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Father William Duncan, a Church of England lay missionary, arrived in Port Simpson, British Columbia, in 1857, where he began an extraordinary career among the Tsimshian Indians. Requiring absolute devotion from his followers, he established a new community, Metlakatla, where he insisted on industry, education, western habits, and “neat houses.” Although the community was largely self-sufficient, it was also isolationist; contacts with outsiders were carefully regulated, and alcohol was particularly suspect. Duncan learned the Tsimshian language, educated the people, and developed a society that was as much entrepreneurial as it was religious.

In 1887, after a falling-out with the Anglican church and the Canadian government, Duncan moved the entire community to Annette Island in Alaska, south of Ketchikan. Here, at New Metlakatla, he built a new community, beginning with a sawmill. By 1891 the villagers had constructed ninety-one houses, one- and two-story buildings with a variety of ornament. The picket-fenced yards were full of flowers, and the houses were painted a rich variety of colors. Duncan laid out a grid plan, dividing each block into four 80-foot by 90-foot lots, so that each house was on a corner lot. Although a fire in 1893 destroyed about twenty houses, the Metlakatlans rebuilt.

The public buildings were distinctive in appearance. A twelve-sided, twelve-gable building served initially as a church, and then as the town hall. In 1893–1896 a Gothic church was constructed: 70 feet by 100 feet, 43 feet high, with two 80-foot-tall towers. It burned in 1949. An octagonal guest house, completed in 1897, a four-gabled school, and a combination jail, engine house, and library building—the first story painted red for the engine house, the second story white for the library, and the cupola blue—built in 1905 completed the odd array of public buildings. Some of them can be seen in the undated photograph on page 208.

Today none of the oddly shaped public buildings survives. Most of the original two-story houses have disappeared as well, having been replaced with bungalows and cottages in a variety of forms. There are two churches in the community, reflecting a split in the village after Duncan's death.

Although not as outlandish architecturally as it once was, with four-, eight-, and twelve-gable buildings, Metlakatla still stands apart from most Native villages, especially in its grid plan and bungalows and cottages. Duncan's experiment has resulted in a thriving village with new schools, a nearby lumber mill, and a new runway. And it still has “neat houses.”

Writing Credits

Alison K. Hoagland

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