It was only a little more than 200 years ago that the first European explorers began to chart the northwest corner of North America. The area’s geography presented formidable natural barriers to the east (the lofty Rocky Mountains) and the west (long stretches of ocean away from other landmasses).
In the second half of the 18th century, curiosity about a western approach to the fabled Northwest Passage and a common desire to discover rich natural resources lured Russian, Spanish, British, and American explorers and fur traders along the coastline that is now British Columbia . In 1774, the ship of Mexican Juan Perez was the first vessel to explore the coastline and trade with the natives. He was quickly followed by Spaniard Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who took possession of the coast of Alaska for Spain.
England’s Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 to spend some time at Nootka, becoming the first nonnative to actually come ashore, trading with the natives while he overhauled his ship. Cook received a number of luxuriantly soft sea otter furs, which he later sold at a huge profit in China. This news spawned a fur-trading rush that began in 1785 and continued for 25 years. Ship after loaded ship called in along the coast, trading iron, brass, copper, muskets, cloth, jewelry, and rum to the natives in exchange for furs. The indigenous people were eager to obtain the foreign goods, but they were also known for driving a hard bargain. The traders took the furs directly to China to trade for silk, tea, spices, ginger, and other luxuries.
In 1789, Bodega y Quadra established a settlement at Nootka, but after ongoing problems with the British (who also claimed the area), he gave it up. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, who had been the navigator on Cook’s 1778 expedition, returned to the area and sailed into Burrard Inlet, claiming the land for Great Britain.
In the meantime, adventurous North West Company fur traders were crossing the Rockies in search of waterways to the coast. The first European to reach the coast was Alexander Mackenzie, who traveled via the Peace, Fraser, and West Road Rivers—you can still see the rock in the Dean Channel (off Bella Coola) where he inscribed “Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land 22nd July 1793.” Not far behind came other explorers, including Simon Fraser, who followed the Fraser River to the sea in 1808, and David Thompson, who followed the Columbia River to its mouth in 1811. Today the names of these men grace everything from rivers to motels. In the early 19th century, the North West Company established trading posts in New Caledonia (the name Simon Fraser gave to the northern interior). These posts were taken over by Hudson’s Bay Company after amalgamation of the two companies in 1821.
The fur trade brought prosperity to the indigenous society, which was organized around wealth, possessions, and potlatches. The Hudson’s Bay Company had no interest in interfering with the natives and, in general, treated them fairly. This early contact with Europeans resulted in expanded trade patterns and increased commerce between coastal and interior tribes. It also spurred the production of indigenous arts and crafts to new heights, as chiefs required more carved headgear, masks, costumes, feast dishes, and the like for the increasingly frequent ceremonial occasions that came with increased wealth.
However, commerce between the Europeans and locals also caused the indigenous tribes to abandon their traditional home sites and instead to cluster around the forts for trading and protection. In addition, the Europeans introduced muskets, alcohol, and disease (most significantly smallpox), all of which took their toll on the native population, which stood at around 60,000 in 1850. Christian missionaries soon arrived and tried to ban the natives’ traditional potlatches. But not until land- hungry White colonists showed up did major conflicts arise between native peoples and Whites. Those land-ownership conflicts proved tenacious, continuing to this day.
The British government decided in 1849 that Vancouver Island  should be colonized to confirm British sovereignty in the area and forestall any American expansion. Though mostly content to leave the island in the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Brits nevertheless sent Richard Blanshard out from England to become the island colony’s first governor. Blanshard soon resigned and was replaced in 1851 by James Douglas, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Douglas had long been in control of the island, and his main concerns were to maintain law and order and to purchase land from the natives. He made treaties with the tribes in which the land became the “entire property of the white people forever.” In return, tribes retained use of their village sites and enclosed fields, and could hunt and fish on unoccupied lands. Each indigenous family was paid a pitiful compensation.
In 1852, coal was discovered near Nanaimo , and English miners were imported to develop the deposits. Around the same time, loggers began felling the enormous timber stands along the Alberni Canal, and the Puget Sound Agricultural Association (a subsidiary of Hudson’s Bay Company) developed several large farms in the Victoria  region. By the 1850s, the town of Victoria , with its moderate climate and fertile soil, had developed into an agreeable settlement.