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Tales from the vault: The island of Jimmy Chicken

Oct 07 2012

Growing up in Oak Bay in the 1950s, I had never heard of Mary Tod Island. I knew, of course, the island that lay just off the shore near the Oak Bay Boathouse. I passed it every day on the way to school. But no one ever called it "Mary Tod." For everyone, it was simply "Jimmy Chicken." I had heard vaguely that the name referred to a native man who had lived on the island. But I knew nothing more.

The name, though, was strange. How was it that in white, well-off Oak Bay, a landmark would be named for a native man? Native place names are not unusual on the coast, but those named for specific native individuals are. Jimmy Chicken, though, was not a "usual" person. Indeed, he was one of the most colourful individuals in early Victoria.

Jimmy and his wife, Jenny, lived on Mary Tod Island in the latter part of the 1800s. To them, the island would have been "Kohweechela," which means "where there are many fish." Fishing was Jimmy's main occupation. One of his customers was John Virtue, who ran the Mount Baker Hotel on the Oak Bay waterfront.

This was Jimmy's main source of income, but not his only way of making a living. He acquired his surname from his habit of stealing chickens. If caught, he would, according to one observer, "snatch a chicken and make a run for it, scuttling down to his canoe ... and paddling like fury ... to his little island."

Despite this, he was well-liked. He was a genial, pleasant person, even when drunk, which was much of the time. He and his wife would go on frequent binges, and, as one writer put it, "many a noisy carousal echoed across the water to Oak Bay." Sometimes, if he was drinking in town and the winds were too strong to paddle back to his island, he would simply curl up by a roadway for the night. He obviously had a tough constitution, because he was well over 60 by the time he died in 1901.

The people who knew him best were the police. So often did they pick him up and put him in the drunk tank that he was the most frequent occupant of their cells. He was always genial, and so trustworthy that they would let him out to run errands. His son Johnny would usually come to visit him, bearing a change of clothing and some words of comfort.

In 1899, Jimmy's wife died. Jimmy was inconsolable with grief, and for a time, went off drinking altogether. But then he started carousing harder than ever. He also came up with a solution to his loneliness. He stole a young Songhees woman (her age was not recorded), and spirited her over to his island. Not for long, though. Four of her tribesmen came racing after her. Jimmy lost her, and nearly lost his own life, in the ensuing fracas.

Although Jimmy was something of a figure of fun to the white population, he seems to have been a man of stature in the native community. When he died, to quote one writer, "At least 100 canoes [were] drawn up on Oak Bay Beach, where the natives went through their ceremonial dances to the beat of drums. The body was then taken aboard a large canoe and the whole armada took off for Chatham Island. There Jimmy was buried with further ceremonies."

This incident points to a real problem with the information on Jimmy's life. The documents on him are, of course, written entirely from the white perspective of a century ago. As such, they embody the prejudices of the time. Colourful details are recorded, but not those that would bring him into focus as a fully functioning adult of another culture.

We don't, for example, know his native name, his age or what languages he spoke. We know he was a fisherman and stole chickens occasionally, but little else of his material life. We know nothing of his ideas or spiritual beliefs. No one seems to have sat down with him and made a serious inquiry into his life.

Ironically, this was not the case in the remote Queen Charlottes. There, at the same time, John Swanton was recording major works of literature from native informants. Here, surrounded by a white community, there was nothing like it.

Fascinating details occasionally pop up in the records we do have. One report says Jimmy was originally from the Cowichan area. He does seem to have behaved differently around white people than other natives, and perhaps an outsider status might explain that. Another detail is the house he lived in. One article described it as "like the old-time Indian house." Since Jimmy was likely born before the founding of Fort Victoria, he would have learned to build in a traditional native style. If he was from further north, would there have been design differences from local houses? Without photographs, we don't know.

Another intriguing detail is the whole bride-stealing incident. Bride theft is a well-known practice from other ethnic groups. Although it was hilarious to the white people, was he, in fact, just following an accepted norm for his own community? Anthropologists may be able to tell us, but we're not sure what his community actually was.

If the story of Jimmy Chicken (or "Chickens" in some sources) interests you, we have an extensive clipping file on him in our local history room. Included are two lengthy articles published in the Victoria newspapers following his death in 1901. We also have Philip Teece's book A Dream Of Islands, which has a sketch of the graveyard on Chatham Island, where we presume Jimmy was buried. For an historical view of the local Songhees people, see Grant Keddie's Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People As Seen By Outsiders.

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