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.




First Nations Groups – The Coast Salish Peoples

The indigenous group identified as the Coast Salish people inhabit the Pacific Northwest Coast through British Columbia and continuing south into the US states of  – Washington and Oregon; they are connected through their ethnic and linguist relations.  While this group is connected by several similar attributes they are in the end actually a loose grouping of numerous tribes encompassing many distinctive cultural and linguistic characteristics.  One of the most unique attributes of the tribes encompassed by this grouping is that they are one of the few coastal indigenous groups that follow a patrilineal culture rather than matrilineal; in this, the wife typically went to live with her husband’s village.  In these tribes the highest ranking male was typically the one to assume the role of ceremonial leader although the specific criteria for obtaining this position could vary from group to group. The society of these tribes was typically divided in regards to hierarchy with an upper, lower, and slave class the memberships to which were typically hereditary.

A breakdown of First Nations Territories along the Northwest Coast. Image from

A breakdown of First Nations Territories along the Northwest Coast. Image from

Timeline with Key Historical Events

  • 9000-8000BCE – evidence of established settlement at Xa:ytem (near Mission)
  • 4000 years ago-200 years ago – Great Marple Midden inhabited; abandonment coincided with the arrival of smallpox
  • 1791 – contact with Spanish during the later charting of Georgia Strait
  • 1810’s –  coastal fur trade begins extending south
  • 1839-40 – marked the arrival of Catholic missionaries in Puget Sound; between 1841-1843 the interest diminished; from 1840-1842 Methodist missionaries arrived and are described as ‘having no success at all’
  • after the Puget Sound War of 1855-1856 the Muckleshoot Reservation is established
  • 1850’s-1860’s – a severe decline in natural resources begins; first nations men begin finding work as loggers, in mills, and as commercial fishers
  • 1880’s – the white-Indian demographic undergoes a dramatic shift
  • 1885 – based on legislation which had passed the previous year, the potlatch is banned in Canada as of January 1st; this ban would last until 1951
  • 1960’s – the beginnings of a renaissance of tribal culture and national civil rights; this endangers civil action for treaty rights
  • 1967 – Chief Dan George’s speech at a Canadian Centennial Ceremony highlights the experiences of his people and sets off a surge in public awareness and native activism in B.C.
  • 1970’s-present day – many federally recognized tribes have obtained some level of economic autonomy; the 1970’s also saw the beginnings of resistance against the project of assimilating native cultures into the European-Canadian mold
The Coast Salish of Quamichan (Cowichan) on Vancouver Island. Image from

The Coast Salish of Quamichan (Cowichan) on Vancouver Island. Image from

The population numbers of Coast Salish peoples in British Columbia over the years have reflected the events summarized above:

  • Prior to the smallpox epidemic – approximately 12,600
  • 1850 – around 5,000
  • 1885 – less than 2,000 (however, this doesn’t likely count those who lived off reservations)
  • 1984 – approximately 18,000
  • 2013 – an estimate around 56,590

A great like for more information on the Coast Salish Peoples is this page by the Coast Salish Artist Joe Jack (he also has some amazing artwork on his site!)

A Wolf Head Coast Salish Canoe. Image from

A Wolf Head Coast Salish Canoe. Image from

10 Facts – Fernie, B.C.

On the 28th of July, 1904 the southeastern town of Fernie was incorporated into the province of British Columbia.  Continuing on with this blog’s tradition for incorporation birthdays; here are 10, predominantly, historical facts about the city:

Fernie Location Map

  1. It is the only city in British Columbia that is completely surrounded by the Canadian Rockies.
  2. Prior to its development as a mining camp, the area was inhabited seasonally by First Nations groups.
  3. While the city was incorporated in 1904, it was founded six years earlier in 1898.
  4. Fernie is the largest and longest-established community between Cranbrook and Lethbridge.
  5. The city’s history is centered around coal mining which began with the founding of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in 1897.
  6. The following year, the year of Fernie’s founding, the CPR arrived in the area which allowed the town to begin emerging from the temporary camps that had been existing in the area.
  7. A fire swept through the town in 1904 destroying much of the downtown area.

    After the fire. Image from

    After the fire. Image from

  8. The most noticeable result of this fire was that, in the aftermath, it was ordered by the municipal government that all buildings be constructed out of fire-proof materials such as brick and stone which produced a city with a far more refined appearance then that which is seen in most mining towns.
  9. The city has some really cool legends such as the Legend of the Griz (about a baby born in a grizzly bear cave) or the Legend of the Ghostrider (claims that every evening a shadow of a horse and rider appears on the side of Mt. Hosmer).  Learn more about those here.
  10. Today the city, while still majorly dependent on the mining industry, is also prospering in the tourism industry due to the numerous ski hills in the area.
Downtown Fernie

Downtown Fernie

For more information check out the City of Fernie website or the Fernie Tourism site.

10 Facts – New Westminster, B.C.

On July 16th, 1860; the city of New Westminster was officially incorporated into British Columbia.  While the city is now known predominantly as a municipality of Greater Vancouver rather than its by its own identity it was, in the past, a city which was incredibly significant in its own right.  While this post would have made more sense last week (when I had initially intended to upload it), life got in the way and so it’s going up now! And so, without further delay, here are ten cool facts about New Westminster:

The View of New Westminster from the Fraser River, 1865.

The View of New Westminster from the Fraser River, 1865.

  1. Prior to European arrival, First Nations groups in the area used the site where New Westminster would appear for both seasonal and permanent settlements.
  2. The site of New Westminster was chosen in 1895 predominantly for military reasons as it was located on a steep hill on the northern side of a wide river and, therefore, easily defended.
  3. The name ‘New Westminster’ was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1859 after her favorite part of London; Westminster.
  4. Due to its connection with Queen Victoria, New Westminster holds the nickname of ‘The Royal City’.
  5. New Westminster is British Columbia’s first capital and the oldest city in western Canada, it was selected as the first capitol of British Columbia in 1859. However, in 1866 the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island united as “British Columbia” and the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Victoria, was made the capital of the newly amalgamated colony at that time.
  6. The main feature of the New Westminster Museum and Archives is the 1865 Irving House which is thought to be the oldest intact house in the Lower Mainland.
  7. During the Cariboo Gold Rush New Westminster was a major outfitting point for prospectors as all travel to the goldfield ports of Yale and Port Douglas was completed by steamboat or canoe up the Fraser River.
  8. A massive fire in 1898 destroyed the majority of the downtown area of the city.

    A Shot of the City Taken After the Fire of 1898.

    A Shot of the City Taken After the Fire of 1898.

  9. The railroad bridge just upstream from the Pattullo Bridge was opened in 1904 and when first opened, it was a double-decker bridge with rail on the bottom and road on the top.
  10. The Fraser Cemetery and St Peter’s Cemetery have historical roots that link the histories of the city, the region and the Province.
Shots of Columbia Street in 1932 and 2008.

Shots of Columbia Street in 1932 and 2008.

For more information, please check out the City of New Westminster’s website or the Tourism New Westminster site.

B.C. History Overview – Prior to European Contact

If broken down into the broadest and generalized divisions, the history of British Columbia can be separated into four key periods of time; its history before the arrival of Europeans, the time of the early European explorers, the province’s time as a colony of Britain, and its modern existence as a member of the country of Canada.  Clearly, within each of these four periods, there were many significant dates, events, and people but this is meant to provide, as the title suggests, an overview of the first division; British Columbia prior to European contact.

From the northern village of Kayung

This time period dates from the first arrival of human ancestors in North America 10,000-12,000 years ago up until the the first European explorers made an appearance approximately 400 years ago.  This time span produces somewhere between 11,500-9,500 years during which time the small band of adventurous ancient humans who initially arrived on this continent expanded, divided, adapted, and created in order to form the First Nations societies and their distinctive cultural traditions which were so uniquely experienced by the first European arrivals and which have struggled to continue existing to the present day.

A Lummi Woman

The struggle with gaining an understanding of this period in British Colombian history, including what was occurring within specific groups as well as the province as a whole, is that the First Nations cultures were (and still predominantly are) based around an oral tradition with their beliefs, cultures, and traditions are passed down from generation to generation through verbal accounts and stories.  The only written accounts available on these people were produced by European immigrants who typically saw these groups as being quaint at best and inferior, in need of civilizing, at worst.  This has resulted in accounts which are less of an accurate record of the traditions, customs, histories, and languages of the First Nations people and more of a dismissive recording designed to highlight what the newcomers saw as different and/or inferior qualities.  In addition to this (as previously mentioned in this earlier post), the climate of British Columbia, combined with many of the most common materials used by First Nations cultures, has resulted in a far more limited archaeological record then that which can be found in other parts of the world.

Boy of the Twana Band

However, despite these limitations, it is known that there were a minimum of 30 separate language groups and that there was frequent contact between various groups and villages including relatively frequent trips across bodies of water which included the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.  Due to a high quantity of natural resources of the area (particularly an abundance of cedar and salmon which were central to most likely all of the groups in this region) these people were able to focus a great deal of their time on other pursuits the most recognizable of these to today’s world being their artwork which includes totem poles, boxes, masks, and weavings that still captivate today.

Woman from an Unidentified Tribe

Despite the limitations in gaining a clear picture of this time in history for the province, North America is fortunate that there are still a number of First Nations groups practicing their traditions, speaking their languages, producing art, and maintaining their cultures which provides insights that are unavailable for most of the cultures and civilizations who existed alongside theirs 11,000 years age.  Luckily, despite some rough patches in history, many of these individuals continuing to practice First Nations traditions are happy to share their cultures, stories, and oral histories with the world.

***Please note that none of the images for this post are my own; all images for this post come from the BC Archives website .