Vancouver Island History

This article was drafted ca. 2008, new knowledge and new perspectives may not align with the details and the perspectives from time this was drafted.

European impact on Vancouver Island began in 1778 when Captain Cook set foot on Nootka Island. Both the British and the Spanish became deeply involved in exploration of the island and surrounding waters. In 1792, with the signing of the Nookta Conventions, Spain ceded her interests in the area to Britain. Some fifty years later, in 1843, the British Hudson’s Bay Company was established by James Douglas to protect British interests in the area . It became a supply centre and jumping-off point for the Fraser Gold Rush of 1858 and was incorporated as the city of Victoria in 1862. First as a capital city of the crown colony of Vancouver Island and then of the amalgamated colony of Vancouver Island and British Columbia and since 1871 of the province of British Columbia.

Heritage Sights for History Buffs – Victoria

Helmcken House was built by Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken and is the oldest house in British Columbia on its original site that still opens for the public. Dr. Helmcken, a surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Company, set up house in Victoria when he married the daughter of Governor James Douglas in 1852. He went on to become a statesman and helped negotiate the entry of British Columbia into Canada, as a province. The good doctor’s original 19th century medical kit is among the interesting items on display.

Helmcken House will be closed during the 2004-05 fall and winter seasons, including the Halloween period, with the exception of a special Christmas Open House 12 to 4 pm. Open House event, free with same-day Royal BC Museum admission ticket.
Saturday, December 18 to Thursday, December 23, 2004
and Sunday, December 26 to Friday, December 31, 2004

Please check the Royal BC Museum on-line events calendar beginning in May for the Helmcken House summer schedule for 2005.

Emily Carr House In historic James Bay, the former home of this famous artist and writer is a “must-see” for lovers of the art, history and culture of the West Coast. In the restored rooms of the house, built in 1864, visitors can visualize the Victorian ways of the Carr family and view some of their possessions. 207 Government Street, Victoria (250) 383-5843 for more info.

Point Ellice House On Victoria’s Upper Harbour, near the Point Ellice bridge, is Point Ellice House, former home of Gold Rush-era magistrate and commissioner Peter O’Reilly. With its exquisite garden, O’Reilly’s house was a popular gathering place for Victoria’s social elite. Visitor’s can take an audio tour of the house, seeing along the way, an astounding collection of Victoriana in their original setting. 2616 Pleasant Street, Victoria (250) 380-6506 for more info. Open mid-May to mid-September.

Craigflower Manor and Schoolhouse One of Vancouver Island’s first farming communities and located on what was an original Hudson’s Bay Company farm. The Georgian-style manor house was partly built on the old HBC post-and-beam design and still stands amid field and gardens. 2709 Shoreline Drive, Victoria. For more information on tour availability call (250) 383-4627

Parliament Buildings An artful blending of European architectural influences, the Francis Rattenbury-designed provincial Parliament Buildings grace Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Tours available in the summer months with topics include British Columbia history, architectural features of the buildings and the parliamentary system. (250) 387-3046 for more information.

Fort Rodd Hill A former military site built in the late 1890’s, the fort is one of the world’s best preserved and most complete fortifications of its kind, consisting entirely of original structures, with minimal restoration. 603 Fort Rodd Hill Road, Victoria. (250) 478-5849 for more info.

Maritime Museum Impressive galleries, film theatre, rotating exhibits and authentic period uniforms captures the province’s seafaring history of the last 130 years. 28 Bastion Square, Victoria (250) 385-4222 for more info.

Who were the first people to live here? Where did they come from and what kind of people were they? There are no precise answers but we know from archaeologists that people were living on the coast of B.C. 9,000 years ago from diggings at Namu, north of Vancouver Island and at Lawn Point on Graham Island in the Queen Charlottes.
The life led by these coast people changed rapidly when the sea-level stopped fluctuating 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The coastline became permanent and river deltas and tidal flats developed. Fish and shellfish became much easier to catch and harvest, resulting in an increase of population and settlements. Men and women developed the skills to build homes, boats, weave clothes and make tools and weapons.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the people had developed a sophisticated social system with elaborate rituals, a spiritual life and artistic tradition. The winds and tides that brought these Pacific coast people their food and warm, wet climate also brought massive changes. Europeans, driven by the desire for wealth, power, knowledge and the perceived need to bring the salvation of the Church to natives, sailed into the Pacific in the early sixteenth century.
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that serious exploration began. First came the Spanish, sailing north from Mexico, and the Russians from their frigid northeastern ports. Then, in 1774, the Spanish met the Haida off the Queen Charlottes and later, driven south by storms, sought shelter in what we now call Nootka Sound. Maquinna, the leader of the most powerful group in Nootka Sound, greeted Cook and the Spanish and also traded with the British and American fur traders.

In 1776 Captain James Cook sailed from Plymouth in the west of England in the 420 ton Resolution, ahead of his other ship, Discovery to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific but was turned back two years later by ice in the Bering Strait. In March 1778, using a new chronometer and other navigational aids provided by the Admiralty, they came to the coast of the Pacific Northwest but missed the mouth of the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca as gales forced them to sail up the unchartered coast and well out to sea for three weeks. After a break in the weather, at four in the afternoon on March 29, the ships sighted a gap in the coastline and edged their way into the inlet we now call Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound.

Cook and his ships stayed in Nootka until April 26. His men explored the inlet, repaired their rotting masts, and traded anything from nails to pewter plates for sea otter furs. Cook then sailed north from Nootka to start the search for the Northwest Passage. When his men next touched land, in Russian territory, they found that the furs they had bought for plates and buttons were worth hundreds of pounds. News of the fortunes to be made on the Pacific Northwest coast reached the Far East, and Europe and by the mid-1780’s other ships were trading for sea otter furs.

This also revived Spanish interest in Nootka and in 1789 the Spanish started to build a fort close to the shore. To assert their sovereignty over the area, they captured some of the men working for John Meares. A renegade British Captain and trader, John Meares, claimed that Nootka Chief Maquinna had granted him land and the right to build a trading post. He was so enraged at the Spanish that he went to England and persuaded the British government to devote two million pounds for war with Spain. But diplomacy won the day as the Revolution in France, just across the Channel, made events in a tiny inlet thousands of miles away relatively insignificant and Britain and Spain signed the Nootka Convention in October 1790. Spain effectively dropped claims to the Pacific Northwest and from then on it was a tussle between Britain and the new United States, with Russia playing a minor role.

The North West Company, a loosely-knit group of fur traders and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged in 1821 and opened new trading posts on the rivers, lakes and trails of the Interior. In 1842, James Douglas sailed up from the Columbia and set up another Hudson’s Bay Company post at the tip of Vancouver Island. The new post, protected by a two-story bastion with a nine-pounder gun became Fort Victoria. Soon the fields around Fort Victoria were being farmed, dairy cows imported and grain and vegetables were produced to feed Fort Victoria’s population and for sale to Russian fur traders on the northern coast.

As Fort Victoria was being built, the first large wave of settlers came into Oregon Territory, and the campaign in the U.S. to control the Northwest up to 54 degrees 40 minutes north – the border with Russia – gained speed. Britain and the U.S. split their differences over the border and signed the Treaty of Washington on June 15, 1846, and established the 49th parallel as the border. Britain gave up its claim to what is now Washington State and part of Oregon, and the U.S. gave up the northern border of 54/40.

Although they still had rights to trapping and trade below the new border, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to transfer its operations to Fort Victoria and in 1849, James Douglas took charge of the company. At the same time the Colonial Office made Vancouver Island a crown colony and leased it to the Hudson’s Bay Company for ten years. One of Douglas’ duties was to encourage settlement by men and women of English stock and young Englishmen were encouraged to come to the island to farm. Sawmills started to produce lumber for homes and farms and export to Hawaii and San Francisco. Coal mines were dug at Fort Rupert on the northern tip of the island and Nanaimo and in 1850 Douglas officially became governor.

By 1854 there were only 250 people living in the farms around Victoria, mostly on land that had been bought by Douglas from the native people in land settlements, then on Sunday, April 25, 1858, the people of Victoria came out of church to find the paddle steamer Commodore had just docked from San Francisco with 450 miners eager to start looking for gold.

In 1851, free gold was found by natives in the Queen Charlotte Island and Governor James Douglas kept the news secret and persuaded the Colonial Office in London to give him control of the Charlottes. The gold there fizzled out but in 1856 Victoria learned that natives, using spoons and pieces of pottery, were scooping gold from rivers in the Interior. Douglas unilaterally extended his rule from Vancouver Island and the Charlottes to the mainland and announced regulations to govern the movement of men and supplies. By the spring of 1858 the native people in the Interior had found about 800 ounces of gold and traded it to the Hudson’s Bay Company but the nearest mint was in San Francisco and a company ship, the Otter, took the gold there. The news was out and the rush began.

From April to July about 16,000 people left California for Victoria and the Fraser.There is an estimate that 30,000 people reached the Fraser in 1858.Over the next few years, as the Fraser Canyon gold finds diminished, the men moved eastward and then north and on August 2, 1858, the bill turning New Caledonia into the colony of British Columbia got Royal assent in London. Missionaries and teachers arrived, then settlers to farm around Victoria and the Cowichan Valley and then on Salt Spring Island. Links with the outside world grew stronger. Victoria’s harbour was the centre of a network of shipping routes that ran across to the Fraser and south to San Francisco with connections there to the United States and the rest of the world. By 1864, the telegraph had reached the Pacific coast and communication with London took hours rather than weeks. Gold had galvanized the colony into life. The gold rush of 1858 turned British Columbia into a colony. Union with Canada in 1871 made it a province. The coming of the railway in 1885 started the transition from a backwater into a modern industrial state.

Victoria is a comfortably sized city with a 19th century flavor. The British influence, prevalent since its inception, has never left the city and English accents from all over the British Isles can be heard in the shops where many of the customs and traditions are carried on as they were in the “olde country”. The downtown streets are lined with heritage buildings, quaint restaurants, and “cottage” arts and crafts shops. You can take high tea at the world famous Empress Hotel or take a magical tour of James Bay in a horse drawn carriage. The Victorian-era Legislative Buildings overlooking the Inner Harbour link a colourful past with the present. At night this dramatic structure ignites the city centre with thousands of twinkling lights.

If you enjoy history, visit the Royal British Columbia Museum or shop in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, built in the 1860’s. For those who prefer to golf , Victoria is home to several golf courses that range from the ease of a par 3 to the challenge of a world class course..

Not to be missed by visitors to Vancouver Island are the thriving communities of South Vancouver Island. Chemainus, located an hour outside of Victoria, attracts thousands of visitors each year, largely due to its famous murals. There are 32 in total, depicting the settlement of the area. Duncan, 45 minutes from Victoria, acts as the business centre for the Cowichan Valley whereas the villages of Shawnigan Lake, Mill Bay and Cobble Hill boast plenty of activity to compliment the historical setting. Communities such as Crofton, Lake Cowichan, Malahat and Honeymoon Bay also offer a broad range of recreational and cultural activities.

As you travel further north into the communities of Central Vancouver Island something subtle and refreshing begins to take place. The works of man begin to take a back seat to natural wonders. The central island is more mountainous and these topographical changes offer a different perspective on the towns and villages nestled amongst them.

Nanaimo is Vancouver Island’s second largest city and is known as “the Harbour City” for its spectacular waterfront. Its excellent location makes it the starting point for fascinating road trips to explore not only south but north to areas such as Parksville- Qualicum Beach, Courtenay-Comox and Denman Island. Highway 19 begins at Nanaimo and continues to Bear Cove, near Port Hardy. This highway offers views of the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands. An interesting visit is the Provincial Heritage Site near Courtenay where the first significant fossil discovery in B.C. west of the Rockies was made in 1988. A well known boast of the Comox valley is ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon.

Travelling further north one will discover Strathcona Provincial Park, B.C.’s oldest. Highway 19 reaches its’ northernmost point ending at Port Hardy which boasts all the amenities of a larger town. It also acts as the southern terminus for BC Ferries spectacular “Inside Passage” route to Prince Rupert on the province’s northern mainland coast.

Spectacular fishing, wilderness camping, killer whale watching or scuba diving are easily accessible making the northern part of Vancouver Island a place where a little imagination can take you a long way.

The West Coast of Vancouver Island is the home of some of Canada’s best beaches and the Islands only ancient rain forest, in the Carmanah Valley. The famed West Coast Trail stretches along the southwest coast of Vancouver Island and is a favorite of experienced hikers. Long Beach is often described as the Island’s most beautiful and is only minutes away from the charming village of Tofino. Most civic activities in and around the west coast take advantage of the area’s spectacular environment and Ucluelet, a half hours drive from Tofino, is no exception. Residents celebrate the Pacific Rim Whale Festival where from mid March to Mid April Pacific Grey Whales can be seen in vast numbers during migration.