People of the River: The Sto:lo First Nations

Often referred to as the Fraser River Indians or the Lower Fraser Salish, the Sto:lo people are the indigenous group which has historically inhibited the area of British Columbia around the Fraser River and the lower Fraser Canyon.

The Sto:lo People; image from

The Sto:lo People; image from

First arriving in this area between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Sto:lo peoples have a long history within the region where they initially moved throughout the area as groups of mobile hunter-gatherers.  Archaeological evidence indicates a settlement in the lower Fraser Canyon referred to as the Milliken site in addition to a second, seasonal settlement known as the Glenrose Cannery site situated near the mouth of the Fraser River.

The Sto:lo history, prior to European arrival in North America is often divided into three periods:

  1. the Early Period – dating from 5,000-10,000 years ago; in addition to the two sites mentioned about, this time period also contains sites at present day Stave Lake, Fort Langley, and Coquitlam Lake.
  2. the Middle Period – dating to between 3,000-5,000 years ago; this period indicates a more permanent settlement pattern, a consistent style of tool making, and the construction of decorative and sculpted stone items.
  3. the Late Period – dating from 3,000 years ago up until the first contact with Europeans; an increase in tool styles indicates a society which is becoming increasingly specialized and adapted to the surrounding environment. At this time it appears that social distinctions in regards to hierarchy and class structure were beginning to evolve and that there was relatively widespread warfare during this time.


A Sto:lo woman weaving a cedar basket. Image from Wikipedia.

A Sto:lo woman weaving a cedar basket. Image from Wikipedia.

The Deadly Result of Contact with Europeans

While the Sto:lo peoples would eventually come into contact with the European arrivals in North America, predominantly due to their close proximity to the Fraser River which would become an important figure in European exploration in the region, their initial contact was actually indirect and far more unfortunate. On the arrival of the Spanish Jose Maria Narvaez and the British George Vancouver in the Georgia Strait area of the province, they encountered some of the first nations groups of British Columbia and, regrettably, passed the smallpox virus on to them.  Having no previous exposure to this disease, the first nations people had no immunity against the illness and, through contact between various groups, the disease began to spread eventually reaching the Sto:lo peoples.  While it’s true that accurate records from this time don’t exist, it is estimated that somewhere around 2/3 of the Sto:lo population within about six weeks and many of those who survived ended up blinded or restricted by other permanent disabilities.  This devastating event eventually lead the indigenous group to reach out to the European arrivals who began to venture into the region in the late 19th century, in order to obtain information about this disease and to receive vaccination against it; as a result of this, they were able to weather subsequent outbreaks of the disease more successfully than other indigenous groups in North America.




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