The History of Bella Bella
Originally our ancestors occupied more than 50 major villages spread across our vast territory. They used the intricate network of waterways to travel from well-established winter villages to numerous seasonal camps situated on salmon streams, along ancient trading routes, and on far-flung outer islands. When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century there were several Heiltsuk villages on the various islands near the present-day location of Bella Bella.
In 1833 the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort McLoughlin, a heavily fortified fur trading post, on what is now McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island. The Heiltsuk already had a well-established trading network on the coast, but the Hudson’s Bay Company sought to supplant indigenous people as middlemen in the the fur trade wherever possible. Still, the officers at Fort McLoughlin found the Heiltsuk would not allow themselves to be pushed aside.
Despite initial hostilities, within a few years a new Heiltsuk village was established in close proximity to Fort McLoughlin. The Heiltsuk became well known as skilled and savvy traders and developed a lucrative, if uneasy, business relationship with the fort.
The Heiltsuk knew the village as ’Qélc, but Europeans recorded various other names for the village, perhaps derived from the local geographical namePélbála, that eventually gave rise to the modern English name Bella Bella. Members of Heiltsuk-speaking tribes from across the region who gradually relocated to the village over the next sixty years became known as the Bella Bella Indians.
When Fort McLoughlin closed in 1843 the site was abandoned by Europeans. The village of ’Qélc remained and the Heiltsuk continued to trade with the steamship-based trading system that replaced the fort.
In the winter of 1862-3 a devastating smallpox epidemic took a massive toll on the Heiltsuk population across our territory. Many villages were wiped out entirely, and most others didn’t have enough people left to sustain them. Survivors from the various Heiltsuk tribes gradually amalgamated at Bella Bella, which is centrally located in Heiltsuk territory.
In 1866 European traders reoccupied the fort site at McLoughlin Bay and established a small store and a post office. Then, in 1880, Bella Bella (’Qélc) became the focus of Methodist mission work on the central coast. The villagers were encouraged to abandon their traditional bighouses and seasonal camps in favour of European-style houses.
However, because most of the suitable building area on McLoughlin Bay was “claimed” by the Hudson’s Bay Company, there was a scarcity of land on which to build such houses. By the turn of the century most of the greatly diminished Heiltsuk population resided in Bella Bella (’Qélc), which had become crowded.
In 1897 the Heiltsuk, making the decision to move, surveyed a new town site three kilometres north of McLoughlin Bay. This place was known to the Heiltsuk as Wáglísla (meaning “river on the beach”). Building progressed quickly and by 1900 the people of ’Qélc had relocated to the new village, which boasted large European-style houses and Heiltsuk-run businesses. This new community was called New Bella Bella.
For a time the prosperous new Heiltsuk village was a busy centre of trading and shipping activities on the coast. Within a decade the village was the second largest on the coast, with a hospital, school, sawmill, fire hall, wharf, warehouse, and planked roads with street lights. Residents contributed to, and shared in, the success of nearby ventures like Ocean Falls and Namu.
In 1914 a cannery was built on Denny Island. The store and post office at McLoughlin Bay were moved to the small town that grew around the cannery. Along with the post office went the name “Bella Bella”, which was inherited by the new Denny Island settlement, giving rise to a confusion of names that persists today.
As the century progressed, diminishing resources and the decreasing dependence of industry on remote communities caused New Bella Bella’s existence to become more isolated and precarious. Ocean Falls and Namu eventually became ghost towns and the cannery on Denny Island fell into ruin. The community on Denny Island relocated to nearby Kliktsoatli Harbour, where an airstrip was built in WWII, becoming Shearwater.
But New Bella Bella (Waglisla) was revitalized by the building of an airport and BC Ferries terminal and continued to grow and prosper. Today this vital, contemporary community is simply called Bella Bella.
Today the ’Qélc village site, all but disappeared, is known as Old Bella Bella or Old Town. McLoughlin Bay, connected now by road to Bella Bella, is the site of the BC Ferries terminal, a Heiltsuk fish processing plant, and a salmon hatchery. The old Hudson’s Bay Company land is now owned by the Heiltsuk.
Learn more about the history of the Heiltsuk people and Bella Bella here at the HCEC website.