The largest island found off the west coast of both North and South America, Vancouver Island is a true natural wonder. The island is 460 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide at its broadest point and covers an area of more than 32,000 square kilometers, which makes it a little larger than the country of Belgium. To examine the earliest history of Vancouver Island an explorer must literally go back thousands of years, before recorded history itself.
The spectacularly beautiful island we all call home has a long and colorful history, with the first human habitation occurring untold thousands of years ago with the arrival of the First Nations peoples. No exact date for when the first humans set foot on the timbered shores of Vancouver Island has been accurately determined, but by the time the first European explorers had arrived the Island was populated throughout its length by the ancestors of today’s First Nations.
In general the first peoples of Vancouver Island are divided into three main ethic groups, the Kwakwaka’wakw (or Kwakiutl in English), the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Coast Salish, distinct cultures that continue to flourish today.
Many historians believe Russian fur traders were among the first Europeans to discover Vancouver Island, knowledge carried to them through their ongoing commerce with local indigenous tribes. This knowledge of a rich and unclaimed territory made its way to the Spanish Court, information that saw an exploratory expedition launched in 1774. Commanded by Juan José Pérez Hernández, his lone ship the Santiago, probed what is today’s Pacific Northwest, without travelling as far north as the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The following year, in 1775 Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a Peruvian sea captain of Spanish origin extended Spanish influence further north. This gradual northward movement continued with various Spanish explorers until the late 1780’s. But the lure of the Island had also been heard in the halls of power in London, with legendary Royal Navy Captain James Cook spending a month in Nootka Sound on the west coast of the Island in 1778.
With Spain and Britain both showing interest in Vancouver Island for their own purposes ownership of the island almost caused the outbreak of war between the two European powers. In 1789 the Spanish seized two British flagged ships near today’s Friendly Cove on Nootka Sound. Peace was maintained with the signing of the Nootka Convention in 1790.
In 1792 Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver, who had served with Cook during his earlier expedition, returned to the area leading an expedition of his own. Meeting with Quadra who had been made Spanish Commandant of the region, the pair failed to establish any permanent pact – but had instead elected to leave future negotiations up to their respective governments. The one thing the pair of naval officers did agree on was a name for the region, calling it Quadra and Vancouver Island, after themselves.
Maps of the time retained the full name of Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, but by 1824 British maps had trimmed the label to read Vancouver’s Island, with it being shortened even further to Vancouver Island as it is known today by 1849. That year the Colony of Vancouver Island was established by the British Crown, and a new era that of European settlement had begun. But that as they say, is a story for another time.