William Duncan
Missionary in Canada and Alaska

by Mary Van Nattan


Romans 10:14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?

In the middle of the nineteenth century an English sea captain put out a plea for help with an Indian tribe along the northwest coast of Canada.  The Tsimpshian Indians were a warring, hostile tribe and the captain knew what kind of help was needed.

The Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church in England advertised for a missionary to go to the people.  The call was answered by a young Englishman by the name of William Duncan.  He was a dry goods clerk at the time with no formal training, but a deep zeal for God.  Duncan volunteered to return with the captain when he took his next north Pacific voyage.  He arrived at Fort Simpson, British Columbia (near present-day Prince Rupert) in 1857.

His first contact with the Tsimpshian was through Philip Clah, an Indian who helped greatly in early mission work in Alaska.  Duncan learned the Tsimpshian language from Clah and also was helped by him in starting a school at Fort Simpson.

Over time Duncan was blessed to see many Tsimpshian come to know the Lord Jesus Christ.  A church was established and he and his Indian friends built the village of old Metlakatla (meaning "water passage").  It offered the Indians a church building, a school, a place to learn trades, a council house, a jail, and job opportunities.  The houses were all built alike to avoid pride and jealousy and each family owned one.  There were flowers in the front yards, a vegetable gardens on the sides and a smoke houses in the back for cooking and/or smoking fish.  The bell in the white meeting house in the center of town was rung in the morning to waken them and at night to send them to bed.  There was a native police force to enforce the local laws rigidly.  No white man was allowed to camp within four miles of the town.  The town flourished for thirty years growing to include a thousand Indians.  This was all the results of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of this formerly warring people.

Naturally, the Laodicean church officials of the C.M.S. could not leave a thing like this alone.  They had to mess with it.  They began to insist upon more formalities in the worship of the Indian church.  Added to this the government of Canada began to make serious rumbling about restricting all their Indians to reservations.  Duncan was, of course, grieved at all of this interference with the lives of his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Through his friends, Dr. Henry Ward Beecher, a U.S. Congregationalist minister; and Bishop Phillips Brooks of Massachusetts, an Epsicopal; Duncan was able to get a hearing with President Grover Cleveland, then president of the U.S., and some U.S. congressional leaders.  Through his efforts and the hand of God, the Metlakatla Indians were granted official refuge on any American island close their Canadian home.  After scouting the near by Alaskan islands, the Tsimpshian settled on Annette Island as the site for their new town.  This island offered them a good harbor, trees for houses and fuel, lakes for water supply, and gooding fishing for both food and industry.

Over eight hundred people crossed the border from Canada into the United States in 1887, thus leaving the threats of spiritual and national interference behind.  This is a biblical method -- to leave rather than to rebel - and a testimony to of the power of God in the lives of these formerly vicious people.

They had no support from any one mission, but were helped by many friends.  Duncan's leadership both spiritually and in matters of living helped to establish a new Metlakatla which grew to be an even stronger community than the old.  A new church building was erected along with two schools - one for boys and one for girls.  Salmon canning and boat building were started to bring income to the village.

These once hostile Indians are still living under law and order.  In 1969 they were earning and spending about $100,000 a year.  They were at that time keeping up their town and schools, making improvements and caring for their own sick.

William Duncan went to be with his Lord in 1918 having spent sixty fruitful years among the Tsimpshian Indians.  His sacrifice of leaving his warmer and pleasant home in England for the cold and wet of southeast Alaska was to the great advantage of the people whom he lead to Jesus Christ.  There will be many in the day of Christ who will have cause to thank this "unlearned" man for his determination and zeal to serve God among them.  Though his numbers were small compared to some men's, he was faithful in little and we can look forward to seeing him given much by our righteous God.

Luke 19:16 Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds. 17 And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities.


Information for this article was obtained in part from Only In Alaska
by Tay Thomas.
Photo cropped from photo in the Alaska State Library; PCA 20-8.