European Exploration and Colonization
It was only a little more than 200 years ago that the first European explorers began to chart the northwest corner of North America. In 1774, the ship of Mexican Juan Perez was the first vessel to explore the coastline and trade with the natives. He was quickly followed by Spaniard Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who took possession of the coast of Alaska for Spain.
England’s Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 to spend some time at Nootka, becoming the first nonnative to actually come ashore. Cook received a number of luxuriantly soft sea otter furs, which he later sold at a huge profit in China. This news spawned a fur-trading rush that began in 1785 and continued for 25 years. In 1789, Bodega y Quadra established a settlement at Nootka, but after ongoing problems with the British (who also claimed the area), he gave it up. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, who had been the navigator on Cook’s 1778 expedition, returned to the area and sailed into Burrard Inlet, claiming the land for Great Britain.
Some 100 years before Europeans began exploring the west coast, the British government granted the Hudson’s Bay Company the right to govern Rupert’s Land, a vast area of western Canada that included all of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories. The land was rich in fur-bearing mammals, which both the British and the French sought to exploit for profit. The Hudson’s Bay Company first built forts around Hudson Bay and encouraged natives to bring furs to the posts. Soon, however, French fur traders working for the Montreal-based North West Company began traveling west to secure furs, forcing their British rivals to do the same.
Both companies began establishing trading posts, often beside each other, which created a rivalry that continued unabated until they merged in 1821. Most posts were made of solid log construction and were located beside rivers, the main routes for transportation. The first European to reach the coast overland was Alexander Mackenzie, who traveled via the Peace and Fraser Rivers—you can still see the rock in the Dean Channel (off Bella Coola) where he inscribed “Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land 22nd July 1793.” Not far behind came other explorers, including Simon Fraser, who followed the Fraser River to the sea in 1808, and David Thompson, who followed the Columbia River to its mouth in 1811.
The Native Response
The fur trade brought prosperity to the indigenous society, which was organized around wealth, possessions, and potlatches. The traders had no interest in interfering with the natives and, in general, treated them fairly. This early contact with Europeans resulted in expanded trade patterns and increased commerce between tribes. But with the Europeans came guns, alcohol, and diseases. And native lifestyle and the boundaries of the various tribes changed dramatically as commerce between the Europeans and locals caused tribes to abandon their traditional homesites and instead to cluster around the forts for trading and protection. While natives of the plains had always slaughtered many buffalo, the population had remained relatively constant. As beaver populations dwindled, however, traders turned to buffalo hides. Within 10 years, the once-prolific herds were practically eradicated. Without their traditional food source, the indigenous plains people were weakened and left more susceptible to diseases such as smallpox and scarlet fever.
Keen to confirm British sovereignty, the British government began colonizing Vancouver Island. Leaving the island in the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, chief factor James Douglas began “purchasing” land from the natives. He made treaties with the tribes in which the land became the “entire property of the white people forever.” Out on the prairies, the now-famous North West Mounted Police had established posts to try to curb the whiskey trade and restore peace. Facing no other choice, the chief of all plains chiefs, Crowfoot, of the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy, signed the first major treaty in 1877, with others following. Relegated to reserves, which consisted of land set aside by the government for specific native bands, the native lifestyle was changed dramatically, and forever. Their self-sufficiency taken away, the tribes were forced to accept what they were given.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition