Voices from the Sound: Affliction
Margaret Horsfield's new book about early life in Clayquot Sound
In Margaret Horsfield's new book Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino 1899 - 1929, she examines many letters and diaries to learn of the realities of living on the coast in the early 20th century.
It wasn't an easy life, by any reckoning.
In a chapter entitled "Affliction" Margaret writes of illness on the west coast, and of the difficulty finding medical assistance.
Here is an edited excerpt from this chapter.
Hesquiat, March 15, 1916
Please send by next boat two bottles of Castoria for baby use also send the prices of each bottle so I can pay for them & send the money on return boat... let me know what it will cost you to ship them here so I can pay up all square.
Clayoquot, March 22, 1916
Dear Father Charles:
I have received a letter from William Aloysius asking me to send him by this boat two bottles of castoria. My rule is to first obtain cash but as he states it is for his baby I do not like to disappoint, and therefore send through you and I would be obliged if you would get him to pay you the amount due...
The medicine Walter Dawley sent to William Aloysius at Hesquiat in March 1916 probably didn't help much. Castoria was a widely touted patent medicine, claiming to cure all manner of children's ills including stomach pain, tapeworms and constipation. It contained senna, wintergreen and sodium bicarbonate: far from ideal for babies, it was the best Dawley's store at Clayoquot had to offer to the anxious parents.
A year later, in April 1917, fifteen-month-old Sophie Aloysius died at Hesquiat. She died the year a new government document entitled "Return of the Death of an Indian" came into circulation, so an official record of her death survives, signed by Father Charles Moser, resident missionary at Hesquiat. He stated the cause of death -- "Cholera Infantus, as I judge" -- and commented on the form that Sophie had been sick three weeks.
The death of a small child was a common-enough event. In his diary, Father Charles frequently wrote of sick and dying babies, usually in terse, undescriptive terms: "Sick call for a baby 10:30 pm," and "This afternoon burried a baby of one week" are typical of these relentless, repetitive entries.
"Received word that Sabbas' boy 2 yrs old had died," he wrote on February 10, 1912. "He had been sick for the last 2 or 3 weeks. Their baby, one month old, is also sick and probably will die too. At 8:30 word came that this baby died also. Poor mother!"
The month of January 1917 was especially grim. On January 20, Father Charles wrote, "A ten months old baby died," adding, "This is the second baby death in the new year." The following day: "The third baby, born yesterday, is burried today."
When he could, Father Charles specified the cause of these infant deaths, but sometimes he was baffled. When Jimmy Michael died at Hesquiat, aged 3 days, on March 29, 1919, the priest wrote "Was sick one night. Unable
to diagnose it."
To diagnose and treat illness was part of Father Charles' missionary role. Most missionaries had, or quickly developed, rudimentary medical skills when they worked in remote areas. The Indian Affairs Department officially sanctioned this medical help, equipping the missionaries with basic medical supplies. In April 1911, Father Charles "unpacked a case of drugs which had recently arrived from the Indian Department. Put all the medicines in good order on shelves, throwing away old stuff that was not marked."
Requests for medical help appear frequently in Father Charles's diary. Often he could do little, if anything, to help because the requests tended to come when death was imminent. In such cases, he was usually more preoccupied with saving the soul of the dying person than with administering medical aid. He would travel many miles, in all weathers, to be at a deathbed. In his estimation, if the person were "pagan," conversion was always possible, and if the person were Catholic, he should be present to hear confession and to administer the last rites of the church.
On several occasions, Father Charles visited the death beds of former pupils of Christie School, young people whom he had married only a few years earlier. Mary Alphonse Swan was one: she and Philip Chester Charlie were married by Father Charles on February 5, 1920, aged eighteen and nineteen respectively, and a wedding feast at Kelsemat followed their nuptial mass.
Two years later, Father Charles wrote:
November 9, 1922:
Mr Wingen took me to Ahousat in his launch. I carried the Blessed Sacrament with me for Alphonse Swan. I found her very low... She died a few hours after I left her.
The death certificate declares that Mary Alphonse Swan was "ill about three months with tuberculosis of the lungs following pneumonia" and that "Doctor Dixon was called and examined this case and pronounced her incurable."
Dr Douglas Scott Dixson for many years was the only doctor serving a vast area on the west coast. He settled in Tofino in 1912, remaining until his death in 1932. His daughter Winnie recalled that "the government made Father the doctor for all the Indians," although he also served the white settlers in the Tofino area.
Some years ago, a messy, dog-eared notebook was rescued from a jumble of papers in an old house in Tofino. It contains Dixson's diary and account book for 1916-17, hastily pencilled jottings detailing patients visited, medicines prescribed, charges made. Dr. Dixson clearly had an impossible job, tending the ailments of the growing Tofino community and constantly travelling on medical calls to Opitsat, Ahousat, Hesquiat and as far north as Kyuquot.
The doctor's diary reads like a series of working notes. The entry for November 17, 1916, says: "Rowed over to Mission with Louis. Examined: Edward (Ehatissaht)... Emile -- rheumatic endocarditis, Hugo & Mike -- convalescent from measles, Amy John -- ordered crutches, Alice Sam -- improving." The brief notation on June 6, 1917 is "Teleg from Sidney Inlet re case feared appendicitis," and ten days later "Chief Billy's Klooch [wife] Ahousaht improved but spitting blood."
In describing ailments, Dr. Dixson was always brief, sometimes unsure. "Whitlow?" he wrote in one instance, "Mumps?" in another. He commonly treated rheumatism, chest pains, bronchitis, sore throats and most of all, tubercular ailments. The ominous word "phthisis," an outdated medical term for tuberculosis, appears time after time. Outbreaks of measles were common: in November 1916, at least a dozen children at Christie School contracted measles. The doctor visited the school four times that month, travelling once to Ahousat, once to Kelsemat and once to Clayoquot Cannery in the same period.
On occasion, Father Charles asked Dr. Dixson to visit Hesquiat. In January 1917 the doctor put in two days at Hesquiat visiting "sick and ailing Indians."and treating diseases as varied as dropsy, whooping cough, phthisis, stomach ulcers, eczema, postpartum complications, ulcerated throat and lumbago.
After Dixson's departure, the weather at Hesquiat turned extremely cold, and the medical alerts kept coming. "The coldest morning I remember for the last 17 years," Father Charles wrote on January 30. "Wine frozen in sacristy and getting thick in the chalice during Mass... In the afternoon Mr Rae Arthur in Boat Basin sent message to Dr Dixson at Tofino to come for one of his children who received burns about her arm. Later on Doctor replied: 'Can not come.'"
In just over a year from this time, Dr Dixson faced far greater challenges.
"Can not come" he had to say, over and over, during the crisis of the Spanish Influenza, which had such a devastating impact in the autumn of 1918.
Throughout British Columbia, native communities were particularly hard hit by this epidemic; of the 4,000 people estimated to have died of this influenza in the province, some 1,150 were native Indian.
Margaret Horsfield's book Voices from the Sound is available at local bookstores. Visit voicesfromthesound.com for more details.
Tofino history is brought to life in Margaret Horsfield's book 'Voices from the Sound' and in this excerpt called 'Affliction'.