[Editor’s Note: Often passed, seldom visited by outsiders, British Columbia’s Central Coast is home to the continent’s longest-settled places and most enduring peoples. In 2012, a special team of Tyee Solutions Society reporters spent some time there. What they found there was a land and culture that has thrived for thousands of years. These are some of those stories. This reporting was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS’s reporting.]
To a first-time visitor, British Columbia’s Central Coast may seem "wild" and "pristine." Really, it is neither. The coast is the longest-inhabited part of the continent—with a deep and often tumultuous past.
Some 12,000 years in the past, a mere geological moment ago, most of the coast was buried beneath hundreds of meters of ice that filled what today are river valleys rich in forests and wildlife, scraping them bare to their rock. The landscape they left behind would have been post-apocalyptic in appearance.
As Jude Isabella reported earlier in this special series of reports, archaeological evidence is confirming that soon after those ice sheets receded, people arrived, settling the coast even before cedar forests rose from the bracken and shrubs that found the first foothold or the retreating glaciers re-opened rivers to salmon. Over time, those people harvested, managed and modified their surroundings "from mountain top to sea-floor," developing a resilient resource-based economy that endured for ten millennia.
That balance began to change in the late 18th century. Invisible and undetected, pathogens likely borne on trade goods or carried by asymptomatic traders themselves unleashed the first of what would prove to be several waves of deadly plague—including but probably not limited to smallpox—which devastated river and coastal communities.
In 1775, the first Europeans to visit the coast of what would become British Columbia were Spanish explorers led by Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who reached the site of present-day Sitka, Alaska. But it was the English, who arrived a few year's later under Captain George Vancouver, who would stay to make the coast and eventually the interior a colony of the British Crown.
In 1843, Hudson Bay Company fur-trader James Douglas established a trading post at the southern tip of the coast's biggest island, naming it Fort Victoria after the newly crowned Queen. Twenty-eight years later, it became the capital of the new Canadian province of British Columbia.
To follow more of the dramatic history of B.C.'s enduring Central Coast, check out this timeline beginning in 1650 at TheTyee.ca.
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