The Explosion of the Tonquin

March 21st, 2019

The Tonquin was an American merchant ship owned by the Pacific Fur Company, which traded with indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s. The furs they acquired were then shipped to China, where demand was high. The ship was destroyed when a trading mission with the Tla-o-qui-aht peoples in Clayoquot Sound went horribly awry, and if it weren’t for the account of one survivor, Joseachal of the Quinault nation, there would be no record of how the Tonquin and the people on it came to their fateful end.


It all began when Jonathan Thorn, captain of the Tonquin, reacted with insults and violence towards an elder who failed to acquiesce to his trading demands. On June 5th, 1811, a great number of people from the Tla-o-qui-aht nation had boarded the Tonquin to trade with Thorn and his crew. The trade was negotiated between Thorn and an experienced Tla-o-qui-aht elder, Nookamis, who asked that five blankets be given to them for every fur skin.


Thorn objected to this offer and became increasingly irritated that the elder did not agree to his requests, and he eventually became so angry at the elder’s stubbornness that he flew into a rage, grabbing a fur skin from Nookamis and hitting him in the face with it. He then ordered the ship to depart with all the Tla-o-qui-aht people still on board, including Chief Wickaninnish.


By the 15th of June, the Tla-o-qui-aht had spoken amongst themselves and announced to Thorn that they were again ready to negotiate, asking that for each fur skin they be given only three blankets––and a knife. Apparently unsuspecting of retaliation against his insults and kidnapping, Thorn agreed.


Violence ensued. Wickaninnish led his men in a swift attack against the crew that had taken them hostage, killing twenty crew members––all but four. Three of these men managed to escape and fled in a row boat––later captured by Tla-o-qui-aht and tortured to death, while the fourth, a badly wounded man named James Lewis, detonated the Tonquin’s powder magazine, killing over 100 of the Tla-o-qui-aht on board.


In the end, Joseachal, who had been on board acting as an interpreter between Thorn and the Tla-o-qui-aht, was the sole survivor. It is only by his account that we know what became of the Tonquin. The ship and its fateful last voyage provide the namesake for the dramatic Tonquin Valley and Tonquin Pass, both in Jasper National Park.

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