Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of British Columbia
British Columbia, before the arrival of the Europeans, was home to many Aboriginal peoples speaking more than 30 different languages, including the Babine , Beaver , Carrier, Chilcotin, Gitksan , Haida, Halkomelem, Kaska, Kutenai, Lillooet, Nisga'a, Nuuchanulth , Nuxalk, Sekani, Shuswap , Sinixt , Squamish, Tagish, Tahltan, Thompson, Tlingit, Tsetsaut , and Tsimshian. The abundance of natural resources, particularly salmon and cedar, led to a complex hierarchical society that evolved on the British Columbian coast. With so much food being available, the peoples of the B.C. coast could focus their time on other pursuits such as art and politics. Haida art , is very popular today. Haida artist Bill Reid is perhaps the most famous aboriginal artist. Another well known aboriginal artist is Dempsey Bob .
The arrival of Europeans began around the mid-18th century with the sea otter trade (with the exception of Sir Francis Drake who probably explored the British Columbian coast in 1579). Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 searching for the Northwest Passage and traded with the Nuuchanulth people of Nootka Sound. Upon receiving sea otter pelts for his trade goods, his crew traded them for an enormous profit in Macao, China, on their way back to England. This led to a mad rush of profiteers to the British Columbian coast and constant contact with the Aboriginal peoples there. However, most trade done involving sea otter pelts was over-the-boat, as the merchants were in a hurry to return to China and sell their goods.
The first notable European settlement in B.C. was John Meares's, an Englishman. Although the British had been exploiting the sea otter trade for years, the Spanish explorer, Balboa, had laid claim to all lands that the Pacific Ocean falls upon for Spain in 1513. When a Spanish expedition was sent up the B.C. coast, they seized Meares's property at Nootka Sound in 1787. The Nootka Sound Controversy almost brought Spain and Britain to war and culminated in the extensive mapping of the B.C. coast by Captain George Vancouver and the Spanish explorer, Quadra. The Nootka Convention settled the dispute without conflict in 1794.
After this, European explorer-merchants from the east started to discover British Columbia. Three predominate figures in the early land-based history of B.C. are Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson, who were all searching for the Pacific Ocean and more specifically, the mouth of the Columbia River. All three men were part of the Northwest Company, which was looking for the Pacific Ocean for economic reasons. Alexander Mackenzie was the first European to ever reach the Pacific Ocean by crossing North America north of the Rio Grande, which he accomplished in 1793, first sighting the Pacific Ocean at the site of the current-day village of Bella Coola. Simon Fraser was responsible for founding several of the first forts in British Columbia in the years 1805-1809. Although both Mackenzie and Fraser reached the Pacific, they found the routes they took impassable for trade. It was David Thompson who found the Columbia River and followed it down to its mouth, reaching the Pacific in 1811. However, he was unable to establish a claim, for American explorers Lewis and Clark had arrived first in 1805, planted an American flag and left. John Jacob Astor had founded the town of Astoria just months before Thompson arrived.
After this period, British Columbia was largely run by the Hudson's Bay Company. Fort Victoria (B.C.'s future capital) was established in 1843 as a means to protect HBC business. Manifest Destiny was becoming ever more of a threat in the mid-19th century and in 1844, the U.S. president, James Polk, declared that the British would give the Americans the border at "54°40' or fight!" It is argued that if the Americans had not been at war with Mexico at the time, British Columbia would be American today. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the border between British North America and the United States at 49° north from the Rocky Mountains to the sea. In 1849, the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was created and in 1851, James Douglas was appointed Governor. James Douglas, known as the father of B.C., established British institutions in Victoria and was said to be key in preventing an American takeover.
The Gold Rush
In 1858, gold was found on the banks of the Fraser River. When word got out, Victoria was transformed overnight as potential miners flooded in from around the world, mostly from San Francisco. The influx of gold in B.C.'s economy led to the creation of basic infrastructure in B.C., most notably, the creation of the Cariboo Wagon Road which linked the Lower Mainland to the rich gold fields of Barkerville. However, poor judgement and mismanagement of funds made by the gold rush left B.C. in debt by the mid-1860s. In 1866, because of the massive debt leftover from the gold rush, the mainland and Vancouver Island became one colony named British Columbia.
Entry into Canada
In 1871, British Columbia's entry to Canadian confederation was brought about partially by the efforts of Amor De Cosmos and John Robson. In return for entering Confederation, Canada absorbed B.C.'s massive debt, and promised to build a railway from Montreal to the Pacific coast within 10 years. In fulfillment of this promise, the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in Craigellachie in 1885. During this period, a new source of wealth was being discovered in the interior of B.C.: minerals.
The mining frontier in B.C. led to the creation of many mines and smelters, mostly through American investment. One of the world's largest smelters still exists today in Trail, British Columbia. The capital and work to be found in B.C. during the turn of 19th century to the 20th century led to the creation of several new towns in B.C. such as Nelson, Nakusp, Slocan , Kimberly , Castlegar, Rossland, and Salmo . A large coal empire run by Robert Dunsmuir & Sons also developed on Vancouver Island during this era.
The Twentieth Century
During the 20th century, many immigrant groups arrived in British Columbia and today, Vancouver is the second most ethnically diverse city in Canada, only behind Toronto. However, before 1945, racism was more rampant and socially acceptable in Canada and British Columbia's immigration policies of the past still leave an embarrassing scar. In 1886, a head tax was imposed on the Chinese, which reached as much as $500 per person to enter Canada by 1904. By 1923 the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which prohibited all Chinese immigration until 1947. Sikhs had to face an amended Immigration Act in 1908 that required Sikhs to have $200 on arrival in Canada, and immigration would be allowed only if the passenger had arrived by continuous journey from India, which was impossible. Perhaps the most famous incident of anti-Sikh racism in B.C. was in 1914 when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver harbour with 376 Sikhs aboard, who were all denied entry. The Komagata Maru spent two months in harbour while the Khalsa Society went through the courts to appeal their case. The Khalsa Society also kept the passengers on the Komagata Maru alive during those two months. When the case was lost, HMCS Rainbow , a Canadian Navy cruiser, towed the Komagata Maru out to sea while thousands of white people cheered from the seawall of Stanley Park. The Japanese were also discriminated against, even being put in internment camps during the Second World War.
Alcohol was prohibited in British Columbia for about four years, from 1917 to 1921. A referendum in 1916 asked BC citizens whether they approved of making alcohol illegal (the other question was whether women had the right to vote). The contested results rejecting prohibition led to a major political scandal that subsequently saw the referendum being overturned and alcohol prohibited. However, by 1921 the failures were so apparent--a thriving black market, arbitrary (often class- and race-based) enforcement and punishment, rampant corruption--that alcohol became a commodity subject to government regulation and taxation as it is today.
The status of the First Nations (aboriginal) people of British Columbia is a long-standing problem that has become a major issue in recent years. First Nations were confined to tiny reservations that provide no economic base. They were provided with inadequate education and discriminated against in numerous ways. In many areas they were excluded from restaurants and other establishments. Native people only gained the right to vote in 1960. They were prohibited from possessing alcohol, which rather than preventing problems with this drug, exacerbated them by fostering unhealthy patterns of consumption such as binge drinking. The lives of status Indians are still governed by the Indian Act. With the exception of what are known as the Douglas Treaties , negotiated by Sir James Douglas with the native people of the Victoria, BC area, no treaties were signed in British Columbia. Many native people wished to negotiate treaties, but the province refused until 1990. Another major development was the 1997 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Delgamuukw case that aboriginal title still exists in British Columbia. Two-thirds of the bands in British Colubmia, represented by the First Nations Summit , are now engaged in trilateral negotiations with British Columbia and Canada. Only one treaty, the Nisga'a Treaty (1998) has been signed in recent years, and that one outside of the current treaty process. There is considerable disagreement about treaty negotiations. Many non-native British Columbians are vehemently opposed to it, while a substantial minority of native people consider the current treaty process inadequate and have therefore refused to participate.
In the 1960s, British Columbia ratified the Columbia River Treaty, which was intended to benefit Canadians but actually lost them roughly $808 million. The land that was flooded as a result of the treaty was fertile and contained many archaeological remains of Aboriginal peoples that are now lost forever.
In recent years, British Columbia has gone through many changes and events. Most recently, in 2003, Premier Gordon Campbell was caught for and convicted of drunk driving while in Hawaii, and the most devastating forest fires in decades demolished towns and cost millions of dollars in property damage.
- British Columbia History Internet/Web Site, 1995-2004, compiled by historian and archivist David Mattison, was succeeded by the British Columbia History Portal, 2003-present.
- First Nations Languages of British Columbia contains information about the native languages of British Columbia.
- Rolf Knight has written several regional history books which are now available for free download. (Knight received an award from the Canadian Historical Association for his contributions to regional history.)
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