The story of First Nations soccer player Xul-si-malt (Harry Manson) and his team, the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers, begins in the early 1890s at a time when interest in soccer was rapidly growing in the coal-producing region around the town of Nanaimo on eastern Vancouver Island. The sport had been introduced to British Columbia by British settlers, with the first documented games taking place in Victoria in 1888 and Vancouver in 1889.
One of the earliest clubs, the Nanaimo Rangers AFC, had been formed in Nanaimo, in 1890. Enthusiasm for soccer quickly spread throughout the Nanaimo mining district, soon reaching the five neighbouring First Nations villages situated along the estuary of the Nanaimo River. The villages, Salaxal, Anwinic, Yicaxen, Tewaxan and Kwelsiwal, comprised the Hul’qumi’num-speaking Snuneymuxw First Nation and were contained within the Nanaimo Indian Reserve, which had been decreed by the government in 1877.
Following their introduction to the game of soccer, the Snuneymuxw participated in random matches against Nanaimo-based European teams. The first such match was played on November 12, 1892 at Deverill Square on Haliburton Street. The event featured a team comprised of young First Nations men from the Nanaimo Reserve, who took on the Nanaimo YMCA Juniors. Both sides were well-supported and the large crowd enjoyed an exciting contest ending in a 2-2 draw.
Future soccer skirmishes between Snuneymuxw and European teams remained sporadic until the formation of the Nanaimo Thistles AFC in 1897. From that point on, a full-fledged rivalry developed between the Thistles and the Snuneymuxw team, whose colourfully named members included River Billy, Red-Horned Sam, Skookum, Mushface, Klondyke, Red Necktie, Clams and Kickhard.
The Snuneymuxw players took to the pitch during a time when mistreatment and public disrespect towards First Nations people was socially acceptable and common. An article in the Nanaimo Free Press, for example, reported that a Ladysmith fan cried “Kill the savages” during a match between the two towns in 1907 at which Nanaimo fielded a team comprising both European and Snuneymuxw players. The article went on to praise the hometown indigenous players with the statement that “the savages are all past masters in the football art.”(1) Despite such open and prevalent racism, however, the Snuneymuxw players persisted in their pursuit of soccer glory.
The most outstanding of the indigenous players was Xul-si-malt (One-Who-Leaves-His-Mark), born in 1879. Little is known of Xul-si-malt’s family background and early life except that he was born during a time of increasing European settlement and was compelled at a young age to assume the English name “Harry Manson.”
On September 2, 1897, at the age of 18, Harry Manson made his competitive debut in the first Thistles vs. Snuneymuxw match. The game, marred by a heavy gale and torrents of rain, was contested on a parcel of land owned by the New Vancouver Coal and Land Company, which locals appropriately referred to as the Swamp. A newspaper account of this match mentions that “pyramids of red and white men, piled up four and five decks high” (2) formed regularly throughout the match. The game ended in a 4-4 draw and left both sides keen to meet again. This occurred in another two closely contested games during the 1897-98 season, but only the Thistles chose to enter the competition for the British Columbia Intermediate Challenge Cup.
As the Thistles progressed through the provincial competition, it became necessary for the team to defeat both the Cowichan AFC and the Northfield Violets in the last two matches of the North End semi-final series to advance to the best-of-three final series against the Victoria YMCA. The Thistles won the first match in Nanaimo but were compelled by illness to make several line-up changes for their return match in Victoria. Impressed by the performance of Harry Manson and another Snuneymuxw player, James Wilks, earlier in the season, the Thistles hastily recruited the two players into their line-up. Harry Manson and James Wilks thus became the first indigenous players to compete in a B.C. provincial championship match. Harry wasted little time leaving his mark by scoring the game’s opening goal after only five minutes, but the Victoria YMCA team, including Bernard Schwengers, the best all-round athlete in British Columbia at the time, proved to be too strong for the Thistles. The Victoria YMCA team came from behind to win both the game and the series, capturing the intermediate provincial soccer title.
Two years later, the Snuneymuxw players, convinced that they had the necessary talent to compete against the best intermediate teams in British Columbia, formally organized the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers AFC. The Wanderers entered the intermediate provincial championship and were matched against the Nanaimo Thistles for a best-of-three semi-final series.
Harry Manson’s athletic abilities and his leadership qualities on the pitch had earned him the captaincy of the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers as they squared off against the rival Thistles in one of the most bitterly contested series in the annals of B.C. provincial soccer. The series opened at the Nanaimo Cricket Grounds, on December 16, 1899. Despite poor field conditions – the result of intermittent snowfalls during the previous twenty-four hours – a large crowd showed up to witness the game. After an early strike by the Wanderers, the Thistles responded with three unanswered goals to take a 3-1 lead going into the second half. The Wanderers, however, were not to be denied a strong showing in their provincial debut and drew level by scoring two goals in the final twenty minutes. Since the game had started at 3:30 in the afternoon on one of the shortest days of the year, the lack of natural light ruled out any possibility of continuing into overtime. The match was declared a draw and a rematch was called.
The rematch was held at the Cricket Grounds on New Year’s Day, with the Thistles gaining a controversial 3-2 victory. There was doubt about the validity of one of their goals and the Wanderers argued that the match had not been won fairly. Some of the 500 spectators believed that the Indians were justified in making this claim. After the match, several Wanderers stopped by the Nanaimo Free Press office to complain that they had not been beaten fairly and that the final score should have been a tie. They said that it was not a matter of who won the cup, as long as it was fairly won, and that all they wanted was an even show. Their protest was brought before the British Columbia Intermediate Football Association (BCIFA) at a meeting in Victoria on January 6, 1900, but in the end, the BCIFA upheld referee Frank English’s decision and allowed the goal and the Thistles’ victory to stand.
That same day a crowd of about 300 spectators gathered for the next game between the Thistles and Wanderers. The Cricket Grounds were in a very poor state as it had rained throughout the day. Frank English was again the man in charge and the contest remained scoreless until the second half, when the Wanderers made two magnificent rushes, scoring a goal on each occasion. Despite conceding an own goal, they managed to hold on for a 2-1 victory, forcing another match.
On January 20, 1900, a crowd of 500 spectators showed up at the Cricket Grounds to witness the fourth match of the series. Following the controversial second game, it seemed that momentum had swung in favour of the Wanderers. The Snuneymuxw opened the scoring and appeared to be well on their way to clinching the series. However, with their backs to the wall, the Thistles braced up and were able to score an equalizer in the second half to keep their hopes alive. The 1-1 result left the two rivals level at two draws and one victory each.
The question of Coal City supremacy was finally settled on February 3, 1900. In sharp departure from the closely contested pattern of the first four games, the final match of the series ended in a resounding 6-1 victory for the Thistles. The series had proved to be the most protracted provincial series thus far. Originally slated to be a best-of-three affair, it ultimately required five meetings on the pitch and a questionable decision before a winner could be declared.
The Thistles went on to claim the 1900 intermediate provincial championship, easily defeating the Victoria Columbias 7-0 and 3-0 in the final series. The victory made the manner in which the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers had lost to the Thistles that much harder to bear and may have been the reason that the Snuneymuxw players showed little interest in soccer the following year. The only time the Wanderers assembled a team during the 1900-01 season was for a Christmas Day contest against the Thistles, at which they showed up in such poor condition that rivals were able to run up the score at will.
The 1901-02 season proved to be a major disappointment as the BCIFA failed to receive sufficient entries to support an intermediate championship. The aborted competition had notable consequences for Nanaimo, as it saw the demise of the Nanaimo Thistles a few months later, which was followed by the formation of the Nanaimo City Association Football League (NCAFL) on September 27, 1902. Most of the former Thistle players joined either the Nanaimo Athletic Club or the Mosquito Athletic Club, both of which entered teams in the city championship. A third entry, the Temperance Strollers, was comprised of players belonging to the Total Abstinence Beneficiary Brotherhood, a society whose members had taken an oath of abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. These developments renewed interest in soccer on the Nanaimo Indian Reserve and the Wanderers were keen to get in on the action. Captained once again by Harry Manson, they remained in contention for the city championship until the final match of the schedule, which they lost 4-3 to the Athletics.
Following the success of the first NCAFL season, Nanaimo organizers were determined to recapture the senior provincial Challenge Cup, which the city had lost eight years earlier. Since none of the four NCAFL clubs was considered strong enough to win the senior provincial championship, it was decided to form a Nanaimo all-star team. Robert Vipond of the Nanaimo Athletic Club was responsible for choosing the players to represent Nanaimo in the British Columbia Football Association (BCFA) competition, assembling a team that included three members of the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers team – Harry Manson, Louis Martin and Joe Peters.
The Nanaimo team was paired with the Cowichan AFC in a home and home semi-final series, the first match to be played at the Nanaimo Cricket Grounds on February 14, 1903. The Nanaimo all-star selection proved to be far too strong for the visitors, scoring three goals in each half en route to an easy 6-0 victory. When the return match was played at the Duncans (3) on February 28, 1903, the Nanaimo all-star team completed a series sweep with a 2-0 victory over the Cowichan AFC, earning the right to take on the Esquimalt Garrison FC for the senior Challenge Cup.
The final was played on April 18, 1903 at the Nanaimo Cricket Grounds. The venue had been subjected to heavy rain earlier in the day, but the weather cleared in time for the start of the game. William Graham gave the home side a 1-0 lead just before half time, with Arthur Morrison adding a second goal early in the second half, followed shortly by a third goal after a scrimmage in front of the Garrison’s goal. The soldiers were upset that the third goal was allowed to stand and from that point the play became very rough. Both teams had a player sent off before Louis Martin closed out the scoring. Nanaimo thus ended their eight-year senior Challenge Cup drought with a convincing 4-0 victory and Harry Manson, Louis Martin and Joe Peters became the first indigenous players to win a provincial championship.
The competition for the 1903-04 Nanaimo City Championship began sluggishly, as the Mosquitoes refused to show up for their initial match against the Athletics. This prompted the NCAFL to hold a meeting on October 24, 1903 at which organizers decided that two Athletic players, Joe Blundell and George White, would be transferred to the Mosquitoes to even out the strength of the respective teams. The rescheduled game was played on October 31, 1903 with the Athletics securing a 2-0 victory. Just a week later, however, the Athletics suffered their first-ever defeat, losing 4-3 to the Indian Wanderers.
The race for the Nanaimo City Championship again went right down to the wire, as the Indian Wanderers held a 1-point lead over the Athletics going into the final match of the season. The green-shirted Wanderers demonstrated their superiority for a second time with a comfortable 4-0 victory in the return match, proving that their initial victory over the Athletics had been no fluke. The mere four lines that the Nanaimo Free Press devoted to the May 21, 1904 contest reflected the measure of disappointment that the Coal City experienced over the Athletics loss. Captain Harry Manson and his teammates had to wait until November 1, 1904 to be presented with their medals for winning the Nanaimo City Championship, as they had to be ordered from Shilcock of Birmingham, England.
The conclusion of the 1903-04 season brought to an end a very exciting time for the game of soccer in Nanaimo. As the result of a political power struggle for control of the game in British Columbia, (4) soccer in Nanaimo fell into a relative state of self-imposed exile and obscurity, with very little soccer activity taking place in the Coal City. During this period, Harry Manson went on to develop a keen interest in baseball and started playing first-base for the Nanaimo Reliance Baseball Club in 1906.
Apart from his outstanding career as an athlete, little is known of Harry Manson except that he married Lucy Sampson and worked as a commercial fisherman. Sadly his life came to end on February 10, 1912 when at the age of 32, he was crushed beneath the wheels of a moving coal train while returning from a trip to Nanaimo to fetch medicine for his sick baby son, Adam. The esteem in which he was held by the Nanaimo community was evident in the fact that this tragic event was reported on the front page of two Nanaimo newspapers, the Nanaimo Free Press and the Nanaimo Daily Herald.
While all of the Snuneymuxw players are to be respected for the enthusiasm that they brought to soccer and their persistence despite the racial slurs to which they were frequently subjected, Harry Manson has a unique claim. During the period from 1897 to 1905, he was the only player of either First Nations or European descent to play for all three Nanaimo premier soccer teams -- the Nanaimo Thistles, the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers, and the Nanaimo Association Football Team. He was also the captain of the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers during the entire period and his skill and fame were widely known. As the Nanaimo Daily Herald acknowledged three days after his death:
Harry Manson was probably the best known of the Nanaimo Indians; for many years [he] played
on the local senior soccer teams and was one of the best players Nanaimo has produced. (5)
Notwithstanding Harry Manson’s untimely death, his soccer legacy continues at the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Harry Manson’s grandson, Gary Manson, has coached the Snuneymuxw Snipers for the past two decades and 12-year old Logan Manson emulates his great-great grandfather’s soccer talent, competing on the field against much older players.
Harry Manson’s Snuneymuxw name, Xul-si-malt (One-Who-Leaves-His-Mark) is fitting. As the story of his soccer achievements demonstrates, he did leave his mark and has earned his place in soccer history.