The sun shines over Hopyard hill in Agassiz, around the area where Chi’ckim likely would have been. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Kent 125

CELEBRATING 125: Freedom Village showcases Agassiz as place of opportunity

Before Europeans tried their luck in Agassiz, First Nations saw the area as a spot for rediscovery

The Agassiz lowlands on the north side of the Fraser River had long been part of the Pil’alt tribe, part of the Stó:lō nation. Today, all the Pil’alt communities are on the south side of the Fraser River, with the exception of the Cheam Fishing Village — but in the mid-1700s, the area was densely occupied, particularly where the Squ’éwlets and Pil’alt tribes met at the joining of the Harrison and Fraser Rivers.

According to Keith Carlson, Canada Research chair in Indigenous history at UFV, these communities existed with significant class differences. In each village, one could expect to find elite members of society, born into positions of privilege; a free, middle-class group that made up the majority of the population; and a class of slaves, who were either captured during village raids, purchased from other villages or born into their position.

For generations, these communities lived in the Agassiz area: picking blueberries from Mount Woodside, managing the forest productivity with planned fires and welcoming visitors travelling up the river. Then, in 1782, an epidemic hit.

It started in Mexico, when a Spanish traveller infected with smallpox visited a fort on the mainland. It spread from that one fort, moving through tribal trading networks as it infected community after community in North America.

SEE ALSO: Stó:lō leaders to call for return of sacred burial grounds

By the autumn of 1782, smallpox had arrived in the Pil’alt territory. It wiped out between 60 and 90 per cent of every community it impacted.

“In a post-smallpox world, everything is disrupted,” Carlson explained. “Populations have declined everywhere and survivors are looking for places to be safe.”

Villages come together and consolidate; the Agassiz area empties as families leave their homes and come together in communities elsewhere.

Further east, the Chawathil people were also impacted by the smallpox epidemic. The Welqámex village, on what is now known as Greenwood Island, saw most of its population decimated by the disease. The high status members of the village decided to move to the mainland — and left their slaves behind.

Weeks, months passed. Then, the slave community decided to leave.

“They just loaded up all their supplies, people, men, women, children, onto those canoes,” Carlson said. “They started floating down the Fraser River, looking for a place to start over.

“And the place they ended up was Agassiz.”

Between Mount Woodside and Hopyard Hill, the slave community settled in a village they named Chi’ckim — Freedom Village.

“It’s this wonderful story of social mobility and change; people seeking new opportunities and seeing Agassiz as this place where they wanted to start new lives,” Carlson said.

Less than 100 years later, European settlers would come to Agassiz searching for the same thing. They may have thought they had found the land of opportunity first — but it had already been that for years, as the place of Freedom Village.

Want to read more about the history of the District of Kent for its 125th anniversary? Check out

Kent 125

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

District of Kent prepares for urban beekeeping

Permits soon available for a number of residential zones

Social media a blessing and a curse during time of crisis: B.C. communication expert

‘In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable,’ says SFU’s Peter Chow-White

EDITORIAL: How Killer Bunnies helped save my life

“No matter what it is you’re into, it’s important to keep our minds working,” editor Adam Louis writes.

LETTER: Take only what you need

Anne White of Harrison comments on community response to COVID-19.

WATCH: Agassiz-Harrison celebrates National Puppy Day

Facebook followers posted 44 pictures of their furry friends

Evening world update: U.S. restrictions extended 30 days; NY deaths near 1,000

Comprehensive world update, with the latest developments in the COVID-19 crisis

‘It’s up to us: Recently-returned B.C. couple urges Canadians to take COVID-19 seriously

Garrett Kucher and Tory Apostoliuk make it home after almost a week of lockdown in Spain

‘Nothing concrete’: Tenants, landlords lack details after B.C. unveils COVID-19 rental aid

Single mom in Golden says she’s already going to the food bank after being laid off

Canada will make sure masks sent by China meet quality standards: Trudeau

Chinese Embassy tweeted that China was sending 30,000 medical masks along with gowns, gloves and goggles

B.C. issues guidelines about distancing, reusable bags to grocery stores amid COVID-19

Hand sanitizer and markers to keep lines two metres are apart are needed, province says

No plans to call in military right now to enforce COVID-19 quarantine: Trudeau

Trudeau unveils $7.5M for Kids Help Phone, $9M for vulnerable seniors amid COVID-19

QUIZ: How much do you know about the Olympics?

Put your knowledge to the test with these 12 questions

B.C. announces $3M for food banks to increase capacity during COVID-19

It is not clear how much of the money will flow towards Greater Victoria food banks

Most Read