How British Columbia Came to Be


For 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, more than 30 aboriginal groups flourished on the rich lands and waters now known as British Columbia.  In the northern interior, small bands of nomadic peoples hunted and fished.  To the south, along the Frasier and Thompson rivers, more abundant fish and game supported permanent settlements.  Coastal societies consisted of extended families living in large cedar dwellings, as with Puget Sound and the mouth of the Columbia River.

In 1741, Aleksey Chirikov (1703-48) explored the northwestern coast under the flag of tsarist Russia.  Chirikov’s voyages induced Spain to jump into fray in the person of Juan Perez Hernandez.  English Captain James Cook’s arrival in Nootka Sound on March 29 1778, marked a further dramatic change.  After Cook sold his lucrative cargo of sea otter pelts in China, the fur trade links to London, Macau, Canton, and Boston became mainstays of world trade.  Competition for furs led to frenzied competition among various nations (Spain, Russia, America, Britain) and trading companies, especially the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies.

American interests began to increase throughout the North American west.  Alarmed by the arrival of gold seekers from California, the English Parliament in 1858 formed the mainland colony of British Columbia, later merging it with Vancouver Island in 1866.  Imperial interests, Kootenay mines, vast timberlands, unbelievable salmon runs, and awe-inspiring scenery drove the British to further develop this remote, faraway land.

In 1871, British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada, asserting its rights as the most westerly member of a new nation and fending off American interest in B.C.’s many natural assets.  As the mainland population followed the rugged aspects of a resource-based economy, leading to the rise of organized labor and wealthy barons of industry. Curiously, staid English-accented Victoria on Vancouver Island was chosen as the unlikely provincial capital.

Eventually, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company linked British Columbia to the rest of Canada in the 1880s, providing work for Chinese laborers and creating colorful and authentic “Chinatowns” in Victoria and Vancouver.  Vancouver, British Columbia’s premier city, was founded in 1867 by a former steamboat captain named Jack Deighton.  Local lore claims that he arrived with an Indian wife, a yellow dog, chickens, and a barrel of whiskey.  Upon cracking his barrel, the first tavern in the province was open for business. Like Seattle, the early days of Vancouver were a wide-open port city.

Today, British Columbia has become a wonderland for tourists, drawn to the world-famous gardens, forests, rivers, architecture, skiing, the towers of the city of Vancouver, and the province’s hundreds of inlets and islands.  

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. Decades ago, I was involved in a magazine startup called The New Pacific, and it covered Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Interesting that the main support came from Vancouver, which then looked up to Seattle, particularly for the arts and the tech economy. Portland was a tougher sell, fearing the colonial dependency of the past. That said, the connection of Seattle and Vancouver is very slight. Few arts groups play both cities. Seattle media barely notice Canada (except for our Joel Connelly). The ports are rivals, not joint efforts. It’s mostly Whistler for skiing and Vancouver Island for fishing. What am I missing?

    • Ah, Mr. Brewster, your question deserves a very complex answer.

      Those of us who have worked in British Columbia and who have family there – mine in Vancouver, Victoria, Salt Spring Island, and Kelowna – could wax poetic and sorrowfully that so few living “next door” in Washington have troubled to figure it out.

      Likely most Washingtonians have never heard of the influential and colorful B.C. politician of yore, Jimmy Sinclair, current Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s grandfather. And why and how that happened at all! Also, how quaintly Canada itself was only recently created as an independent (sort of) country, which had to happen via an act of the British Parliament.

      It’s worth taking a look also at Canada’s immigration system. Then, watch some of its oldtime “rustic” Toronto TV humor such as – “The Red and Green Show” – long featured on CBC – a public broadcaster actually available (but not “Red and Green,” anymore, I think) on Seattle-area cable services – Bless ’em.

      Getting serious, it’s worth looking at B.C. and Canada’s disappointing environmental policies, including those of corporations operating there that are heavily financed by European, Chinese and U.S-based forest products firms, such as MacMillan Bloedel, now part of Weyerhaeuser. Many unresolved fundamental issues in B.C. remain re its indigenous peoples, dismissed by Canada in the 20th Century as “Bands,” now euphemistically labeled “First Nations.”

      Finally, ask why HRH King Charles III, “living ‘cross the sea,” remains, as always, King of Canada. With a “Governor General” acting for him when he hasn’t stopped by recently to check in. Rule Britannia. Uh Huh.

  2. Part of the tension between Washington state and British Columbia can be attributed to environmental issues — for decades, B.C. dumped raw sewage into the beautiful Strait of Juan de Luca. On the Canadian side, some critics asserted that the natural currents of the water would break up the effluence. However, Canada is finally about to stop doing that — with the opening of a wastewater treatment plant, which is controversial on the Canadian side, but greeted happily by environmentalists.

    I just returned from a visit via the Clipper to Victoria, still the friendly and beautiful walking city it always was. The quaint regionalism, with teacups in all of the shop windows, seems to be gone, but I was never a fan of that, so didn’t care, Vancouver has always been a very beautiful and verdant city, but has many of the same struggles with homelessness and addiction that have plagued Seattle for so long. I don’t see nearly as many Canadian plates as I used to –maybe Canadians are tired of the trek to Seattle and simply stop in Bellingham?

  3. I neglected to comment above, on the charm of this article, Well researched and filled with the anecdotal stuff that makes your writing so enjoyable.


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