B.C. History Pt. 2/4 – European Exploration of the Pacific Northwest Coast

As mentioned in last Tuesday’s post British Columbia’s history can be divided into four general sections; the time before the arrival of Europeans, the period of European exploration, British Columbia’s time as a British colony, and the development of Canada as an independent country.  In one of this blog’s initial posts, I discussed how the initial reason for European exploration around North America was a search for trade routes to the orient and the central reason for settlement was based around industry and trade purposes (at first fur otter pelts; later wood and gold).

During the height of European exploration, the predominant colonizing powers were the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the British.  However, due to the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, as well as the papal bull of 1493, the Portuguese were forced to relinquish any claim to the Pacific Northwest coast. But, rather than leaving the Pacific Northwest entirely to the Spanish and the British, this third party was replaced by the Russians who actually arrived in this region first.


A Danish-born sea captain, Vitus Bering, was sent by Tsar Peter the Great to head two naval expeditions to North America in 1728 and 1740.  The first exploration was sent with the purpose of establishing whether Russia was linked to the North American land mass leading to the discovery of the Bering Strait (named after Vitus himself).

A satellite image of the Bering Strait.

A satellite image of the Bering Strait.

However, it was the second trip on 1740 that had the largest impact on the history of British Columbia as this expedition was focused on looking into trade and settlement opportunities in the new world.  However, the ship ran aground on an island off the coast of Alaska where the crew was forced to live out the winter.  Unfortunately, Vitus Bering was unable to survive this experience but the surviving members of the crew managed to hold out for the duration by living off sea otters, the pelts of which they took back to Russia in the spring.  These pelts proved to be incredibly popular with wealthy Russians and Chinese, and these coveted furs ended up leading to the establishment of the Russian fur trade. In order to maintain a monopoly on this trade, they tried to keep the source of these fur a secret from other colonizing powers but Spain was already colonizing the southern Pacific coast (with a predominant fort around what is now San Francisco) and were keen to claim as much of the coast as possible.

Vitus Bering showing off his spectacular wig.

Vitus Bering showing off his spectacular wig.


From their southern settlements around San Francisco, the Spanish launched three expeditions in 1774, 1775, and 1779 up the coast to the area that is now British Columbia.  While all three of these expeditions got the Spanish colonizers into the region, it was the 1774 expedition that was the most significant as it was during this period that first contact was made with the First Nations people when an interaction was established with the Haida people on Haida Gwaii.

Skidgate, in Haida Gwaii

Skidgate, in Haida Gwaii


The first arrival by the British was in 1778 during James Cook’s third voyage when the British were attempting to discover and control the Northwest Passage.  During this voyage, they arrived in Nootka Sound and traded with the Nuu-chahp-nulth first nation for otter pelts which they were then able to trade for an enormous profit in Macau on their voyage back to Britain.  The discovery of the price that could be obtained for these otter pelts lead to an influx of traders arriving to the B.C. Coast and the establishment of ongoing economic contact with the aboriginal peoples of the area.

Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound

Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound

As discussed in the Esteban Martinez post last week, there was a great deal of conflict between Spain and Britain over claims to the coast of the Pacific Northwest and, although Spain had the earlier advantage, Britain wanted it more and that is how British Columbia became a British colony rather than a part of Spain.  But that will be discussed in more depth in next Tuesday’s post; part 3/4: the establishment of B.C. as a British colony.



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