Sunday, July 21, 2024

History and Heritage: British Columbia

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The history of southwestern British Columbia centers around the discovery of the mighty Fraser River

British Columbia’s modern history begins with the arrival of the first humans, who lived and thrived on the land’s natural resources for more than ten thousand years, sometime after the end of the last Ice Age. Nations (indigenous) groups lived for thousands of years dividing the land among themselves: the Nootka, Coast Salish, and Kwak’wala-speaking peoples were among them. Rich land and marine resources helped them develop complex societies and composite indigenous art forms that are still internationally acclaimed.

To the southeast, in what is now the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, the Kootenai were the original protectors of the land; There was also fierce fighting for possession of the priceless hot springs found in these mountains The Carrier race roamed the interior valleys, the Tsimshians extended along the northern coast, and the Tlingit occupied southern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The Sekani and Beaver occupied the eastern part of the north while the Haida lived in Haida Gwaii, later also called the Queen Charlotte Islands.

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As recently as 220 years ago, the northwest coast of North America was one of the least explored regions of the world. The geographical location of the land presented many formidable natural obstacles to European explorers. The Rocky Mountains towering to the southeast blocked the route of travel, and the vast Pacific Ocean separated many distant lands or peoples from the west coast. Exploration and discovery of new lands and natural resources progressed steadily in the second half of the 18th century with expeditions followed by Russian, American, Spanish and British explorers and traders.

The peaceful existence and existence of Aboriginal people began to change after first contact by Europeans when Captain James Cook set foot on Nootka Island off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island in 1778. The Spanish later arrived and established a base at Nootka on the Alaskan coast under the leadership of Don Juan Francisco, who claimed the coast of Alaska for Spain. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, a British Royal Navy officer, arrived with his ships Discovery and Chatham, to regain control of Nootka.

Both explorers traveled to Tahsis and during the years of Spanish/English rivalry on the island, and worked together on mapping and exploring the coast. A treaty in 1793 gave the two countries joint ownership of Nootka, but shortly after the signing, Spanish dominance in North America began to decline. In 1795 the last Spanish ship was ordered out of the area, marking the end of Spanish influence in British Columbia.

The history of southwestern British Columbia centers around the discovery of the mighty Fraser River. Ironically, early European explorers wandering the coast could not discern the mouth of the Fraser River from the sea because of the thick fog. The Fraser River was discovered in 1791 by Spaniard Jose Maria Narvaez, a pilot in the Spanish Navy.

Adventurous explorers and fur traders of the Northwest Company were heading west across the Rocky Mountains. Michael Phillips was the first white man to cross the Canadian Rockies using a trail from west to east through unexplored passes, although these routes had long been used and known by First Nations people (aboriginals).

The Peace River, the only river in British Columbia that originates in the Rockies, joins several tributaries and flows northeast across the Alberta grasslands before joining the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean. Navigated by explorer Alexander Mackenzie in 1793. Mackenzie was the first European to navigate the Peace River, named for a treaty between the Cree and Beaver indigenous nations. You can still see the rock where Alexander Mackenzie of Canada was carved on July 22, 1793.

The first white settlement in British Columbia was in 1794 at what is now Fort Saint John near Vancouver. In 1805, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) opened their first trading post in the north of the region at Hudson’s Hope. In 1808, when Simon Fraser visited communities along the mouth of the Fraser River, he thought he had found the Columbia River. In fact it was the Sto_lo river with the indigenous name at the mouth of the sea. Simon Fraser navigates almost the entire length of this river, which is the longest river in the province of British Columbia. It originates in the Rocky Mountains and is found in the ocean off the coast of Vancouver. Later the river was named ‘Fraser River’ after Simon Fraser. Likewise came the famous explorer David Thompson, who followed the Columbia River through British Columbia, which empties into the Pacific at Oregon, Washington in America, but flows in large part into Canada. The names of these two explorers are imprinted in the history of British Columbia, for their many accomplishments.

The Hudson’s Bay Company established a post at Fort Victoria in 1843, and the colony of Vancouver Island was established in 1849 when the entire island was leased to the HBC. In 1858, more than 20,000 prospective prospectors (many from California, in search of gold) came from the HBC at Fort Victoria to the Fraser River in search of the then-discovered gold. Soon, many cities sprung up in the region and became prosperous boomtowns.

In response to the gold discovery and mining frenzy, the British government also colonized mainland British Columbia in 1858. Governor James Douglas, head of the Hudson’s Bay Company and governor of Vancouver Island, became the new governor of British Columbia. In 1866 the Colony of Vancouver Island merged with the Colony of British Columbia. Victoria became the provincial capital of British Columbia on April 2, 1868. Between 1871 and 1885, British Columbia took the lead, promising to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway. Victoria’s government joined Canada’s confederation rather than joining the United States in the south.

Gold discoveries continued, and in 1861 gold was found in the Peace River. The Caribou Wagon Road was then built from the town of Yale to the boomtown of Barkerville, the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. Completed in 1865, the Cariboo Wagon Road opened up the interior of British Columbia, with horse-drawn stagecoaches plying the route and roadhouses and small boomtowns along the way.

Mining, railways and geology have all contributed to British Columbia’s history and development since 1871. The rise and fall of many settlements can be attributed to rail routes, but then again small resort towns developed based on natural features, such as the abundance of hot springs in the Rockies of British Columbia.

The fur and salmon trades brought great prosperity to First Nations people, whose societies were organized around wealth, property, and the potlatch (a gift-giving feast practiced by Aboriginal people, in Canada’s western region). HBCs generally treat locals fairly and their communities thrive. However, due to trade the tribals abandoned their traditional homes in favor of settlements near HBC posts for better trade and protection. Foreign settlers, on the other hand, introduced muskets, alcohol and smallpox, all of which had devastating effects on the local indigenous population. Christian missionaries arrived and began banning the natives’ traditional potlatch and suppressing their language and culture. Colonialism and land ownership conflicts soon followed, which continue to this day.

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