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Morris Moss: ‘One of the most colourful figures this coast has ever seen’

So one historian termed the handsome Jewish pioneer whose life was more exciting than fiction
The deck and exterior of the Nimpkish ferry was encased in ice on a trip into Bella Coola on Jan. 12, 2020. As you can see, it’s still not an easy journey, even with all of today’s advancements. (Bobby Sherlock photo)

Although Morris Moss’s career has been covered numerous times over the years, including my own modest contributions, few historians have detailed one of the courageous trader’s most harrowing adventures — that of a castaway when, with two crewmen, Moss was shipwrecked in Queen Charlotte Sound.

The voyage had been beset with problems from the very beginning.

Earlier, the wandering entrepreneur had chosen Bella Coola as the site of his trading post. He’d been en route to the Cariboo gold fields by way of Bentinck Arm, when he realized that there was more gold to be made as a merchant than as a miner, and observed that Bella Coola was ideally situated for a post.

However, he first attempted to debut as a trader at Williams Creek by packing in a valuable shipment of merchandise to sell to the miners. But his party made it no farther than Quesnelle Forks where it was turned back by an unusually severe blizzard and, unwilling to pack his goods back to the coast, the frustrated miner-cum merchant cut his losses by selling his stock right there.

Having recovered some of his investment, he returned to his original idea: opening a trading post at Bella Coola. This in mind, he bought a second load of dry goods, hardware and provisions, and boarded the northbound Hudson’s Bay Co. Steamer, Labouchere.

He found, upon arrival, that he’d lost most of his First Nations clientele to a smallpox epidemic.

Again, he returned to Victoria, still convinced of Bella Coola’s potential as the fur trading centre on the Bentick Arm route to the Cariboo diggings. Finally, he convinced a number of miners to winter there if he opened a post. Thus assured of a clientele, Moss chartered the schooner Rose Newman, loaded her to the decks with supplies, and prepared to sail from Victoria — only to be sidelined once more.

Before the Newman could clear harbour, Moss was approached by the agent for the Koshuma coal mines, Robertson Stewart explaining that the little outpost on Vancouver Island’s west coast was dangerously short of supplies. Characteristically, after much pleading by Stewart, Moss agreed to postpone his cherished Bella Coola venture and sailed for Koshuma and arrived late in November 1864 after being mauled by winter gales. Moss then cleared harbour for Quatsino.

Again, the little Newman battled her way northward along the exposed west coast through mountainous seas and gale force winds, to successfully land more of her cargo at that settlement. Before continuing on to his ultimate destination, Bella Coola, however, Moss had to remain there for a week because of the weather. Then, overcome by impatience, and worried that the miners at Bella Coola were depending upon him, he determined to sail regardless of the weather.

Three of his seamen immediately deserted, sure that the Newman would founder, but Capt. Walters and his mate, Ben Spain, agreed to remain with the schooner.

As it turned out, the Rose Newman did founder. She wasn’t long at sea when, with a crash, according to an old account, “the mainsail and the jib were blown away. To complete the picture, a dense fog closed in about them, so that they could barely see the length of the schooner…”

When word eventually reached Victoria, it was to the effect that the Newman had been wrecked in Queen Charlotte Sound, Moss, Capt. Walters and the mate having escaped without injury although the schooner and cargo were a total loss. A later report stated that $500 worth of cargo had been saved.

What the brief newspapers overlooked was the fact Moss and company had survived one of the more remarkable annals of shipwreck in provincial history.

“For three days they drifted at the mercy of the waves before they struck a rock,” our early record continues. “The waves dashed over the weakening vessel, and they clung to the rigging for their lives. Through the wind and waves they thought they heard some breakers and they jumped overboard. After a difficult struggle with the waves, weakened though they were by fatigue and exposure, they miraculously reached land.”

For what had seemed an eternity, Moss, Walters and Spain had clutched the rigging as they desperately tried to see through the fog and the waves breaking over them. It was Moss who’d first braved the surf, after shouting, “Every man for himself; I’m going to breast the breakers!”

With that, he’d plunged into the maelstrom of wave, undercurrent and rock. Walters and Spain followed suit and the three of them took shelter in the rocks. As they huddled together for warmth, unable even to see about them, the first snow of the season began to fall.

Dawn brought improved visibility and the knowledge they’d been shipwrecked on Lochabee Island, northwest of Safety Cove. Stranded without matches or drinking water, their immediate prospects were grim. But their situation improved considerably when the tide carried in two sacks of flour which had broken away from the wreck.

At low tide they were able to recover other provisions from the Newman, including a dry bag of gunpowder and a flintlock musket. By shooting into some dry grass and blowing frantically, they started a fire which they zealously maintained throughout the balance of their ordeal.

Further salvage efforts resulted in more flour, molasses, some liquor and canned goods and, with revived spirits, they constructed a crude shelter of driftwood, rocks and the schooner’s foresail.

Then began a 90-day wait for rescue. As their store of foodstuffs dwindled, they supplemented their spartan diet with clams and passed the time by exploring their island prison. During their initial survey, they found numerous human remains, indicating that, until ravaged by disease, Lochabee Island had had a large First Nations settlement. Throughout that winter of 1864-65, the castaways were alone with Lochabee’s ghosts.

December passed uneventfully. Then January. Their few supplies, despite rationing, diminished steadily, even with their clam hunting. Every morning without fail, the bored castaways paced the beach, scanning the grey horizon in hopes of a friendly sail. But no sail appeared, the signal poles they’d erected about the island serving as little more than silent reminders of their misery and the increasing gravity of their situation.

When three months had passed without so much as an Indian canoe passing by, their hopes of rescue began to fade. Then, one morning, as they ate a meagre breakfast of clams, they heard a shout from the beach.

Charging outside, they were overjoyed to see three Indians in a canoe, just offshore. The strangers were unwilling to approach, remaining beyond the surf as the excited seamen shouted and waved for them to land. Not until Moss recognized one of the men named Charlie, and identified himself, did they come ashore.

Understandably leery of the three shouting, grinning, bearded skeletons that greeted them, they were reluctant to ferry the castaways 40 miles to their village. But, after some negotiation, it was agreed that Moss would accompany them to their village as their canoe was too small to take the others, who’d be picked up later.

Upon their being reunited, the shipwrecked seamen met an old prospector named Sebastopol who agreed to take them to Port Simpson in his sloop. But the indomitable Moss was determined to push on to Bella Coola, his original destination. Capt. Walters and Spain eagerly accepted a ride with Sebastopol and Moss remained with the villagers to await passage aboard a northbound ship.

Hardly had Sebastopol sailed than Moss regretted his decision, his hosts making it plain that they regarded him as a prisoner not a guest. He was allowed the run of the camp but kept under constant watch as they “slowly relieved him of the little wealth he had left”.

After three months of confinement and hunger on Lochabee Island, he found himself stranded in the Bella Bella camp. Forced to pay for his food and shelter, Moss lost the last of the goods he’d salvaged from the Rose Newman and was reduced to the rags on his back while he awaited rescue, with growing resentment, for a second time.

Convinced that his “hosts” would ultimately let him starve, he secretly asked some visiting Indians to smuggle a letter to Bella Coola. A week later, 40 canoes of Bella Coolas rescued him.

Upon arrival at Bella Coola at last, having lost everything aboard his schooner, but confident he had enough stock of goods already there to start his trading post, he found that the clerk he’d left in charge was bedridden, most of his stores were missing and unaccounted for. Moss had suffered six months as a castaway and prisoner and had lost 2,000 pounds sterling (a fortune).

He’d have to start over. As the record shows, Morris Moss went on to overcome even greater adventures, natural and man-made, before finally retiring as a highly successful and respected businessman.