The culture and history of the Bella Coola Aboriginal people and the early European explorers and pioneers weaves together to form a rich and colorful tapestry.
Historically the first people of the Bella Coola Valley did not call themselves Nuxalk (the name the area's First Nations community now goes by) but rather by place names such as Tallio. Their oral history goes back thousands of years.
They were a wealthy people with family "villages" across the Valley and up and down the inland waterways of the Dean Channel and the South Bentinck. The people developed trade routes within the interior of the province on what became known as the Grease Trails.
Alexander Mackenzie's Visit
Though certainly not the first, one of the most notable Caucasian visitors to arrive during this time was Alexander Mackenzie. Mackenzie's visit preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Coast and the Scottish explorer travelled on a portion of the Grease Trails. He arrived in the Valley in 1793 at a village site known today as Burnt Bridge Park. Over the next 100 years, gold and fur trade brought visitors to and from this isolated Valley.
The Nuxalkmc and the Bella Coola Name
By the mid 1800s, the First Nations people had come together, settling in large central villages in an effort to survive. A smallpox epidemic had decimated their numbers between 1862-64, leaving only few hundred survivors.
Some had moved to Bella Bella, and some to the Chilcotin area, to what is now called Anahim Lake, and where the Ulkatcho people were settling. Many, however, moved to the large village on the south side of the mouth of the river, which was then called Nuxalk, meaning (in part), "the place where fish were trapped." In this village, they began calling themselves Nuxalkmc as a play on words. Not only was the village near the place where fish were trapped but was seen as place where people were brought together like fish in a trap – "mc" means "people."
Eventually they adopted the name Bella Coola, for the river. There are a number of meanings that have been offered for the origin of the name. The Nuxalk say that it could be from the word Plxwlaq's from the Heiltsuk language (the people of Bella Bella) and means "stranger" or "foreigner." Plxwlaq's is pronounced Bill-qwa-lux (Bell-coo-la).
The valley saw its first significant influx of non-native settlers when the Nuxalk, under the guidance of Chief Samuel Pootlass, welcomed a band of Norwegians in 1893. The Norwegians homesteaded the mid-valley, creating the community they called Kristiania, and then renamed Bella Coola after the river. Several years later, between 1910 and 1920, Seventh Day Adventist Church settlers followed.
Today, the village at the mouth of the Bella Coola river is known as Bella Coola, and the Norwegian settlement 14km/9.5mi east has been renamed Hagensborg. The valley is sprinkled with the remains of the original Norwegian homes and though the remains of the original village on the north side of the river in Old Town is gone, portions of the cobbled streets can still be found. Unfortunately, none of the original longhouses remain.
Walking Tours of Historic and Heritage Sites
A booklet, Historic Walking Tour of Bella Coola, can be purchased from the Bella Coola Valley Museum or Kopas store. Using this booklet, visitors can locate and learn the history of the buildings in the village. The Bella Coola Museum, housed in a Norwegian log building, originally a school house, focuses on First Nations and Norwegian history, and the early commercial fishing industry.
Visitors can also hike a portion of the Grease Trail, now known as Mackenzie Heritage Trail starting at Burnt Bridge where Alexander Mackenzie arrived in the valley. There is also the Norwegian Heritage House in Hagensborg. Set up as a pioneer home, it provides good insight into what life was like for these European settlers.