Origins & Connections to Sport

Origins & Connections to Sport

In the early 1890s, in the coal-producing region of eastern Vancouver Island just outside of Nanaimo, the interest in competitive soccer was at an all-time high. According to the Nanaimo Daily Herald, one player stood above the rest with his athletic prowess – his ability and skills to play the game. This athlete was xulsi’malt, later taking the English name Harry Manson. This is his remarkable story.

Harry Manson was one of the first Snuneymuxw athletes to be recruited by the Nanaimo Thistles in 1898. Courtesy of the BC Sports Hall of Fame

Harry was born and raised on Vancouver Island as part of the Snuneymuxw First Nation of the Coast Salish People whose traditional territory includes the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the Fraser River in British Columbia. This area is rich in coal deposits, lush rainforests, and an abundant fishery. Today, the Snuneymuxw people are responsible for the stewardship of this traditional territory.

There is not much known of Harry and his family except that he was a loving father to his children. Much of Harry’s inspiring history comes from the sporting pages of newspapers that chronicled his amazing abilities out on the soccer pitch.

360 artifact thumbnail

This soccer ball c. early 1900s, similar to that used by Harry Manson, consisting of stitched leather panels into which an animal or rubber bladder would have been inserted.
Courtesy of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Texas, USA.

Harry Manson pictured with his young children, ca. 1912.
Courtesy of the BC Sports Hall of Fame

In 1898, at the age of 18, he made his competitive debut in a heated rivalry between the Nanaimo Thistles and the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The Nanaimo Thistles were so impressed with Harry’s play that they recruited him full-time into their lineup following the game. Later that season, the team reached the final of the Intermediate Challenge Cup against the Victoria YMCA. In doing so, Harry and his teammate James Wilks became the first two Indigenous players to appear in a British Columbia provincial championship match.

The Nanaimo Association Football Club in 1903. Harry Manson is seated in the first row, second from right.
Courtesy of the BC Sports Hall of Fame

Harry became known for his lightning speed, blistering shot, and remarkable scoring ability. During the games, he was a constant threat as he could play and kick equally well on both sides of the field. Two years later, Harry knew that the Snuneymuxw players had the talent to compete against British Columbia’s best intermediate teams and formally organized the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers Association Football Club (AFC), serving as team captain for the next five years. Harry’s pioneering vision gave the Indian Wanderers their identity. He led them to many victories between 1897 and 1904, while earning recognition as one of his era’s greatest soccer players.

In 1903, Harry was one of only three Indigenous players chosen to be part of the Nanaimo All-Star Team. The team competed for the Senior Challenge Cup at the BC Football Association (BCFA) provincial championships, defeating Cowichan in the semi-finals. Harry then led the Nanaimo All-Star Team to the finals, where they won decisively 4-0 against the Esquimalt Garrison. They made history becoming the first Indigenous players to win a provincial championship. Sadly, due to the prevailing racist conditions of the time, none of the Snuneymuxw players were invited to the celebration afterwards.

Grand Challenge Cup awarded by the British Columbia Football Association, won by Harry Manson and the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers. Courtesy of the BC Sports Hall of Fame

To excel in any sport is tough, but Harry and his Indigenous teammates rose to the top despite facing extreme racism wherever they played. During a 1907 match between Nanaimo and a team from Ladysmith, the Nanaimo Free Press reported that Ladysmith fans were yelling racial taunts. Despite playing in hostile and abusive conditions, Harry and his teammates never lost their cool, and always played with integrity, courage, and skill. He still holds the rare distinction of being the only player of Indigenous descent to play on all three Nanaimo premier soccer teams.

Unfortunately, Harry’s life ended far too soon. On February 10, 1912, at the age of 32, Harry was killed in an accident when he attempted to hop aboard a coal train and was killed upon falling onto the tracks. He was returning to the Snuneymuxw First Nation from a trip to Nanaimo, where he had gone to get medicine for his sick son, Adam.

Harry Manson’s son, Adam and wife, ca. 1950.
Courtesy of the BC Sports Hall of Fame

Harry’s Snuneymuxw name, xulsi’malt, means “One Who Leaves His Mark.” Harry left his mark not only in sport, but also on his community. He brought honour to his name, family, and culture by playing alongside and against non-Indigenous players when racism was deeply entrenched in Canadian society. While breaking barriers in sport, Harry Manson paved the way to embrace diversity, making it a better playing field.

Harry Manson’s legacy is honoured with a memorial sign at Deverill Square Park in Nanaimo, BC.
Courtesy of Robert Janning