Rejean Beaulieu: Towards a more regional understanding of our history.
In recent years, we have seen much hand-wringing over unbolting statues, renaming places, reconciliation, and trying to move forward with our dated interpretations of British Columbia’s past.
Indigenous-Settler history has been particularly problematic. Little progress has been accomplished in a general “cancel culture” detrimental to public discourse. The stories that are supposed to be shared have become increasingly avoided, fragmented, or undermined. Alternative narrative attempts have been similarly challenged.
In a nutshell: we’re stuck in a rut.
Unloading old baggage and making room for new remains daunting. Surely, places with strong narratives should fare better while those with weak ones would fall adrift.
So – how do we become unstuck?
First, perhaps we need to step back from an East-West mindset where our continental narratives originate from. I believe students should be taught a more regional cross-border history, in both Canada and in the United States. Unloading the related geopolitics may help. A natural North-South cross-border ecosystem spanning from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies, would provide a different geographical mindset: the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
Secondly, look back in time differently. It has been over two centuries since the first mixed ancestry unions occurred, a first-ever marker of Indigenous-Settler history. Only eight generations (roughly) have gone by since then. Such a short timespan puts us among the youngest societies in the world.
Let’s then rewind Indigenous-Settler history. Much was painfully and quickly “settled” in terms of land, borders, cultures, languages, identities, allegiances and political systems. But the dated narratives have remained, buried and sugarcoated.
In recent years, much interest has emerged in ancestry, genealogy and DNA analysis. Many British Columbians have come across buried stories from the past, eager to find out what really happened. For instance, why did our ancestors cross the border, and why did they resettle? Family sagas are starting to get published as what really happened is becoming better understood. Similar phenomena are taking place in other 19th century British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand.
So where do we start? Likely in places related with our first ever “European” settler contacts – or what I like to call foundational sites.
As the first proposed narrative on foundational sites germinates, we’ll find new narratives on foundational years, groups, and individuals – and, hopefully, an improved understanding of Indigenous-Settler History.
Coming up with new narratives will likely still require a long rehabilitation and reconciliation process. Our public discourse will likely remain challenged. But a healthier regional outlook should not be derailed.
Our neighbours south of the border may similarly benefit with their own narratives from new cross-border insights. Let’s hope British Columbia and Canada can lead the way.
Proposed top-12 “foundational Sites” for the precolonial Pacific Northwest
A “foundational site” would have contributed to significantly changing the PNW. As a first marker of Indigenous-Settler history, it would most likely have been an important trading hub at a critical location. Most likely, a transportation relay in close proximity to a wealth of natural resources.
Languages, cultures, identities, tools, know-how and beliefs would all have been exchanged, in many cases with more long-term significance than the goods being traded. “People partnerships” would also have occurred, resulting in mixed-ancestry descendants.
#1 Nootka (1789-1795)
The Nootka Sound anchorage represents the first major hub where Spanish, Russians, British and Indigenous Nootkan people met and traded relatively peacefully over a number of years. Americans participated along with other independent entrepreneurs.
The Spanish were first to attempt colonization, building a sizable site including a “presidio” fort and Catholic mission. They did not winter over in sufficient numbers, so this site did not create much mixed ancestry offspring. An even more transient settlement further south at Neah Bay had failed earlier. Stretched too thin – and having to attend pressing domestic matters – the Spanish ended up withdrawing from the entire regon after establishing a presence all the way to Alaska. The presidios of San Francisco and Monterrey remained important ports.
#2 Sitka (1799-1867)
Sitka represents the most significant colonization attempt in “Russian America.” Starting in the Aleutian Islands and establishing posts all the way to California and Hawaii, the Russian north coast experience was marked with difficult relationships with Indigenous people, diseases, starvation, and wildlife extinction. Nonetheless, a reliable workforce carried operations – and did produce a substantial number of mixed-race offspring.
Sitka became a brighter spot: education, arts, science and spirituality, as a religious center. Acting as a hub to ports in Asia, the bottom of the panhandle location became an important coastal hub after the 54 degree latitude border settlement (1824) and the “Russian-American Company” resupplying agreement (1839) to its trading posts with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC).
#3 Fort St. James (1806)
The oldest permanent settlement located in northern BC west of the Rockies was built by the North West Company (NWC) proceeding from Fort MacLeod and Fort St. John, east of the Rockies. The fort linked northern BC via the Nechako and the Fraser rivers to central and southern BC. It was from here that Simon Fraser and a Voyageurs crew left to explore and map the lower Fraser river, and this settlement made building Fort George, Fort Kamloops, and Fort Alexandria possible.
Fort St. James served as the HBC admin center after the NWC merge (1821) for the fur-rich New Caledonia district. In spite of a slow start at trading fur, the post operated until its closure in the mid 20th century. Much mixed-ancestry people originated from this undertaking in the Carrier (or Dakelh) people territory.
Continuing on from its northern posts, the NWC established a first, long-lasting settlement in the region. Operations were moved over to the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) competing Fort Spokane post after the 1812/13 war and selling of the American company. It became an important fur trade center between the Rockies (Jasper and Kootenay Houses) and the Cascades. A pack train served as a link to Fort Nez Percés.
In 1824, the HBC transferred the post to better located Fort Colville by Kettle Falls. Spokane House also acted as a relay point for overland expeditions toward Astoria or Fort George. Métis Jaco Finlay built and solely operated Spokane House for many years while maintaining good relationships with various Indigenous groups. He and his Indigenous wife had a large family, leaving a first generation of mixed-ancestry descendants.
Fort Astoria represents the first permanent establishment on the southern PNW coast. Located at the entrance of the Columbia river, the main waterway channel into the continent. The first fort owned by American interests was built and operated by the PFC using crews sent overseas around Cape Horn and overland from the Midwest: an heterogeneous group of native Hawaiians, French Canadians, Métis and Scots hired from the NWC. First relations with the Chinookan and Clatsop people were established, trading locally and along the coastline all the way to Asia.
The “Astorians” first wintered over before the 1812/1813 war broke out. Soon acquired by the NWC and renamed Fort George, it became the centre for their Columbia operations. It also became an epicentre for farming experiments. By 1824, the HBC had acquired the NWC and was withdrawing north of the Columbia, behind the new prospective border. Astoria contributed an experienced workforce to build and operate new posts, including Fort Vancouver. The experienced fur traders retired as the first farming settlement pioneers. Astoria left its mark on the American psyche, with the first overlanders pushing through the Midwest on what would evolve into the Oregon Trail.
#6 Fort Nez Percés (1818)
The area where the Lewis and Clark expedition first met Indigenous people in the Columbia basin, where the Thompson expedition claimed the territory for Great Britain, where the first Oregon Trail newcomers would transit through, and where the HBC would end up withdrawing from was destined to carry a real burden. The fort was first built by the NWC at the periphery of several fur rich districts close to the intersection of the Snake and Columbia rivers. It was intended to serve as a relay point for Fort George toward the northern upper Columbia. Renamed Fort Walla Walla in 1831 after the HBC merge, it was relocated nearby, closer to better irrigated farmland. It would dispatch over to Fort Colville on the York Factory conduit. The Frenchtown community grew by its side, tending gardens and horses and experiencing increased traffic with the growth of Fort Vancouver and the Oregon Trail opening up. Sadly, Fort Nez Percés ended up witnessing the decimation of Indigenous people that had welcomed them through the “Indian wars” as precious land was taken away and its mixed-ancestry people resettled into reservations.
The site in central BC where the Fraser river becomes treacherous, where Alexander Mackenzie and a Voyageurs crew stopped before completing the first-ever continental land crossing in 1793, and where the NWC established its last post west – this was destined to become a major HBC hub well into Cariboo gold rush. It acted as a relay to the fur-rich New Caledonia district across its waterways, toward either the Colombia district, or Fort Langley. All three would channel to Europe through the York Factory gateway. The first long-term non-Indigenous settlement in the region was the first-ever major terminus for pack trains. Countless PNW pioneers have transited and stayed over the years in this location dedicated today to ranching.
The HBC built its first fort in the PNW as the self-reliant district headquarters, far away from York Factory. Self-reliance meant hiring on the ground those that came with the NWC and the PFC, mainly French Canadians, Scots, Métis, as well as Indigenous men from eastern Canada or Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Overall, a multiethnic workforce proved critical in establishing required partnerships with local Indigenous groups.
Self-reliance meant that the crew would stretch beyond fur trading into agriculture, fishery, forestry and mining. A trading hub was built with coastal and oversea links, inland waterways, overland brigades and necessary relay points and partnerships, with Asia via Guangzhou and the Sandwich Islands, with Europe overland brigades via either York Factory and the Columbia or overseas around Cape Horn, and with the coastline Russian America and Spanish America.
Self-reliance also meant that its spin-offs would too become self-reliant, having to also contend with remoteness: Fort Colville (1825), Fort Langley (1827), Fort Simpson (1831), Fort McLoughlin (1833), Fort Nisqually (1833), Cowlitz Farms (1839), Puget Sound Agricultural Company (1840), Fort Taku (1840), Yerba Buena/San Francisco (1841) and Fort Victoria (1843). A huge footprint of self-reliance and mixed-ancestry people was left South of the border.
The first HBC post built in BC represents the first non-Indigenous long-lasting settlement in southwest BC. Nearby encampments by various Indigenous groups quickly took place on the Fraser last navigable segment. Indigenous relationships were peacefully established. Farming took off at nearby Langley Prairie, first for self-reliance and later to fulfil a portion of the HBC-RAC contract, supplying grain, dairy and fishery products. Cranberry crops became critical to prevent scurvy at sea. Other HBC sites in BC were spun off elsewhere on the Fraser (second Fort Langley 1840 and Fort Yale 1848), on Vancouver Island (Fort Victoria 1843) and on the coastline. A first mixed- ancestry settlement arose at Kanaka Creek. The sustained occupation of the site and lucrative prospects were key to finally secure the border in 1846. In 1877, the Langley Prairie farm was subdivided for sale to a new wave of settlers.
The last post built south of 49 was intended to secure a midpoint between the Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley. The location provided a year-long accessible port to trade with other locations: Hawaii, Mexico/California, and the northern coast. Its surroundings included land for farming and grazing. The HBC Beaver was resupplying its coastline posts by 1836. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC) subsidiary was created to handle Fort Nisqually and Cowlitz Farm products. Indigenous people provided most of the farming workforce.
Meanwhile, the Americans were starting to understand the importance of Puget Sound as a critical harbour on the Pacific. By 1846, the HBC was forced into a border settlement at the 49th paraMediallel, and increasingly encroached by squatters pushing through the Oregon Trail, forcing HBC regional headquarters to move to Fort Victoria in 1849. By 1855, the HBC abandoned Cowlitz Farm and found itself in the middle of an Indian war. Running the business became excruciatingly difficult, profits dropped, and Nisqually was given up in 1869.
The last post built by the HBC before the border settlement was destined to become its regional headquarter when the first Island colony was established in 1849. Its harbour was critical to handle the trade of salted salmon with the Sandwich Islands. A retail wholesale and trade store was spun off and would end up supporting several gold rushes.
A company school for staff children was established. Timber export to the California market took off, along with supplying the Royal Navy. Coal mining operations started in Nanaimo. The first colonial settlement of British Columbia would start developing with several farms, tended by Indigenous people. Victoria became capital of the merged colonies in 1866, making Fort Victoria an anachronism; its remnants quickly disappeared. The HBC would continue its diversification into real estate and general merchandising to become an important Canadian retailer during the 20th century.
The three original mixed-ancestry sites were established by the first wave of retiring fur traders that came with the NWC and PFC companies, mainly French Canadians from the St. Lawrence river valley, and Métis people from Rupert’s Land. It also included some Indigenous people that joined them as Voyageurs.
All these early settlers had partnered with local Indigenous women, and were most knowledgeable on the best locations with fertile and well-irrigated soil, sites which became most coveted by later mainstream settler arrivals.
Other waves of retiring fur traders joined in as the trade declined. In addition, massive new arrivals through the Oregon Trail included more French Canadians and Métis people attracted by these Catholic, French-speaking communities.
By 1850, the Donation Land Claim program would grant 640 acres parcel South of 49 to white people (and only white people), as racial laws had been enacted by the first local government to control settlement. The 1855 Indian Wars soon followed, and many mixed-race people would end up either assimilating to the mainstream, resettled in reservations along with remaining Indigenous people, or sometimes withdrawing to the back country, including North of 49 where their ancestors came from.
A retired tech worker turned amateur historian, Réjean Beaulieu is fascinated by the history of early settlers in the Pacific Northwest originating from the Saint Lawrence Valley – where he also came from nearly 40 years ago.