Indigenous Peoples and Potato Cultivation

February 3, 2023.

By Grant Keddie


During the early period of European exploration and settlement, on what became the Colony of Vancouver Island, outsiders often spoke of the great skills of indigenous people in acquiring specific foods. However, the planning that went into Indigenous resource management practices was not recognized. Activities such as the organizing and placing of tied fir branches in inlets to collect herring eggs were not recognized as a form of aquaculture – which today they would be. Just as today we use the term oyster farms, would we not have to call the latter practice herring egg farming?

The bias of Europeans as to what they considered forms of farming was clearly toward land-based agriculture. Land-based farming was seen as the hallmark of “civilization”. It is because of the ingenuity of Indigenous people to adapt to potato growing and this European bias that potato growing has played an important role in the early development of land claims and determining the location or size of Indigenous reserves. The subject was also breached in a more recent court case in which I submitted a report that made reference to the importance of potato growing by the Lekwungen.

Although my interest in potatoes started with the thousands of baked potatoes I have loved to eat over the years, I became increasingly interested as I became aware of the numerous references in the journals of Europeans who observed Indigenous people growing potatoes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I was particularly interested in the survival of the earliest potato varieties introduced by the Spaniards in the early 1790s (Wagner 1933:162; Mozino 1970:117) and confirmed by modern genetic studies to have their origin either directly or indirectly from Mexico and Chile (Zhang et al. 2010).

Nancy Turner, the most prolific writer on Indigenous foods, gained from working in collaboration with many Indigenous peoples (see Nancy J. Turner 2012, 2005,

1998, 1995), acquired one of the early Spanish varieties from the Makah of Neah Bay – who were still growing them. She passed some of these on to botanist Ken Marr who passed some on to me. Several farms in Oregon and Washington States are now selling these potatoes for local markets.

I began growing these in my garden and experimenting with them under different settings of light to see what they produced and how they survived. I was interested in how long these plants may have survived in abandoned villages where they could have been re-acquired at a later time. My potatoes grew the largest in near full sun light. Those that grew in considerable shade grew to a moderate size but only produced very tiny potatoes. What was most interesting to observe was those planted in semi-shade. These grew to a height of 8 feet and produced a range of potato sizes from small to medium. Figure 1 shows an eight-foot plant in the semi­shade and figure 2 shows the full range of potato sizes recovered from this plant.

Figure 1. Eight-foot-high Makah potatoes grown in Victoria.


Figure 2. Full range of sizes from an old variety of “Makah” or “Nootka” potato that was produced from an 8-foot-high plant grown in semi-shade. November 7, 2015.

We know that the Lekwungen of the Victoria region were growing potatoes before the settlement of Fort Victoria. We can not rule out that they were not growing this earlier variety but it is more likely they were potatoes introduced to the Columbia River Forts in the early 1800s. The Fort Victoria Journals note that the Hudson’s Bay Company was purchasing large amounts of potatoes from the Songhees and other First Nation groups in the region in the mid-1840s to mid-1850s – even after the H.B.C. were growing some of their own potatoes. Beginning on August 2, 1846 it is recorded that 130 bushels of potatoes were traded from the “Songes” (Brazier et al. 2012). At 50lbs a bushel, this was 650lbs at the time.

Potato cultivation by First Nations was rapidly dispersed throughout the Northwest Coast from early Hudson’s Bay Company forts and established throughout the Gulf of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits by 1840 (Maclachlan 1998; Suttles 1987; Deur 2005).

James Douglas, in a letter to the HBC in 1839, notes the enormous extent of potato cultivation by First Nations groups on the lower Fraser River and extending out to the Gulf of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait (Suttles 1951:274). On his second visit to Victoria of March 15, 1843, Douglas noted that: “The Indians have small gardens on the plain and grow very fine potatoes” (Douglas 1843).

Like the camas, potatoes were grown for trade as well as local consumption. In 1845, Lieutenants Warre and Vavasour reported: “The Indians of Puget Sound and the Straits of De Fuca .. .cultivate large quantities of potatoes, &c for their own use, and to barter with the vessels frequenting the coast”.

The development of potato cultivation had become a part of the local economy of Lekwungen families before the establishment of Fort Victoria. This practice may have been around for many generations if the Lekwungen were growing the varieties introduced by the Spanish in the 1790s to the Nuu-chan-nulth.

All of their more permanent village sites would likely have potato gardens. The fact that the “Songes” traded 130 bushels to the Fort on August 2, 1846, would suggest that they are acquiring these from established fields other than those that might have been on the new amalgamated reserve (Keddie 2003) across the harbor from the Fort.

Although large potato patches were clearly marked on some marine maps, detailed maps were not drawn, for example, for the Cadboro Bay area. It would be very likely that potato gardens would be present on the cleared areas around the villages and on the flat or gently sloping areas at the back of Cadboro Bay and to the west of Loon Bay.

The same reasons for the lack of archaeological evidence for cultivated camas applies to cultivated potato areas. Historic alteration of the landscape has prevented the finding of any archaeological evidence showing the size and specific locations of potato fields husbanded by the Lekwungen people, in or around the time of the treaties in the mid-1800s.

A Selected List of Documentation on the Indigenous Growing and Use of Potatoes, 1791 – 1876

I am presenting this selected list of commentary on potatoes here to demonstrate not only how quickly indigenous peoples were growing, consuming and trading potatoes, but their important role in feeding the fur traders and settlers.

1791. Juan Pantoja y Arriaga describes the gardens at Nootka Sound in 1791, as having potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, artichokes, garlic, lettuce, cabbage and radishes. Wagner (1933:162).

1811. The Pacific Fur Company introduced potatoes at Fort Astoria on the lower Columbia River.

1817-1832. “Potatoes grew better in Sitka than anywhere else in the colonies. Some of the seed came from Siberia and some from California. The potatoes have an especially good flavor and are nourishing. The soil is rocky and it usually fertilized with seaweed, or, as they say here, sea cabbage. In better locations the crop brings a twelve to fourteen fold harvest; in poor places a six to eightfold. Thousands of barrels, or almost four thousand puds of potatoes are harvested. All land around the fortress has been put into gardens. Considering the demand for this crop, one could say that it is replacing bread, and contributes greatly to health when eaten with salted fish. When there is a good harvest the price per barrel is ten, or more usually fifteen rubles per barrel. American seaman and government ships sometimes buy as much as 100 barrels from the inhabitants. All of this together represents a local advantage” (Khlebnikov 1817-1832:99)

The potatoes from California would have most likely been obtained after the 1812 establishment of Fort Ross in California and the subsequent visits of Russians to Spanish missions. Khlebnikov’s description was likely written during the 1820’s.

1824. The Ozette potato of the Makah in Washington State and Maris’s potato of the Tlingit Nation and the Kasaan potato of the Haida. On the northern coast the Haida were actively cultivating and trading potatoes in 1824 (John Scouler 1848:247)

1825. George Simpson when visiting Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River was demanding to see more potato gardens. In his diary of March 27, 1825 Simpson writes: “I brought up from Fort Vancouver ten bushels of seed potatoes which were delivered to Mr. Dease with a long lecture on the advantages to be derived from attention to the Horticultual Department of the post” (Merk 1931:128).

1826. At Fort Vancouver “nine hundred barrels of potatoes” were produced. Letter of March 20, 1826 from John McLoughlin to Governor, Chief Factors and Chief Traders. (Merk 1931:270).

1827. At Fort Vancouver: “Our potatoes crop failed, from two hundred barrels which we planted we only got six hundred barrels”. “potatoes and turnips in this climate are subject to fail”. Letter of March 20, 1827 to John McLoughlin to Governor George Simpson. (Merk 1931:291).

1829. Jonathan S. Green. “Some years since, a trader left a few English potatoes at Queen Charlotte’s Island, and instructed the natives in the cultivation of them. This is doubtless a benefit to the Indians, but not less so to the traders themselves.  For years, at very little expense, they have been able to furnish their vessels with most excellent potatoes. Last year, I am told, Capt. B. left swine on this island. These, if they increase, will be another benefit.” (Green 1829:8).

1836. Paraphrase from A.C. Anderson. At Fraser’s lake in 1836: “the fertile soil here produced potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, onions, carrots, beets, parsnips and Indian corn”. Anderson, Nancy Marguerite. 2011. The Pathfinder. A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. Heritage, Victoria, British Columbia, p. 59.

1837. “The Indians brought provisions (potatoes, fish, venison, wildfowl, berries, eggs) to the posts” Gibson (1982-83:77). (In discussions of events at Ft McLoughlin and Ft Simpson (paraphrasing either Work or Simpson). Gibson, James R. 1982-83. Smallpox on the Northwest Coast 1835-1838. B.C. Studies, No. 56, Winter, pp. 61-81.

1840. Shortly before May 6, 1840. In Port Discovery – “They live principally on fish, shell-fish, the cammass-root and potatoes”. Wilkes, Charles. 1845.

Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Volume 1. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

1841. September 7. George Simpson visited a large summer fishing village “behind Point Roberts” of about 1000 Indigenous people from Vancouver Island. “These people offered us salmon, potatoes, berries, and shell-fish for sale.” George Simpson. 1847. 1843 – 1858

1842. “We are certain that Potatoes thrive, and grow to a large Size, as the Indians have many small fields in cultivation which appear to repay the labor bestowed upon them, and I hope that other Crops will do as well” (Douglas 1842).

This statement was made by James Douglas in reporting on his visit with a party of six men, in the Schooner “Cadboro” to the south end of Vancouver’s Island. His reference is made in regard to the general area.

1842. James Douglas letter to John McLoughlin, July 12, 1842. “many small fields in cultivation” C.O 305/1.

1843. March 14. Klallam of Dungeness on the Olympic Peninsula. Douglas stated that they “Grow very fine potatoes”. James Douglas. Diary of a Trip to Victoria, March 1-21, 1843. A/B/40/D75.4a.

1843. March 15. Victoria area. Douglas noted that: “The Indians have small gardens on the plain and grow very fine potatoes” (Douglas 1843).

1845. Extract of Report of Lieutenants Warre and Vavasour, October 26, 1845.

“The Indians of Puget Sound and the Straits of De Fuca, also those further to the north, appear to be more numerous … and cultivate large quantities of potatoes, &c for their own use, and to barter with the vessels frequenting the coast”.

In: British Parliamentary Papers. Canadian Affairs. B.C. Vol NW971 G786 Vol.

39. Imperial Blue Books on Affairs Relating to Canada. Reports, Returns and Other Papers. Imperial House of parliament of Great Britain and Ireland Relating to Canada, P.S. King & Son, London 1849, Vol. 39:7.

1846. Fort Victoria Journal.

1846, June 11th. “Had all our engaged Indians with some Indn women & children clearing & hoeing potatoes. Part of the potato seed planted in the field has failed & we are now under the necessity of replacing it by some more”. (Brazier et al 2012).

1846, July 4th. “potatoes hoed by Indians”.

1846, July 28th. “The Indians are now beginning to steal our potatoes & sell them to the ships”.

1846. August 2nd. 130 bus. potatoes were traded today from the Songees and more in the next two days with the Songhees and Cowichan.

1846, August 3rd. “Some potatoes & fresh salmon were received … from the Songes”.

1846. August 4th. “Some potatoes & salmon were traded from Songes & Kawitchin”.

1846. August 11th. “We had a few Ouahu potatoes taken up this afternoon in the garden”.

1846. August 18th . “219 bus. potatoes were taken up to day”.

1846. August 19th. “440 bus. potatoes taken up & carted in, 189 of which taken up to day”.

1846. August 23rd. “144 bus. potatoes were taken up in course of the day, 72 of which were put in No.2 Cellar making 825 bus. in all deposited there”.

1846, August 24th.  “126 bushs. potatoes taken up”.

1846 Alexander Lattie’s Fort George Journal (Fort Astoria Washington)

1846. March 24. Fort George. “Pisk arrived from the Cape for some seed potatoes which were of his own raising returning about noon”.

1846. March 26, “usual Howing Plowing Planting Preparing more seed procuring Firewood assisted now and then by one or two Indian Boys or Girls Payment a little of my own tobacco and a few of the Comps Potatoes”.

1846. March 27. “preparing for planting more Potatoes”.

1846. March 30. “At the usual time commenced gardening viz digging Potatoe ground, preparing seed Beds”.

1846. April 3. “at the usual time Islanders [Hawaiins] howing our furrows for Potatoes”.

1846. May 1. “My wife and others employed Planting Potatoes and cleaning and Packing those that were left”.

1847-1850. Fort Victoria Journal

1847. April 17. potatoes planted in the garden. it is noted that the Fort gardens lost a considerable portion of their potatoes to frost.

1847. May 12. “Various tribes of Indians are now collecting in this vicinity for the purpose of raising camas”. May – 20th. “A large number of Indians are now encamped in this vicinity. Some of whom arrived here in course of the day, but traded little or no furs”. Fort Victoria.

1847. August 14th. “No trade except a few potatoes from Kawitchins”.

1847. August 25th. “The Natives are now bringing in their potatoes for trade”. Fort Victoria”.

1847. October 2nd. “1659 bus. potatoes housed not including todays work which is 229 bush”.

1847. October 9th. “172 bus. potatoes taken up & housed to day. We have this evening taken up the last of our potatoes, making a total this year of 3028 bus”.

1847. November 6. Letter from Douglas to H.B.C. co. Nov. 6, 1847. The farm (non-indigenous) crop of potatoes for year was 3,000 potatoes.


1848. potatoes were getting scare and Indigenous people worked with Fort personal until the end of April in ploughing land and preparing the fields for potatoes. On May 4, 21 bushels were planted and from June 25th until July 14 people were employed in hoeing and weeding the potatoes.

1848. August 23rd {handwriting change} “A few fresh potatoes are daily brought in by the natives who place an exorbitant price upon them”. By August 25, a larger Indigenous trade developed.

1848. October 1. “Began lifting our potatoes this morning, part of which were shipped on board the Columbia as sea stock. 150 bus. potatoes were taken up to day”.

1848. Nov 30th. “Traded some potatoes to day from Cowitchins”.

1849. (1) Sooke Harbour on west side of entrance: “several little gardens in which they grow considerable quatities of potatoes, carrots & turnips”. On flat land formed by the bend at mouth of Sooke River – which is covered by water in winter. (2) “fishing village of the Clellum Indians is situated whose winter dwelling is on a rock bound bay called Chukwailin, on the west side of Rocky Pt.”.

1849. On September 3, 1849 Douglas noted that Fort Victoria was “dependent on Indian labor” for obtaining salmon and potatoes”. “The natives are not only kind and friendly, but ready and willing to share their labours and assist in all their toils, and they regularly bring in large quantities of the finest salmon and potatoes, which they part with at a low barter for such articles as suit their fancy or necessities.” – “and the productiveness of the fields cultivated by the native who grow large quantities of potatoes”. (Fort Victoria letters p. 41).

1849, October 15. Fort Victoria Letter from Eden Colvile to George Simpson: “The Indians in this neighborhood are well disposed, & seem more inclined to agriculture than most I have seen. They raise a good many potatoes on their own account, and are always willing to work for the Company”. (Appendix to -)

1849. Oct. 15. From Fort Victoria – Douglas to George Simpson, Oct. 15. 1849. (p 181) “They raise a good many potatoes in their own account & are always willing to work for the Company” Eden Colvile’s Letters 1849-52. The Hudson’s Bay Record Society. XIX (ed.) E.E. Rich, London.

1850. May 4th. “Some 20 bus. potatoes were planted this week”.

1850. May 7th . “5 bus. potatoes were traded today from the Kawitchins”.

1850. May 15th . “Some potatoes were planted to day in the field”. 16th. “14 bus. potatoes were planted to day”. May 18th. “{blank} acres of land ploughed {blank} bus. potatoes planted”.

1850. May 23rd. “A large number of the natives are at present assembled here for the purpose of collecting camas”.

1850. February 6. Fort Rupert, Vancouver Island. “a portion of the land cleared for planting potatoes” Letter to J,H, Pelly from Eden Colvile.

1851. Letter of October 31, 1851 to Earl Grey. “The natives generally are turning their attention to the cultivation of the potato, and to other useful arts, such as the manufacture of shingles and laths, which are becoming popular among them”.  Vancouver Island. Governor Douglas. Despatches to London. Oct. 31/51 – Nov 24/55. Original Official Letter book.

1852. Reported at Fort Victoria, August 27: Cowichan River. “Total population is about 2100 souls. …fields of potatoes.. .fine cucumbers”. Nanaimo …large fields of potatoes near villages on the river”. Douglas to John Parkington, August 27, 1852. GR332, Vol. 2. Also: Douglas, James. 1854. Report of a Canoe Expedition along the East Coast of Vancouver Island. p/ 246. In: The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 24, 1854: 245-249.

1852. “The Recovery Sailed yesterday for a Supply of potatoes at Cowetchin”. Douglas to William Tolmie, Dec. 6, 1852. Provincial Archives 1914, 4 Geo. 5, V98-99.

1856. Letter of October 20, 1856 from James Douglas to British Colonial Secretary (11582 Vancouver Island): “5. Some of those Tribes are yet in a rude state. But those inhabiting Nanaimo, Victoria and Cowichan districts who have frequent intercourse with the whites, are becoming domesticated and have turned their attention to the cultivation of potatoes, and other agricultural products, which has the effecting their character, and giving them more settled habits”. These comments came while Douglas was completing a survey of the Indigenous people of Vancouver Island.

1857.  W.C. Grant of Sooke, notes Indigenous people are growing “considerable quantities of potatoes  …The potao is almost universaly cultivated  … on the south end of the Vancouver Island, as well as on the oposite mainland”. 

1858. In 1858 in the “Netinett District ..Halibut fishing forms a great article of traffic with neighbouring tribes, with whom the fish are exchanged for potatoes, blankets, cummose [camas], and other articles of, clothing and ornament. The principal intertraffic is carried on with the Sookes, Clallams, and Songish tribes” (Banfield 1858).

1860. On September 22, George Richards observed potatoes being grown at Nootka Sound in the old garden area used years earlier by John Meares, and that: “They also have some small potatoes which they offer – two small baskets for a blanket” (Dorricott and Cullon 2012:88).

1861. On May 18, In Barkley Sound, George Richards observed potatoes among the Ohiat “from little gardens of their own” (Dorricott and Cullon 2012:88).

1861. November 14. Reynold’s farm at Pavilion in the Interior upstream from Lillooet. Growing oats, barley, turnips and potatoes that yielded 375 bushels to the acre. Letter from James Douglas to Duke of Newcastle. Dispatch No. 25.

1865. R.W. Torrens. Report of his Explorations and Proceedings at Clayaquot Sound. R 1222/2060. A/C/30/T63.1, Letter to the Colonial Secretary W.A.G.

Young. Sept. 19th, 1865. Aug 22. “A bay 2 miles east of Refuge Cove and just within the bight of the North Entrance of Clayoquot Sound, “Here we found a deserted village Oupinit where Indians cultivated potatoes – some two miles from which, at Tsumakose in Refuge Cove, are the headquarters of the Manahoussats”. On Sept 4, Imharp chief of Moachaht brought them fish and potatoes at Friendly Cove.

1869. Robert Brown, in his visit to the Muchalat village on Tlupana Arm observed potatoes in: “patches of which I had seen growing outside the village”.

1876. George Dawson page 112-113. “The potato, called skow-shit in Haida, introduced by some of the early voyagers, now forms an important part of the food supply. A Skidegate Indian told me that it was first grown at Skidegate, but I do not Know how far this statement may be reliable”.

1877. George Gibbs. Tribes of Western Washington and Northwest Oregon. In: Contributions to North American Ethnology. Volume 1, Part II1. 157-241.

Washington, Government Printing Office. 1877. In referring to items for feasts: “To the above is to be added, as a limited resource, the potato, which is more or less cultivated by all. The estimate formed by Colonel Simmons, in 1854, of the quantity raised by all the Sound Tribes was somewhat over 11,000 bushels of potatoes” (p196).

“To the necessity of seeking the different articles of food at different times is to be attributed chiefly the constant locomotion of these tribes. Not only do they frequent the prairies or marshes for roots, at another the forests for berries, and again the sound and rivers for fish, but they have particular points at which they seek the last at various seasons; and although they have the permanent villages where their winter residences chiefly is, and their potato grounds, they are seldom to be found all gathered there together except on special occasions” (p 197).


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