European Contact

Inside of a house, Nootka Sound
Sketch by John Webber of Cook's 1778 Expedition
In 1778, First Nations people found two ships lost in the fog along the west coast of Vancouver Island. A greeting party was sent out and the ships (Captain Cook's Discovery and the Resolution) were guided into the shelter of Yuquot (Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound). The Europeans spent a month with the First Nations people there, refitting their ships and trading. When the Europeans left they took with them trade items including sea otter pelts which were sold for significant sums of money in China.

The price these furs fetched made the prospect of trade with the aboriginal people of the Pacific Coast an appealing and lucrative prospect to many Europeans. These early traders were not interested in the land or lives of the First Nations, simply in ensuring that they received the furs they wanted. In return, the coastal people were able to gain certain items they required such as iron tools or cloth and blankets.

The extent to which early European contact changed the lives of the First Nations Northwest Coast people is subject to debate. Some people believe that although the fur trade caused significant changes in coastal life, the First Nations adapted to meet the challenges of their new environment.

Others argue that the initial contact was devastating because of the introduction of diseases such as smallpox which may have destroyed as much as ninety percent of the population of the Northwest Coast groups. This mass depopulation would obviously have an irrevocable effect on the society and culture of the Northwest Coast. The lack of statistical information regarding population before the end of the nineteenth century makes it difficult to assess the extent to which the population was depleted. What we are able to trace is the dramatic changes that occurred once settlers began to arrive in significant numbers.

For the people of the Interior direct contact with Europeans began with explorers who crossed the Rocky Mountains from the east. Alexander MacKenzie crossed through the land of the Carrier nation to reach the coast in 1793, and Simon Fraser traveled the length of the Fraser River in 1808. Both of these men worked for fur trading companies that established trading posts in the Interior in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Hudson's Bay Company fur trading post
Kamloops, 1865, G-00786

The earliest posts were built in the north by the Northwest Company: Fort McLeod in 1805, Fort St. James in 1806, and Fort George (now Prince George) in 1807. Another early trading post was established at the junction of the North and South Thompson Rivers (now the city of Kamloops) in 1812. Within a decade of the above photograph being taken, a small town serving the settlers in the region grew up near this fort. In the beginning companies such as the Northwest Company were involved in the trade, but by 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company was the only company trading west of the Rocky Mountains.

Even before the forts were built in the Interior, First Nations from the Interior participated in the fur trade by trading furs to First Nations on the Coast who then traded them to Europeans who arrived by sea. When European traders arrived in the Interior they found that their trade goods such as metal tools were already being used by the native people. This practice of Interior peoples trading both at Interior trading posts, and with First Nations people on the Coast, helped them obtain better prices for their furs.

Carrier man setting an animal trap
near Fort Nelson, about 1913
The fur trade was not exclusively controlled and exploited by the European fur traders. To a certain extent, the native people exercised control over the trade, bargaining and bartering with great skill to obtain new goods and materials. The fur trade could not have existed and thrived without the active participation of First Nations people.

The fur trade supplied new materials for tools and clothing, and introduced other changes to family and cultural life. In many cases native women married European fur traders cementing alliances and closer relations with the traders, creating advantages in trade. Though First Nations people had some horses in the southern Interior before direct contact with Europeans, the numbers of horses increased greatly during the fur trade period.

The fur trade period ended with the beginning of the gold rush and settlement by Europeans in the late 1850s which greatly altered the relations between First Nations and Europeans.

Main street of the village on the Reserve
of the Kamloops band of the Shuswap Nation, 1940.
Note the white church at the end of the street