey it to ‘the Emperor.’
“As the crew boarded the sealer,
the women watching from the shore observed strange
contortions seize many of the men; some fell on the
deck; some crouched, shaking as with palsy; some writhed
for a moment, then fell limp and seemingly boneless;
only the two Frenchmen stood erect and strong and
vital the Squamish talisman had already
overcome their foes. As the little sealer set
sail up the gulf she was commanded by a crew of two
Frenchmen men who had entered these waters
as captives, who were leaving them as conquerors.
The palsied Russians were worse than useless, and
what became of them the chief could not state; presumably
they were flung overboard, and by some trick of a
kindly fate the Frenchmen at last reached the coast
“Tradition is so indefinite
about their movements subsequent to sailing out of
the Inlet, that even the ever-romantic and vividly
colored imaginations of the Squamish people have never
supplied the details of this beautifully childish,
yet strangely historical fairy tale. But the
voices of the trumpets of war, the beat of drums throughout
Europe heralded back to the wilds of the Pacific Coast
forests the intelligence that the great Squamish ‘charm’
eventually reached the person of Napoleon; that from
this time onward his career was one vast victory,
that he won battle after battle, conquered nation after
nation, and but for the direst calamity that could
befall a warrior would eventually have been master
of the world.”
“What was this calamity, Chief?”
I asked, amazed at his knowledge of the great historical
soldier and strategist.
The chief’s voice again lowered
to a whisper his face was almost rigid
with intentness as he replied:
“He lost the Squamish charm lost
it just before one great fight with the English people.”
I looked at him curiously; he had
been telling me the oddest mixture of history and
superstition, of intelligence and ignorance, the most
whimsically absurd, yet impressive, tale I ever heard
from Indian lips.
“What was the name of the great
fight did you ever hear it?” I asked,
wondering how much he knew of events which took place
at the other side of the world a century agone.
“Yes,” he said, carefully,
thoughtfully; “I hear the name sometime in London
when I there. Railroad station there same
“Was it Waterloo?” I asked.
He nodded quickly, without a shadow
of hesitation. “That the one,” he
replied; “that’s it, Waterloo.”