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Articles Blog

British Columbia, Canada

Karyn Planett

The Pocket History 

Who could have described British Columbia better than Rudyard Kipling. In a 1908 letter to his family, he wrote, “Such a land is good for an energetic man. It is also not so bad for the loafer.” 

You’ll soon discover that British Columbia is marvelous for almost everyone. To fully enjoy this magical land, you should learn something of its history. Having said that, note that the 1881 S.W. Silver & Co’s Handbook to Canada states, “the history of British Columbia proper is of the briefest possible kind.” Brief or not, let’s examine. 

Early Explorers 

In our thumbnail sketch of the history of BC (as the “in” people call it), we’ll highlight only the most important events and figures starting with Sir Francis Drake. This English sea captain sailed past British Columbia and Vancouver Island in 1579. He and his men never set foot ashore. Then a fellow named Juan Perez puttered about the area, swapped goodies with the “Indians” and reported back to his Spanish bosses in Mexico. That was in 1774. The 80,000 Indians had been there for centuries and were known as Haida, Coast Salish, Nootka, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, and Tsimshian. 

Captain Cook actually slogged ashore on Vancouver Island at a spot called Nootka Sound in 1778. Perhaps he wasn’t smitten with the weather, plus he never found the elusive Northwest Passage, so Cook set sail for the warmer climes of Hawaii. Nonetheless, he’d opened the door for American and British fur traders who established a mutually beneficial business with local tribes. 

Things heated up between the Spanish and the British. Spain was ultimately forced to relinquish any claim to the area. Enter, and remember this name, Captain George Vancouver. Formerly one of Cook’s sailors, he was ordered to formalize Britain’s control on the area and did so. 

A pioneering sort named Alexander Mackenzie succeeded in crossing the North American continent overland in 1793. This then blazed the trail for others to journey from the Atlantic seaboard to the Bella Coola Inlet and the Pacific shores of BC. 

Another fellow of note was Simon Fraser, a Scotsman born in 1776. He is credited with having established successful fur trading posts in the region during the first half of the 19th century. That’s while he wasn’t tromping about the woods or fine-tuning his whitewater rafting skills for which he became legendary. It was he who put Fraser River on the map as a major fur-trading route. This was developed into big business, along with timber logging and mining. 

Formalizing The Border 

It came time to draw a line in the sand (fertile sod, really) formalizing the border between Canada and the United States. Ownership of Vancouver Island had been disputed for years. It was decreed a British territory, then officially named a crown colony of the Imperial government in 1849. 

Hoping to keep the American interests at bay, Britain colonized the mainland territory in 1858 as well, the land known at that time as New Caledonia. With the swipe of a quill pen, it became British Columbia. Seems that suited Queen Victoria more than the former name held dear by the Hudson’s Bay Company as well as the Scottish Nor’-Westers. But as a nod to the former company’s director, James Douglas, he was picked to be the first governor. It was Douglas who had convinced the 775 Vancouver Island residents to create a legislature in the first place. 

At the same time gold was discovered along the icy banks of Vancouver’s Fraser River. (For the record, some Indians had already discovered gold two years earlier in the North Thompson River.) 

Settlers arrived, small towns flourished, and in 1871 an agreement was reached whereby Vancouver Island joined up with British Columbia and were accepted as one of the provinces of the Dominion of Canada. In exchange, the Canadian government promised to further develop this remote part of the country by completing the trans-continental railway within ten years. (Had certain concessions like these not occurred, British Columbia might have defected to the US—and wouldn’t we have been the better for it.) Despite these promises, things ran behind schedule and the disgruntled citizens of the Pacific region actually threatened to pull out of the Dominion. That was in 1876. Nonetheless, Canadians kept arriving by the score. Within four years the local tribespeople were considered a minority, rather than the other way around. In fact, fewer than 25,000 Indians still lived in BC at that time. 

The 49th Parallel ultimately became the demarcation of national sovereignty between America and Canada from the Pacific shores to the Rocky Mountains. You may remember the rally cry of the Americans, “Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight.” That term referred to the northern-most latitude that the Americans wanted to own. They finally settled on the 49th giving America the fertile fishing and fur area around the Columbia River.  

Trade Links With Europe 

The 20th Century witnessed great growth in the BC region. Much of this was directly attributable to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. Travel time by ship was reduced and trade with European markets boosted BC’s economy incalculably. After World War II, Dutch, German, and Italians arrived. Much later, immigrants from Hong Kong and India completed the mixed-heritage picture. 

By 1949, the local indigenous people were granted the right to vote. Within a few years, long-standing geographic barriers began to fall. The Trans-Mountain oil pipeline successfully crossed the Rocky Mountains, which had impeded progress to the west via land. Additionally, the Trans-Canada Highway was opened up to automobile and truck traffic bringing in more residents and necessary provisions, all of which further built up BC.   

Today, nearly 50% of all British Columbians are transplants. They’ve come to take in the good life—clean air, glorious mountains, magnificent coast, (OK, some dicey weather but not bad if you’re from Cleveland!), and only 3.3 million residents in an area bigger than Texas or California. Natural resources remain the backbone of the economy with BC supplying nearly 25% of North America’s marketable timber plus the bulk of the world’s wooden chop sticks. Who knew?