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JEWITT, JOHN RODGERS, armourer, blacksmith, and author; b. 21 May 1783 in Boston, England, son of Edward Jewitt; m. first c. 1804 a Nootka woman; m. secondly 25 Dec. 1809 Hester Jones in Boston, Mass., and they had several children; d. 7 Jan. 1821 in Hartford, Conn.

John Rodgers Jewitt was the son of a blacksmith from the small Lincolnshire town of Boston, which had traditional links with New England. He was educated in a local private academy and his father wished him to become a surgeon’s apprentice, but Jewitt preferred the blacksmith’s craft; his father consented eventually and accepted him as an apprentice in 1797. The following year the family moved to Kingston upon Hull, where the elder Jewitt worked in the shipyards.

In 1802 Captain John Salter, commanding the Boston, owned by the Amory brothers of Boston, Mass., arrived in Kingston upon Hull. The Jewitts worked for some weeks on his ship while Salter gathered merchandise from England and Holland for a fur-trading voyage to the northwest coast of North America. Salter engaged John Jewitt as armourer, to maintain firearms and also to make ironware for trade with the Indians. On 3 Sept. 1802 the Boston left British waters and on 12 March 1803 it cast anchor in Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island, B.C.).

Relations with the Nootkas, which at first seemed cordial, deteriorated when Salter insulted Muquinna*, a leading chief of the Nootkas summering at Yuquot. Muquinna decided to avenge himself for this and other slights his people had suffered at the hands of American and European captains such as James Hanna* and Esteban José Martínez*. On 22 March he and his men attacked the Boston and massacred the crew, with the exceptions of Jewitt and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Jewitt was spared by Muquinna on condition that he became the chief’s armourer and smith; he pretended that the older Thompson was his father and successfully pleaded for his life.

Jewitt and Thompson remained in Muquinna’s hands until the summer of 1805. They were theoretically slaves, but Jewitt eventually became a trusted retainer of Muquinna, and during periods of tension the two sailors acted as the chief’s bodyguards. Certainly, their status as slaves was more relaxed than that of Indian captives, for they were evidently initiated, during a winter ceremonial, into a shaman society known as the Wolf Dancers, a privilege not usually granted to slaves, and during his second year of captivity Jewitt was married by Muquinna to the daughter of a chief from a neighbouring Nootka village. Undoubtedly Jewitt’s metallurgical and Thompson’s tailoring skills, together with Thompson’s exploit of killing single-handed seven of Muquinna’s enemies during a raid, gave the two captives a special place in the regard of the Nootkas.

Jewitt and Thompson shared the life of the Indians in every way, living in Muquinna’s great 150-foot-long house, taking part in fishing and hunting expeditions, in raids on other villages, and in the potlatches and ceremonial bear feasts of the Nootkas. They were not allowed to accompany Muquinna on his whale hunt, but Jewitt manufactured the chief’s harpoons, watched his ritual preparations for the hunt, and witnessed his return in triumph. He also contrived, with paper saved from the Boston and with homemade ink, to keep a journal of his life as a captive, in which he recorded not only the highlights but also what he later called “the dull uniformity that marks the savage life.”

On 19 July 1805 the brig Lydia, commanded by Captain Samuel Hill, who had been told by a neighbouring chief of Jewitt’s presence, arrived in Nootka Sound. By a ruse, Muquinna was persuaded to board the Lydia, where he was confined until Jewitt and Thompson were released. They stayed with Hill for the year that the Lydia remained on the coast, sailing with it and its cargo of furs to China in August 1806 and eventually reaching Boston, Mass., in June 1807.

Jewitt lost little time in publishing his journal, which appeared at Boston in 1807 as A journal, kept at Nootka Sound. A pamphlet of 48 pages, it seems to have attracted little attention until Richard Alsop, a merchant and author of Hartford, became aware of its existence about 1814 and got in touch with Jewitt, then living in Middletown, Conn. Out of their conversations, and out of Alsop’s literary experience, emerged the fuller and more interesting A narrative of the adventures and sufferings, of John R. Jewitt, a production in the tradition of Daniel Defoe, published at Middletown in 1815. It remains a unique book, since it is one of the few accounts written from close and extended observation of the life of a Pacific Indian people before their society began to change radically under the influence of European contact.

Jewitt earned a brief and local fame through A narrative, which he hawked around New England on a handcart, entertaining his potential customers by singing “The poor armourer boy,” a song which may have been composed by Alsop. He took part in the three performances, in Philadelphia in 1817, of The armourer’s escape; or, three years at Nootka, a dramatic spectacle “Illuminated by Gas” and based on his book; he also performed “Nootkan” songs and dances in a circus. His book was republished in New York and London and even translated into German; it continued to appear in various editions throughout the 19th century. But Jewitt himself sank out of fame, and died unregarded and poor in Hartford, not yet 38 years of age.

John Rodgers Jewitt spent little more than two years in present-day British Columbia, but he spent them in an unusual way, as a captive of the Nootkas. He, Thompson, and assistant ship’s surgeon John Mackay*, who sojourned on the northwest coast during 1786–87, were the first Europeans to live for an extensive time among the Indians of the Pacific coast; Jewitt was the only one of the three to write an account of his experiences and observations.

George Woodcock

John Rodgers Jewitt is the author of A journal, kept at Nootka Sound . . . (Boston, 1807; new ed., ed. N. L. Dodge, 1931) and A narrative of the adventures and sufferings, of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound . . . (Middletown, Conn., 1815). The latter has appeared in a number of editions under various titles, and has been translated into German.

K. P. Harrington, Richard Alsop, “a Hartford wit” (Middletown, 1939). F. W. Howay, “Indian attacks upon maritime traders of the north-west coast, 1785–1805,” CHR, 6 (1925): 287–309. E. S. Meany, “The later life of John R. Jewitt,” BCHQ, 4 (1940): 143–61.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

George Woodcock, “JEWITT, JOHN RODGERS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jewitt_john_rodgers_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jewitt_john_rodgers_6E.html
Author of Article: George Woodcock
Title of Article: JEWITT, JOHN RODGERS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: August 31, 2014