The Early History of Vancouver

The Early History of Vancouver
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In comparison to other large metropolitan cities around the world, Vancouver is a fairly young city. St. John’s, Newfoundland was established way back in 1497, and Quebec City was incorporated in 1608. Vancouver, with its first European settlements forming in the 1800’s, is practically still a baby. That said, Vancouver is steeped in rich history that set the groundwork for this massive metropolitan area.

Currently the major urban center of the Pacific Northwest, the city of Vancouver was recorded to be home to 631,486 people within the city as of 2016, and had a population of 2,463,431 people in the entire Greater Vancouver area. Third only to Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver is one of the most populated metropolitan areas in Canada. For a younger city, Vancouver is home to an immense population.

First Nations

While the first European settlers didn’t arrive until the 1800’s, that doesn’t mean people didn’t already inhabit the area. The lands where Vancouver now stands were home to several different Indigenous tribes. The city of Vancouver currently sits on the traditional territories of three Coast Salish peoples, which were the Squamish (Sḵwxwú7mesh), Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam peoples.

The Musqueam’s main village, Xwméthkwyiem, had been situated near the mouth of the Fraser River for around 3,000-4,000 years ago. While Vancouver itself is not an old city, the land below it has been lived on, built upon, tended, and cared for by First Nations peoples for thousands of years before the European settlers arrived. 

At the time the Europeans began to arrive, the Squamish peoples had their villages throughout the area of present-day Vancouver in areas such as Stanley Park, Kitsilano, and False Creek. The Tsleil-Waututh peoples were settled around the Burrard Inlet area. Some of these First Nations settlements were large communities, with winter plank houses made from Western Red Cedar, complex food gathering techniques, and rich social and spiritual practices.

European Discovery

Before Europeans actually settled in the area it was discovered by a handful of different explorers in the late 1700s. José María Narváez, a Spanish naval officer and navigator, was the first European to venture up the Strait of Georgia in 1791. A year later in 1792, George Vancouver, a British officer of the Royal Navy met up with Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores, two more Spanish explorers, and explored the area further.

First European Settlements

Up until the early 1800s, the only settlements in the area had been strictly those of the First Nations people. In 1827, the first permanent European settlement was formed at Fort Langley by the Hudson’s Bay Company, near the mouth of the Fraser River. By 1830 the fort had become a major port for the exportation salted salmon and cedar lumber. The original location of Fort Langley was moved 4 km upstream in 1839.

In 1858 the Colony of British Columbia was founded and one year later, in 1859, New Westminster was established by Major-General Richard Clement Moody and was proclaimed to be the capital of this colony. By 1860, miners started coming up from California for the gold rush and the area was starting to see a little more growth and development. 

Logging and Lumber

The lumber industry is a huge part of British Columbia’s identity and it has been so even from its very beginnings. The first sawmill was established at Moodyville, which is now known as North Vancouver, in 1863. Lumber started to be exported from the area in 1865 and just a few years later, in 1867, Hastings Mill was founded on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. What we now know as Vancouver was then just a small sawmilling settlement that went by the name of Granville. 

Gastown

One of the most significant neighborhoods of Vancouver’s history is Gastown. In 1867, Gassy Jack Deighton, a former river pilot, opened a saloon so the workers at Hastings Mill could have a place to drink, socialize, and unwind from their long days of labour. Men started living in the space around the saloon and the settlement of Gassy’s Town formed into much loved area of Gastown that it is today. A statue of Gassy Jack sits on Water Street, amongst the cobblestone streets, paying homage to the founder of this beautiful neighborhood.

Incorporated

In 1886 Vancouver was finally incorporated as a city and renamed in honor of George Vancouver, who had been one of the European explorers to discover the area in 1792. The name was suggested by Canadian Pacific Railway president, William Van Horne, who felt that Granville was not a suitable name for the city due to its associations with the less than reputable Gastown area. At this time the city boasted a population of about 1,000 people. However, only two months after the city was incorporated, a horrendous fire swept the city. The Great Vancouver Fire claimed dozens of lives and destroyed nearly every building. Only a stone building in the West End, the Hastings Mill Store, and a few buildings along False Creek were spared.

The city was not lost, though. New buildings popped up quickly and money was raised to build a fire hall. Vancouver General Hospital opened its doors in 1886 and the Vancouver Police Department was formed in that same year. During the rebuild, the city was outfitted with modern electricity and water services. While the fire was devastating and tragic, a new and wonderful Vancouver emerged from the ashes.

Present Day Vancouver

The Vancouver we know today is the heart of industry, finance, and commerce within British Columbia. The Port of Vancouver is a major hub for imports and exports and the waters are always filled with massive cruise ships always coming and going. The Trans Canada Highway, Highway 99, and other major routes connect Vancouver to the surrounding states and provinces, while the Vancouver International Airport acts as a hub that connects Vancouver to the rest of the globe. Forestry continues to play a major role in Vancouver’s economics, but tourism, mining, and even television and film production have become significant elements to the continuing growth of Vancouver. Now the third most populated metropolitan area in all of Canada and still growing, it’s hard to believe how young this city really is.

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Nikki Bertrand

Nikki Bertrand

Nikki is a British Columbia native who was born in the Vancouver area. When she’s not busy being a tourist in her own city, you can find her exploring her passion for SFX makeup at Mixx SFX or reviewing subscription boxes at Unboxing Rocks.