What does ‘Hyack’ mean anyway?

For almost 14O years, thousands of New Westminsterites have enjoyed celebrations like May Day, the famous Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery, parades down our main streets and the crowning of Miss New Westminster. The Hyack Festival Association continues these New Westminster traditions that many people have enjoyed for their whole lives, introduces them to new generations and shares them with people from around the world. People enjoying the festivities and the city often wonder what the word [...]

The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)
The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)

For almost 14O years, thousands of New Westminsterites have enjoyed celebrations like May Day, the famous Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery, parades down our main streets and the crowning of Miss New Westminster.  The Hyack Festival Association continues these New Westminster traditions that many people have enjoyed for their whole lives, introduces them to new generations and shares them with people from around the world. People enjoying the festivities and the city often wonder what the word ‘Hyack’ means and how it became such an important part of the language of New Westminster.

Throughout the 19th Century as Europeans began settling up and down the West Coast from Northern California to what would become B.C., they traded, worked with and learned from aboriginal people about the lands. Communication was often difficult because of the different languages of aboriginal people and the settlers. Throughout that time, a common language emerged to help the people communicate more successfully that took words from various languages and developed into what came to be known as Chinook Jargon. Although the exact origin of many of the words is unknown, many of them became very much a part of the common language used by settlers. Many Common phrases used at the time are still in use today or had things named for them. For example, Tyee meant a leader, Kimtah was looking back, a Skukumchuck was a strong waterway and Cultus meant worthless. Another important word in Chinook Jargon was Hyack, that meant swift, fast or to hurry up.

The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)
The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)

As the Royal Engineers and others in New Westminster started building the new town in the 1850s and 1860s, one of earliest and most important groups to be established was a volunteer fire department. In 1861, the “Hyack Company #1” was given its name to inspire the more than 50 men who volunteered to be part of a swift group who would hurry up when they were called into action. The motto of the brigade was “ready, aye, ready” that was inscribed in their headquarters on the north side of Columbia Street, just east what is now Sixth Street. Nearly 30 people were required to operate their original piece of equipment, the “Fire King”, a large hand operated pump bought in 1863. Any one person could only operate it about 10 minutes, but in the early years of New Westminster, it was said that the “work was completed by those Skukum (Chinook Jargon for Strong) volunteers in their battles with the fire fiend” (an unidentified Fire Chief in the early 20th Century, from the New Westminster Museum and Archives).

As part of the very first Victoria Day celebrations, New Westminster residents wanted a 21 gun salute to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on May 24. Because no cannons had arrived in the city to fire the salute early, the Hyack Company used gunpowder between anvils to fire the salute. As New Westminster residents know, the Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery became a very important part of celebrations that survive now. The bright red uniforms that people see worn today for the Anvil Battery are a representation of the original dress uniforms worn by the Hyack Company #1. Some say that the swiftness of the Anvil Battery may also be why the name Hyack became associated with the events.

A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)
A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)

The proud Hyack Company became a very important part of other city events early on in the history of New Westminster. When the Fire King arrived in 1863, many of the members of the Royal Engineers Band were part of the volunteer firefighters, so dressed in their uniforms and performed for the residents to celebrate. They later became known as the Hyack Band, so when May Day began in 1870, they became a very important part of the celebrations. Ever since then, the band, the Anvil Battery and other parts of the original Hyack Company #1 became recognized and acknowledged as a key part of all the events each May, with their uniforms being a representation of the history of the festivities.

After 100 years of celebrating the special events each May, the Hyack Festival Association was established in 1971 to preserve the historical spirit of the events and to organize them into a full and rich celebration of New Westminster. The name was taken as a remembrance to the Hyack Company #1 and their historic significance in the city. The Association’s endeavours have preserved the name and helped keep the meaning and significance of the Chinook Jargon and keep the word within the language of New Westminster ever since the first settlers arrived and carry it on into the future.

Ken Wilkinson

Ken Wilkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

4 comments

  1. As historian for The Ancient and Honourable Hyack Anvil Battery, I am always pleased when people comment favourably on our work. We are diligently busy gathering more and more information on our history and the people who have been part of the group over the years. The files are getting thicker and thicker, but unfortunately we also have a growing file of misinformation. I’m afraid that some of that “not so accurate” info has crept into this article as well.

    First, as much as I would like to claim that the Battery was at New Westminster’s first Victoria Day, I cannot, because it was many years later that we came into being. The first “Victoria Day” in New Westminster was in 1859 and there were many cannons and rifles involved in that ceremony. Unfortunately, the early fire department could not have been part of that first celebration either, as they weren’t created for another three years.

    The second thing I would like to comment on is the reference to cannons or the lack thereof. There have been many references to this for many years but it is simply not correct. There were cannons and other armament in the colony and they continued to be part of salutes and other festivities. In front of City Hall today we can all go see and touch two cannons – two 24-pound howitzers – that were delivered to the Royal City in mid-1865 for the community’s protection.

    Tracing the early history of the Battery is an ongoing process that is about 10 years along, and has produced many good results so far. The Anvil Battery was not begun by the early Fire Department but by other individuals in the community, a few of whom had links to the department, but most did not. The current Battery uniform is, however, modelled after the Hyack Fire Brigade who became known as the “Hyacks”.

    A comment about online sources: we checked Wikipedia for this topic, and found much of this misinformation. Wikipedia is an excellent general source, but results there must always be checked against other resources. Remember that anyone can write anything about anything and put in on Wikipedia – seeing it there does not make it right. Be careful and double check. An excellent comment on this aspect of Wikipedia is a statement from the founder of the online site himself, Jimmy Wales, which can be seen in the June 12, 2006 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. A common refrain of ours and others has become, “Google and Wikipedia are not synonymous with research, they are only places to start”.

    And now a request for the Battery – if anyone has a family member who was linked in the past to the Anvil Battery, please get in touch with me at anvilbattery@senseofhistory.com – I would love to add more names to the historical roster.

    1. Regarding your post: "In front of City Hall today we can all go see and touch two cannons – two 24-pound howitzers – that were delivered to the Royal City in mid-1865 for the community’s protection." I have found evidence that the actual delivery date was late 1867. The pair of 24-pounder Crimean War howitzers pledged by the British Army were still in transit to New Westminster in July 1867. The gunboat HMS Forward was to take them aboard at Panama City when she returned from duty at Valparaiso in October 1867.

  2. hyak — fast, swift. This word, in its variant spelling hyack, is the nickname for the New Westminster regiment of the Canadian Forces, who annually set off a 21-anvil salute during the Victoria Day weekend every year. It was also the name of one of the Vancouver Aquarium's orcas.

    Chinook-English Dictionary http://www.translationdirectory.com/dictionaries/

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