Chapter 4: The Trans-Cordilleran West

This photograph of a Haida village in 1878 shows the size and wealth of coastal communities, as well as signs of abandonment. Encounters with European traders inevitably entailed encounters with unfamiliar diseases as well. Source: George Dawson, Cumshewa Indian Village. Haida Indians. Cumshewa Inlet, Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C., 1878, photograph, MIKAN no.3193496, Library and Archives of Canada.

This chapter considers the highly sophisticated communities west of the Rockies. This is much more than a “sea of mountains” and it is much, much more than simply the Northwest Coast. This is a territory in which at least 30 different and rich languages developed over centuries and millennia. (To get a sense of the historic and current cultural diversity of the region, take a look at this First People’s Language Map.[1]) This chapter considers the pre-contact relationships between various peoples, the achievements of a distinctive and rich regional cultural matrix, the changes brought on by the intrusion of outsiders, and the impact of the early fur trade.

The Trans-Cordilleran West Encounters Global Capitalism

For Indigenous peoples, the great mountain range at the western edge of the Prairiesthe Pacific Cordillera—represents a barrier that historically kept the affairs of Plains peoples and other societies at some distance. There were, however, peoples who probed and made use of the passes, rivers, and lakes that make movement possible between the continent’s penthouse on the Interior Plateau and the Prairies. Secwépemc encounters with Niitsitapi in the foothills and in the passes are well documented, as is the conflict between Ktunaxa and Niitsitapi. Nonetheless, this is one quarter of North America into which the “three sisters evidently made no headway, where egalitarianism was not universally embraced, and where the impact of European encounters was muted for several centuries.

Different peoples enjoyed different vistas. The Dane-Zaa (a.k.a. Dunne-za, Beaver) in the Peace River Valley looked east across the Prairies toward Nêhiyawak traders; they also straddled the Rocky Mountains to the west and partnered with Sekani neighbours and traded for obsidian from Mount Edziza in Tahltan territory—more than 1000 km away (and a very hard 1000 km at that).[2] Their trade network reached far to the north and all the way to the West Coast. The Syilx (a.k.a. Okanagan) traded south along their river and lake system deep into Salis (a.k.a. Flathead) territory and across the mountains. There, they obtained horses ca. 1730s and occasionally hunted bison. Their northern neighbours and sometime foes, the Secwépemc, enjoyed commercial relations to the west with the peoples of the Fraser Canyon and to the north with the Tsilhqot’in (a.k.a. Chilcotin); and they traded as far afield as Nuxalk (a.k.a. Bella Coola) territory.

Perhaps ironically, the very richness of West Coast environments did more to contain than connect Indigenous communities. Hemmed in by great numbers of neighbours on every side, coastal peoples used commerce as a lubricant for good relations and force to defend and advance their interests, too. There was plentiful regional conflict and competition for resources before the arrival of Europeans, some of which resulted in shifting territorial boundaries. There are signs of a population decline in the early 1500s, which at least one historian has tried to tie to smallpox spreading north from Mexico, but warfare is as likely a culprit. While the process of diffusion—the spread and swapping back and forth of customs, foods, beliefs, and so on—can be documented across a broad canvas stretching from Mesoamerica to the Northern Plains and the Great Lakes prior to 1492, there’s little to suggest similar exchanges between the West Coast and societies either east of the Rockies or much farther south than Oregon. Everything west of the Cordillera is a huge and culturally rich area but isolated nevertheless from the rest of North America.

Kitwanga (a.k.a. Gitwangak, Battle Hill) was one of several fortified locations in Gitxsan territory. This one was built, defended, and used as a launch pad for raids by ‘Nekt in the 1700s. Source: Gitwangak Battle Hill National Historic Site, photograph, TripAdvisor, accessed September 30, 2019,

Notwithstanding recurrent conflicts and the occasional catastrophe—and there were a few associated with earthquakes and mudslides—regional civilizations and populations appear to have enjoyed overall good health. Conditions were perhaps ideal, then, for large populations clustered in sizable villages in the 1500s through the 1700s. Ascertaining the numbers before contact is challenging. Village sites and capacity can tell us a great deal, but some villages were used only seasonally and so there’s a danger of double-counting. What is absolutely clear, however, is that these were the largest population nodes north of Mexico. And, as populations between the Atlantic and the Rockies declined due to colonial wars, epidemics, and loss of resources from 1600 to 1800, the West Coast towns became even more anomalously large in contrast. The limits of Cordilleran isolation were flagged, however, by the arrival of introduced diseases. Smallpox, measles, and other foreign diseases swept through some of these communities in the late 1700s, cutting them to shreds. There is evidence for a severe epidemic of smallpox in 1782–83, mostly likely with origins in Mexico and on the Western Plains. This affliction would have arrived without the help of European ships. Some accounts reckon there was a mortality of 50 to 75 per cent of the population in affected areas. Not all parts of the territories west of the Rockies were hit, however, and the central coast in particular appears to have escaped unscathed until the nineteenth century. The Haida and the Ditidaht were not so lucky, nor were the Stó:lō.

Smallpox was only one part of an accelerating Columbian Exchange. The region would not be as impacted by imported biota (apart from horses inland) until the 1850s, and colonialism would mostly wait until mid-century as well. Nevertheless, for the coastal and interior peoples, the decade between 1772 and 1782 was a watershed. It was in these years that Spanish vessels worked their way north from Mexican ports to counter Russian claims in the region. The Spanish didn’t make landfall between California and Alaska until a British expedition arrived in 1778. By 1788—when the Spanish returned in force—only those Northwest Coast peoples in the most accessible bays and inlets would have seen as much as a handful of Europeans in their territories. Some new trade goods were working their way into and through the ancient trade networks; consequently, well-placed local leaders, such as the Mowachaht figure Maquinna (d. ca. 1795) and his brother Callicum (murdered by the Spanish in 1789), and Wickaninnish of the Tla-o-qui-aht (a.k.a. Clayoquot) emerged as regional commercial kingpins by the late 1780s. They used their enhanced status to advance territorial claims at the expense of their rivals and to exact tribute from weaker or less advantageously-located communities. At the same time, the peoples of the Salish Sea were increasingly in conflict as Kwakwaka’wakw slavers made the most of post-epidemic vulnerability among the Stó:lō and other Coast Salish communities. It was these same raids that propelled Salish people to combine in what may have been their first political and military confederacy in the 1830s.[3] New factors such as trade goods and foreign diseases were thus interpreted by Indigenous peoples within their own contexts.

The Spanish were invited to build a post at Yuquot, which was dismantled in 1795. For the next 30 years, there were no coastal Russian, British, American, or Spanish bases between the mouth of the Columbia River and Łingít (a.k.a. Tlingit) territory. Indigenous traders whipsawed European trading expeditions against one another, waiting until there was enough competition in their harbours to do so. Foreigners were obliged to participate in lengthy winter ceremonials before trade could begin. The pace and rituals of trade were, therefore, largely determined by Indigenous needs and expectations, some of which were adapted to suit the emerging context of global commerce. Additionally, attempts at gunboat commerce were typically answered with force. A few dozen unfortunate sailors thereby found themselves enslaved by the local communities and some of them executed. These were all new developments but still within an overwhelmingly Indigenous context.

The Interior saw the establishment of European trading outposts from the 18-aughts. Fort Fraser in the North was established in 1806 by the Canadians, whose personnel included French- and Anglo/Scottish-Canadians, Loyalist refugees from the United States, Orkneymen from the North Sea, Iroquoian-speaking voyageurs, Abenaki men, and a few Cree and Métis women. Six years later, Fort Thompson was erected at Tk’emlúps (a.k.a. Kamloops) by the American Pacific Fur Company, which also established the first of several forts at the mouth of the Columbia. These and other posts were linked together in a chain that stretched, until 1821, from the Pacific to Montréal and thereafter to London via Hudson’s Bay. Secwépemc merchants might sell their goods at Fort Kamloops or Fort Alexandria for Canadian and British manufactures or, sensing a better deal on the coast, hand their pelts on to Nuxalk traders who could haggle between American and British dealers on ships that had just sailed from Guangdong, Boston, Chile, or Hawai’i. At the same time, Secwépemc and Syilx maintained their active trade relationships with peoples from across the lower Columbia Plateau and into the Southwest.

Succession Planning

Ligeex. Maquinna. Kw’eh. These were, in this period, giants of trade and political clout. Maquinna was reckoned to have between three hundred and six hundred warriors at his disposal. Ligeex (a.k.a. Legaic) was both the title and the name by which a line of powerful Tsimshian leaders were known. One Ligeex in the 1820s and ’30s dictated terms of trade to the HBC and the Russians: he stipulated where trade posts could be built, and he forged alliances through marriage to his daughter, Sudaał. Kw’eh (b. circa 1755–d. 1840) asserted monopolistic control over salmon fisheries in the Dalkeh territory, enabling him to starve foreign traders if the need arose. On the Interior Plateau, one lineage in particular had dramatic impacts before, during, and after contact.

The Pelkamulox family had roots in Spokan territory outside of the Syilx lands. The second man to wear the name Pelkamulox took a wife from the Secwépemc and another from the Head-of-the-Lake Syilx. The latter emerged as a favourite and her community became the seat of power in the early eighteenth century, drawing the Syilx centre of gravity northward. A son from this Okanagan marriage, also called Pelkamulox, emerged in the later 1700s as an ambitious military planner, and is described by one biographer as a megalomaniac who needed to be reeled in by a Secwépemc half-brother before launching a catastrophic war against all his Indigenous neighbours. Turning from war, this Pelkamulox thereafter enjoyed his greatest triumphs as a diplomat, especially among the foothills peoples east of the Rockies, which is where he first encountered white traders with the North West Company. His only son, Hwistesmetxē’qEn (a.k.a. Nkwala, Nicola), was born in Pelkamulox’s stone fortress near present-day Oroville around 1780, and his life straddles the proto-contact and contact phases.

Different communities were able to exploit the practice of political and economic polygyny under Hwistesmetxē’qEn. He is said to have had formally sanctioned unions with fifteen women, with whom he produced some fifty children. These arrangements constituted a kind of glue that held together the whole Syilx-Secwepémc alliance.

Hwistesmetxē’qEn vastly increased Syilx power by means of huge herds of horses and a powerful mounted cavalry, with which he avenged his father’s murder with four hundred deaths among the offending Stl’atl’imx. The Nicola Valley gets its name from this figure: its inhabitants were effectively subdued by the Syilx. The long-running Secwépemc-Syilx wars of the eighteenth century may have ended under the leadership of Pelkamulox and his half-brother Kwoli’la, but what remained was a largely militarized zone with influence that extended from the Columbia Valley north to Tsilhqot’in territory, from the Fraser Canyon to the Rockies, and deep into Ktunaxa lands as well.[4]

Indigenous motivations for engaging in trade, as we have seen, were not always straightforward. It was never entirely about the acquisition of goods. There was status as a trader (sometimes described as a “captain of trade”) to consider, the possibility and profitability of trading imported goods to Indigenous neighbours, the prospect of a technological edge in warfare, and the very great likelihood of drawing European trade partners into a web of diplomacy, networks of kinship, and conflict. On the West Coast, many of these elements and goals may be found but, more visibly and commonly, it was the demands of the potlatch that informed trade with Europeans and Americans. This was more the case on the coast than in the interior, to be sure, but the act of hosting a celebration that entailed—and would be marked by—the giving of remarkable gifts dovetailed nicely with the arrival of foreign products. Potlatching confirmed systems of governance and (typically matrilineal) lines of succession, bound families and clans together in elaborate webs of social and legal relationships, created obligations on the part of gift recipients to bear witness when called upon to do so, and served to redistribute food and other kinds of wealth between relations whose local resources could from time to time fall short of need. All of these elements persisted; the fur trade with Europeans added new wrinkles. Newfound wealth intensified artistic output and, according to some historians and Indigenous accounts, led to competitive potlatching in coastal communities.[5] One effect of epidemics was to create openings for new and aspirant leaders; pitching one’s case for status based on success in trade and diplomacy was a response to these vacuums in leadership and the opportunities they presented. Potlatching was the means to those ends.

So far in Part 1 we have not considered the motivations of non-Indigenous traders. Largely it was about profit—usually in the mercantile system based in Western Europe. That was the case in the East, and it was the raison d’être of the HBC until the late nineteenth century. By the time the European fur trade reached the Cordillera and the West Coast, some of the stakes and players had changed. The NWC brought a Montréal-based element to the Interior; it had negligible links to the old mercantile order in Europe, except as a market. The two British North American firms, the HBC and NWC, played out their rivalry from the mouth of the Columbia to forts across the Peace District, until they were unified in 1821. On the coast, the four original outsider nations—Spain, Russia, Britain, and the US—were whittled down to three with Spain’s withdrawal in the Nootka Convention of 1794, and to one in the 1830s as British interests strangled American-Russian trade relations. All four of these foreign powers had in mind trading pelts—principally sea otter pelts—not in Europe but in China. The trans-Pacific connections made possible the arrival of Chinese and Filipino men recruited by the Europeans to build a station at Yuquot in the late eighteenth century. The first of many Kanaka (a.k.a. Hawaiian, Polynesian) participants in trade, diplomacy, and resource extraction arrived on the Northwest Coast in 1787. A Pacific Rim economy was emerging, and Indigenous merchants and communities would play a key role in the growth of a genuinely global marketplace.

Indigenous responses were many and varied. Individuals joined the crews of fur trading vessels and traveled to China. Others took European men in relationships we might characterize as marriages. Some, like two leaders of the Nuu-chah-nulth, learned Spanish. Some Europeans were captured, some were slaughtered, and some were driven off. First the Stó:lō and then the Haida took to growing potatoes—in large quantities—to trade with the British, a cultural and economic adaptation that occurred in the 1830s.[6] The first century of contact in the region from the 1740s to the 1840s saw the European presence severely localized and, usually, permitted only at sites prescribed by the Indigenous hosts. Down to the 1840s, Indigenous control of the region was not in question; in the 1850s and early ’60s, with the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes, it was severely tested; after the plague of 1862–63, the balance of power was suddenly and decisively reversed.


The size, complexity, and richness of West Coast societies have long been a source of comment. Indigenous narratives regularly express awe at the grandeur of neighbours’ chiefly villages. The enormity of longhouses in many Northwest Coast communities—which were a manifestation of excellent construction techniques, dramatic aesthetic sensibilities, community cooperation, and sound mathematical and engineering knowledge—amazed early visitors from Canada. The scale of potlatches from the early nineteenth century—particularly as they became competitive—dazzled foreigners and Indigenous locals alike. More often overlooked is the success enjoyed across the Interior Plateau and into the north of what is now British Columbia. Down to the 1840s, the presences of Europeans and other outsiders in this region consisted of several very scattered outposts. One story from Laxłgu’alaams (a.k.a. Lax Kw’alaams, Fort Simpson) in Tsimshian territory may help achieve perspective. In 1855, tensions grew between the Tsimshian home guard community and the HBC post. In an effort to show off their defenses, the HBC personnel fired a few rounds of eight-pound cannonballs into deserted longhouses. Having done so, the HBC chief trader realized they had nearly exhausted their limited stock of projectiles, and so offered to buy back any recovered cannonballs at a shilling apiece.[7] The fact that the Tsimshian obliged is an indication of how little they feared the British presence.

The chapters ahead address the early and later stages of cultural interaction between Indigenous peoples and foreigners (principally Europeans and Canadians). These relationships, as the Laxłgu’alaams story indicates, might be based on Indigenous authority and European pragmatism or on oppressive colonial structures. The incremental growth of newcomer authority and influence is a factor and theme that will be considered at length.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:

Angelbeck, Bill, and Eric McLay. “The Battle at Maple Bay: The Dynamics of Coast Salish Political Organization through Oral Histories.” Ethnohistory 58, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 359–92.

Barman, Jean. The West Beyond The West: A History of British Columbia, 3rd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. See esp. pp. 15–54.

Belshaw, John Douglas. Becoming British Columbia: A Population History. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009. See esp. pp. 72–90.

Carlson, Keith Thor. “Toward an Indigenous Historiography: Events, Migrations, and the Formation of ‘Post-Contact’ Coast Salish Collective Identities.” In Be of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish, edited by Bruce Granville Miller, 138–81. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

Clayton, Daniel W. Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000. See esp. pp. 131–61.

Fisher, Robin. “Contact and Trade, 1774–1849.” In The Pacific Province: A History of British Columbia, edited by Hugh J.M. Johnston, 48–67. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996.

Harris, Cole. “Strategies of Power in the Cordilleran Fur Trade.” In The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change, 31–67. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.

Ignace, Marianne, and Duane Thomson, “‘They Made Themselves Our Guests’: Power Relationships in the Interior Plateau Region of the Cordillera in the Fur Trade Era.” BC Studies 146 (Summer 2005): 3–35.

Ignace, Marianne, and Kenneth Favrholdt. “LeQ7éses re Scwescwesét.s-kucw ell re S7eykeminiems-kucw/Trade, Travel, and Transportation.” In Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws: Yeri7 Re Stsq’ey’s-Kucw, by Ron Ignace and Marianne Ignace, 220–33. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

Lutz, John. “Dr. John Lutz Question 2 – Aboriginal People and the Economy in the West.” TRU, Open Learning. November 17, 2015. Video, 5:02.

Lutz, John. “Dr. John Lutz Question 4 – Early Contact between Aboriginals and Explorers.” TRU, Open Learning. November 17, 2015. Video, 6:55.

Ridington, Robin, and Jillian Ridington in collaboration with elders of the Dane-Zaa First Nations. Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-Zaa First Nations. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. See esp. pp. 67–112.

Trimble, Sabina “Storying Swí:lhcha: Place Making and Power at a Stó:lō Landmark.” BC Studies 190 (Summer 2016): 39–66.

Wickwire, Wendy. “Dr. Wendy Wickwire Question 2 – Oral History.” TRU, Open Learning. November 18, 2015. Video, 4:07.

Wickwire, Wendy. “Dr. Wendy Wickwire Question 4 – James Teit.” TRU, Open Learning. November 18, 2015. Video, 6:20.

  1. First Peoples’ Culture Council, “Language Map of British Columbia,” 2019,
  2. Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington in collaboration with elders of the Dane-Zaa First Nations, Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-Zaa First Nations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013) 69.
  3. Bill Angelbeck and Eric McLay, “The Battle at Maple Bay: The Dynamics of Coast Salish Political Organization through Oral Histories,” Ethnohistory 58, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 359–91.
  4. Peter Carstens, The Queen’s People: A Study of Hegemony, Coercion, and Accommodation among the Okanagan of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 16–20. See also Mary Balf, “HWISTESMETXĒ´QEN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), accessed January 17, 2019,
  5. Although potlatching was diffused along trade corridors to some inland communities, such as the Dakelh, it was not necessarily framed by the social rankings common to coastal societies. Other interior peoples, such as the Tsilhqot’in, rejected the materialistic aspects of potlatching and regarded the practice as sign of avarice. John Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 127.
  6. Haida oral tradition indicates that the potato was cultivated before the 1490s. “These stories state that the Haida grew ancient varieties which they have traded for centuries with northwest Pacific islanders and inhabitants on the Russian mainland. Their oral history traces the origin of one of these varieties to ‘Baylu’ thought to be a variation of Perú.” See Linhai Zhang et al., “Inferred Origin of Several Native American Potatoes from the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska Using SSR Markers,” Euphytica 174 (2010), 26.
  7. Marius Barbeau, “Fort Simpson, On the Northwest Coast,” Canadian Historical Association Annual Report 2, no. 1 (1923), 86.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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