Tilikum: dugout canoe extraordinaire

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

Tilikum is a wooden dugout canoe that was sailed around the world by Captain John Claus Voss from 1900-1904.

The origin of the canoe from which the Tilikum is fashioned is now shrouded in mystery and contradiction. No one can know, with any certainty, which of the most plausible versions is correct. Voss puts forward an apparently straight forward account in the published version of his book:

".. and while I was looking round about the east coast of Vancouver Island, where there are boats of all sizes and build, I came across an Indian village where I saw a fairly good looking canoe lying on the beach. It struck me at once that if we could make our proposed voyage in an Indian canoe we would not alone make a world's record for the smallest vessel but also the only canoe that had ever circumnavigated the globe. I at once proceeded to examine and take dimensions of the canoe, and soon satisfied myself that she was solid, and also large enough to hold the provisions and other articles we would have to carry on our cruise. While I was looking over the canoe an old Indian came along and gave me to understand, in very broken English, that he was the owner of the vessel and was willing to sell her.. he presented me with a human skull, which he claimed was that of his father, who had built the canoe fifty years earlier." (Voss, John C. (originally published 1913, This edition 1971) P.47-8.)

Norman Luxton corroborated this account with some interesting variations:

"Only by hard talking and the display of eighty silver dollars was Captain Voss able to secure the relic from an ancient Siwash woman. Why? Because it was in this hundred-year-old cedar tree that Captain John Voss and Norman Kenny Luxton, newspaperman (myself), had decided by cold reasoning and sea-knowledge that we would cross the Pacific Ocean." (Luxton, E.G. (Ed.) (1971) P. 30)

There are other versions recounted by native people suggesting further variations on the details of the published accounts of the origin of the canoe:

"(August Bazil) Paul related to me how a huge canoe had been beached in the brush in a salina (tidal salt bayou) a bit south of Kil-Pah-Lats village, near Deep Dene, which was at that time (1926) abandoned and the old house unoccupied. It was thirty - thirty-five feet long maybe eight-nine feet wide and had been beached maybe twenty-five - thirty years as the three West Coast ( Vancouver Island) men had got sick and died of smallpox. The local Indians wouldn't go near the canoe, presumably because of the disease. I asked if they were Mah-Thayla-Moochk (Port Alberni) men, but he said "No they came from near Ahousat." " "I asked what had happened to the canoe and was told that "about twenty-five years before (1926) a man came from Victoria, not a King George man (English), maybe German, I think, and he looks for that boat somebody tells him about, and that she is lying, lying long time in the bush." He's got some whiskey, good whiskey and he's giving two, three mans some whiskey. He's talking, talking, lots, lots and he's making big talk for himself (boasting.) Then Dick Friday said he owned the land so he owned the canoe. This man pays Dick Friday, and two other mans for the canoe. She's not very good now, but he's talking big like he wants this canoe to go some other place, long, long way. He buyed it, maybe thirty dollars, maybe thirty-five dollars. Then he comes back and he gets old man Tinkley (John Tinkley, who lived at Deep Cove) to take that canoe on some logs to Galiano. I guess he's going to fix it there. No, I never see him again." (Fleetwood, Jack. (n.d.) The Tilikum - excerpts from my diary. (Handwritten manuscript in the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.)

Other anecdotal information was provided to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia by Mr. Wilson Duff, Curator at the British Columbia Provincial Museum, concerning an account given by three Natives from the Ahousat area who knew the builder of the canoe. They stated that the Tilikum was built by an old Indian called Old Moses of Kelsemat, near Ahousat about 1895. Old Moses, it was said, sold the canoe to another Indian for $200. This Indian sold it to Voss. The canoe was classed as a whaling canoe, "OO-OO-TA-HATS". (Symonds, J.W.D. (1965) Notes On Building Of The Tilikum)

The marine agent Henry King recalling the vessel stated that:

"In Voss' lecture at the Oriental Hotel (St. Francis) in 1904, he said he purchased the canoe at Clayoquot for $50.00. (Cowichan Indians did not have sealing or whaling canoes.) Later Henry King corrected himself by saying he purchased the canoe at Cowichan Bay, but it had been built at Clayoquot because it had to be built somewhere near the rain forest, in order to get a cedar tree sufficiently large from which the canoe could be carved." (Helmcken, A.J. (1979))

As the years passed other people began to participate in the story after the fact. As with any great saga some improbable versions f the story have begun to surface when they can no longer be investigated or corroborated by the original participants.

"He (John Aitken) and Bill de Rousie beachcombed from Victoria to the Gulf Islands. They owned the "Tillicum" at one time; and in her sailed up the West Coast. "Tillicum" was to be sailed round the world by Captain Voss, and take her final place of honour in Thunderbird Park, Victoria." (Georgeson, Nellie Aitken. (n.d.))

This version seems highly unlikely but it is possible that they travelled on the Tilikum on some occasion.. the telling of that experience growing into a story of full scale ownership in the retelling at a much later date.

In 1905 the vessel was exhibited at the Navy and Marine Exhibition at Earl's Court, London UK. This appearance was apparently arranged by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, who had heard Voss speak in a public lecture in Wellington New Zealand. Voss also hoped that the vessel would be acquired by the British Museum. Voss made personal appearances at the exhibition and sold the vessel during the exhibition. She was reported in 1906 to have been towed up the River Seine to Paris and exhibited there. About 1906 the vessel was fitted with a 7hp Seal single-cylinder motor and was based near Pin Mill on the River Orwell when she was owned by Harold Ingersoll.

When she was sold she was in a factory yard at Harlesdene where the motor was fitted and alterations made to the cabin. After re-launching she was re-rigged as a barquentine and the figurehead was knocked off in an accident. A bowsprit was fitted to replace it. About 1908 Tilikum was sold to two brothers, E.W. Byford and A. Byford. Later in 1911 she was abandoned on Canvey Island in the Thames estuary, and allowed to rot. In 1916 she was purchased by Leslie Beatty from a Mr. A. Wallace. She was on her side and silted up with mud. After digging several tons of mud she was shifted by a team of horses and some tackle and righted. The hull was restored, hatch covers replaced and painted. She was unrigged at that time. In 1916 she was purchased by Leslie Beatty from a Mr. A. Wallace.

How the Tilikum came to the attention of Victorians is clouded with alternate versions of the story. In one version (about 1928 or 1929) a Royal Naval officer from Sheerness wrote to Mr. Harold T. Barnes (the manager of Rithet's Consolidated) of Victoria BC concerning the vessel. In the second version a yachtsman named Stone, from Yokohama, contacted J.A. Philipsen. In either case someone apparently induced Mr.Barnes to write to George I. Warren, of the Victoria Publicity Bureau. Warren wrote to W.A. McAdam, British Columbia Agent General in London asking him to investigate. McAdam placed an advertisement in the Yachting Times asking for information on the vessel. The owners, two brothers, E.W. Byford and A. Byford offered the Tilikum to Victoria provided that she would not be exhibited for gain and provided that the city and the Vancouver Island Publicity Bureau would assume the expenses of returning her to Victoria.

The hull of the Tilikum was returned on the deck of the Furness Line freighter Pacific Ranger, at the expense of the company June 30 1930. "I arranged with Furness Line, Sir Frederick Lewis in London who wrote to them and told them to bring back the Tilikum. Sir Frederick Lewis wrote back and said he would take care of her and it wouldn't cost anything. They brought her back in the Pacific Reliance on her maiden trip with Captain Williamson. She was carried in hold No.2 and was discharged on the west side of Rithet's No. 2 Pier." Later in 1930 Mr. H.F. Matthew, manager of the Empress Hotel offered a site beside the Crystal Garden for display. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce made a few repairs to the vessel and (August 7th) the vessel was placed on display.

In 1933 some Royal Navy officers crewing the yacht Tai-Mo-Shan on a voyage from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom took note of the condition of the Tilikum during their stopover enroute Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.

"At Victoria can be seen the remnants of the old Tilikum on a grass-plot at the back of the Empress Hotel. I think it is a pity that so remarkable a vessel cannot be preserved in a better condition, for she is rapidly falling into a sad state of decay. However, for all that, she is well worth a visit. This Tilikum was an Indian canoe, thirty feet in length, in which Captain Voss, after many remarkable adventures, achieved an ocean passage of 40,000 miles. I believe that her owner ended his days in California, where he was a taxi-driver." (Sherwood, Martyn. (1957))

Sometime in 1936 the Thermopylae Club undertook a restoration project to make repairs to the remains of the vessel. Money was raised by Captain McDonald by passing a hat at a meeting of the British Columbia Historical Society generating the bulk of the funds for the project. Captain Victor Jacobsen, then a 78 year old Victoria sealing schooner skipper, carried out the shipwright work. He was unable to completely restore the masts and rigging because the low roof of the structure prevented it so she was left as a painted hull. Through comparison of photographs of the hull the alterations to the hull made by Jacobsen were apparently different from the original. In 1940 Tilikum was moved to a new permanent location at Thunderbird Park under the care of the British Columbia Provincial Museum. By 1943 Justice Sydney Smith of the British Columbia Supreme Court emphasized the the value of the Tilikum in an address to the British Columbia Historical Society. He said:

"Now it is being scrawled over by people with little weight and less manners. It should be looked after."

By 1944 the vessel was found to be in a "sorry state." The rudder was stolen, the tongue of the figurehead torn out and the vessel vandalized. Some money was collected and the Provincial Government placed a fence railing around the vessel and a roof over her. Dry rot was discovered in the hull by Captain Max Lohbrunner in 1958.

Reports communicated to the members of the Thermopylae Club produced the lumber needed to replace the damaged sections. They also arranged to paint the hull and for Bob Dallaway to put three short hollow dummy masts on the vessel to allow air circulation which were intended to prevent further rot. In 1965 the vessel moved into the Maritime Museum of British Columbia building on Bastion Square at the invitation of the Provincial Government. Title to the vessel was transferred to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia by the Director of the British Columbia Provincial Museum on January 29, 1965. A portion of the Museum outer wall was broken down to permit this transfer. This move prompted a great outpouring of public concern. Public concern over the fact that an entrance fee was being charged was countered by the charitable status of the Museum.

In some cases this prduced indignation. Natives, the descendents of Captain Voss and the tourism industry all expressed deep public concerns. A "Keep The Tilikum Free" campaign resulted in letters to the editor, picketing of the Museum and debates at City Council and in the Provincial Legislature. Frank Calder, an aboriginal member of the Legislature declared that Indians of the Province regarded the vessel as a form of "Indian Art" and favoured "free display of such items." There were threats to press charges of theft or piracy against the Victoria Van and Storage Company which had carried the Tilikum to her new quarters.

A search of city records, newspaper files and private memoirs was undertaken to ascertain the ownership of the vessel. Lifted onto a flatbed truck, she was carried to the new Maritime Museum building in the old courthouse on Bastion Square. The back wall of the courthouse was knocked out to permit entrance. This wall was rebuilt the same day, leaving the building intact in appearance. Inside Tilikum was placed on a rough cradle and presented to the public in the main gallery in the condition in which the vessel had arrived from Thunderbird Park. In 1970 the vessel was "restored" to it's present condition in the main gallery of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia by Yarrows Limited.

She was patched, painted, and rigged in an approximation of the image presented in early photographs. The relative low height of the ceiling above has prevented the recreation of the full-sized masts. The work was paid for by Eleanor Luxton (Luxton's daughter then living in Banff Alberta) and Mrs. B.F. Kuhn (Voss' daughter then living in Portland Oregon). In 1989 investigations were begun to assess the need for conservation and repair in anticipation of the move to the new waterfront facility being planned for the inner harbour. This research and planning continues with the hope that the vessel will be conserved and restored to her original appearance in 1901.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002)Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Articles_Tilikum.php

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: January 27th, 2018

Databases have been updated and are now holding 51,775 vessel histories (with 4,812 images) and 57,751 mariner biographies (with 3,552 images).

© 2002-2018