Captain William Henry McNeill
by Dr. Jerry V. Ramsey
An island in Puget Sound just off the shores of DuPont is named for Captain William Henry McNeill, of Boston, Massachusetts. The island name was spelled incorrectly when placed on the charts in 1841, but McNeill never seemed to have complained.
At age 18 McNeill was already a seasoned sailor, serving as First Mate on the Owyhee. By age 21 he was Master of the Convoy. In October 1825, his reputation as a fur trader on the North Pacific had him claiming to be the very best. He was responsible for great profits accumulated by two previous employers when the Hudson’s Bay Company made him an offer of employment.
The HBC wanted to control the best trader on the cost, so they hired him at a higher salary, bought his ship, hired his crew and paid them more than they had earned before. McNeill was a very skilled negotiator. He even got a bonus from his former employer for the fine profit on the sale of the Convoy.
McNeill was assigned to the HBC SS Beaver on March 10, 1837. The speedy steamer only added to McNeill’s trade success. He could sail under steam power into the smallest inlet, upstream on any river, against the tides, currents, and wind to pick up a few furs. He could even do it on a predetermined schedule. No Indian village was too remote or small. McNeill offered front door delivery service which most Native Americans appreciated. He also offered free gifts for trading exclusively with the SS Beaver.
McNeill also added to his prowess as a fur trader by learning the languages of his customers, their personal interests, customs, likes and dislikes. His first wife was Matilda, a Kaigani-Nishga Chief. Her first husband, Sakau-an, and brother were also chiefs. To marry Matilda and avoid problems, McNeill hired craftsmen to build a forty-foot-long war canoe for Sakau-an so that he would be recognized as the superior warrior.
McNeill always referred to the sea-borne fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company as the “Marine Department” even when there was no such thing. The Captain’s log reveals a list of trade goods he knew Indians favored. Of course, the usual blankets, and cotton fabric, and calicos are listed, but also muskets, knives, pipes and occasionally rum which was actually forbidden in the trade by the HBC. McNeill also offered mechanical toys, stuffed animals and a free gift for the chief with each purchase by anyone in the tribe.
Sailing out of Fort Nisqually (at DuPont) in 1841 McNeill noticed seawater erosion and corrosion on the boilers of the SS Beaver. New boilers from London were installed at Fort Nisqually with assistance from the U.S. Exploring Expedition also in port at Fort Nisqually
It was at this time that McNeil Island was named and misspelled by Captain Wilkes, commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
Captain Wilkes was the leader of the first official celebration of Independence Day (Fourth of July) on the west coast. McNeill was a Boston born and bred American patriot who personally watched the War of 1812 with Great Britain from his hometown hills. McNeill was the ranking HBC officer, though not in charge at Fort Nisqually. Still he was not shy about heartily celebrating American Independence in front of his British employers.
To learn more, read Captain McNeill and His Wife the Nishga Chief, by Robin Percival Smith, Hancock House, Surrey B.C., 2001.