Last year saw the 90th anniversary of the death of William Baines Duncan a famous son of Bishop Burton. William Duncan was born in Bishop Burton on 3rd April 1832, the illegitimate son of Maria Duncan, a teenaged servant-girl. There is no record of his baptism in the village. Maria is said to have later married and had two daughters; but there appears to have been little contact with her son.

He was raised by his mother's parents, William and Elizabeth Duncan. In the 1841 census he is recorded as living with his grand-father, William Duncan, a tanner, aged about 60, and Mary Duncan, aged about 15, on Lairgate in Beverley. From the age of 14, William worked in his grandfather/adoptive father's trade as a tanner for George Cussons & Son of Keldgate in Beverley. In 1851 now 19 years old, he was lodging with William Botterill, a tailor, and Mary Botterill in Keldgate, Beverley and his occupation is described as book-keeper. It is also said that William became the only churchgoer in his impoverished family and that he became an accomplished chorister at the Minster where he was taken under the wing of Revd Carr from whom he acquired his evangelical views. It is also said that he became a successful wholesale leather merchant before being called to an evangelical mission. Newly promoted to travelling salesman at the age of 21, he marvelled that he was now mixing with a "class of men far my superiors in education, rank and abilities and treated respectfully by them." He attributed his good fortune to divine intervention.

In 1854, on the death of Revd Carr, he joined the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and attended the CMS-run Highbury College.

In 1856, upon graduating, the CMS sent Duncan to the North Pacific coast of Canada; Duncan boarded a Royal Navy ship bound for Victoria, British Columbia. He arrived October 1, 1857 at Fort Simpson, a Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) trading post, just north of present-day Prince Rupert. This is at least 600 miles north west of Vancouver.

He missionized among the Tsimshians and learned to speak Tsimshian from Arthur Wellington Clah, a Tsimshian lineage head and HBC employee. Duncan led initially 60 Tsimshians to found with him a new utopian Christian community, Metlakatla, on Metlakatla Pass near present-day Prince Rupert, at the southern end of the small peninsula on which Lax Kw'alaams sits. By the end of the summer in 1862 several hundred more joined the community; Metlakatla was officially established that year within what was by then the Colony of British Columbia. When a subsequent smallpox outbreak killed 500 in Lax Kw'alaams but only five in Metlakatla, Duncan had no qualms in convincing his flock that this was divine providence. Overall it is estimated that in 1862 about 80% of all Tsimshians were killed in the outbreak of smallpox.

In the early 1870s the Rev. William Henry Collison served with Duncan in Metlakatla, and Collison's memoir In the Wake of the War Canoe provides a portrait of the community.

The community grew. In Metlakatla, Duncan exerted his own brand of low church Anglicanism, which involved a set of rules for Christian living and, controversially, eschewing the sacrament of communion so as not to whet the cannibalistic appetites of a people who he worried might be beholden to the anthropophagous rites of their "secret societies." (In fact[citation needed], all of the "man-eating" practices in the secret societies were simulated-well enough to fool missionaries-so there was in fact less difference between it and Anglican communion than Duncan perhaps supposed.)

Such doctrinal differences, plus Duncan's insistence on total control over his parishioners' lives, led to a split with the Church of England. Duncan was expelled from the CMS in 1881 and transformed his mission into a non-denominational "Independent Native Church." Eventually, he decided to found a second utopian community on Annette Island, Alaska, on the territory of the Tongass tribe of Tlingit. He obtained permission from the U.S. government - travelling to testify before Congress himself - to establish an Indian reservation there (still Alaska's sole Indian reservation), then led approximately 800 Tsimshians in a canoe voyage from "Old" Metlakatla to "New" Metlakatla, Alaska, in 1887.

The new community was successful, especially economically successful, with a saw-mill and other enterprises. Economic self-sufficiency was a core tenet of Duncan's vision for the community.

His split with the Church of England was not amicable and involved sending a canoe-load of Tsimshians, including Peter Simpson, back to Old Metlakatla to destroy the old church there, on the grounds that ownership of it should not revert to the CMS. The religious orientation of New Metlakatla became a non-denominational form of low-church Anglicanism, quite evangelical, and under the strict doctrinal control of Duncan himself.

Duncan's Rules at Metlakatla
• To give up their Ahlied or Indian devilry
• To cease calling in conjurers when sick
• To cease gambling
• To cease giving away their property for display (i.e the potlatch)
• To cease painting their faces
• To cease drinking intoxicating liquor
• To rest on the Sabbath
• To attend religious instruction
• To send their children to school
• To be cleanly
• To be industrious
• To be peaceful
• To be liberal and honest in trade
• To build neat houses
• To pay the village tax

Rivalries with other local leaders

Later, portions of the community, notably those under the leadership of the Rev. Edward Marsden, defected to Presbyterianism. Marsden even assisted in the establishment of a rival, Presbyterian Tsimshian community at nearby Port Gravina (1892-1904) and, later, campaigned tirelessly for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oust Duncan from his position, partly on grounds that Duncan had too much authority in the community and opposed any Native self-betterment through education and individual economic self-sufficiency if it put parishioners out of his personal control.

The Marsden-Duncan feud, as well as the long legal, political, and personal struggle between Duncan and William Ridley, the Anglican bishop in charge of northern British Columbia, intersected, most notoriously, with charges of sexual misconduct against Duncan, charges which have severely tainted his historical reputation, though he was never convicted or punished.

He also managed to make an enemy of the medical missionary Robert Tomlinson, an Anglican who had served under him in B.C. and been an ally in his dissent from the CMS. Tomlinson and his son Robert Tomlinson Jr. served in Metlakatla, Alaska, with Duncan from 1908 to 1912 before leaving for B.C. again out of disenchantment with the way Duncan was running the community.

Duncan died at the age of 86 on August 30, 1918, in "New" Metlakatla, Alaska after a month-long decline associated with a bronchial infection apparently resulting from a fall.

Duncan remains an extraordinarily controversial figure in Tsimshian communities today, with many fierce admirers and many fierce detractors.

For further information on William Duncan refer to for his Dictionary of Canadian Biography On-Line entry.

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