Skull Island is about 0.13 miles (0.2 km) long with an area of 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) situated at the head of Massacre Bay in West Sound, a large embayment on the southern shore of Orcas Island, about 25 miles (40 km) west-southwest of Bellingham and 8.5 miles (14 km) north-northeast of Friday Harbor, Washington. Orcas Island is in the San Juan Archipelago of the Salish Sea. Coast Salish people, particularly the Lummi tribe, have historically inhabited Orcas Island. The island has deer and elk on land and clams and shellfish around the shore. The Lummi built large fish traps to catch salmon which supplied the bulk of their diet. Communal longhouses were built at several places around the island and were mainly used in the winter months. Orcas Island is named after Horcasitas, a shortened form for Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, the Viceroy of Mexico who sent an exploration expedition under Francisco de Eliza to the Pacific Northwest in 1791. Massacre Bay was named for evidence of intertribal warfare found by early Euro-American explorers who also named other nearby features such as Victim Island, Skull Island, and Haida Point. The Pacific Northwest at one time was densely populated with indigenous people each with their own history, cultural traditions, and societal structure. An abundance of food from the sea meant that coastal populations enjoyed comparatively high fertility rates and life expectancy. By the 1400s there were at least five language groups including Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Wakashan, and Salishan, all of which divide into tribal dialects forming over 30 distinct First Nations. Most coastal groups lived in large permanent villages in the winter, and these villages reflected local political and societal structures that were highly stratified and included, in many instances, the wealthy elite, the relatively poor commoners, and a slave class. The fact that slavery existed points to the competition between coastal rivals that regularly raided one another, engaging in predatory warfare for the sole purpose of accumulating wealth.
Aside from oral histories, there is little documentation of cultural traditions practiced by First Nations people prior to European contact. However, intertribal warfare was central to their way of life and consisted of intermittent predatory raiding for prestige, food stores, loot, and especially slaves. European and Euro-American explorers such as Robert Gray, John Meares, George Dixon, and George Vancouver all describe the practice of slavery among Pacific Northwest tribes, and many experienced slavery firsthand. In 1775, Spanish Navy Lieutenant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra dispatched a crew of seven men to the mainland near Point Grenville in order to gather wood and fresh water on the beach, but they were attacked by an estimated three hundred Quinault and captives were either killed or enslaved. In 1787, Captain Robert Gray on the Lady Washington ran aground attempting to enter a river and was attacked by natives, with one crew member captured. Twelve years later, Captain Charles William Barkley, an independent English fur trader, arrived on the ship Imperial Eagle and sent a party ashore but the boat’s crew of six never returned. In 1808, the Russian American Company schooner Nikolai ran aground at Rialto Beach north of the Quillayute River. Tensions between the crew and the local Hoh tribe led to a battle causing the Russians to flee south along the coast to the mouth of the Hoh River where many were taken captive. The captives were exchanged and traded among the coastal tribes, most ending up with the Makah in the Neah Bay area. In 1810, the Lydia commanded by Captain Thomas Brown, an American working for the Russian American Company, sailed into Neah Bay. The thirteen surviving captives being held by the Makah were ransomed by Captain Brown, who then returned them to Sitka. In the mid-1800s, a climactic maritime battle was fought at Maple Bay on Vancouver Island between a Coast Salish alliance from the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound and the Lekwiltok, the southern Kwakwaka’wakw from the Johnstone Strait, a group infamous for their ferocity and belligerence. Oral histories of the events prior to the Battle at Maple Bay describe how the Lekwiltok repeatedly raided Coast Salish villages and enslaved women and children, however, this interregional conflict and territorial expansion on the part of the Lekwiltok is considered to be due in part to the introduction of firearms from fur traders on the west coast as well as to the disruption from introduced epidemics that affected Coast Salish populations, settlements, and sociopolitical organization.
Slavery as an institution existed among all the northwest coastal tribes as far south as California but was particularly prevalent in the region occupied by the Tlingit and Haida in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, and the Chimmesyan, Chinookan, Wakashan, and Salishan tribes in the Salish Sea. Over most of the region, there was regular trafficking in slaves which were a considerable part of the private wealth. Intertribal predatory raids acquired wealth by the direct taking of blankets, canoes, dentalia, and slaves. On occasion, expeditions were undertaken for the primary purpose of capturing slaves. Captives could be ransomed for payment, kept as captive labor, or just kept to represent wealth and future trading potential. Captured slaves were valuable property and were generally well treated and fed in order to hold their value. Slaves typically assisted their owners in paddling canoes, fishing, and hunting, even in making war on neighboring tribes. The slaves made or helped make canoes, cut wood, carried water, aided in building houses, etc. Enslaved women and children were household drudges, often performing laborious and menial tasks. Slaves seem to have had no well-defined rights, they could not own property and were subject to the caprices of their owners, who had the power of life and death over them. Slaves were given away or freed to show that their owner was so wealthy he could easily afford to part with them. Punishment for shortcomings was sometimes severe, the owner of a slave being responsible to no one. Occasionally slaves were killed outright in moments of passion. Among the Tlingit, it was customary to kill slaves and to bury their bodies beneath the corner-posts of the chiefs’ houses at the time when they were erected, but this does not appear to have been done by the Haida. Read more here and here. Explore more of Skull Island and Massacre Bay here: